THEGREENGROK

A Look at the Growing Genre of Climate Fiction


by Bill Chameides | December 17th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 13 comments
Cli-fi bookshelf

Written for our Artful Planet series in partnership with
the University of Washington’s Conservation Magazine.

A new class of “climate fiction” has hit the publishing scene. But is it the real deal or just a flight of fancy?

Climate Fiction: An Official Genre?

There’s an unofficial new genre called climate fiction or more familiarly cli-fi. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writing in the magazine Dissent: A Quarterly Journal of Politics and Culture this summer proclaimed “Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre.” By some accounts, the term was coined by Dan Bloom in 2007 “as a subgenre of science fiction.” Since then and much to Bloom’s delight and chagrin “both NPR and The Christian Science Monitor did major stories about ‘cli-fi’ as a new literary term … [and never] mentioned [his] role in coining the term.”

Since first appearing in print in 2010, and without me and I suspect many of you noticing, the term “cli-fi” has reached marketable status. Plugging the search term into Amazon, I got an impressive 202 hits. Many of them turned out to have nothing to do with climate or even fiction (e.g., some dictionaries were among the returns). Still, quite a number were novels that feature climate change as a major theme and driver of the plot.

Even Margaret Atwood, one of the great writers of our time, has given cli-fi her stamp of approval:

“There’s a new term, cli-fi (for climate fiction, a play on sci-fi), that’s being used to describe books in which an altered climate is part of the plot. Dystopic novels used to concentrate only on hideous political regimes, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now, however, they’re more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted.”

Does Dystopian Fiction Inform the Climate Change Discussion?

I think it’s great that climate change has gotten the attention of writers and that their work is garnering attention in the media and the marketplace. But I am also a bit disappointed: it seems the primary theme of books that are being recognized under the rubric of “climate fiction” are essentially dystopian visions of a world decimated by climate change.

Dystopian fiction is nothing new; it’s been around long before global warming became a household term. I remember as a teenager cutting my post-apocalyptic reading teeth on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World published in 1932. And if you’re looking for contemporary dystopia I can think of few better than the above-mentioned Margaret Atwood, some of whose novels have been categorized as “cli-fi.”

Dystopian fiction is, obviously, the opposite of utopian fiction. While books about utopias feature perfect, wonderful places, dystopian fiction, according to TheFreeDictionary.com, is “a work … describing an imaginary place where life is extremely bad because of deprivation or oppression or terror.” At its most basic level, the plot goes something like this: some kind of really bad or apocalyptic event or events happen that profoundly undermine the social order and humanity is left to cope in this new world. The cause of the apocalypse can vary; it might be political oppression as in George Orwell’s “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s ”Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” or corporate tyranny as in Fritz Lang’s ”Metropolis,” or a nuclear holocaust as in Nevil Shute’s ”On the Beach,” or extreme fuel shortage in George Miller’s “Mad Max,” or a killer virus as in Terry Gilliam’s ”Twelve Monkeys.

The thing that makes dystopian fiction so intriguing, at least to me, is not the cause of the apocalypse and not that it might serve as a rallying call to action to avoid the apocalypse. Rather, it is the social science aspect — the author’s vision of how humanity chooses to organize and cope in the post-apocalyptic world. In good dystopian fiction, the cause of the apocalypse is merely the vehicle to get us to the post-apocalyptic world and a vision of a new world order.

And so I don’t see the dystopian cli-fi literature as all that much of a game-changer for the climate change debate, and perhaps even a bit of an exploitation of the issue — a handy and timely plot element to get the story going. I’m not saying it’s not good literature; I’m just questioning its relevance to the very real issues we face as a society today in trying to decide how to respond to climate change.

A Cli-Fi Novel That Stands Apart: Flight Behavior Makes Climate Change Tangible.

For a novel that I find takes those issues head on and makes them personal and tangible, check out Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior. In an NPR interview Kingsolver described why she chose to write Flight Behavior:

“Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change? … I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it’s possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides … between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative.”

