By Emma Zaratian • April 22, 2019
Happy Earth Day! It's been 49 years to the day since the original celebration, when more than 10,000 U.S. schools and colleges observed the planet's need for environmental protection. Almost half a century later and we're still trying to figure how to safeguard our lone planet from climate change, pollution, and possible wildlife extinction. Of course, even though we're skating on thinner ice caps than before, most of us are still living our lives relatively normally. And our collective optimism assumes we'll stem the tide (so to speak) before any major post-apocalyptic scenarios occur. Nonetheless, because we're gluttons for punishment, we thought we'd revisit five notable (and very different) dystopian novels that explore themes of environmental disaster. Just to pique our survivalist instincts.
Similarly to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, this P.D. James novel places the plight of human infertility center stage. The year is 2021 in England and, due to an unspecified environmental disaster, people are no longer able to procreate. Without the promise of children or a future, life has no meaning—and the aging population is apathetic and depressed. In fact, under the progressively authoritarian government, group suicide is encouraged and criminals are forced into exile in the hinterlands. Oxford history professor Theo Faron lives a bleak yet banal life until he runs into the leader of a rebel group—and then things take a turn for the exciting if not optimistic. In The Children of Men, the possibility of a birth rekindles the power of hope, while selfless love and sacrifice offer salvation to humankind.
Considered one of the best early what-if stories on climate change, J.G. Ballard's 1962 novel, The Drowned World, examines human impulses in a world essentially underwater. It's 2145, the ice caps have melted, most of the Northern Hemisphere is submerged under ocean, and the primordial jungles have taken over a tropical London. It's like Waterworld but with a lot more vegetation and giant mosquitos. In the midst of this, biologist Robert Kerans works with a team of scientists to map out the flooded city's new topography—and, as you might expect, everyone is showing signs of social and moral regression. As Robert and his lover, Beatrice, fall into the archetypal Adam and Eve trope, London appears to take on an unearthly version of Eden, where humanity is quickly losing its grip.
The first in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (and its subsequent volumes) take climate and environmental change to the next level with an added layer of inexplicable horrors. A mysteriously abandoned area of the U.S., known as Area X, has reverted to wilderness—as if the Earth is taking it back—and a team of researchers is tasked to study the strange, sinister world. As members of the twelfth expedition, the four women already know to expect quite a few oddities, but nothing can prepare them for the startling existence of a tower—or the secrets they themselves are hiding. Considered by many to be more terrifying than the movie version, the book cranks up the supernatural, hiding the shapes and motives of the larger threat.
If fierce survivalist literature à la The Walking Dead is more your scene, this debut novel by Mindy McGinnis should do the trick—even if it is considered young-adult fiction. Set in a world where drinkable water is a scarcity worth killing over, a teen girl, Lynn, presides over a precious pond. Her mother has taught her to shoot anyone who tries to steal a sip—but then her mother dies and a rag-tag group of strangers show up, forcing Lynn to wrestle with unfamiliar feelings of compassion and romantic love. All of a sudden, the sharpshooter must choose between critical connections with humanity and finite resources to survive. While Not a Drop to Drink does veer into teen-romance territory, the overall storyline is far more dark, brutal, and unforgiving than traditional YA, which helps it tick all of our serious dystopian boxes.
Our top-five list on dystopian climate-change fiction would be incomplete if we didn't include this 2017 release by Kim Stanley Robinson. As you might infer from the title, it's set in New York City in 2140. The sea levels have risen so high that most of Manhattan is underwater—but everyone's still going about their business, much like they do now in Venice, Italy, with each building its own self-sufficient island. The story is told through the eyes of eight characters who all share a residential tower—and their observations verge on hilarious at times. But the moral of New York 2140 is not light-hearted, as no critique of world markets, global warming, and a powerless populace can be.
While all of these works of fiction are merely speculative, if not fantastical, they're rich, thoughtful explorations of what humankind could endure if the current world we live in changed beyond our recognition. And with Earth Day here, it's not a half bad idea to remind ourselves of what we find so precious about this extraordinary planet of ours.