50 Must-Read Eco Disasters In Fiction

Fiction at its best lets us play out our darkest fears about the future. You don’t get much darker than environmental collapse, and the way things are right now, it’s even odds on whether heat, pollinator extinction, superstorms, or sea level rise takes us out first. But hey, whatever happens, it’ll be dramatic!

Not all of these stories are about impending disaster. Some deal with past ecological collapse too. Others are so wild that they’re really just good fun. If this really isn’t enough mayhem for you, make sure and also check out more climate change aftermaths. If, on the other hand, you’re feeling a little shook by all of this reality-mirroring climate talk, remember that knowledge is power. Let’s dive right into fictional Earths where the weather just hates everybody and into Earths based in fact where the great wave of Nature’s fury is poised to obliterate us all.

All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki

“Yumi Fuller hasn’t set foot in her hometown of Liberty Falls, Idaho—heart of the potato-farming industry—since she ran away at age fifteen. Twenty-five years later, the prodigal daughter returns to confront her dying parents, her best friend, and her conflicted past, and finds herself caught up in an altogether new drama. The post-millennial farming community has been invaded by Agribusiness forces at war with a posse of activists, the Seeds of Resistance, who travel the country in a camping car, “The Spudnick,” biofueled by pilfered McDonald’s french-fry oil.”

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

“Silko’s ambitious, massive novel is an impassioned indictment of the white man’s rule in the Americas, a prophecy of a revolution by Native Americans, and a jeremiad warning of a corrupt world rushing to Armageddon.”

American War by Omar El AkkadAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

“Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.”

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

“Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition.”

Beacons: Stories For Our Not-So-Distant Future, edited by Gregory Norminton

“A riveting and provocative collection of short stories, Beacons throws down the gauntlet to award-winning writers, challenging them to devise original responses to the climate crisis. From Joanne Harris’ cautionary tale of a world where ‘outside’ has become a thing of history to Nick Hayes’ graphic depiction of the primeval bond between man and nature, each story thrills the senses as it attempts to make sense of a world warping into something unfamiliar.”

Blackfish City by Sam J. MillerBlackfish City by Sam J. Miller

“After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called ‘the breaks’ is ravaging the population.”

A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi

“On the night of December 3, 1984, Anjali waits for her army officer husband to pick her up at the train station in Bhopal, India. In an instant, her world changes forever. Her anger at his being late turns to horror when a catastrophic gas leak poisons the city air. Anjali miraculously survives. Her marriage does not.”

Breathe by Sarah Crossan

“The world has no air. If you want to survive, you pay to breathe. But what if you can’t? And what if you think everything could be different? Three teens will leave everything they know behind in Sarah Crossan’s gripping and original dystopian teen novel of danger, longing, and glimmering hope.”

The Butterfly Effect by Rajat Chaudhuri

“In the decaying capital city of a near-future Darkland, which covers large swathes of Asia, Captain Old – an off-duty policeman – receives news that might help to unravel the roots of a scourge that has ravaged the continent. As stories coalesce into stories – welding past, present and future together – will a macabre death in a small English town or the disappearance of Indian tourists in Korea, help to blow away the dusts of time?
From utopian communities of Asia to the prison camps of Pyongyang and from the gene labs of Europe to the violent streets of Darkland – riven by civil war, infested by genetically engineered fighters – this time-travelling novel crosses continents, weaving mystery, adventure and romance, gradually fixing its gaze on the sway of the unpredictable over our lives.”

California by Edan Lepucki

“The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can’t reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

“In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes.”

The Carbon Diaries by Saci LloydThe Carbon Diaries 2015 Saci Lloyd

“It’s January 1st, 2015, and the UK is the first nation to introduce carbon dioxide rationing in a drastic bid to combat climate change. As her family spirals out of control, Laura Brown chronicles the first year of rationing with scathing abandon.”

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

“The world has changed. War rages in South America and China, and Britain – now entirely dependent on the US for food and energy – is run by an omnipresent dictatorship known simply as The Authority. Assets and weapons have been seized, and women are compulsorily fitted with contraceptive devices. This is Sister’s story of her attempt to escape the repressive regime. From the confines of her Lancaster prison cell she tells of her search for The Carhullan Army, a quasi-mythical commune of ‘unofficial’ women rumoured to be living in a remote part of Cumbria.”

Death of Grass by John Christopher

“The Chung-Li virus has devastated Asia, wiping out the rice crop and leaving riots and mass starvation in its wake. The rest of the world looks on with concern, though safe in the expectation that a counter-virus will be developed any day. Then Chung-Li mutates and spreads. Wheat, barley, oats, rye: no grass crop is safe, and global famine threatens.”

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney

“A mysterious disaster has stricken the midwestern American city of Bellona, and its aftereffects are disturbing: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a white/American Indian man who can’t remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, the outcast—the marginalized.”

