Turn on the news today and you’ll be confronted by a headline that seems more likely to have been ripped from a movie than real life: “Record heat fuels wildfires in Alaska”; “High likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end by 2050”; “Half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead”. Cheery stuff. Even so, this isn’t a disaster movie we’re living in, it’s a slow-burn horrorfest. There’s a lingering sense of dread now that accompanies us everywhere. We know there’s something on the horizon and we’re pretty sure it’s not going to be pleasant. And while some of us are trying to rewrite the narrative to make it less apocalyptic, the rest of us are still sleepwalking to oblivion.
My suggestion is that we turn to fiction in order to gain some insight into how to deal with our own climate change horror story. As always, films and literature are the gateway to understanding the gravity of real-life matters, and when they strike the right balance between entertainment and education, they can bring about a sea of change in how we perceive things. Think Blue Planet II, a documentary so influential that it caused a server crash in China due to so many people clamouring to see it. It’s simple: art can convince people to care. And when we care, we change our ways; we take to the streets; and we resist, insist and persist. Our climate horror story could become a one-off with no sequel – but we still need to write the third act.
Here are four novels to make us fear for our own future and do something about it.
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John Christopher, The Death of Grass (1956)
A long time ago I came to the understanding that all men are friends by convenience and enemies by choice.
As one version of the saying goes, a society is only ever three meals away from anarchy, and The Death of Grass explores this notion with great enthusiasm. When grass plants (wheat, barley, rice, etc.) all over the world start to die out, society collapses due to the threat of famine, and we get to watch as a normal family sheds its morals remarkably quickly in order to survive. Containing page after page of murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault – all described in language that is cold and sparse – it is without a doubt one of the most brutal and unforgiving novels in the genre. Think The Road (2006) with none of the carrying-the-fire hope that comes from the father/son relationship.
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966)
Doing something means people must change, make an effort, use their minds, which is what most people do not like to do.
The inspiration for cannibalistic Heston-fest Soylent Green (1973), Harrison’s novel doesn’t dive directly into the deep end of insanity, but it does paint a depressing picture of life in a hugely overpopulated New York City in 1999 (sure, Harrison was a little off in his calculations, but not by much). The authorities keep people in check by dropping bales of barbed wire onto them from the sky and limiting their water rations. Medical care, steady jobs and personal safety no longer exist. The novel demonstrates there is no greater threat to humanity than its own inability to question the status quo and act before standards deteriorate so far that the new normal is to murder one another for food. What’s scary is the fact that Harrison was warning us about the global population reaching 7 billion more than fifty years ago. It is now at 7.8 billion and rising fast.
Liu Cixin, The Dark Forest (2008)
Staying alive is not enough to guarantee survival.
The second book in a trilogy of novels focusing on an alien invasion and humanity’s preparations for it, The Dark Forest is as much a parable for climate change as any of the other books on this list. For one thing, the invasion happens at a glacial pace; it takes centuries for the invaders to arrive, giving humanity enough time to fight among themselves, despair, rally, innovate and despair some more (sound familiar?). For another, Cixin goes into great detail about how the race to develop technology destroys already fragile ecosystems around the world, leading most human beings to eventually live underground. The horror element comes from showing how humanity is so quick to mine the depths of despair, risk total destruction and embrace evil instead of working together to find a solution. This is never more apparent than in “The Battle of Darkness”, a chapter whose title couldn’t be more appropriate.
J. G. Ballard, High-Rise (1975)
Let the psychotics take over. They alone understood what was happening.
This book is classic Ballard: all the characters are dislikeable, modern society and technology are the root of all evil and the narrative descends into chaos well before the end. What he does so well is show how quickly an ecosystem (in this case, a high-rise building) can break down when the individual components are no longer in perfect balance with each other. When people feel superior or inferior, they will lash out at one another, and when the constructs that keep us in check can no longer be enforced (like, say, during an imminent climate emergency), then violence and death will surely ensue. In this novel, it doesn’t get much more horrific than when the “protagonist”, Robert Laing, fights his way to one of the building’s swimming pools and discovers what it is being used for.