‘Drastic change, danger, mass destruction … what’s not to love?’ From Dr Seuss to Margaret Atwood, the novelist chooses her favourite tales of ecological catastrophe
Liz Jensen is the author of several novels. Her latest, The Rapture, is an ecological thriller about a psychotic teenage girl who warns of an earth-changing cataclysm.
“Drastic change, danger, mass destruction, lives upended, radical re-thinkings of the status quo, new societal rules, moral dilemmas, the grinding physicality of daily survival … what’s not to love? Environmental cataclysms open huge imaginative possibilities for any writer– and reader – with an interest in big ideas and a penchant for the apocalyptic.”
1. After London or Wild England by Richard Jefferies
Jefferies’ 1885 fantasy depicts a future England reclaimed by nature and the elements and home to tribes of warring barbarians. The southern counties have become a giant lake, and London – a city the nature writer grew to loathe – lies deep beneath a toxic swamp.
2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The magisterial story of the beleaguered Joad family, forced to join the great wave of environmental migrants leaving the poverty of Oklahoma’s ruined Dust Bowl in search of the green orchards of California, with “golden oranges hanging from the trees”. But there’s trouble in paradise. A tale of human greed, corruption and the consequences of intensive farming, first published in 1939.
3. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Britain’s first GM plant appeared in the early 1950s, and soon everyone had heard of it: the mobile, lethal Triffid, brainchild of John Wyndham, who also birthed The Midwich Cuckoos. When flashing lights appear in the sky and blind most of the population, the triffids seize their moment and break free of their fenced-in, cash-crop servitude to thrive in the wild as nature’s most dangerous weed.
4. The Lorax by Dr Seuss
A must-read for junior ecologists, Dr Seuss’s fable caused huge controversy on its publication in 1971, and influenced an entire generation. The wise but helpless Lorax watches the natural world rendered unsustainable by the ravages of the tree-felling, polluting Once-ler. Faced with the consequences of his rampant greed, the Once-ler repents and urges a young boy to plant the very last Truffula seed in the ruined landscape.
5. The Drowned World by JG Ballard
Ballard’s depictions of social and environmental chaos have an increasingly prophetic feel as time passes. His first novel, written in the 1950s, is set in an overheated, semi-submerged, reptile-infested mid-21st century and contains elements of the themes that were to haunt him all his writing life.
6. The Ice People by Maggie Gee
This genre-defying masterpiece tells the story of a family torn apart by a fast-evolving ice age, rampant consumerism and the social repercussions of dwindling human fertility in a robot age. A massive feat of the imagination by a writer whose eye is always firmly fixed on the big picture.
7. State of Fear by Michael Crichton
If you know a climate sceptic who likes to think of himself as “a maverick”, you’re sure to find this blockbuster on his shelf. The late Michael Crichton had a knack for tapping into what the American public wanted to hear, and when State of Fear was published, the nation was largely receptive to the message that global warming was a) not anthropogenic, and b) not a problem. Comes with a long “science bit” afterword, from which your maverick friend is sure to quote.
8. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Comedy and horror jostle for supremacy in this masterfully-conjured post-disaster novel. Genetically-modified animal species, defrosted tundras, and a new creation myth to explain it all to a new race of bio-engineered humans: wonderful. But Atwood has a deeper purpose, and while the narrative entertains, the big, dark ideas are whirring as furiously as a wind turbine in a hurricane.
9. The Swarm by Frank Schatzing
Here’s the premise: the world’s oceans have had enough of being meddled with by man – and they’re taking violent revenge. Soon the whole globe is under attack from embittered whales, toxic jellyfish and exploding lobsters. Is some unknown force co-ordinating their manifestations, and if so, can a Norwegian marine biologist and his colleagues save the day? Gripping stuff, full of plausible extrapolations from real science.
10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t come much bleaker, or more finely written, than this. A father and his son must cross a landscape devastated by an unnamed cataclysm, and learn the full horror of what some will do to stay alive. A stern, painful, haunting fable of a world beyond the brink, from one of America’s greatest living writers.