Reading List for 2019-2020: Climate Fiction

Professor Betsy Bolton has selected seven varied readings for our Climate Fiction discussions.  Many of the works have won literary prizes or garnered other significant recognition; they include literary classics, speculative fiction, and a collection of short stories.  The selections should be read in the order listed below, and Professor Bolton has also shared with us an overview of each selection:

  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (2013)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (2010)
  • Bill McKibben, I’m with the Bears (2011)
  • Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018)
  • Kim Robinson, New York 2140 (2017)


John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) explores the first major climate catastrophe experienced by citizens of the United States. The movement of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California brings them little relief from climate catastrophe but rather increased exposure to exploitation. Steinbeck’s “intercalary” chapters, inserting commentary linked to but not directly referenced by the central narrative, opens up some of the space subsequently associated with speculative fiction: the mode or genre of some of the more recent novels we’ll be reading. Jim Casey’s heretically encompassing religious views will also echo through some of the novels to follow. Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and it contributed significantly to Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) starts where Steinbeck leaves his characters: in California. But that southern California setting is no longer a place of even partial safety, though the exploitation of the vulnerable has become significantly intensified. Butler’s speculative fiction looks at a post-apocalyptic landscape of walled communities and refugees through the eyes of one young black woman called to re-define God and seek a path north and the knowledge, the means, and the community necessary to sustain life in raw conditions while aiming for the stars. Parable of the Sower was a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 and was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1995.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2013) is set in the present, in a small mountain town in Tennessee, where young Dellarobbia Turnbow considers an affair and discovers an apparently miraculous mass of confused monarch butterflies, misled by climate change to perch far from their wintering sites in Mexico. The novel protests stereotypes of rural Appalachia, connecting Dellarobbia with an African American scientist studying the monarchs, but leaving her to find her own way out of what had felt like a dead-end life. The novel feels especially relevant after monarch numbers in 2019 suggested a rebound in Mexico (eastern populations highest since 2008) but a catastrophe in California (western populations, down 86% since 2017), making it hard to discern exactly how the insects are adapting. Flight Behavior was a New York Times Bestseller and was declared the “best book of the year” by both the Washington Post and USA Today. Kingsolver won the UK’s Orange Prize in 2010 for The Lacuna (2009), and her Poisonwood Bible (1998) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner award.

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2010) offers a return to speculative fiction. The second in the MaddAddam Trilogy (following Oryx and Crake), The Year of the Flood re-tells the events of the “flood” (spoiler: a mass epidemic) from a very different perspective, one in which Crake and Snowman from the first novel appear only as minor characters. The central characters, Renn and Toby, are women who survive the epidemic largely by chance but also through association with a group known as God’s Gardeners. Since many of you have read Oryx and Crake, you may be interested in Ursula LeGuin’s comparison of the two novels:

The personality and feelings of characters in Oryx and Crake were of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play. The Year of the Flood is less satirical in tone, less of an intellectual exercise, less scathing though more painful. It is seen very largely through the eyes of women, powerless women, whose individual characters and temperaments and emotions are vivid and memorable. We have less of Hogarth and more of Goya.

In 2010, the novel was longlisted as a candidate for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the 2010 Trillium Book Award.

Bill McKibben’s I’m with the Bears (2011), a collection of short climate fiction, offers nibbles from a variety of authors, many of them known for their climate fiction (T.C. Boyle, Kim Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood), others better known for more purely literary fiction (Helen Simpson, who won a PEN/O’Henry prize for her piece here), and others… The stories engage a variety of perspectives: protestors against fossil fuel extraction; people glancingly engaging the reality of climate change; rural people eking out a living on the dregs of vanished water rights; anthropologists whose work eerily echoes their own circumstances; and more.

Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. Some readers claim that this novel does for trees what Moby-Dick did for whales, but I find it more interesting as a literary re-framing of a range of non-fiction sources: Christopher Stone’s legal query, “Should Trees Have Standing?” (1972); Julia Butterfly Hill’s The Legacy of Luna (2001), the story of a tree-sit in California redwoods; the documentary film If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011; Marshall Curry ’92), and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (trans. 2016), among other texts. The Overstory offers a pointed environmental history of recent years in the context of our catastrophic present. The novel changes its history in ways that darken the story, raising questions (for me at least) about the emotional logic of the book and its impact.

Kim Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) speculates about the near-yet-far future of 2140 in New York City, envisioning a city half-swamped by rising seas, a city defined by its “intertidal zone,” and all the complications (social, political, financial, engineering, ethical, etc.) such a liminal state presents. At the same time, the novel represents (it seems to me) a utopian-Marxist meditation on alternative responses to the 2007-8 financial meltdown. Like Steinbeck’s intercalary chapters, Robinson’s “citizen” chapters offer a more abstract view of themes relevant to the narrative. Like Powers, Robinson offers a revisionary history of our own time. Like Brown Girl in the Ring, New York 2140 buzzes with energy. As the title of one review put it, “Only Sci-Fi can drown Manhattan and make you want to live there.” The hopefulness and energy of the book will (I hope) make it a good conclusion to the year as a whole.

It promises to be a great year of reading and discussion!



2 thoughts on “Reading List for 2019-2020: Climate Fiction”

  1. Oh, good – lots of things I haven’t read!

    On Sat, Jun 8, 2019 at 12:59 PM The DC Swarthmore Book Group Blog wrote:

    > juliajudish posted: “Professor Bolton has selected seven varied readings > for our Climate Fiction discussions. Many of the works have won literary > prizes or garnered other significant recognition; they include literary > classics, speculative fiction, and a collection of short ” >

    Liked by 1 person

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