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A Guide to Cli-Fi: 9 Essential Works

If you’re cli-fi curious, here’s a guide to get you started with some of the most notable and beloved new and old books in the genre.
Emmanuel Hidalgo-Wohlleben •
Apr 20th, 2023

It’s not your imagination. Spring started earlier this year. While we welcome the chance to pack away our winter clothes, we can’t look away from the signs all around us of a warming planet — from rampant allergies from overactive pollen to once-in-a-1000-year floods hitting annually to the longer feasting season for pests like ticks. 

Ursula LeGuin’s famous insight that science fiction is descriptive and not predictive is even more relevant to cli-fi, the term used to describe the subgenre that features a changed or changing climate. In a recent state-of-the genre essay, cli-fi author Jeff VanderMeer argues that, because the impacts of climate change are now so pervasive in everyday life, the best climate fiction now "uses its knowledge of the subject as underpinning, not foreground.” While some cli-fi stories may be dystopian portraits of a future where humanity struggles to adapt to life on a warming Earth, that future is not as distant or as “speculative” as we wish it were.

As our climate changes, the growing body of cli-fi literature is changing and expanding. If you’re cli-fi curious, here’s a guide to get you started with some of the most notable and beloved new and old books in the genre.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

With more than 20 novels under his belt, Robinson is a sci-fi superstar. His 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future imagines our world in 2025, gripped by a new reality where extreme climate events are posing immediate catastrophic threats to the lives of tens of millions. 

The book follows the struggles of a multilateral organization formed under the Paris Agreement, as it works to mitigate the worst effects of a changing climate and preserve the earth for future generations.   

Dune fans may want to look elsewhere – you’ll find no superhumans or intergalactic travel here. Instead, the novel takes a “hard science fiction” approach to worldbuilding, mimicking the scientific, economic, and geopolitical challenges that humanity faces today. 

The book counts as fans journalist Ezra Klein, philanthropist Bill Gates, and former president Barack Obama, who named it one of his books of the year. 

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Climate change serves as an important backdrop in this latest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur fellow Richard Powers. Set in the near future, Bewilderment tells the story of Theo, an astrobiologist who spends his days looking for life in the stars and raising his 9-year-old neurodivergent son, Robin, after his wife dies in a car crash. Robin, like his late mother, cares deeply for nature. He is also close to getting expelled from school for behavioral outbursts. 

Powers’ remarkable storytelling does justice to both the beauty of the natural world and the tenderness that can exist between father and son. It serves as a powerful reminder of all that is at stake in this fight for our planet’s future.


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin 

Those with an interest in traditional fantasy narratives will love this wildly imaginative, Hugo Award-winning take on the climate novel. The first installment of author N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, The Fifth Season blends fantasy and cli-fi elements to create a world – specifically a supercontinent called the Stillness – beset by natural disasters, political intrigue, and ancient power struggles. Here, all the planet’s inhabitants live on the Stillness where every few centuries they experience a period of climate and seismic disasters, referred to as the “Fifth Season.” Those with the ability to create and quell such disasters – an oppressed caste of people known as “orogenes”– are exploited and abused for their natural powers. The novel opens with an especially formidable orogene bemoaning the cruelty inflicted upon his people and threatening to cause the worst Fifth Season yet. 


The Wall by John Lanchester

The Wall, praised as “almost prophetic” by writer John Greechan, issues a blistering warning about the type of society we may be creating if we fail to correct our course soon. Shortlisted for the 2020 Orwell Prize, Lanchester’s dystopian novel is set in a future where a cataclysmic event known as the “Change” has caused untold damage. In response, inhabitants of an unnamed island nation construct an enormous concrete wall along its borders – a not so subtle dig at the British author’s home country and its politics. The novel’s young protagonist is a so-called “Defender” who, like the rest of his peers, is required to spend two years patrolling the Wall to make sure no one from the other side makes it over. 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Ward's National Book Award-winning novel is a powerful look at the recent past and follows pregnant 14-year-old Esch and her family in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. The book stares down the compounding crises of poverty, violence, sexual abuse, and, now, natural disaster that are part of our climate story but are often overlooked.

In a tweet, The Atlantic praised the way the novel highlights the “broad, unequal consequences of long-term environmental injustice.” In an interview with Tertulia last June, novelist John Vercher celebrated the book’s lyricism, saying, “Even though you know you're reading prose, it comes off like poetry."

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada   

This finalist for the 2022 National Book Award is told through the perspectives of various young people searching for their place in a changed, though still recognizable, world. Set between Scandinavia and Germany, Scattered All Over the Earth explores the nature of identity, culture, and belonging in a future where national borders have been eroded and entire countries have suddenly disappeared. Writing for NPR, environmental historian and biologist Kamil Ahsan called it “riveting, bizarre as can be, and like nothing else I've ever read.” 

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver's seventh novel explores the effects of climate change on a rural Appalachian community, where a sudden influx of monarch butterflies – driven off their migration course because of climate disruptions – turns the lives of a young woman and her struggling family upside down. 

 UK Green Party MP Caroline Lucas raved about the book, saying, “How to communicate about climate change is something that I literally lie awake worrying about, and I think [Kingsolver] just does a fantastic job with this book, because it will reach people for whom the climate emergency is not something that’s necessarily on the top of their agenda.”


The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde

“The paradox of finding something decent amidst all the terrors and general badness lying in wait for the inhabitants of our planet is at the heart of Hyde’s collection," wrote Erika Dirk for The Chicago Review of Books about the latest offering from Allegra Hyde, whose previous cli-fi novel Eleutheria was named a New Yorker book of the year. 

In The Last Catastrophe, Hyde continues to make use of climate change as a catalyzing narrative thrust. Set across a variety of speculative futures, these stories explore how humanity might cope and adapt to a world that has been transformed by climate change. 

Dune by Frank Herbert

Many years before “cli-fi” or even “climate change” were part of the cultural zeitgeist, Frank Herbert was writing epic tales about the dangers posed by unfettered extractivism and disregard for the health of our planet. A pioneering work of science fiction and ecological literature, Dune is about the intricately complex interactions between humans and their natural world. Now if that sounds a bit dull don’t worry, as fans of the 2021 Oscar-winning adaptation will know, the story also features sword fights, political intrigue, love and betrayal, drugs that help you traverse space, a messianic quest, and worms the size of skyscrapers that can devour entire mining vessels in a single gulp. 

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