Right now, for a lot of people, thinking about the future can be a scary prospect. With the rise of artificial intelligence threatening different vocations, the now-undeniable impacts of climate change, rampant ecological and economic upheaval throwing our lives into disarray, and long simmering conflicts blowing up into open war, it might seem like thinking about the future is the last thing one would want to do.
But hidden within this all is fertile ground for important conversations and exploration. To know what the future could hold means we can plan for it, or potentially change it. This was the mire I waded into while writing Bounty, blending my fascination with sociological thought with my interest in cyberpunk fiction, and wrapping it within the genre footprint of climate fiction.
For those wishing to speculate on what the future might hold for humanity, I can offer the following books to get your feet wet. But be warned, once you start, you’ll begin to ask some really odd questions. Like, “how are we going to respond to climate change?” or “how far will artificial intelligence go?” or even “what makes us human in the first place?”
American War, by Omar El Akkad
This novel by Egyptian-Canadian author Omar El Akkad is a head-first dive into the world of climate fiction as we follow Sarat Chestnut, caught in a second American Civil War spurred on by the banning of fossil fuels. Just like scientists have predicted, climate change has warped the world of this fiction, taking out coastal and lowland areas, while plagues have become the new norm, and millions have been displaced. The most consequential impact of climate change, however, has come from the decision to ban use of fossil fuels, which sparks secession by the south and this war.
Climate fiction interrogates how our society will react politically, socially, technologically, and economically to the reality of climate change, and this is exactly what El Akkad does so well here. Exploring how the banning of fossil fuels by northern states enflames tensions with the resource-rich south, leading to war—and how the common person’s life is impacted—is a great step into the genre.
Greenwood, by Michael Christie
A Scotiabank Giller Prize and CBC Canda Reads nominee, this book by Michael Christie definitely doesn’t need me singing its praises to get onto a lot of peoples’ reading lists. Following multiple generations of the Greenwood family throughout time, we have a front seat as the actions of one generation filter to the next in an endless procession of pain and strife. Christie’s work might on the surface be an exploration of family trauma, but there is also something to be said about the world he shows us.
The glance into the future from this one is something that might be terrifying—but all too possible—for those of us with a deep love for nature and the natural world. In Greenwood we get to see the ramifications of anthropogenic impacts on the world as exploitation of natural resources leads to a future where forests are rare, exclusively enjoyed by the ultra-rich. Even then, though, attention isn’t given to how these last remaining towers of arbor might be saved, but how one can still make a buck off them.
Camp Zero, by Michelle Min Sterling
Rarely do science fiction books explore Canada as a setting for their stories, and even more rare is Northern Canada, and that’s one of the things that makes Camp Zero so special. Seeking a new life for her climate refugee mother, Rose agrees to travel to Camp Zero in the frigid Canadian north, and spy on the settlement’s mysterious architect. There’s plenty of mystery to be found here, along with exploration of intersections between gender, class, and immigrant status, but big piece of the novel is something all too rarely discussed today: climate refugees. They are the hidden spectre that we’re still kind of imagining isn’t there, but it’s coming. As climate change ramps up, we will lose towns. Cities. Countries. And where will those people go? Already we are struggling to help people displaced by conflict and famine, so what will happen when the planet itself is displacing us? This is only a minor part of Sterling’s story, sure, but an interesting thing to think about … along with the army of female super soldiers.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Ok, so now for a hard right turn into cyberpunk. But for good reason! Considered a masterclass and classic, William Gibson was a pioneer in the burgeoning cyberpunk genre when he wrote Neuromancer. I don’t need to say much, as most have probably read this—admittedly dense—first part of the Sprawl Trilogy, but for those who aren’t familiar this is cyberpunk in every sense of the word. A desperate hacker working to pull off the heist of a millennia, with all the bumps along the way.
This is a seminal work that continues to influence the genre today, including my own work. With this you get classic cyberpunk fare: a massive inequality gap, super powerful mega corporations who own the world and wage their own wars, and rampant super-AI. I mean, this book invented the idea of netrunning! But I think, along with the great exploration of the stratified social and economic climate of the near-future, how Gibson tackles AI, and the possibilities of it, was the part that seems most prescient today.
Blindsight, by Peter Watts
This might be the weirdest book on the list, and that’s saying something. Showered with praise and award nods over the years, this first-contact story follows a cast of strange characters as they make the arduous, complicated, and deadly journey to observe—and potentially meet—the first aliens to contact Earth. With a crew that includes a biologist that’s more machine than man, a linguist whose brains has been carved up and segmented into different distinct personalities, a pacifist soldier meant to act as the last line of defense, a synthesist whose brain is half computer, and a vampire.
Yes, you read that right. A vampire.