The End Of The World Running Club by Adrian J. WalkerThe End Of The World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker

“Perfect for fans of The Martian, this powerful post-apocalyptic thriller pits reluctant father Edgar Hill in a race against time to get back to his wife and children. When the sky begins to fall and he finds himself alone, his best hope is to run – or risk losing what he loves forever.”

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

“Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.”

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

“Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire.”

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire VayeGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

“In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.”

Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh

“To drill or not to drill? Prison guard Rich Devlin leases his mineral rights to finance his dream of farming. He doesn’t count on the truck traffic and nonstop noise, his brother’s skepticism or the paranoia of his wife, Shelby, who insists the water smells strange and is poisoning their frail daughter. Meanwhile his neighbors, organic dairy farmers Mack and Rena, hold out against the drilling—until a passionate environmental activist disrupts their lives.”

Hot Sky At Midnight by Robert Silverberg

“At Samurai Industries, Paul Carpenter studies his computer monitors to predict the movement of toxic clouds drifting across the Pacific Northwest. If he’s wrong, a sudden shift of wind can kill thousands. Nick Rhodes, a research scientist for the controversial Santachiara Technologies’ Survival/Modification Program, seeks better ways for humans to adapt to Earth’s hostile environment. His girlfriend, Isabelle Martine, is a kinetic therapist and political activist, violently opposed to the threatening new technology. They are among those who have opted to stay behind, scratching out a perilous existence on a poisoned planet where no one dares leave home without a face-lung and a daily injection of Screen.”

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

“Millions of years beyond our time, our Earth has long since stopped spinning—and giant flora have taken over the sunlit half of the motionless world. Here humans are among the very few animal species that still exist, struggling to survive against enormous odds, but they have become small and weak, and their numbers have dwindled to almost nothing. When the aging leader of Gren’s tribe decrees it is time for the old ones to go “Up,” the younger are left to make their own way below. Although the journey will not be an easy one for young Gren, he sets off on an odyssey across a perilous world populated by carnivorous plants and other evolved vegetation. But any knowledge to be gained at the terminator—the forbidding boundary between the day world and the night—might well prove worthless for the boy and the companions he amasses along the way when the expanding sun goes nova and their Earth is no more.”

I Have Waited And You Have Come by Martine McDonaghI Have Waited, And You Have Come by Martine McDonagh

“The world has been ravaged by climate change and Rachel is left to fend for herself. Living amid a clutch of disparate communities whose inhabitants she chooses to avoid, she rarely ventures beyond the safety of the storm wall. But when Jez White disturbs her twilight existence, Rachel finds herself in a murky territory somewhere between stalking and being stalked.”

I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows

“Annie Bell can’t escape the dust. It’s in her hair, covering the windowsills, coating the animals in the barn, in the corners of her children’s dry, cracked lips. It’s 1934 and the Bell farm in Mulehead, Oklahoma is struggling as the earliest storms of The Dust Bowl descend. All around them the wheat harvests are drying out and people are packing up their belongings as storms lay waste to the Great Plains. As the Bells wait for the rains to come, Annie and each member of her family are pulled in different directions. Annie’s fragile young son, Fred, suffers from dust pneumonia; her headstrong daughter, Birdie, flush with first love, is choosing a dangerous path out of Mulehead; and Samuel, her husband, is plagued by disturbing dreams of rain.”

The Ice People by Maggie Gee

“Far into the the 21st century, civilization has broken down in the face of the deepening cold. An old man, Saul, lives in a disused airport with a gang of wild boys, who spare his life only because of his skills as a storyteller. Saul tells of his youth, days of fierce heat and dwindling fertility. Men and women live separately, the women cluster around the rare children, and men turn to each other or to robot “pets.” But Saul is different—he falls in love with Sarah.”

In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero, Edith Grossman (Translator)

“‘In the Palm of Darkness’ tells the story of American herpetologist Victor Griggs and Haitian guide Thierry Adrien, who are searching for an amphibian known as the blood frog (grenouille du sang) in the mountains of violence-torn Haiti. The rich and tragic tale of Thierry’s family, his life and loves and his curious destiny, forms a backdrop for the obsessive search of the two men from different cultures, and opens a window onto another way of understanding the world.”

Mara and Dann by Doris LessigMara and Dann by Doris Lessig

“Thousands of years in the future, all the northern hemisphere is buried under the ice and snow of a new Ice Age. At the southern end of a large landmass called Ifrik, two children of the Mahondi people, seven-year old Mara and her younger brother, Dann, are abducted from their home in the middle of the night. Raised as outsiders in a poor rural village, Mara and Dann learn to survive the hardships and dangers of a life threatened as much by an unforgiving climate and menacing animals as by a hostile community of Rock People. Eventually they join the great human migration North, away from the drought that is turning the southern land to dust, and in search of a place with enough water and food to support human life.”

