Writer and curator Mary Woodbury shares eight novels about water where fact and fiction mingle, tied by imagination, to reveal important truths about our shifting relationships with this vital and lively agent in an era of climate crisis.
1,700 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes
According to UN Water, an organization of international parties working on water issues, water is the primary medium through which we will face the effects of climate change. Warming temperatures in oceans means that species not capable of adapting will migrate or die out, which harshly affects ocean ecosystems. Water has become more scarce globally. Meanwhile, extreme weather patterns that cause droughts, floods, wildfires, increase in air temperatures, and other conditions point to low-income communities being affected the worst by health and food insecurity, political instability, the increase of changing disease environments, and altered snow and ice patterns—things that are already happening all around the world.
While facts are something we can and should pay attention to as we follow scientific integrity, models, and reports, another mode of telling the story about water has been alive forever: churned, spoken, and written by authors who dream up fictional stories related to our past, present, and future world. Where fact and fiction mingle like this is an area of reflection and speculation, tied by imagination. These tales of water ripple out once the pebble sinks in. The intersectionality of diverse water fiction results in reader empathy, learning, inspiration, and shared commonalities around the world. Local dignity comes alive against a backdrop of planetary crises.
Here are eight such stories.
Land-Water-Sky (Ndè-Tı-Yat’a) by Katłıà
A debut novel by Dene author Katłıà, this story imagines the very beginnings of water, land, and sky—from time immemorial—and is set in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The author draws upon legendary characters, including spirits, beasts, a shapeshifter known as Nąą́hgą, and humans who have heard and passed down the narratives.
Because the novel starts long ago, a pristine natural landscape fills its pages, including fresh and clean water, which was abundant before the colonization of lands and people. Told in a lineage of short stories, the novel also fast-forwards to the near future, where a group of teenagers is haunted by past inter-generational trauma. Land-Water-Sky reminds us of our connection to water as well as of the dignity of Indigenous people who still uphold and respect these entities.
Oil on Water by Helon Habila
The novel is set in the Niger Delta, which consists of nine states in southern Nigeria, fed by the Niger River, on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. This area has three major deltas (western, central, and eastern) and is home to one of the highest density-packed populations in the world, around thirty million. Oil on Water reminds of us of how water and oil do not mix. Rich oil barons settle in the delta and take what they want, ruining local people’s homes, water, land, flora, and fauna. Two journalists, Rufus and his boss Zaq, travel to the delta to report on the kidnapping of a British oil executive’s wife. The journalists try to capture the story, not just of the mystery but of the people living there.
The author stated that the novel was based upon the Niger Delta uprisings. Because the water surrounding the delta has been traditionally so integral to the people, and then is stolen, Oil on Water is a story of tragedy and loss, so riveting as to cause heartbreak.
A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu
The author is a Canadian ecologist and is deeply knowledgeable about water in all its forms. A Diary in the Age of Water is a lyrical polemic about the future of our water. Engaging, educational, and flowing, like water on the page, the story follows a fictional memoir about a limnologist dealing with unjust politics at work and in the world, dwindling water, her independent and headstrong daughter, her own aging, and the mystery of a strange girl.
This is the definitive novel about all things water. Each chapter starts with a fact related to water, which gets drawn out to a metaphor happening within the chapter. Written in the style of a diary, the story is personable. Munteanu communicates well as a scientist and breaks down complex ideas and information into understandable prose. By the time you’re finished, you’ll know more about water than ever before.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
This novel, set in the Southwestern United States, is also fiction, but it seems inspired by actualities in a what-if-we-continued-this-way scenario. Climate change continues to produce drought and wildfires, which dangerously deplete water supplies. Set in the near future, the novel has Angel Velasquez, working for his boss Catherine Case and acting as a ‘water knife,’ a person who controls water supplies and sabotages competitors. Other characters, Lucy and Maria, join the suspenseful thriller in a desperate search for water.
