First, a quick definition: eco-fiction is made up of fictional tales that reflect important connections, dependencies, and interactions between people and their natural environment. Sometimes people are even completely left behind, giving rise to purely ecological stories. The genre evolves with the changes in our world, including newer and more accepted scientific discoveries, such as climate change.
The term may have first appeared in John Statler’s Anthology Eco-fiction, (Pocket, published 1971) which reprinted environmental science fiction short stories from the 1930s-1960s.
You may never have heard of this anthology, but you’re probably aware of some of the stories it contains, like that of British horror writer Daphne du Maurier”The birdswhich has become a famous Alfred Hitchcock movie (released in 1963). You will also recognize many other authors in this anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, JG Ballard, Isaac Asimov and William Saroyan.
Eco-fiction really took off in the early 1970s, when natural history and the humanities began to intersect more, as with ecocriticismborn from the idea of aliterary ecology”. But it actually had deeper roots, going back to The iconic Rachel Carson silent spring in 1962 which served as a wake-up call for many baby boomers.
by Jim Dwyer Where Are the Wild Books: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (University of Nevada Press, 2010) was a great guide and resource as it explored hundreds of novels from around the world, explained the genre academically, dignified BIPOC authors before the term arrived, and was slightly ahead of its time in recognizing climate change in fiction.
In his guide, Dwyer cites Professor Mike VaseyEstuary and Ocean Science Center at San Francisco State University, which gives a simple definition of the genus:
“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships with these ecosystems or exclude humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive.
Where can I find novels in this genre?
The simple answer is everywhere.
Dwyer noted that eco-fiction was not exclusive nor only realistic or Earth-based. It includes all kinds of speculative fiction, such as weird fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. It’s also covered in major genre categories such as Literature, Mystery, Thriller, History, Romance, and Contemporary. It can be dystopian or utopian. It can be apocalyptic. It can be realistic or fantastic. It may reflect post-colonial trauma, including that of people and land.
Of course, new literary genres have emerged since then, including climate, anthropocene, and solarpunk fiction. All share links that unite authors and readers.
Where to start ?
I will only mention a few of my favorites here, but the lists are never exhaustive and will by nature miss many important novels and authors, so for that I apologize in advance.
My goal is to introduce readers to some novels of this literary ecology – consider it a starting point.
When I think of what draws me to a story like this, I think of the words of Wai Chee Dimock (she is a professor of English and American studies at Yale) seeing Jeff VanderMeer again Terminal: a novel in the New York Times):
“This A coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has also come of age: wilder, bolder and more jaw-dropping than previously thought, a bet and a promise than what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any of the 20th, or the 19th.”
When Thick headed was published in 2017, it was a Financial Times Book of the Year, an Amazon Editors’ Choice and selected by AMC in 2019 to be transformed into a television series.
I invite you to discover these stories, the craziest, the most daring and the most breathtaking, the ones that take the reader into the natural world and bring it to life.
Five eco-fiction novels
It’s hard to find such lists without authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeff VanderMeer, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver and many others.
Because they are often included on many ecological genre recommendation lists, I decided to go out of the way and head mostly outside of North America to visit other places where I found equally inspiring authors.
Wildlife by Christiane Vadnais (Coach House Books, September 2020)
Beautifully translated from French by Pablo Strauss as Vadnais is a Quebec author, this is a collection of intertwined short stories set in the distant future and in the Far North.
An atmospheric book, it takes the reader to Shivering Heights, a deep forest, an eerie lake, and other places where mood, natural history, and poetics rise from the ground to awaken us.
A speculative tale about the end times and climate change, this read has flora and fauna leaping alive and breathtaking.
House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber (Graywolf Press, October 2021)
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber is a young Kenyan poet and journalist, and winner of the first Graywolf Press Africa prize in 2018; it is a coming of age story about a willful but vulnerable Hadhrami girl, named Aisha, who lives in Mombasa, the city where Bajaber herself was born.
Aisha embarks on a fantastic journey to find her father, who her grandmother is convinced is dead. He is/was a fisherman, and the sea envelops the plot and characters, including several Alice in Wonderland-like creatures that Aisha has to deal with.
It’s a classic magical realism novel that left me spellbound.
house of drought by Dennis Mombauer (Stelliform Press, released July 14, 2022)
Taking on eerie aspects, Mombauer’s short story is set through time in a haunted house in Sri Lanka that borders woods and farmland.
Something strange happens, and the author apparently creates new mythological creatures that could illustrate parables in the age of climate change.
This may just be my point of view, but the strange house seems to represent our planet. We only have one, so it’s best to take care of it now.
Bangkok wakes up to rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Sceptre, February 2019)
An epic time-traveling novel where multiple characters intersect in one of the most aquatic cities in the world: Bangkok.
This novel proves that stories about our ecological environment can always be about the human, our varied histories and time on Earth, our interconnections with each other as well as how the environment shapes us.
Sudbanthad takes us through time and does not ignore the future of a sinking city. He is a thai writer who divides his time between Bangkok and Brooklyn, New York, and was named a Fellow in Fiction by the New York Foundation for the Arts in 2018. Here is a video interview in which he explains his book:
Fever dream by Samanta Schweblin (Oneworld Publications, March 2017)
Schweblin is a Spanish-speaking Argentinian author currently living in Berlin. this is her first book translated into English, but she gained international fame earlier, in 2010 when Granta Magazine chose her as one of best spanish language authors under 35.
Set in Argentina, Fever dream presents a long dialogue between a woman and her friend’s son. Bit by bit, we understand that the disease is spreading throughout the community from poisons in a nearby stream.
It’s a disturbing novel that weaves nature, friendships, family, and memories in back-and-forths that surrealistically mimic a fever dream. The perfectly adapted film was also released in September 2021.
What all five books have in common is that in addition to being exceptionally good reads, they leave you wondering once you’ve read the last page: what have we done to nature, where are we humans and what should we do? We do? These are necessary questions to ask, but only good literature can ask them with the necessary urgency – and while giving us the simple pleasure of reading.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the featured photo: Photo by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay, Italy (cc)