Kingsolver places her novel in rural Tennessee among farmers and other blue-collar types who would find the usual tips many of us bandy about for “going green” — flying less or buying a Prius — laughable. Not because they don’t care about the environment but because such actions are irrelevant to their lives — they’ve never and probably will never take an airplane because they can’t afford to and the only vehicle they drive is the old pick-up that’s been around for decades.

The author takes these people and makes them confront an ominous and, for many, seemingly miraculous event — the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies to the mountains of Appalachia. It’s an event almost certainly caused by climate change and one that brings good things and bad things to the community, it divides them and profoundly challenges their beliefs, assumptions, and lifestyles. The way the characters choose to respond to these challenges in their varied and individual ways provides in a microcosm the challenges our society faces in developing a consensus on a suitable response to a very real and disturbing threat. And importantly, does so without transporting us to an imaginary, post-apocalyptic world but by making us, like the people in Kingsolver’s rural Tennessee town, confront our changing world and the people that populate it.

It’s a great read. If you haven’t yet settled on your holiday reading list, you might want to put this one on it.

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13 Comments

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  1. MattN
    Dec 30, 2013

    Odd. I don’t see “An Inconvenient Truth” listed as Cli-Fi. MBH99 is missing too. Those were absolutely works of fiction about the climate.

  2. Dan Bloom
    Dec 19, 2013

    Bill, since you won’t answer my emails to you or my tweets, maybe this is PHD VIP pride or something, I don’t know…but since you refuse to answer me, let me just say that in summary: you wrote a very good piece, and you are very right that some cli fi novels tank and do not rise to readable level, that is to be expected, not all writers are literary greats, so your criticism of how cli fi novels can tank is well said. And your championing of B Kingsolvers FLIGHT BEHAVIOR is right on, i read it this summer too and blew me away and cheered me up that maybe cli fi novels can have an impact on society. I agree with you. and your post getting replayed at HuffPost and the magazine in Seattle, this piece has gone far and wide and bravo. We are on the same page, email me after the New Year when time allows. There’s more to say offline.

  3. Dan Bloom
    Dec 19, 2013

    The world is on fire. C02 emissions are out of control. The PPM of carbon dioxide is now over 400 and climbing. That’s parts per million, science-talk.

    Cli-fi is not SF, but it owes a lot to the earlier genre. Maybe, as some say, cli-fi is a subgenre of sci-fi and that’s cool, too.

    Cli-fi does not have set rules or an agenda. Novelists and short stories writers can go where their imagination takes them. Climate skeptics can write cli-fi novels, too. Sure. The community is open to all. Worldwide.

  4. Dan Bloom
    Dec 18, 2013

    Call for papers (Australian Humanities Review):

    Nature strikes back! Genres of revenge in the anthropocene
    Edited by Dr Nicole Matthews and Dr Catherine Simpson

    Cli-fi (or climate fiction) has recently emerged as a new subgenre describing tales of imminent disaster as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. If Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring invoked nature extinguished, passive or defeated, these narratives of environmental change present an unexpectedly feral, unpredictable world where an aggressive nature runs rampant. In this special issue we hope to excavate the resources of popular genres for talking about risk, causality and the unintended consequences of human action.

    This issue will interrogate the ways we narrate non-human agency. How do these stories revisit the spectacle and power of the sublime? Can popular culture help us re-imagine environments, objects and non-human animals in a time of rapid ecological change? What is the affective potentiality of narratives of hubris, revenge and fear? And how are whiteness, colonial politics of ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’, and border policing restaged across these diverse and composite bodies? We invite theoretically, empirically and/or textually grounded articles and welcome articles that locate Australia in comparative or international contexts.

    Topics might include:
    • Comedy, tragedy, farce? Genres of revenge and reaction
    • You couldn’t make it up: fiction, non-fiction and environmental horror
    • Animals: dangerous, vulnerable, feral, vengeful?
    • Storying the human biome
    • New formations of the disaster movie: back to the 1970s?
    • Zombies, whiteness and climate disaster
    • Actor-network theory and pulp fictions
    • Climate change war stories
    • The non-human point of view in documentary
    • Cycles of destruction: reassuring mythologies of ecological renewal?
    • Gaia and global catastrophe
    • Frightening the children: apocalyptic children’s tales

  5. Dan Bloom
    Dec 18, 2013

    Course at OU 2014 winter semester:

    “To complement the critical reading, students will explore the recently named genre of “cli-fi” or climate fiction (see the novels of Nathaniel Rich and Daniel Kramb) and we will foray into the methods of documentary literatures and film.”

