10 works of fiction that might change the way you look at nature

Science fiction and fantasy have tackled everything from environmentalist utopias, to horrific industrial disasters that create pollution zombies. Here are ten speculative novels that explore environmental themes, from a variety of political perspectives, that could change the way you look at nature forever.

1. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach
In the near future, the "Helicopter War" ended with Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the United States and forming their own environmentally sustainable nation called Ecotopia. A hard-bitten New York journalist comes to visit the nation's capital, San Francisco, to report on what has happened in the decades since the nation shut its borders. What he finds is a culture where office buildings have become homes, all transportation is public, women run the government, and African Americans run the prisons. Vivid, well-researched, and often funny, Ecotopia is an eco-SF classic from the first wave of eco-fiction in the 1970s.

2. The Quiet War, by Paul McAuley
The Quiet War is fascinating tale of geopolitics in the outer solar system, where a geoengineer who builds ecosystems gets caught up in a vast interplanetary intrigue. War is brewing between environmentalist conservatives back on Earth, who object to genetic engineering, and post-human colonists on the outer planets, who resculpt themselves and their environments. One of the most incredible parts of the novel is McAuley's ability to evoke vividly how geoengineered exoplanets would look - and the science that would be required to build farms in vacuum, beneath the ice of Europa, or among the clouds of Jupiter.

3. The Color of Distance, by Amy Thomson
A human travels to a planet whose inhabitants live in perfect balance with their environment. They build incredible homes among the trees and voluntarily commit suicide at the age of 100 (even though their bioengineering abilities allow them to live for thousands of years) so that their population will never become too much for the ecosystem to support. It's a fantastic portrait of what a truly sustainable society would look like. And though it starts out looking very Fern Gully, it becomes much darker and more complex than you'd ever expect. Plus, the aliens are delightfully non-human - they communicate octopus-like through colorful chromatophores in their skin.

4. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
Priest's alternate history of nineteenth century Seattle is about a horrific industrial accident that unleashes a toxic fog in the downtown area. People who breathe too much of it become zombie-like creatures, so the city walls off the several-block region affected by the accident. We follow the adventures of a mother and son who venture into the area, encountering the humans who have figured out ways to live in the intensely-polluted buildings, creating a vast underground city fed by air shafts and patrolled by gasmask-wearing daredevils.

5. The Lorax, by Doctor Suess
In this classic kid's tale, we meet the Lorax, who represents all the trees whose lives are threatened by the forces of industry. A gentler version of Miyazaki's troubling, intense film Princess Mononoke, it's one of the best-known environmental parables for children. It has proven controversial too, getting banned in some school districts in America for being "anti-logging industry."

6. "The Magic Goes Away" by Larry Niven
In this novella written by Liven in the wake of the early-1970s oil crisis, a man known only as the Warlock discovers that magic is a non-renewable resource and must deal with the consequences.

7. The Alchemist and The Executioness, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell
Bacigalupi and Buckell are known for their eco-themed science fiction, and now they've produced two linked fantasy novellas set against a backdrop of mystical climate change. In the world that both stories share, magic is forbidden but widely practiced - and each time a spell is cast, the horrific poisonous "bramble" grows larger, threatening to make the world unlivable. (Available only as an audiobook, which you can enjoy without using dead tree bodies.)

8. Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler
In this trilogy, humanity has nuked the Earth into uselessness, but luckily a few survivors have been saved by an alien species called the Oankali who reproduce only by finding new species to mate with in a process that resembles genetic engineering. The Oankali live in perfect harmony with nature because, ironically, all of their technology is bio-engineered. They live inside a planet-sized biological spaceship, where one day their human-Oankali hybrid children will live as well - if they can convince the humans to become part of their culture.

9. Watermind by M. M. Buckner
Part eco-thriller, part SF, this novel is about artificial intelligence emerges from a river full of high-tech trash. The first thing the AI does is figure out a way to filter all the toxins out of its polluted home. It's a race against time to see if the bad corporate types will destroy this "watermind," or if our geek protagonist will save it in the name of science.

10. Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
Together, these biotech apocalypse novels tell the story of what happens when two mad scientists decide to save the planet by replacing humanity with a more environmentally-friendly intelligent species. Set in a future where genetic engineering is commonplace, and the super rich extend their lives with spa treatments, the two novels show us how a horrific, humanity-destroying plague affects both the rich as well as a commune of radical environmentalists.

Top image by Mona Caron