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

“Twenty years ago Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island; along with her mother, she fled the aftermath of an earthquake that compromised the local refinery, killing her father and ravaging the island’s environment. Now, Lucie’s childhood friend Kate is living within a mysterious group called Marrow Colony—a community that claims to be ‘ministering to the Earth.’ Lucie’s experience as a journalist tells her there’s more to the Colony—and their charismatic leader– than they want her to know, and that the astonishing success of their environmental remediation has come at great cost to the Colonists themselves.”

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

“Global warming has changed the world’s geography and its politics. Wars are waged over water, and China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the power state of New Qian. In this far north place, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father, a position that holds great responsibility and great secrets. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, including the natural spring that Noria’s father tends, which once provided water for her whole village.”

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

“The waters rose, submerging New York City. But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever. Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island. Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides. And how we too will change.”

Not A Drop To Drink by Mindy McGinnis

“Lynn knows every threat to her pond: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most importantly, people looking for a drink. She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty, or doesn’t leave at all.”

Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel RichOdds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich

“As Mitchell immerses himself in the mathematics of catastrophe—ecological collapse, war games, natural disasters—he becomes obsessed by a culture’s fears. Yet he also loses touch with his last connection to reality: Elsa Bruner, a friend with her own apocalyptic secret, who has started a commune in Maine. Then, just as Mitchell’s predictions reach a nightmarish crescendo, an actual worst-case scenario overtakes Manhattan. Mitchell realizes he is uniquely prepared to profit. But at what cost?”

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

“Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.”

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

“Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.”

The Rapture by Liz JensenThe Rapture by Liz Jensen

“It is a June unlike any other before, with temperatures soaring to asphyxiating heights. All across the world, freak weather patterns—and the life-shattering catastrophes they entail—have become the norm. The twenty-first century has entered a new phase. But Gabrielle Fox’s main concern is a personal one: to rebuild her life after a devastating car accident that has left her disconnected from the world, a prisoner of her own guilt and grief.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.”

The Sheep Look Up by John BrunnerThe Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

“In a near future, the air pollution is so bad that everyone wears gas masks. The infant mortality rate is soaring, and birth defects, new diseases, and physical ailments of all kinds abound. The water is undrinkable—unless you’re poor and have no choice. Large corporations fighting over profits from gas masks, drinking water, and clean food tower over an ineffectual, corrupt government.”

Solar by Ian McEwan

“Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist whose best work is behind him, and whose fifth marriage is crumbling. However, an invitation to travel to New Mexico offers him a chance for him to extricate himself from his marital problems, reinvigorate his career, and save the world from environmental disaster. Can a man who has made a mess of his life clean up the messes of humanity?”

Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, Fábio Fernandes (Translator)

“Imagine a sustainable world, run on clean and renewable energies that are less aggressive to the environment. Now imagine humanity under the impact of these changes. This is the premise Brazilian editor Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro proposed, and these authors took the challenge to envision hopeful futures and alternate histories. The stories in this anthology explore terrorism against green corporations, large space ships propelled by the pressure of solar radiation, the advent of photosynthetic humans, and how different society might be if we had switched to renewable energies much earlier in history. Originally published in Brazil and translated for the first time from the Portuguese by Fábio Fernandes, this anthology of optimistic science fiction features nine authors from Brazil and Portugal including Carlos Orsi, Telmo Marçal, Romeu Martins, Antonio Luiz M. Costa, Gabriel Cantareira, Daniel I. Dutra, André S. Silva, Roberta Spindler, and Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro.”

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

“On the airwaves, all the talk is of the new blue planet – pristine and habitable, like our own 65 million years ago, before we took it to the edge of destruction. And off the air, Billie and Spike are falling in love. What will happen when their story combines with the world’s story.”

Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann PancakeStrange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake

“Set in present day West Virginia, Ann Pancake’s debut novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been, tells the story of a coal mining family—a couple and their four children—living through the latest mining boom and dealing with the mountaintop removal and strip mining that is ruining what is left of their mountain life. As the mine turns the mountains to slag and wastewater, workers struggle with layoffs and children find adventure in the blasted moonscape craters.”

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“In a future America that feels increasingly familiar, you are your credit score. Extreme wealth inequality has created a class of have-nothings: Subprimes. Their bad credit ratings make them unemployable. Jobless and without assets, they’ve walked out on mortgages, been foreclosed upon, or can no longer afford a fixed address. Fugitives who must keep moving to avoid arrest, they wander the globally warmed American wasteland searching for day labor and a place to park their battered SUVs for the night.”

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

“It’s November of 2020, and the world is freezing over, each day colder than the last. There’s snow in Israel; the Thames is overflowing; and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south—but not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived.”

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

“While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.”

Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

“Truth and Bright Water tells of a summer in the life of Tecumseh and Lum, young Native-American cousins coming of age in the Montana town of Truth, and the Bright Water Reserve across the river in Alberta. It opens with a mysterious woman with a suitcase, throwing things into the river – then jumping in herself. Tecumseh and Lum go to help, but she and her truck have disappeared. Other mysteries puzzle Tecumseh: whether his mom will take his dad back; if his rolling-stone aunt is home to stay; why no one protects Lum from his father’s rages. Then Tecumseh gets a job helping an artist – Bright Water’s most famous son – with the project of a lifetime. As Truth and Bright Water prepare for the Indian Days festival, their secrets come together in a climax of tragedy, reconciliation, and love.”

The Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

“In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California skirmish for dwindling shares of the Colorado River. Into the fray steps Angel Velasquez, leg-breaker, assassin, and spy. A Las Vegas water knife, Angel ‘cuts’ water for his boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her luxurious developments can bloom in the desert, so the rich can stay wet while the poor get dust. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in drought-ravaged Phoenix, it seems California is making a play to monopolize the life-giving flow of the river, and Angel is sent to investigate.”

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

“In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.”

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

“Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko…”

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (Translator)

“An epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols—the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world—and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf.”

Wool by Hugh Howey

“Thousands of them have lived underground. They’ve lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you’ll get what you wish for.”

What I’ve Learned About History From Reading Fiction

I didn’t enjoy learning about history in school, not even in college. I took classes, of course, but they were boring and seemed totally disconnected from my life—just a series of world leaders (always men), wars, and dates to memorize. There was definitely no hot Indiana Jones professor to ignite my love of learning about history. The classes were a dull but necessary step along my liberal arts path.

But I always adored reading, and I loved fiction best of all. While I thoroughly enjoy a wider range of genres now, my first true love was, and still is, realistic fiction. I become completely invested in the characters, and I truly care what happens to them. I long to be immersed in their world. It is through reading fiction and being exposed to more and more stories that I found myself learning all kinds of history that I’d never picked up in school.

I remember several years ago reading Snow Falling on Cedars. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous writing, the riveting courtroom drama, and the beautiful love story. But I was blindsided to learn about the Japanese Americans that were exiled to internment camps during WWII. I was an adult and embarrassed that I did not know about this piece of my country’s history. I did not remember ever hearing about this in school.

Of course, much of our nation’s history is not adequately covered in classrooms, especially when it comes to ugly truths about discrimination, oppression, and poverty. There is a powerful passage in the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyassi that speaks to this:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Fiction gives voice to the voiceless and enables a broader view of history by portraying those suppressed stories. Books like Homegoing and Beloved taught me about the personal devastation wrought by slavery, and The Things They Carried gave me a glimpse of what Vietnam soldiers endured. Last year’s insightful There There helped me consider the lives of Native Americans in urban America. Americanah and The Buddha in the Attic allowed me to imagine what it might be like to be an immigrant making their way in a new country.

I’ve learned about the broader world as well. Khaled Hosseini’s brutal and breathtaking novels have given me a view of Afghanistan and broadened my compassion for the people there. I began to grasp the horrors of war-ravaged Chechnya in the late 1990s in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan taught me about the limited opportunities for women in 19th-century China and made me appreciate the tenacity and courage they must have possessed. The Orphan Master’s Son made me curious about the lives of people living in mysterious North Korea.

I know these books are fiction. They are made up stories, not to be confused with nonfiction. But there is truth to be found in the lives of the characters and in the actual history surrounding the settings of these novels. I have found that reading fiction begets more reading. I find a story that sparks my interest, and I look for more—for nonfiction and memoirs, personal essays and biographies. I stumble onto the reality within the fantasy and dig deeper to extract the lessons that history leaves us. For me, fiction is often a gateway to learning about the real world.

More importantly, though, I am reading in a way that broadens my worldview and cultivates compassion for the people around me. The initial emotional connections I feel to the characters and their circumstances make me care, make me curious, and make me want to investigate further. I want to learn not just the facts but how particular historical events affected the people and communities who lived through them. I want to imagine what they may have felt and experienced.

There is plenty of nonfiction that does this as well. I am not advocating an either/or approach here. I’m happy to read all kinds of books. But there are so many perspectives that have not been shown in our history books. And when I hear other readers say, “Why do you waste your time on fiction when there are real stories to read?” this is my answer. I feel that reading fiction has made me a more well-rounded, informed, empathetic, caring person. My world and my heart have grown. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ready to read some amazing historical fiction? Try this great list of  50 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books.

10 Fictional Pandemics That Will Make You Sweat

Is there anything scarier than an outbreak of disease? I think that the most frightening thing about plague is how it challenges a character’s ability to see their relatives and friends as anything other than potential vectors. Lions and tigers and bears can’t undermine society the way the flu can, so let’s read some scary, scary books about illness and deal with that primal fear in fiction! Here are a few bone-chilling fictional pandemics that will make you want to crawl under the covers.

10 Fictional Pandemics That Will Make You Sweat

Blindness by Jose Saramago

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king…theoretically. Being king isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and when a plague of blindness strikes the land, a woman who retains her sight must lead a band of the stricken to a questionable safety.

Clay's Ark by Octavia ButlerClay’s Ark by Octavia Butler

An infection from beyond Earth is infecting people, sometimes killing them and sometimes giving them strange powers. Can humanity be said to have survived if it’s not quite human anymore? This is the third Patternist book, and like much of the rest of Butler’s oeuvre, it deserves a giant content warning for rape and violence.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

There’s a spore going around that makes people burst into flame. Every day, something new burns: a forest, a hospital, a school, and countless people. Yet there’s a contingent that isn’t burning. They’ve solved the spore’s secret and learned to survive. Of course, that depends on the uninfected leaving them alone…

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This collection of short stories is rife with plague anxiety. A loner catalogs her lovers as an epidemic rises around her. Two women find love as girls around them turn into ghosts. The whole collection is hugely rewarding, exceedingly strange, very queer, and just wonderful.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

And you thought that Mary Shelley only wrote Frankenstein! In this chronicle of the human race’s decay and ultimate extinction, petty politics distract the world from the overarching danger of the plague…until it’s too late.

The Last One by Alexandra OlivaThe Last One by Alexandra Oliva

It’s supposed to be a reality TV show. Sent to the woods to endure challenges a la Survivor, Zoo can’t quite believe that the devastation of society is real. Whether the end of the world has truly come or it’s just another producer’s trick, she’ll need to live through it on her own.

The Stand by Stephen King

This isn’t just the story of a government plague that escapes containment. It’s not just a story of survival. It’s the tale of average people refined, honed, and changed by tragedy, one way or another. Ultimately, the Earth isn’t cleared because of a dumb mistake. It’s the chessboard upon which supernatural forces of good and evil will use their human pawns to decide the fate of the human species.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

During the performance of a classic Shakespearean tragedy, a plague besets the Earth and wipes out most people. Years later, a few of the survivors make their way as traveling players, using the rotting leftovers of civilization for their props. But not all survivors are friendly, and when a chance event puts the group on the wrong side of a religious fanatic, they will need to use all of their experience to survive—again.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book of the Maddaddam trilogy, which begins with Oryx and Crake. However, I think that The Year of the Flood shows the most interesting point of view. A not completely unexpected plague sweeps the Earth clean as Toby, until recently a member of the God’s Gardeners eco-religious cult, holes up in the spa where she works. Through her ingenuity and mental grit, she works to survive…and save anyone else she can find.

Zone One by Colson WhiteheadZone One by Colson Whitehead

Mostly set in Tribeca, this stunning book is a darkly humorous reimagining of the zombie genre. Somehow, as living “sweepers” clear the flesh-hungry infected from Manhattan, they seem less alive than the living dead. A metaphor? Or just the effect of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder?

The Detail That Most CAT PERSON Discussions Missed

(Trigger warning: discussion of rape culture)

In December 2017, the Internet was abuzz with discussions of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person.” The story details an increasingly uncomfortable dating relationship between Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his 30s. Partly due to the viral popularity of “Cat Person,” Roupenian’s debut story collection, You Know You Want This, secured a 7-figure book deal.

The writing in “Cat Person” is sparse, leaving much of the characters’ feelings and personalities between the lines. There’s a lot of ambiguity for readers to relate to our own experiences or interpret the characters. In the context of #MeToo, the story shows that the line between unpleasant sex and assault is sometimes blurry. The sex in the story is supposedly consensual, but Margot is drunk. She no longer wants to have sex with Robert but feels that she has to go through with it: “It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”

The story builds sexual tension through texting, while showing that Margot and Robert don’t know each other at all. In the early stages of dating, the other person often seems like a projection or cipher. Margot constantly tries to talk herself into her attraction to Robert and convince herself that he’s a safe person. Some people who give off creepy vibes in person can seem exciting via text. Robert remains a vague character for most of the story, until the end, when Margot realizes how misogynistic he is.

Online think pieces and discussions analyzed every other aspect of the story, but some readers seemed baffled by the title or expected something different. The title “Cat Person” almost seems like a non sequitur at first. It’s kind of a red herring: there are no cats in this story.

To me, a seemingly inconsequential line is actually one of the most pivotal moments of the story, illuminating the title, characters, and themes. When they arrive at his house, Robert tells Margot “darkly, like a warning, ‘Just so you know, I have cats.’” We never see any cats, though, and Margot wonders if Robert is lying. This line might seem odd or insignificant, but I think it offers insight into Robert’s behavior and the themes of power and sex.