    While many colleges and universities currently offer literature and film classes focusing on climate-themed novels, short stories and Hollywood movies and documentaries, LeMenager’s seminar is the first out of the gate to consider the genre of cli-fi as part of the course.

    There will be more. For sure. In the UK and in Australia. Watch!

  6. Dan Bloom
    Dec 18, 2013

    Stephanie LeMenager announced she would be teaching a winter 2014 seminar at UO in Orego n titled ”The Cultures of Climate Change.”

    Course description:

    “This course will take global anthropogenic climate change (AGW) as a case study through which to explore the interdisciplinary axes of the environmental humanities. We will also examine the cultures of climate change from the perspective of academic humanists and artist-activists.

    “To complement the critical reading, students will explore the recently named genre of “cli-fi” or climate fiction (see the novels of Nathaniel Rich and Daniel Kramb) and we will foray into the methods of documentary literatures and film.”

  7. Rachel
    Dec 18, 2013

    I’ve been really impressed by how this genre has grown – in 2012, I edited the anthology “HOT MESS: speculative fiction about climate change” (avail. on Amazon in print and ebook) and the number of books and articles on the genre that have come out since has been amazing!

  8. Joe Follansbee
    Dec 18, 2013

    The history of literature is rife with examples of fiction changing the conversation on a public policy topic. Charles Dickens’ portrayal of mid-19th century London and Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” are just two examples. Fiction with climate change as a central theme has the potential to achieve something climate change activists have consistently failed to do: connect with an audience wider than true believers. The public is interested in the subject, but approaching the debate with only the facts hasn’t worked very well. Fiction can connect to a different audience by showing how climate change can affect day-to-day life in ways that a just-the-facts approach cannot.

    • Dan Bloom
      Dec 18, 2013

      Joe Follansee, well said, sir! And Joe FYI is writing a cli fi novel now, to be published in 2014 I believe. Bill, there is a large and growing cli fi community worldwide now, from NZ to UK, from USA to Norway and Finland. This is BIG. There is no leader. It just happened. Dan Bloom is just the PR volunteer in the background. PS: I loved yr piece in Huffpost today too. This is good and read Mark Trexler’s inteview on my blog too. He is climate risk expert and says interesting points about cli fi pro and con.

  9. Dan Bloom
    Dec 18, 2013

    http://klima101.blogspot.tw/2013/12/bill-chameides-look-at-rising-genre-of.html

    Bill i just read your piece line by line and LOVE WHAT YOU WROTE WELL DONE SIR JUST A FEW QUESTIONS AND ANNOTATIONS SEE HERE AND MAYBE NEXT INTERVIEW ME DIRECTLY ON THIS I HAVE MAJOR NEWS TO TELL YOU FOR SCOOP

  10. dan bloom
    Dec 18, 2013

    link to CLI FI interview conducted by dan bloom AT CLI FI CENTRAL BLOG CLIFIBOOKS.COM #CLIFI

    http://klima101.blogspot.tw/2013/12/an-interview-with-mark-trexler-visonary.html

  11. JimTech
    Dec 17, 2013

    “Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre.” ?? Not so sure – The IPCC has been publishing Cli-Fi for over 25 years!

    • Dan Bloom
      Dec 18, 2013

      Jim Tech has a good note here. In fact, some climate denialists started using the term, i late found out after I came up with the term in 2008 in a different way for novels about climate, some climate denialists used the term on blogs to stand for what they consider to be the “climate fiction” of writers and thinkers like Gore, Hansen, Lovelock et, and sometimes they abbrevaited it to cli fi as in “The cli fi of Al Gore” and posts like that. But they meant that as a snarky way to attack climate thinkers they did not agree with and not as a new genre of movies or novels. FYI

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