It’s a first for American libraries, and it’s a first for the emerging literary genre of climate fiction, also known as cli-fi. And, yes, discussed titles will be available as e-books, not just on paper.
All across America, there are weekly and monthly book clubs that focus on sci-fi, romance fiction, or YA novels. This week, the first-ever ”Cli-Fi Book Club” is being inaugurated in Minnesota, with regional arts organizer Heather Rutledge setting the club up in cooperation with local libraries and through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her contact information is here.
“We have heard that truth is stranger than fiction,” Rutledge says. “That may be the case, but until you have cracked open a climate fiction novel or two, you may not have fully imagined the ways that life is altered by climate change.” As part of the 2016 Big Read in the St. Croix Valley in Minnesota, these library clubs have already planned events using a few engaging and provocative book selections to discuss the power of literature to wrestle with the vexing environmental questions of our time.
The cli-fi book club discussions will take place at three libraries in Prescott, Stillwater and St. Croix Falls, she said.
Ms. Rutledge is also thinking of experimenting with a Google hangouts video cast for future cli-fi book club meetings in March and April, which would allow anyone to check in and follow the discussions—including people in other states, Canada and overseas in Asia and Europe and elsewhere. That isn’t a certainty. But if it happens, imagine the possibility of guests from, say, a place like Tuvalu, the Pacific island nation that global warming imperils. Like the idea of a Google hangout? Want to join a discussion if the hangout materializes?
Although I have been following the rise of the cli-fi genre over the past few years, I had no idea that these specialized book clubs were coming. In fact, I had never met Ms. Rutledge before last week. This idea was hers, and she carried it out with her team in Minnesota. ”The programming is all stemming from ArtReach St. Croix‘s multi-disciplinary and valley-wide partnerships,” she said.
The first event will feature an anthology of climate-themed short stories, with a forward by Bill McKibben, titled I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet.
Participants may attend the meetings with print books in hand or carrying the e-book version on their Kindles, Rutledge said.
The UK-published anthology contains contributions by Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others.
“It’s a great way to get a survey of some of the best ‘climate fiction’ writers of our time,” Rutledge said.
The second novel the Minnesota cli-fi book clubs will tackle in their monthly group discussions in March is Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.
Available for readers in both paperback and ebook versions, club members may attend the meeting in March with either version in hand, and all future club meetings will be conducted using books in both print and ebook editions, according to Rutledge.
”In Flight Behavior, Kingsolver traces the unforeseen impact of global climate change on the ordinary citizens of one rural community,” Rutledge said.
Asked how the book club idea took shape, Rutledge told me that she first heard about the ”climate fiction” genre term from Irene Faass, a friend who teaches eco-feminist and other literature at Minneapolis Community Technical College.
“Irene introduced me to the term and then I was able to write the idea into a grant for The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts here in Minnesota,” Rutledge said.
“It’s really talking about the works of fiction that start with the assumption that the climate has changed,” she said, “and sometimes that means it’s post-apocalyptic, but not always. The climate and the environment might not even be a central part of the story, but the characters and their relationships to each other and the choices that they make in the book are rooted in the fact that something has shifted.”
The third CF book club meeting in April will use John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, she said, also available as in e-book. “Club members will be able to select their own book for a fourth meeting, and clubs may continue to meet and select climate fiction titles to read for as long as they like,” she said.
Rutledge added that she has heard a few misconceptions about what readers can expect to find in the cli-fi genre.
“Some people think it’s post-apocalyptic, they think it’s speculative, they think that it’s going to be first and foremost a book about science, but that’s not always the case,” Rutledge said. “And in fact, that’s why we picked the first book for the series–I’m With The Bears—since in the stories by many well-known authors we see they are already dipping their toes into the climate fiction genre.”
In addition, the series of books has been carefully tailored to appeal to inhabitants of the St. Croix Valley, she said.
“The second book that we chose, Flight Behavior, we chose very specifically because people around here are talking a lot about pollinators and about migration corridors for birds and butterflies and pollinators that are threatened. So Flight Behavior is kind of a cool tie-in to that pollinator partnership.”
Environmental themes have permeated thousands of books. Rutledge said that the cli-fi genre term only gives another dimension to the existence of these themes throughout works of historical and contemporary literature.
“Obviously people have been writing books that count as climate fiction for decades, but this is really a newly recognized genre, and there are very few people I’ve ever talked to who have heard the word before,” she said. “It’s a fun new way to distinguish books.”