This interaction is subtler than it may initially appear. To Robert, the cats might be like a secret code or social contract. Instead of asking Margot if she still wants to have sex, Robert expects Margot to pick up on his implicit meaning. If Margot has changed her mind, Robert expects her to lie and say that she hates or is allergic to cats. Instead of asking directly if she’s still interested, Robert might be trying to spare his own ego. I kept expecting Margot to break up with Robert by telling him that she’s not a “cat person,” or something to that effect, but the title phrase never occurs in the story.

From the way that Robert angrily lashes out at Margot at the very end of the story, he seems unable to handle rejection. So, Robert’s “warning” is an attempt to give Margot a chance to leave while also sparing himself a direct rejection. The huge problem with social cues like these, especially in a sexual context, is that they essentially require one person to read the other’s mind. So many sexual encounters are mired in innuendos that it can be hard to parse someone’s exact meaning.

“Cat Person” has some problematic elements, including using Robert’s weight to make him seem repulsive and Margot’s ignorant, transmisic comments about her ex. Margot enjoys the power that she experiences as a thin, young, conventionally attractive, presumably white, non-disabled woman. The story turns on this axis. It uses the differences in age, weight, and height between Margot and Robert to represent the power imbalance between them and the danger many women feel when dating men. If identities are often used a shorthand for negative qualities, even in fiction, we need to examine why.

In short stories like “Cat Person,” one or two characters exist in a vacuum. There’s no space for secondary characters’ opinions, or even situational irony, to counter a character’s bigotry. It stands unchecked, but one short story also can’t address everything that it mentions.

With “Cat Person,” I noticed that people were starting to read fiction in bad faith. They conflated narrators with authors or view scenes of sex or violence as necessarily glorifying it. Many Tweets referred to the story incorrectly as an “essay.” Not everyone is a writer or frequent reader of fiction, but assuming fiction is autobiographical alarms me.

Hopefully, stories like this illustrate that consent must be clear. We can’t assume that someone means yes just because they haven’t said no—a defense often used by accused rapists in real life. Despite the story’s flaws, this is what “Cat Person” gets right about rape culture. Robert might be afraid to ask for consent directly because he’s awkward or embarrassed. But by asking in such an indirect way, he creates confusion where there should be clear communication.

7 Terrific Audiobooks with Theatrical Narrators

I love fiction audiobooks, but my background in theatre has made me super picky about which narrators I will tolerate. I have incredibly high standards, and it is not uncommon for me to bail when I feel the voice actor is not up to par. I have discovered that my favorite narrators are all actors with experience in theatre, film, and/or television work. This is especially crucial when the book requires multiple characters, accents, and voices.

The following audiobooks have exceptional narrators with superior acting skills. I absolutely adored each one of these performances and hope that my fellow audiobook lovers will find some new favorites on this list.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
Narrated by Chris Ciulla

This may be my favorite audiobook narration ever. Ciulla gives voice to an amazing relationship between Ona, a 104-year-old woman, and a very special and unusual 11-year-old boy. The youngster helps her around the house on Saturdays and she tells him stories of her long and fascinating life. The book is heartwarming without being overly sentimental, and Ciulla is the consummate actor to tell the story.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Narrated by Bahni Turpin

Whitehead’s alternate history of the pre–Civil War south involves actual trains on underground tracks. We follow Cora as she escapes from a brutal life on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Turpin inhabits each character so fully that I was hanging on every word, praying for Cora’s safety as she raced across the treacherous south with a slave tracker always one step behind.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Narrated by David Pittu

If the length of this Pulitzer Prize winner has kept you from tackling it, then I suggest that you try the audiobook. Pittu’s mesmerizing narration allows you to get sucked right into the coming-of-age tale of Theo, orphaned in his teens and struggling in his adulthood. Tartt’s atmospheric prose takes you through a harrowing explosion, a dusty antique shop, the dark underworld of art, and the lonely landscape of loss.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Narrated by Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner

This incredibly entertaining story is really a book within a book—one old-school whodunit couched within a larger contemporary mystery. Thus, two narrators, one for each part of the book. Each actor has a separate cast of townspeople, detectives, and suspects to portray within each story, and both Bond and Corduner rise to the challenge beautifully.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Narrated by Meera Syal

The book follows Nikki, a young woman who takes a job teaching creative writing to a group of older women in a Punjabi community in London. They definitely end up telling some steamy stories, but the real heart of the book is how this disparate group of ladies come to share their lives and support one another. Syal perfectly embodies all the different personalities as you hear the women bicker, gossip, and finally band together as they empower one another.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Narrated by Bahni Turpin

This imaginative young adult novel imagines what might have happened if the Civil War had been interrupted by a zombie uprising. Bahni Turpin gets two books on this list because she is my favorite audiobook narrator of all time. And she is absolute perfection as Jane, the sickle-wielding, funny, smart, salty, badass teenage heroine in Dread Nation. Turpin is equally fantastic as the mayor, Jane’s teacher, the sheriff, and a dozen other characters in the town.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
Narrated by Ari Fliakos

Samuel is a writer who is having trouble writing, spending his time gaming online and teaching at a local college. His mother deserted him as a child, but she suddenly resurfaces in the media after accosting a presidential candidate. Hoping to reignite his writing career, Samuel begins investigating his mother’s past in order to write a tell-all. As a narrator, Fliakos is a vocal chameleon, capturing the heart and voice of each character. It is a delight to hear him jump from flaky college student to strung out online gamer to mysterious absent mother.

