How do you define an ecological thriller? I define it as a thriller where, like all thrillers, there is an omnipresent threat, but it is amplified by ecological factors, whether it is threatening topography, sinkholes, or areas isolated due to impending climate factors. In my experience, a lot of ecological thrillers also tend to be categorized as sci-fi or dystopian, but this act of categorization in itself stands testament to the state of denial we exist in.
What I have for you are some picks that sometimes feature the present, and sometimes the future, but each tells the story of a looming threat we might be forced to exist in if the denial goes on for long. Each of these picks is also laden with themes of survival. I think that’s what raises the stakes of each of these thrillers even more. It’s not one or two lives on the line, but eventually everybody.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
Climate change has been ignored and our resources have been strained. It’s been 120 degrees for 20 days straight, and what seems like a typical cul-de-sac July 4th barbecue escalates into a crisis as one of many sinkholes appears in the picnic spot. Reflected upon in the future by making use of the newspaper clippings, book excerpts, and diagrams, the author takes us on a frightful journey into the future of our world, exposing us to a side of humanity when it has its back against the wall.
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun
This novel tackles multiple themes like environmentalism, climate change, and in my opinion, is the measuring stick of what a subtle narrative of eco-fiction can accomplish.
Yona works for Jungle, a travel agency specializing in trips to disaster zones around the world. Hurricanes, tsunamis, burning trash islands, you name it. After her boss makes an inappropriate move towards her, Yona is torn on whether to make her complaint official or not, knowing full well what happened to others in her situation. Her boss makes the decision for her, however, by sending her on a Jungle trip to pose as a client and check out how that destination is performing. Once there, she finds herself embroiled in a morally murky plot, her own survival on the line.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
The water level has risen and submerged New York City. The streets have become canals and each skyscaper is an island of its own. At the center of this climate catastrophe, we follow multiple characters living in the same high-rise building. The various storylines converge around the search for two missing residents who are the only ones who hold the answers to what the future has in store for them.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Set in northern Canada, this is a character-driven, slow-burn thriller about what happens in a remote Anishinaabe community when the power goes out. Winter is setting in, food supplies are low, and word from the south is that the chaos is widespread. This is a subtle take on an eco-thriller but very much carries the mood of trying to survive in nature when all man-made goodness has failed. When an outsider arrives seeking shelter, their precarious situation gets worse.
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
A bunch of rich parents descends on a big house for a summer vacation with all of their kids. Evie, one of the oldest, narrates the scene of idleness in front of them as the kids are left largely to their own devices while the parents remain unconcerned. But a massive storm hits resulting in a flood, the kids strike out for somewhere else, having determined that their parents can no longer take care of them. But that tranquility can only last so long.
American War by Omar El Akkad
American War is a powerful, devastating portrait of the world, some decades from now. In this world, the United States is in turmoil: parts of the South have seceded after refusing a federal mandate to stop using fossil fuels; the coasts have been ravished by storms, while drought, wildfires, and disease have devastated the rest. At the center of all this, we have our protagonist Sarat. She has grown up part of a particular time and place. Eventually, Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. A war that threatens everyone’s survival.
The Mountain by Luca D’Andrea
For those of you looking to take a break from holding the entire fate of humanity in your hands, let’s shift the focus back to a few characters, shall we? This is a brilliant thriller translated from Italian, set amidst the spectacular location of the Italian Dolomites in the Alto Adige, where geography is a constant threat. New Yorker Jeremiah Salinger and his partner, Mike, famous for their documentary-making skills features are hoping for success with their new documentary on a local Italian Helicopter Mountain Rescue Service. Out on a mission, the entire crew with their rescued survivor perish after an avalanche hits them, Salinger is the sole survivor.
He is on the mend from his PTSD when, out on a trip with his daughter to the prehistoric graveyard that is the Bletterbach, he overhears a fateful conversation referring to a trio of gruesome murders that turns into a growing dark obsession.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
This ecological tale is set in the near future. American cities have become overcrowded, consuming massive amounts of resources, so that there’s only one area of untouched terrain left. Twenty volunteers choose to take part in an experiment, to see how they can survive in this “Wilderness state”. They have minimal possessions and are allowed to hunt & forage, but they must leave no trace of themselves behind. They are expected to follow rules laid out in a manual, while Rangers watch their movements. Among this community are Bea and Agnes, a mother and daughter trying to hold onto each other. What makes this a thriller in my opinion is the slow dread of watching as people crumble in a small place. Of humans slowly but surely shedding what lurks under the surface.