The world of fiction is populated with hundreds of different genres — most of which were invented by clever marketeers anxious to ensure vampire novels (teen / horror) don’t live next to classic works (literary) on real or imagined (think Amazon) book shelves. So, it should come as no surprise to see a new category recently emerge: cli-fi.
Short for climate fiction, cli-fi novels explore the dangers of environmental degradation and apocalyptic climate change. Not light reading for your summer break at the beach. But, then again, more books in this category may get us to think often and carefully about preserving our beaches — and the rest of the planet — for our kids.
From the Guardian:
A couple of days ago Dan Bloom, a freelance news reporter based in Taiwan, wrote on the Teleread blog that his word had been stolen from him. In 2012 Bloom had “produced and packaged” a novella called Polar City Red, about climate refugees in a post-apocalyptic Alaska in the year 2075. Bloom labelled the book “cli-fi” in the press release and says he coined that term in 2007, cli-fi being short for “climate fiction”, described as a sub-genre of sci-fi. Polar City Red bombed, selling precisely 271 copies, until National Public Radio (NPR) and the Christian Science Monitor picked up on the term cli-fi last month, writing Bloom out of the story. So Bloom has blogged his reply on Teleread, saying he’s simply pleased the term is now out there – it has gone viral since the NPR piece by Scott Simon. It’s not quite as neat as that – in recent months the term has been used increasingly in literary and environmental circles – but there’s no doubt it has broken out more widely. You can search for cli-fi on Amazon, instantly bringing up a plethora of books with titles such as 2042: The Great Cataclysm, or Welcome to the Greenhouse. Twitter has been abuzz.
Whereas 10 or 20 years ago it would have been difficult to identify even a handful of books that fell under this banner, there is now a growing corpus of novels setting out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, the story of a forest valley filled with an apparent lake of fire, is shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s prize for fiction. Meanwhile, there’s Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, set in a future New York, about a mathematician who deals in worst-case scenarios. In Liz Jensen’s 2009 eco-thriller The Rapture, summer temperatures are asphyxiating and Armageddon is near; her most recent book, The Uninvited, features uncanny warnings from a desperate future. Perhaps the most high-profile cli-fi author is Margaret Atwood, whose 2009 The Year of the Flood features survivors of a biological catastrophe also central to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a book Atwood sometimes preferred to call “speculative fiction”.
Engaging with this subject in fiction increases debate about the issue; finely constructed, intricate narratives help us broaden our understanding and explore imagined futures, encouraging us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. This can often seem difficult in our 24?hour news-on-loop society where the consequences of climate change may appear to be everywhere, but intelligent discussion of it often seems to be nowhere. Also, as the crime genre can provide the dirty thrill of, say, reading about a gruesome fictional murder set on a street the reader recognises, the best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife. Outside of the narrative of a novel the issue can seem fractured, incoherent, even distant. As Gregory Norminton puts it in his introduction to an anthology on the subject, Beacons: Stories for Our Not-So-Distant Future: “Global warming is a predicament, not a story. Narrative only comes in our response to that predicament.” Which is as good an argument as any for engaging with those stories.
All terms are reductive, all labels simplistic – clearly, the likes of Kingsolver, Jensen and Atwood have a much broader canvas than this one issue. And there’s an argument for saying this is simply rebranding: sci-fi writers have been engaging with the climate-change debate for longer than literary novelists – Snow by Adam Roberts comes to mind – and I do wonder whether this is a term designed for squeamish writers and critics who dislike the box labelled “science fiction”. So the term is certainly imperfect, but it’s also valuable. Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery. There are no spaceships hovering in the sky; no clocks striking 13. On the contrary, many of the horrors described seem oddly familiar.
Read the entire article after the jump.
Image: Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Courtesy of the Independent.