Thanks to TeleRead and NPR, 'Cli-fi' is now an official literary term

CLI FIA little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece for TeleRead that was headlined, ‘‘Cli-fi ebook to launch on Earth Day in April.” The article was about a cli-fi novel by Tulsa writer Jim Laughter titled Polar City Red.

In the year since his novel hit the book-ordering sites, it sold 271 copies nationwide, which just goes to show that selling e-books, especially dystopian novels about polar cities in Alaska, is not an easy thing. Still, it was worth the effort, and both Jim and I learned a lot about book marketing in the process.

Dan Bloom

Dan Bloom

I used the term “cli-fi” in the headline and in the text of the article as well, because in 2007 I coined the term as a subgenre of sci-fi, and I used it in all of the press releases for Jim’s book. The media never picked up on the term, however, until April 2013—a year later, more or less—when both NPR and The Christian Science Monitor did major stories about “cli-fi” as a new literary term. Both news sites received massive Twitter responses, and cli-fi took off in both the blogosphere and the Web.

Not one story—neither the NPR radio show nor the Monitor‘s rewrite of the NPR story, almost word for word—mentioned my role in coining the term. What’s more, none of the blogs or tweets that picked up the stories bothered to find out where the term originally came from. It was seemingly well enough for Scott Simon to bless the new term on NPR, and for the Monitor to second his approval.

When I wrote to Angela Evancie, the NPR reporter who did the five-minute radio program (which, by the way, aired nationwide from coast to coast, and worldwide via NPR’s website), and asked why she didn’t take the time to contact me, since my digital fingerprints were all over “cli-fi” as a new term, she replied that she had indeed Googled the term—and found my name and earlier work coining it—but felt that it wasn’t germane to her reporting. And so she left my name out of the story.

Fair enough. It was her call, and I respect that. The positive end result of all this is that the term “cli-fi” is now out there for all to see and discuss; it doesn’t really matter who coined the term, or when. Essentially, it’s just a sidebar to a good NPR story that went viral, and for that I am grateful. The word is out!

Looking over the comments that appeared beneath my TeleRead piece from a year ago, it’s interesting to see how some of my readers here did not like the term at all, and said so.

One man wrote:

“Cli-fi—What a stupid stupid concept … completely stupid and has no chance of catching on except among a small climate nutter clique.”

Another commenter said:

”I have to admit that that the term ‘Cli-Fi’ seems rather silly and unnecessary to me. On the other hand, people can make up whatever terms they want. It’s harmless and it will either enter general use or it won’t. Climate change is science. So any future projection of climate change falls easily under the existing Science Fiction label. Ignorant people, however, tend to think that the term ‘Science Fiction’ means ‘made up weird stuff’ rather than fiction based on projections of current science into the future. My guess is that the ‘Cli-Fi’ proponents are hoping to seem more serious and don’t want to be tarred with the baggage that comes with the ‘Sci-Fi’ label.”

There were more comments, to and fro, pro and con. But that was then, and this is now. NPR has since embraced the term, and cli-fi seems here to stay as a new genre—or subgenre—of sci-fi, or maybe even as an entirely new literary category. Time will tell.

What I like about the cli-fi term is that it can serve as a convenient way to find novels about climate change in both brick-and-mortar bookstores and from e-retailers. Already, Amazon lists cli-fi as a genre in its book search data, and you only need to type in the words for a book search at Amazon and you will be taken to cli-fi books. Thanks to TeleRead in 2012 and NPR in 2013, cli-fi has made the grade.

Will it stick? That’s up to readers, both inside and outside the science fiction community. We shall see.

Dan Bloom is a freelance newspaper reporter based in Taiwan.

Publishers note: We added an Amazon link to the novel’s title in 2015. – D.R.

9 Comments on Thanks to TeleRead and NPR, 'Cli-fi' is now an official literary term

  1. Personally, I think the term sounds silly, but I’m still in the era that said sci-fi is a derogatory term for science fiction.