Looking for more great audiobooks? Try these:

10 Mesmerizing Audiobooks Written and Narrated by Women

6 Fiction Audiobooks Narrated by the Authors

The 5 Best Audiobook Narrators

8 Wonderful Books in Verse

This list of books in verse is sponsored by Libby, the one-tap reading app from your library and OverDrive.

Meet Libby. The award-winning reading app that makes sure you always have something to read. It’s like having your entire library right in your pocket. Download the app today and get instant access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks for free thanks to your public library and OverDrive.


Sometimes books are

written in this format.

And if you’ve ever wondered

what it was called,

it’s known as “verse.”

There are a LOT of

great books written in verse,

many of them novels,

and some even memoirs.

Here are 8 such examples

whether you’re new to books in verse,

or looking for new recommendations.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This National Book Award and Newbery Honor winner is about Woodson’s experiences growing up in the 1960s and ’70s as an African American, her growing awareness of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and her struggle to find her identity and place in the world. (The paperback edition of this includes seven bonus poems.)

Long Way Down by Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Another fantastic award-winner! This one is about a teen named Will. His brother has just been murdered in gang violence, and now Will is taking the elevator down from their apartment to seek revenge. He even has a gun he found in his brother’s room. But the elevator keeps stopping, letting on people from Will’s past. Which is alarming…because some of them are dead.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra CisnerosThe House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

This is closer to a series of small poetic vignettes, but I’m still including it because it’s wonderful. It’s the touching story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, and her use of poems and stories to express her frustrations and amazement with the world around her.

blood water paintBlood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

This beautiful, brutal book is based on the amazing true story of the famous Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was assaulted by her instructor at 17, and whose father successfully sued him in court. (For damage to property, which is awful, but still.) Her story is combined with the tale of two of her painting subjects, ancient heroines Susanna and Judith.

Sharp Teeth by Toby BarlowSharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Bet you didn’t realize a werewolf novel in verse was a thing you needed until now, but here we are. It’s about L.A. gang wars between rival factions of an ancient race of lycanthropes, and the dog catcher who gets caught up in all their drama. It’s f-u-n.

The Poet X cover imageThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Another National Book Award winner (as well as many other awards)! It’s about a teenager named Xiomara Batista, who writes all her frustrations about the world, school, and her strict religious mother, down in her many, many notebooks. But when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry group, she must decide if she will follow her heart or obey her mother.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai coverInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Lai’s fictional account of her own experience as a child, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama. This is the story of Hà, who is headed to a new life in America with her family, and what she experiences as an immigrant in a new country. Like a few others on this list, this book also won the National Book Award. (Note to self: If I want to win a National Book Award, consider writing in verse.)

autobiography of redAutobiography of Red by Anne Carson

And last, but not least, a modern classic. Both novel and poem, Autobiography of Red is a present-day recreation of a Greek myth. It’s about Geryon, a young boy who is also a winged red monster, and his emotional, tumultuous relationships with his abusive brother and adoring mother. As he grows up and becomes a photographer, he connects and reconnects with his love, a young drifter named Herakles.

4 Historical Fiction Books About the Romanovs

“Grandma, it’s me, Anastasia.”

via GIPHY

Like so many, I grew up watching Don Bluth’s animated classic, Anastasia. The filmwhile charming and fun, also took a considerable amount of creative liberties in telling the story of the Russian Royal Family. Nevertheless, the film sparked a fascination in me for reading more about The Romanovs and modern Russian history. These are my favorite historical fiction books about the Romanovs.

The Last Romanov By Dora Levy Mossanen

1991, Darya is the (fictional) last surviving member of the Romanov household. She is brought to Crimea to identify someone from her mysterious past as lady-in-waiting to Tsarina Alexandra. Darya has an a healing touch and an opal eye, but there could be more that she’s hiding.

Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess By Carolyn Meyer

One in the Royal Diaries series, this middle grade book is a haunting introduction to the Romanov family. Meyer expertly captures Anastasia’s preteen and teenage voice as she struggles to come to terms with her family’s eventual exile. This was my second introduction to the Romanov story after Bluth’s Anastasia. Some of the gruesome details were a shock to me at the time.

The Kitchen Boy By Robert Alexander

Russian immigrant Misha has spent most of his 94 years in Chicago. He decides to share his life’s story with his granddaughter—his time spent as a kitchen boy in the Romanov home of exile. Young Misha assists in the attempted rescue of the Romanovs, smuggling notes in and out of the heavily guarded home. Misha secretly witnesses the assassination of the Romanov family before fleeing the country.

