7 sci-fi stories that imagine a better world
The latest news about climate change got you in an existential spiral? Did you just finish all 322 pages of David Wallace-Wells’ best-selling nightmare scenario The Uninhabitable Earth? Get out of the fetal position and read on!
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story about how science fiction could help solve climate change. But I felt a little bad that I didn’t provide more examples of climate fiction, or cli-fi, that imagined a positive future. Hey everyone, this tough-to-find subsection of a subgenre might make you feel way better about everything! Good luck! Bye!
We got plenty of messages about the genre’s most celebrated books, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (in which Earth’s time to shine comes via total human extermination… um, yay?).
But we gravitated toward the weirder, harder-to-find suggestions (shocking, right?), like a podcast full of space pirates, a hilarious book about a glam-rock band, and a total Hollywood flop. None of it is boundlessly optimistic. And some of it might not even really count as climate fiction! But it’s got the potential to pull you out of that slump, and give you some ideas about how we might get to a better future.
- Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers — Solarpunk gets its semantic roots from steampunk, but the similarities between the two genres end there — while steampunk reverts us back to the power and aesthetics of the industrial age, solarpunk catapults us into futures powered by renewable energy (often sourced from the sun). Edited by Sarena Ulibarri, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers is an extensive anthology of 17 solarpunk stories from a variety of authors — that’s a whole lot of exciting futures to explore (and only one Amazon Prime delivery to feel guilty about).
- Implanted — You might not recognize Implanted as a work of climate fiction at first — it’s got tons of other sci-fi elements that devotees will appreciate, including, according to author Lauren C. Teffeau, “high-tech gadgets, light espionage” and neural implants (guess where the title comes from!). But while you’re busy following the novel’s main story — a college student blackmailed into transporting secrets encoded in her blood — its characters are imagining life beyond the domed cities that protect them from a worst-case climate scenario they’ve already faced. Meta.
- Space Opera —Does Space Opera count as capital-C Climate Fiction? Probably not! Did The Verge’s Andrew Liptak call it “the funniest science fiction novel… since Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? We wouldn’t lie about that! In Catherynne M. Valente’s book, humanity is challenged by alien lifeforms to compete in “The Sentience Wars.” We love wars, right? Game on! Just one catch: If they lose, their entire species is toast. While that’s not the exact situation when it comes to climate change, the idea that we’ve got to show some feeling or lose our chance on this little blue planet feels like a pretty good metaphor. If only a one-hit-wonder glam rock band was all we needed to save the planet.
- Flash Forward — Each episode of the Flash Forward podcast explores a different possible future (take “possible” with a grain of salt — one episode tackles what might happen if Earth suddenly had another moon). The podcast tackles much more than just climate change, but its newest miniseries, EARTH, premiered March 5 with a look at what would happen if we decided to spray sulphuric acid into the atmosphere to block the sun’s rays. Host Rose Eveleth consults experts (like Kate Marvel, one of my favorite climate scientists!), so the series is grounded in reality, which isn’t always peachy. But the hilarious narratives — complete with over-the-top characters (like a guy who owns the Seattle Supersonics and plays for them) and cartoonish voice acting — help listeners imagine the future in all its forms, without getting too freaked out about it.
- Arizona 2045 — Are you a kid who’s anxious about climate change? Do your parents know you’re online right now?! Either way, Arizona 2045 — a graphic novel from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination is for you. Targeted toward 5th- to 8th-graders and taught in Arizona classrooms by some apparently super-cool teachers, this collaboration between award-winning comics authors and an ASU sustainability scholar follows 16-year-old Gabe Arroyo through a near-future Arizona. It feels almost utopian, with technological advancements providing relief from ever-increasing desert heat — until fires at a solar plant bring much-needed nuance to the high-tech solutions.
- Pumzi — Screened at Sundance in 2010, award-winning Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s short film Pumzi envisions an underground community in East Africa run on energy from coerced laborers on exercise machines and permanently separated from the supposedly lifeless outside world that came into being after “The Water War.” Um, that sounds pretty dark, right? But after planting a seed in a soil sample from an anonymous source, Virtual Natural Museum curator Asha — like any enterprising sci-fi protagonist — gets a hunch that there might be more to the environment above ground.
- The Postman — Wait… The Postman? You mean the 1997 movie that a guy named Jake at Zimbio declared an even bigger career-killer for Kevin Costner than his famous flop Waterworld? That’s the one! Turns out Hollywood’s big optimistic cli-fi movie passed right under our upturned noses. In the barren, post-apocalyptic, arguably post-climate-disaster world of 2013, a nomad posing as a postman from the “restored U.S. government” inspires an uprising of teenagers looking to build a better world — how prescient. If the movie’s incredible 9 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes turns you away, try David Brin’s 1985 novel instead — it inspired the movie (and got much better reviews).
Here are some other completely unvetted reader suggestions. We hope they’re good!
Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemison; A Dream of a Low Carbon Future, James McKay; Ecopunk! Speculative tales of radical futures; Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, Samuel Alexander; Estío. Once relatos de ficción climática, Episkaia (Spanish language); Euterra Rising, Mark Burch; FernGully: The Last Rainforest (film); The Fifth Sacred Thing, Star Hawk; Finitude, Hamish MacDonald; Goodbye Miami, Treesong; Hajira, Francisco Serrano (Spanish language); LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor; The Lamentations of Zeno, Ilija Trojanow; The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, Robert J. Sawyers; Paradigm Time: Two Tales of the Future, Will Gibson; Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card; Star Travelers: Through the Portal, T.E. Pelton; Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation; Tomorrowland; Wilders, Project Earth: Book One, Brenda Cooper; Wings of Renewal: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology