Is climate fiction really a hot new genre (no pun intended)? Something remarkable has happened when American colleges start to use climate fiction to teach how to prepare for the coming climate crisis. Expect writers to sit up and listen – especially science fiction writers.
The New York Times recently reported on it (see here) saying classes focus on a “heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich, and Solar, by Ian McEwan.”
Further down in the article, more cli-fi books are mentioned, among them Barbara Kingsolver‘s Flight Behavior, Daniel Kramb’s From Here, Hamish MacDonald‘s Finitude, Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl, Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015 and more recently The Carbon Diaries 2017 (a British YA book).
Wow! I sat up and listened since my soon to be released Forever Young looked like it might fit the genre.
Checking around on the Net, I visited Wikipedia’s definition (see here) and discovered that the earliest climate fiction book was The Drowned World published back in 1962 by J.G. Ballard (though it wasn’t Climate Change in this case but solar warming). Here’s the first edition (nice cover!):
I gathered a slew of interesting articles (see below) and checked Goodreads. I found a whole page there dedicated to so-called “popular climate fiction books” (39 titles so far):
Take note: climate fiction has attracted big best-selling writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood (who famously tweeted about it), Clive Cussler and Barbara Kingsolver. They have all jumped into the subgenre and some as early as 2009 (in Atwood’s case).
The blogosphere is awash with posts (see below) and there’s one book selling website set up by a British Columbia “micropress”, the Moon Willow Press, with a green conscience; take a look at their home page:
This site gives an interesting definition of climate fiction:
“a genre of literature, film and other media that involves climate change fiction, which may be speculative, literary or science fiction”.
So here we are moving away from the idea that it may be a “subgenre” of science fiction. It is also described as “bendable…not necessarily set in the future nor always apocalyptic”, and Barbara Kinsolver’s Flight Behavior is given as an example (the setting for this present-day story is the explosive invasion of Monarch butterflies into the Appalachian Mountains).
There is at least one blog fully dedicated to climate fiction set up by Dan Bloom, a journalist and writer who invented the term back in 2007 (on his blog and in an article in Vice Magazine) – the term was picked up again by reporter Scott Thill in 2010 in Wired.
Here’s the homepage of Dan Bloom’s Cli Fi Central blog (to visit, click here):
The news reported on that page is of some 6,000 “cli fi” fans meeting in…2058 to discuss climate change! Yes, a little bit of irony doesn’t hurt (but only 6,000? That’s a depressingly small number…)
Climate fiction is still very new and evolving. Dan Bloom acknowledges this and last summer summed it up neatly in this article about the origins of cli-fi and where it’s going, see here. He notes that cli-fi has recently drawn two stars who met and talked about it at the 2013 Kingston WritersFest: Margaret Atwood on her way to a likely Nobel Prize in Literature and Nathaniel Rich, “a freshman Manhattan newcomer” who’s fast spreading the word about “climapocalypse” to his (30’s) generation.
The news about climate fiction took off when the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Christian Science Monitor used the term – the story then rebounded on the UK Guardian in May 2013 (see Rodge Glass’ article here), and it was picked up by newspaper columnists in Turkey, Sweden, Lithuania, Spain and Italy. Yes, going global!
The Guardian article got 139 comments, with most approving the birth of a new genre and some objecting that a new term was not needed. The best comment in my view comes from someone calling himself “Keyserling”:
“It’s apparent that “cli-fi” is nothing new, we just have a new buzz-word to describe it. I don’t like the term (my mind associates it with “clitoris fiction”, of the appalling Fifty Shades type). But we do need a new genre.
As the world knowingly embraces climate destruction, and we reap the whirlwind, islands will be lost, coastlines, then streets and cities flooded. Continents may perhaps become lethal or altogether uninhabitable, and eventually, a much reduced mankind may be reduced to living in polar colonies, or on space platforms orbiting our once abundant planet.
As that happens – like a global, inevitable, unstoppable, slow motion car crash – authors will more fully focus on the actual decay and destruction around them, and their observational fiction may not neatly slot into the overcrowded dystopian / apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic genres, alongside Planet of the Apes, Level 7, or The Day of the Triffids, et al.
So yeah, a new genre, to reflect new times. O brave new world!”
And another writer, Joe Follansbee, has come up with “6 rules” for writing climate fiction on his blog; briefly put, climate change has to be the “driving narrative” and it’s not to be confused with a weather event (say a tornado) which is short-term. We are speaking here of long-term climate trends that affect humanity’s future.
But the latest United Nations report on climate change has put a new twist on it: it’s no longer an “exceptional event” that would demand it be stopped but something that humanity has to learn to live with. See this illuminating article in The Atlantic. The idea is that all is not lost, we can adapt to a warming world.
That seems to put paid to Climate Change as a primary source of high suspense for climate fiction!
I would argue that the demographic explosion, the overwhelming trend towards urbanization and growing socioeconomic inequality are beginning to look like better candidates for suspense – or at least they look like very credible sources of social tension and recurring human-created disasters (e.g. displacement and extinction of species, recurring local wars, smog-caused health emergencies, refugee crises and population displacements, spikes in food prices leading to famines etc etc).
Add to the mix natural disasters like floods, earthquakes or tsunamis, and an already fragilized socio-political situation could easily get out of hand.
That is a much more likely future than the one posited by Climate Change alone. That is the future I see in my upcoming book, Forever Young – set 200 years from now. Why 200 years? Because I don’t believe things will come to a head all that soon. People always cry foul and use biblical language to warn humanity of impending doom – a doom that never comes on schedule. Which is why 200 years seemed like a reasonable lapse of time…
And Climate Fiction as a subgenre? I’m not sure it’s headed anywhere…What is very striking is that as a subgenre, it hasn’t developed a recognizable style of book covers. Take a look above at the Goodreads bookshelf. Or take a look at the book covers you find on the Cli-Fi Books site, here are a couple, chosen at random:
Clara Hume’s novel takes the reader “through apocalytpic American after climate change and other ecological disasters have greatly altered the planet”:
But you wouldn’t guess that from the cover, would you?
Do you see any pattern in the design of these covers? Personally, I don’t. They’re nice covers, often with a retro charm (like Clara Hume’s), but there is surprisingly little or no reference to a doomed or threatening future, which is the least you would expect.
What do you think? I tend to believe that climate fiction might possibly merge into the “hard science fiction” genre (see here) which is based on scientific accuracy, i.e. on the best informed guess about where we are headed…At least “hard” sci fi covers have a distinct sci-fi flavor, see here for an early book in the genre:
|First edition (published in 1970)
But the latest best-seller in the genre, Hugh Howey’s WOOL, certainly sports a rather bizarre cover that is a radical departure of the “classic” science fiction genre:
So it looks like the reverse might be happening: “hard” science fiction is merging into climate fiction…
Perhaps this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Some people are convinced that climate change is “the hottest thing in science fiction”, as Dave Burdick put it (see here, on Grist) and he reports the interesting observation made by Csicery-Ronay, an English professor at DePauw University in Indiana and co-editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies: “Cli-fi is getting some interest from folks who are not necessarily interested in science fiction.”
I’m very happy to hear that. Because climate fiction is not a silly fantasy. Because the whole point of it is to make us think seriously about the future of humanity and where we’re going…
One thing’s for sure: climate fiction sells as it attracts more and more people beyond strict science fiction fans. An example? Knopf’s recent acquisition of Paolo Bacigalupi’s new novel The Water Knife, to be released next year, see here (before that he was with a small press). Following on his success with the Windup Girl (200,000 copies sold), the editor at Knopf is convince his new novel is set to attract a “cross over audience” beyond Bacigalupi’s “core readers”.
Hey, are you ready for climate fiction? I know I am!