This cautionary tale is a reminder that our ecological systems are at stake. Reuters recently stated that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southwestern US drought is the worst it’s been in a century and is linked to climate change. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality.
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta
Memory of Water is not just about future people’s memory of a time when water was more abundant but of the memory that water has of itself. Water is a main character and shares a significant role in the novel, as meaningful, if not more, than the human characters. This is a strong trait in eco-fiction, a genre of literature that rewilds stories in a way that reminds us that we are part of an ecological web, not above or apart from it.
In the story, a young woman named Noria Kaitio feels guilty for carrying on her father’s tradition of tea master—set in the far future of the Scandinavian Union—when water is scarce enough to be rationed severely. Noria dreams of a Shangri-la type of place, where water is more than just a memory, and sets out to find it. This novel has been adapted to a movie, Veden vartija, which releases in September 2022.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This surreal, psychological novel follows a woman named Amanda in a fever dream; she has a conversation with a boy named David that, in time, breaks down the mysterious cause of deaths surrounding them. The novel was first published in 2014 and recently was adapted to film and came out on Netflix. In the novel and the film, water plays an important part of the story.
Fever Dream is an example of storytelling in which environment is key to well-being but also in which the human connection, not just to water or the wild but to other humans, is part of the ecosystem. Amanda and her neighbor, David’s mother Carla, are connected by their children; they try to figure out what has gone wrong with David. David and Amanda have a lengthy conversation about what happened to him, but David insists that she must remember all the details of the recent past to truly get it. This haunting, beautiful story takes place in Argentina.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Science fiction and fantasy are modes of storytelling that remind us of our connection to the environment around us. A subgenre of African-focused science fiction, called Africanfuturism, imagines worlds set in the continent of Africa. Lagoon is set in Lagos, Nigeria.
In a recent talk that Nnedi had with Arizona State University’s Matt Bell’s creative writing class, students asked about the writing process for the novel. The author stated that she had the idea as a response to what she thought was not a good representation of Africans in the alien invasion movie District 9, set in Johannesburg. She wondered—what if aliens landed in Lagos, a city by the sea? Water is integral to Lagos and to the story of Lagoon. The ocean environment is important, and the author decided to combine a story of aliens with legendary sea creatures in order to tell a more representative story of Africa’s people, myths, culture, and future.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
An epic story, with a large timeline and big cast of characters, the novel is a beautifully written elegy to Bangkok’s collective memory, a fluid piece of place-writing and period pieces, magically woven together and coalescing in the city of Bangkok.
The novel moves around characters connected to each other: including a missionary doctor, a post-WWII society woman, a jazz pianist, and more. The author has spoken of the city of Bangkok as a “low-lying amphibious capital city with extensive networks of waterways, before much of it was contorted from its nature to match humankind’s trivial ambition of capital growth.” Tie that with climate change, which brings sea rise and floods.
Find out more
This article first appeared in Italian in the journal TELLŪS 2-2021 as Otto romanzi ci ricordano del nostro legame fondamentale con l’Acqua: Eight Novels Remind of us Our Crucial Connection with Water.
While hundreds more fictional stories featuring water exist, these are just eight that Mary has selected to introduce readers to the idea of how fiction and water mingle. To view more such tales, check out Dragonfly.eco, which Mary created and curates and has a database of nearly 1,000 novels, short stories, and other fiction related to our evolving planet, its physical landscapes and natural wonder, and the threats that our ecosystems face. Dragonfly.eco celebrates its tenth anniversary this August.
And you can also read Mary’s previous posts for ClimateCultures, including her two-part History of Eco-fiction.
You can find out more about the eight books from the authors’ or publishers’ sites:
- Land-Water-Sky (Ndè-Tı-Yat’a) by Katłıà (2020)
- Oil on Water by Helon Habila (2010)
- A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu (2020)
- The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)
- Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (2012)
- Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (2014)
- Lagoon by Nnedi Okarafor (2014)
- Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (2019)
You can read UN Water’s summary on the impacts of climate change on the world’s water systems here.