Tag Archives: Odds Against Tomorrow

Why Climate Fiction is Here to Stay

Climate fiction has gone viral for a very simple reason: it deals with climate change and global warming, issues that are getting worse every year. We’ve been used to dire reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for years but now we are getting one, equally somber report from the United States, long the homeland of climate change deniers: the National Climate Assessment, done with 300 experts. It’s full of information and has some amazing photos (like the one above illustrating the collapse of ice sheets – now on-going in Greenland and Antarctica and adding to sea level rise – photo source: Paul Souders/Corbis).

Things have never looked so bad, and it’s not happening in some distant, unlikely future but right now.

The New York Times reported on it (see here) and got some 1300 comments in  just a few hours. One of the commentators (who also happened to be a climate scientist living in Seattle) noted: “We are well on our way to the 6th mass extinction. Shelled animals in the waters off the coast of the Pacific Northwest are showing damage from the ocean’s acidity. Unfortunately, people don’t get into gear when they hear doomsday pronouncements.” (highlighting added)

They don’t. 

It’s hard to imagine, hard to go beyond the raw numbers and the (cold) data (or should I say hot?).

And that’s precisely why we need climate fiction – because it works on the emotions

And when you realize the problem is here and now and concerns you, well, it’s normal, it makes you sit up! 

That’s why Nathaniel Rich  cli-fi novel Odds Against Tomorrow was eerily spot on. He had imagined New York under water. When his editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux was finalizing his draft for publication, hurricane Sandy hit New York and all of a sudden, Rich’s book didn’t at all look like fiction, it looked like social realism! 

Take a close look at the book cover (I’ve added a circle and an arrow) and see what New York could look like in a not-so-distant future after yet another hurricane – because now we know without any shadow of a doubt that extreme weather events will hit us more and more often…

We have certainly covered ground in 10 years! 

Think of it, one book by a best-selling 20th century author that was in fact a disruptive and much talked-about climate fiction novel (though it came out in 2004, fully four years before the term cli-fi was coined by Dan Bloom) depicted climate activists as…”eco-terrorists”! Yet it was undoubtedly climate fiction: climate change was its central theme. I am speaking of course of Michael Crichton’s State of Fear

This illustrates well how broad a genre climate fiction really is, if it can include a book that is music to the ears of climate deniers. Because that is my point: climate fiction, whether you are denying climate change or believe in it, is here to stay – a constant source of inspiration for writers.

I would  also like to add that climate fiction inevitably will include books that go beyond climate change. 

Why? Because climate change is but one of the negative trends that will affect our future. The others are well-known and nobody disputes them: an unstoppable population explosion, rapid industrialization especially in developing countries, a world-wide rush to urbanization, increasing income inequality causing social tensions, the multiplication of local wars as weak states struggle to politically emerge and mature in working democracies.

The main point here is that all these trends are inter-linked and interact on each other, reinforcing each one. For example, industrialization of itself wouldn’t be so devastating if it wasn’t accompanied by rapid urbanization and rising population, etc etc.

So if you try to look at the future and figure out what awaits humanity in the long run, you have to take into account not only climate change but all the other trends as well – which is what I tried to do with my new serial novel Forever Young (Part One and Two are out, Part Three will be released next week.)

How well I’ve explored the future, how realistic it is, I leave it to you to judge! But do let me know what you think – the future of humanity is one of the most important issues facing us all. Your views? Do you think writers have a role to play? 


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Climate Fiction: A Hot New Genre?

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!

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