Like the previous entry on the list, Blindsight can get very dense. There were full chapters where I had to go back and make sure I understood, and of course that might turn people off, but for me, it was a chance to really dig into the nuances of what was being discussed. Watts doesn’t hold your hand.
When science comes up, he doesn’t waste time dumbing it down, and when philosophical musings about the nature of humanity occur, he lets them play out without much explanation. If you can make it through this one, you’re in for an effective meditation on the nature of humanity, where we are going, and what we might leave behind. Interesting conversations abound on how we might view diseases and disorders of today in the future, how humanity might react to the prospect that we are not alone in the universe, how the world might change in the face of new scientific discoveries, and what happens when “The Ship of Theseus” problem becomes about man.
Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow
Next up is a collection of four short stories that all deal with how capitalism, politics, justice, and technology interweave in sinister ways that significantly impact the lives of everyone in society. Across the four stories, Doctorow takes us through discussions of corruption in policing and criminal justice, radical uprising against those who hold healthcare hostage, how losing "right-to-repair" can have stupid and disastrous consequences, and—perhaps my favorite—how the wealthiest among us will attempt to sit safely on the sidelines as the world falls apart.
There’s a lot of ground covered in Doctorow’s work, and I think he does a great job bringing disparate ideas about the future of our world together in a succinct package.
The one I want to highlight is "Model Minority," a story that I find particular affinity with as it relates to Bounty and how we can see the ongoing corruption of the structures meant to keep us safe. In a world where police and policing are under increased scrutiny for the actions and inactions of many parties and increasing calls for reallocation of funds away from a rapidly militarizing criminal justice apparatus to more social mechanisms, understanding how even a superhero is no match for the institutional forces of policing can be a good window into the world around us.
Cash Crash Jubilee, by Eli K.P. William
With the first book in the Jubilee Cycle, Eli K.P. William dives right into the deep end of cyberpunk fiction, not perhaps to the density of William Gibson, but I think that serves this story. We find ourselves transported to near future Tokyo following Amon Kenzaki who works for the Global Action Transaction Authority as a liquidator—a person whose job is to track down debtors of the future and send them to "BankDeath Camps." It is a romp through a terrifying future, as Kenzaki grapples with his work, and in true cyberpunk fashion unravels a mystery that might just put him in the crosshairs of his colleagues.
The Tokyo of Cash Crash Jubilee is a post-capitalist nightmare scenario, where every single minute action of a person’s existence has been bought, and even something as simple as blinking carries a licensing fee. Now this might seem excessive, but this is the kind of insane hyperbole that the genre thrives off. Even now, in 2023, we have car companies forcing drivers to pay a subscription to use basic functions of their vehicles—that are already installed in the vehicle. Or how tractor companies won’t let you fix their equipment on your own, at the risk of exposing their proprietary technology, so you’re forced to pay an arm and a leg to repair something you used to be able to take care of in an afternoon.
So, the question becomes, where does it end? At what point will we tell companies to stop nickel and diming us with surcharges, subscriptions, licensing fees, and hidden markups?
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson
Ok, so you know how I said Blindsight might be the weirdest book on the list? Well, this book by Edmonton-born Kelly Robson definitely gives it a run for its money. After generations spent below the surface of Earth, waiting out ecological collapse, humanity stands ready to reclaim the surface, but this goal is threatened by the invention of time travel and the shadowy corporations who hold the keys to this amazing technology. I won’t reveal too much, but this novella goes in some interesting directions, and with plenty of strange and somewhat body horror-esque imagery, this book will surprise many.
As a cli-fi fan, Robson’s book is a joy.
This novella sprints by at a great clip but remains a beautifully written meditation on responses to ecological disaster, and how capitalism threatens the very progress its champions proselytize. Even today, the oil and gas industry of Canada speaks out of one side of its mouth about needing to preserve their operations for "the good of the economy," while out of the other funds think tanks and lobbying groups to court the federal government into providing public funds to bankroll their transition to Green Energy alternatives.
Corporations love to lock their "green" and "sustainable" developments behind high prices, lofty promises, government-investment, and needing to continue to turn a profit, while passing the blame for climate change and its effects onto individual consumers.
Nikos Wulf is at the top of his game. Within the sublevels of 2120 Winnipeg, he is the undisputed king of bounty hunters, working for the elite Bounty Commission Eco-Terror Taskforce. The job: maintain the delicate ecological balance in a city holding back climate collapse. But when a series of bounties go wrong, Nikos finds himself on the trail of a troubling new player among the city's anti-establishment. Bound to a sense of duty to the city that made him, Nikos finds himself in a deadly game of catch-up with an insidious enemy bent on bringing down everything he's fought so hard to protect.
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