If 2019 was the year Greta Thunberg and environmental scientists put the uncomfortable truth of climate change squarely on the agenda, 1962 was the year climate fiction came to the fore.
JG Ballard’s The Drowned World looked at the worst effects of global warming – and ushered in a genre of “cli-fi”.
It’s not just climate fiction that is increasingly becoming fact. In 1984, William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” – and John Brunner was writing about the impacts of population growth in the late 1960s.
Have you read?
Here’s a selection of dystopian fiction in books that have an eerie resonance today.
1. The Drowned World by JG Ballard (1962)
Set in an unrecognizable, tropical, flooded London in the year 2145, British author Ballard’s book is one of the first in the climate fiction genre. It follows a team of scientists who are researching the flora and fauna in what was once the UK’s capital, but, due to extreme environmental changes wrought by solar storms, has now become a boiling swamp.
2. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Henry Case, the anti-hero of American-Canadian writer Gibson’s futuristic debut novel, is a computer hacker in a world where artificial intelligence is all powerful. In a short story two years earlier, Gibson was one of the first to use the now-ubiquitous word “cyberspace”, which he describes in Neuromancer as: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators.” It’s also called “the Matrix”, and this is where Case comes alive.
3. White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
DeLillo’s novel is seen as a satire on consumerism and technology, where shopping is therapy and the central family sate themselves with a constant stream of information. But it’s also the story of a man-made disaster, a pill called Dylar, which treats the fear of death, and of children being the most in touch with the natural world.
4. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
In the late 1960s, British author Brunner predicted that in 2010 the world’s population would be so large it would fill the entire island of Zanzibar standing shoulder-to-shoulder – hence its title. Overcrowding is so severe, eugenic controls are in place and some people aren’t allowed to procreate. Brunner also imagined the rise in global terrorism and the increasing acceptance of gay marriage.
5. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)
In 2024 Los Angeles, there is drought and rising sea levels, water is so scarce it’s as precious as money, whole towns are being privatized and people live in gated communities, protecting themselves with walls and guns. The 15-year-old protagonist, Lauren, who has been born with hyperempathy – the ability to feel others’ pain – observes: “People have changed the climate of the world”.
6. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
In Aldous Huxley’s World State city of 2540, babies are grown in jars to fit niches in the class system, while adults are kept quietly content by a mix of drugs, technology, entertainment and pornography. The novel's themes foreshadowed the endless distractions present in today's world, and the idea that these could be diverting our attention away from the biggest problems.