  2. Greg M, well said and humor helps, too. I won’t go into the medical anatomy jokes I have already heard about cli fi, sigh, and while it sounds silly to some, others are enbracing it. One sci fi ranter wrote a long rant about cli fi being a mere marketiing gimmick that deserves to die a quick death. Google Steve Davidson’s blog to see his rant. He makes some good points, too. As for the generation thing, old fogies and new fogies, it’s true, die-hard SF people hate the sci fi term and prefer to spell it out as science fiction. Me, I like the sci fi term, and of course, i just took the same rhyming sounds to come up with cli fi as a new term for climate fiction. So I didn’t really coin a new word, i was just riffing on an existing meme. Literary jazz.

  3. Perhaps we need more writers to make a stand and proudly use ‘sci-fi’ to label their work. I must admit that when I saw ‘cli-fi’, the word ‘climate’ was not the first that came to mind…

  4. Mr. Bloom:
    It’s a big, over-(human) populated world, and I am nobody. Nonetheless I want to celebrate your coining of the term, “cli-fi”: it’s both obvious and brilliant; and I want to praise your honorable humbleness in not claiming ownership and demanding recognition for having articulated a present and likely-to-endure phenomenon. You set “cli-fi” in motion in the world, and the world grabbed it. Bravo. I’m glad to know you’re out there.
    ~e. grant (retired Humanities Professor and “cli-po” (hee, hee)–climate poet)

  5. MattB242 says

    I’ve always thought that climate change is best dealt with in a ‘lit-fic’ manner rather than in Science Fiction (and I speak as an SF fan) simply because of its nature. Unlike nuclear apocalypse, it isn’t a ‘novum’ – a big convulsion after which the world has forever changed.

    Instead, it will doubtless play out more like a mid-life crisis – creeping up on us in increments until one event or another (the introduction of rationing, the evacuation of a port city) makes you look up and notice that – like our own mortality, it’s already bearing down on you, there’s was never going to have been anything you could have done about it and the situation you’ve got yourself at this point in is nobody else’s fault but your own…

    Robert Edric’s ‘Salvage’ captures this perfectly, and like Edric himself doesn’t get enough love.

    In passing, why does does ‘Snow’ by Adam Roberts come to mind? It starts off looking like it’s about climate change, but by the end it…well, it very much isn’t…

  6. While there is nothing wrong climate conscious fiction, I might even be interested myself, the singsongy terms like cli-fi or sci-fi put me into the not to be taken seriously mode. It’s like putting an author’s first name into the diminutive form. Imagine these authors rebranded:

    Arty Clarke
    Billy Faulkner
    Ernie Hemingway
    Johnny Steinbeck
    Tommy Wolfe

    Harder to take seriously. If you want climate fiction taken seriously, give it a serious name.

  7. Greg, good point but one never knows how the media reacts to new terms. If it is too serious, they might not use it, and if it is too silly, they also might not use it. The key is to find something in the middle: i think cli fi does it very nicely and it fits headline length and as u say, it has a singsongy ear music thing to it and it’s also eye-catching in headlines and text. Three major magazines wrote about CLI Fi this week: Dissent Magazine, The New Yorker (can’t get any more serious that that!) and New York Magazine, also in a very serious piece. Still, the New Yorker writer said cli fi will never stick as a literary genre term, and she may be right. On the other hand, as some media critics have also said, the term has already stuck. It took sci fi 50 years to catch on and be accepted, remember. Still, i appreciate your feedback here. Your rebranded names are cute and funny and i love the humor: Marky Twain my favorite!

  8. Interesting – I published an anthology of short stories in 2012 called “HOT MESS: speculative fiction about climate change” – at the time there wasn’t a lot else out there, but maybe this new cli-fi designation will help bring more attention to that type of story.

  9. Rachel, CLI FI is now here to stay, and a news story coming on Friday from a UK website will seal the deal. Stay tuned. and good luck with that book. YES, ”this new cli-fi designation will help bring more attention to THIS type of story.”

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