Five of the best climate-change novels

From the dystopias of Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood to a ‘biopunk’ thriller and a teen comedy – these are some of the best stories of ecological peril

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in The Road.
Not an easy read … Viggo Mortensen (left) and Kodi Smit-McPhee in film version of The Road. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

There’s a brief reference to what could be nuclear attack or a comet strike – “a sudden shear of light and then a series of low concussions” – but the slow process of climate change isn’t mentioned in this terrifying 2006 novel about a man and his young son struggling to survive after the fall of civilisation. Make no mistake, though, this is a book about environmental apocalypse: what would happen to humans, and our humanity, if the natural world was no longer a self-replenishing, bountiful support system for the higher apes who scratch at its surface but just another dead rock in space.

In the first years after the catastrophe, the roads were crowded with refugees, foraging remaining food stocks. Survivors descended into “bloodcults”, savagery and cannibalism. Nine years on, if the man and boy meet other humans, they will almost certainly be raped and eaten. The father keeps a pistol by him, to kill his son and then himself when the time comes; the mother committed suicide years before. This is a hard book to read but also, as Andrew O’Hagan put it, “the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation”.

McCarthy writes in an unrelenting, declamatory prose somewhere between the Bible and late Beckett, stripped for the most part of the adornment of apostrophes and speech marks and the breathing space provided by commas. He grapples not only with human suffering and savagery on a baroque, almost unimaginable scale; with faith, love and the blunt urge to survive; but with the existential horror of the possible end of the human race. The fragility of human endeavour and the terrifying consequences of our choices are the message to take from this devastating book. Justine Jordan

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is the middle book in Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, published between 2003 and 2013. As with The Handmaid’s Tale and the rise of the misogynist right in the US, the passing of time has made her work seem ever more eerily prophetic. But then, as Atwood has always said, everything she writes about is possible and much of it has already happened. The environmental ravages caused by oil and the terrifying consequences of it running out; corporate empire-building, scarcening resources and increasing inequality; genetic experimentation and the badlands of the internet: all are followed to their (un)natural conclusions.

The flood in this novel is not a watery one, but a global pandemic triggered as part of the same hubristic rapaciousness that is causing sea levels to rise. Comparing it with its predecessor Oryx and Crake, Ursula Le Guin found “less of Hogarth and more of Goya” in a post-apocalyptic scenario that combines horrors with glimmers of hope. Her treatment of her main two characters, survivors Toby and Ren, and of God’s Gardeners, a sect dedicated to preserving the besieged natural world, is Atwood at her best: cool-headed, warm-hearted, funny, smart and undeceived.

Backed up by wide research, Atwood’s speculative fictions are complex and layered enough to consider the global nexus of science, capitalism and politics, along with individual stories of brutality and resilience. The questions she poses are urgent and essential. “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?” JJ

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

In all of his novels – including Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream – David Mitchell has been preoccupied with the differences between personal and planetary ethics: why does every human’s self-interest conflict with the wider need for collective survival?

The Bone Clocks is told in six parts, each focusing in on a different period in the life of Holly Sykes. The last part, set in 2043 when Holly is in her 70s, sees her huddled away on the Irish coast, seeing out the end as the world falls into “the Endarkenment”: climate change has so depleted resources that people must live off the land and government rationing. Ireland is moderately stable thanks to a deal with China – until the Chinese suddenly pull their resources, leaving Ireland in a state of confusion and violence.

Mitchell’s depiction of the subsequent desperation and rapid descent into anarchy is bleak, if undeniably believable. Sian Cain

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

In his acknowledgments, Bacigalupi stresses that his novel “should not be construed as representative of present-day Thailand or the Thai people”. His vision of Thailand’s future is less beaches and good curry, and more oil-starved, corruption-riddled nightmare.

At its heart, The Wind Up Girl is a biopunk thriller following a undercover corporate agent and a genetically modified woman – but its detailed, bleak depiction of the effects of climate change sets it apart. Set during “the contraction” – when the world runs out of fossil fuels – Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is one of only a few south-east Asian cities left, now below sea level and desperately holding off the rising waters with a series of spring-powered pumps.

Thailand’s environment ministry works like a guerrilla force to ensure the country’s survival, burning entire villages to the ground at the first sight of crop plagues. Ships transport goods, computers run on treadle-power and all the while, everyone resolutely acts as if nothing is wrong – so there is a little realism in this science fiction. SC

The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd

As climate catastrophes roll across the globe, and Britain is laid waste by the Great Storm, the UK government decides it is time to take the drastic step of imposing a 60% carbon tax. Day one of her diary sees 16-year-old wannabe bass player Laura holed up with her family as the countdown to rationing begins: “We’ve got to choose – hairdryer, toaster, microwave, smartphone, de-ioniser (Mum), kettle, lights, PTA, e-pod, fridge or freezer and on and on … ”

At first the new limits seem impossible: dad loses his job as a travel and tourism lecturer and mum has to forsake her beloved car for a life of getting lost on buses. Her sister, Kim, meanwhile, throws such a strop after being forced to abandon her gap-year plans for a working holiday in the US that she absconds to Spain, leaves the television running and lands herself in Carbon Offenders counselling. But gradually the family starts to adapt to the new reality.

It’s a shame that the novel is dated by its title (a followup, The Carbon Diaries 2017, is out of print), because Saci Lloyd’s portrayal of an angsty teenager squaring her infatuation with the boy next door and ambitions to be a new punk angel with a state clampdown on everything that powers her lifestyle is smart, funny and all too believable. As a teen reviewer on the Guardian children’s site wrote: “It gave me an insight [into] how we may have to live our lives in a few years, and made me wonder how I would deal with the situation, were I in Laura’s shoes.” Claire Armitstead

The section on The Road was amended on 23 Jan 2017 to reflect the fact that there are various interpretations of the cause of global apocalypse in the novel.