Romanov By Nadine Brandes

Anastasia “Nastya” smuggles forbidden magic into the Romanov’s exile in the form of spell ink. A carved doll holds the secrets that could save her family, but if only she could open it! Hints of the first blushing of romance, political intrigue, and a likable protagonist make this YA novel an original mashup of history and fantasy.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

 

Hopefully, this list whet your appetite for more about Russian history and the Romanovs. Anastasia is now a full length musical and is touring the U.S. Countless nonfiction books have been written about the Romanovs, featuring every theory and angle. As the Romanovs continue to be a popular fiction subject, hopefully we will continue to see future works by diverse authors and in new genres.

For a taste of Russian Literature, start with 5 short Russian Literature classics, or for go for Russia-inspired and read up on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series.

National Geographic’s New Frontier: Middle Grade Fiction

The National Geographic Explorers have been everywhere on Earth but there’s one frontier they haven’t conquered until now: fiction.

Middle grade fiction, to be specific.

Enter children’s author Trudi Trueit (The Sister Solution, Detecting Disasters: Volcanic Eruptions) and Explorer Academy

“Adventure, danger, and a thrilling global mission await 12-year-old Cruz Cornado as he leaves behind his home in Hawaii to attend the prestigious Explorer Academy, where he and 23 other kids from around the globe will train to become the next generation of great explorers. But for Cruz, there’s more at stake. No sooner has he arrived at the Academy than he discovers that his family has a mysterious past with the organization that could jeopardize his future. In the midst of codebreaking and cool classes, new friends and amazing augmented-reality expeditions, Cruz must tackle the biggest question of all: who is out to get him… and why?”

“Fiction?” you might be wondering. “But National Geographic has a long and storied history of non-fiction programming covering multiple media from television to photojournalism to the celebrated magazine? What’s with the swerve?”

Because of the way science is taught in school, Trueit explained in an interview at Emerald City Comic Con, it’s too abstract to really grab kids, too abstract for vulcanology, climatology, or the study of species extinction to join lists of potential career choices. “When I was growing up, you read your book, you did the questions at the back of the book… and that was science to me. I didn’t make a connection to all the amazing things that could be done as an oceanographer and as a diver…” A fictional setting, however, like the Explorer Academy, allows children to forge connections between science in the abstract and practical applications, holding their interest and fostering a love for, “all the different things the planet has to offer.”

Erika Bergman, a National Geographic Explorer submarine pilot and consultant on the Explorer Academy series will be going to schools with Trueit to share actual Explorer stories of some of the things the organization’s scientists have the opportunity to see and do.

Trueit, who is also a non-fiction writer, feels the Explorer Academy series is also an excellent way to make science accessible and exciting to children who may not otherwise have the opportunity or resources to explore more esoteric fields, or simply haven’t had the opportunity to consider science as something that can be fun. “My background is non-fiction originally,” she explained. “Then I wrote some fiction and I loved both, the researching and then the creating… (I realized I could) make it exciting to learn about meteorology and animals and earthquakes… put them in a way that they’re exciting to kids… I even have the Explorers go out and do habitat restoration, something they might not think is fun but it is important so readers can see all the aspects of that… when you go out and see people growing coral so they can restore the reef? That’s interesting.”

“It’s always been an impactful part of the journey, to tell the story on the other side of it…” Bergman, a self-proclaimed eternal notebook toter, added, “… which is why National Geographic is so clearly the place storytellers gravitate.”

And, while the POV character is male, have no fear, women and future women in science. A great many people around Cruz who are influential in his life are women: his aunt is the Academy’s anthropology instructor; half of his team is female; and the girls are often the voice of reason when one is needed. Trueit revealed there was some discussion, when the illustrations of the book were being designed, as to whether the school uniforms should be different for the boys and the girls. “I said, ‘No. We all wear the same uniform. We are Explorer Academy.”

It isn’t all about science, however. Across the planned seven books of the series, the Explorers will learn not only about the earth sciences but interpersonal relationships, conflict resolution, leaving home, cooperation, negation, respect, and hormones. It won’t always be easy but they won’t have much choice if they want to keep their places at the Academy. Also, they’re all living on a submarine together. “Talk about fueling the fire,” Bergman joked.

The Explorer Academy project may eventually expand past the book series and into a television show and movie (“They’re going to need a submarine pilot for that,” Bergman commented. “You could totally star in it,” Trueit agreed). For now, check out the Explorer Academy website, which has games, character info, a “The Truth Behind” section, and information on the books and Explorers. The first two books of the series, Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret and Explorer Academy: The Falcon’s Feather are available now and the third book, Explorer Academy: The Double Helix is scheduled for publication on Sept. 3rd.