The Planet

Climate Fiction, or ‘Cli-Fi,’ Is the Hottest New Literary Genre

by Sarah Stankorb

March 22, 2016
Image by Eric Huybrechts via Flickr

Apocalypse used to seem like a dubious future outcome, the stuff of Revelation or cheesy sci-fi movies. But if you are even grudgingly willing to acknowledge scientific evidence, you’ll recognize the year-over-year record high temperatures, drought, melting glaciers, and a predicted temperature increase that will swell the seas, swallowing island nations and coastal cities. We’ve all heard the bad news. So you recycle, maybe ride a bike. But what is a person to do with that sense of practically unavoidable doom? How are we to emotionally compute global devastation for which we are all, to varying degrees, culpable?

One tool for coming to terms with climate change—and perhaps conceiving ways to personally adapt to its new realities—might be one of our oldest human practices: storytelling. The growing new genre of climate fiction (cli-fi) is treated by some as an offshoot of science fiction, by others as a stand-alone category, and has become the literary subject du jour in courses at Temple University, Vanderbilt, the University of Oregon, and the University of Cambridge. Work under this umbrella offers a peek into the (often not so distant) future; by entering a fictional, altered world and imagining everyday life in a hotter, more politically fractious, extreme planet, readers can come to grips with climate change in ways that extend beyond data and charts.

Ellen Szabo

“We have to turn to fiction, because people get so freaked out, they go into denial. They don't want to know because they feel helpless,” says Ellen Szabo, author of Saving the World One Word at a Time: Writing Cli-Fi.

The term “cli-fi” was first coined by book publicist and former journalist Dan Bloom, whose blog and Twitter platform heap accolades upon novelists who use their art to spotlight the implications of climate change. (Bloom also criticizes those who reject the “cli-fi” label or treat it as a mere subgenre of science fiction.) Author Margaret Atwood adopted the term in a 2012 tweet, popularizing the genre designation more broadly, and since then, cli-fi has continued its rise, becoming the subject of a growing number of literary curricula and conferences.

The emerging genre—which runs the gamut from Marcel Theroux’s man in search of humanity in Far North, to Antti Tuomainen’s noir The Healer, to Barbara Kingsolver’s contemporary monarch butterfly survival story in Flight Behavior, and Margaret Atwood’s epic MaddAddam trilogyoffers tools beyond the persuasive reach of scientific observation and prediction. One of the great gifts of this kind of fiction could be its ability to make the unthinkable more proximate, or even intimate. It lets us into the truth of climate change in a new way, and it provides a new space where we can interrogate the forces that define our culture and changing world.

Ted Howell

Truth matters differently in science than it does in literature, and there are truths that lie outside scientific verification. Most of us cannot imagine what climate change will mean for us personally, how it will change what we eat, where we live, whom we love—and lose. What will it mean to be a good person in an era of climate devastation? How will we find and redefine meaning? As Ted Howell, a professor at Temple University who has taught courses on cli-fi, puts it, the genre is concerned with “the truth that could be lived or experienced,” adding that “seeing how people live and adjust has the potential for a larger impact.”  

Of course, the truth of climate change, in real life or in fiction, is as terrible as it is compelling: Writing about a world rocked by climate change often results in a dystopian vision. As Edward L. Rubin, author of the cli-fi novel The Heatstroke Line and professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt, notes, before 1900, imaginative portrayals of the future tended toward utopia. Then, in the 20th century,with the rise of science fiction, more dystopian novels—like 1984 and Brave New World—began to appear, envisioning a world clutched by oppressive forces that stemmed from fears about fascism and communism.

The Heatstroke Line

But the cultural anxieties that produce our visions of the future began to change. Rubin explains that future-oriented fiction shifted, warning instead of the threats of private corporations and resource depletion, with books like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. “Since about the turn of the 21st century, there's been a further shift to focus on climate change. And now quite a number of the books that portray a disastrous future, either explicitly deal with climate change or incorporate climate change as background,” says Rubin.

When Howell taught cli-fi at Temple last spring, he noticed that once his students shared a basic vocabulary for climate science, reading and discussing cli-fi together gave them tools to debate what it would be like to live in and adapt to various futures. At least once a week, weighed down by the lack of political and social willpower directed toward mitigating climate change, “we would sort of have these moments where a discussion would develop, and we would all just start feeling very, very bleak and worried,” Howell says. He would take a moment and note that it was happening, try to move on. “But, yes, that was definitely the dominant affect of the class at times, that distress.” Unless efforts are made by authors to insert hope, reading cli-fi can leave one feeling profoundly powerless.

“I know Naomi Klein often makes that argument: This way of approaching and imagining the future in fiction is too often very bleak and therefore paralyzing, in terms of thinking about how we can begin to adapt and adjust and negate this potential, whole horrifying future,” Howell says.

But as he wrote in an essay on Medium, for Howell’s students, that sense of helplessness turned into an acceptance that the future will be radically different from our world, and “it’s exciting (not just terrifying) to imagine what will happen. With uncertainty about the future comes the potential to change it for the better.”

Mary Woodbury

Mary Woodbury writes under the pen name Clara Hume and runs a niche publishing house that veers toward environmental themes. Woodbury’s first novel, Back to the Garden, is set in a period of extreme temperatures, rampant disease, breakdown of digital communication, and governmental collapse, but it’s also a love story. She wanted to investigate how human relationships might evolve in a time of dramatic climate change. “People who write climate-change kinds of novels probably want to warn, and you can warn in one of two ways. You can do it through fear tactics, or do you can do it through a more reality-based scenario that would have hope at the end, and maybe inspire people to mitigate climate change, instead of scaring them into it.” Woodbury’s novel, which others have called cli-fi, but which she considers more broadly speculative, is tied to a sense that climate change could rewild the world, redefine our relationships, and recenter our values.

Back to the Garden

“All people have something, hopefully, within them that they could adapt and learn to make a better world and be better people,” Woodbury says.

She points out a theme from her novel: “To redeem the planet, you have to redeem yourself.” Cli-fi, similarly, offers the means for imagining that double redemption. That inspiration, that hoped-for redemption—as well as all the dire warnings—all of it is needed for a doomed-seeming people learning to live on the precipice of a changed world.

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Climate Fiction, or ‘Cli-Fi,’ Is the Hottest New Literary Genre