Environmental Thrillers, Cli-Fi, and Environmental Legal Thrillers: Not your Father’s Eco-Thriller (April 22, 2020)

The hero dashes from one continent to the next trying to stop the evil scientist/ evil corporation/ evil megalomaniac from flipping the switch and causing a world-wide catastrophe. The eco-thriller! Not only a novel, but coming to a screen near you.

There was a time when the vast majority of thrillers involving environmental issues, so called “eco-thrillers”, dealt with catastrophic, world-wide, or science fiction/horror type calamities. For the most part, they were not about climate change or localized issues.

These books were part-thriller, part-science fiction, and perhaps part-horror novel. Consider outstanding thrillers such as ZOO by James Patterson, in which all of the animals of the world turn against humans. Also, JAWS, by Peter Benchley, in which Great White sharks develop a sweet tooth for humans, Then there was JURASSIC PARK, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life with cataclysmic results. Don’t forget Preston and Child’s RELIC and the sequel, RELIQUARY, in which a monster accidentally is brought back from the rain forest and sups on visitors to the New York Academy of Sciences in Manhattan. All of these books and more were thrilling and fun to read, but how many bad animals, bad sharks, bad dinosaurs, and bad monsters can there be? Is this kind of novel enough to sustain reader interest? What do these books teach us (in addition to “don’t mess with Mother Nature”)? Readers are ready for a new kind of environmental thriller.

Why does it bother me that books like ZOO, MONKEY WRENCH GANG, STATE OF FEAR, PELICAN BRIEF, and DRINK TO EVERY BEAST are lumped together by some as “eco-thrillers? Because they are all so different. The only common denominator is that they are about an impact on or to the environment. When you read books like, say, MONKEY WRENCH GANG, ZOO, and PELICAN BRIEF, and call them all “Eco-Thrillers”, this does a disservice to the books and readers. It does not accurately describe the genre or sub-genres into which they fit. Also, here is something lazy about lumping ZOO together with MONKEY WRENCH GANG and calling them both “eco-thrillers.” There are enough of these books on the shelves it’s time we described them differently and more accurately.

Environmental Thrillers

Edward Abbey’s seminal novel, MONKEY WRENCH GANG (1975), cracked open the door for what I like to call Environmental Thrillers. MONKEY WRENCH GANG was about a band of environmental activists (some would say terrorists) fighting, insurgent-style, against irresponsible development in the American west. The book was so popular, it sparked a form of extreme eco-activism called monkey-wrenching. This genre includes books dealing with real-life environmental issues. Recent works illustrate this, like A. M. Halvorssen’s THE DIRTY NETWORK, P.J. Lazos’ OIL AND WATER, Jon McGoren’s DRIFT: A THRILLER, and Michael J. Fitzgerald’s THE FRACKING WAR. These new books are showing the way to an invigoration of this genre. (This list is not exhaustive, there are others.)

These books, like eco-thrillers, put environmental issues front and center. The difference is, unlike eco-thrillers, environmental thrillers deal with real-world environmental issues that are more localized in their impact. I would put some novels dealing with climate change in this category too, when the impact of climate change is experienced locally (rising seas, drier/wetter weather, increases in extreme weather, and the like). Thrillers about global impact of climate change, however, get their own sub-genre, Cli-Fi.

Cli-Fi

There is a growing body of novels, mainly thrillers, dealing with the possible (probable? likely?) impacts of climate change. These are often imbued with science fiction (Sci-Fi/Cli-Fi, get it? I did not make up this classification) or at least speculative fiction (what if?). They range from climate change deniers, like Michael Crichton’s STATE OF FEAR, to the more common, full-on Jeremiads about the probable devastating impact of climate change. Books positing serious impact as a result of climate change include FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR by Barbara Kingsolver, BARKSKINS by Annie Proulx, and AURORA and 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Environmental Legal Thrillers

In 1992, John Grisham wrote PELICAN BRIEF, followed by THE APPEAL (2008), and GRAY MOUNTAIN (2014) and introduced readers to environmental legal thrillers. I think it’s fair to include the non-fiction A CIVIL ACTION (1995), by Jonathan Harr, in this category as it reads like a legal thriller.  What made these legal thrillers different was that they presented real-life environmental issues in which the protagonist, most often a lawyer, is trying to get to the bottom of the environmental crime (yes, for the most part, there is a crime). At the same time, some environmental harm is being inflicted on a small geographic area or to a relatively small number of people—just like in real-life. These are similar to the cases I used to handle when I was a young Assistant Attorney General for Pennsylvania’s environmental agency.

Environmental legal thrillers (and environmental thrillers)—unlike cco-thrillers—are not science fiction-y. They may have elements of speculative fiction (“what if?”), but at bottom they are dealing with real-life environmental issues and a protagonist struggling to resolve those issues through the legal process.

My novel DRINK TO EVERY BEAST (Headline Books, 2019), deals with a young environmental prosecutor investigating the dumping of toxic waste into a river, which killed two teenagers, and trying to stop it from occurring again. The sequel, AMID RAGE (to be released in 2020) deals with a battle over a permit for a coal strip mine. Yet another sequel, STRANGE FIRE (to be released in 2021) is about criminal activity associated with fracking for natural gas.

While some have claimed the interest in legal thrillers is down, I think the reading public is just waiting for a fresh approach to the genre. I’m convinced the public is ready for these novels and confident a band of young writers is eager to write them.