I’ve been having e-mail conversations with TeleRead contributor Dan Bloom, a former newspaper editor who claims that he invented the term cli-fi (climate fiction). Dan is tireless in promoting novels that will promote awareness of climate change.
I like the cli-fi label because, at first glance, it appears to be a sub-genre of sci-fi. The overlap isn’t complete, however: Margaret Atwood writes a kind of science fiction (she calls it “speculative fiction”) but Barbara Kingsolver does not. This means that cli-fi could well have science fiction’s potential to generate its own sub-genres. It could well evolve as science fiction has evolved.
While sci-fi became identified as a genre in the 1920s and came into its own in the 1950s, its origins can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries (the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein). This was a time when science and technology were first perceived to have a significant influence over our lives. Now sci-fi generates a rich array of works, from high literature to pulp fiction, not to mention numerous hybrids (sci-fi westerns, sci-fi noir, sci-fi horror, etc.).
Since human-caused climate change will increasingly influence our lives in the 21st century, I fully expect to see climate fiction follow a similar trajectory.
So far, cli-fi seems to be showing up mainly as futurist dystopian and disaster fiction. I’ve noted how even a contemporaneously set novel like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), while realistic, is filled with apocalyptic imagery (Ezekiel’s cherubim, Noah’s flood, Moses’s burning bush).
New genres don’t develop in a vacuum. Authors attracted to the genre seek each other out, magazines are formed, and (in this day and age) websites and blogs go into action. Dan Bloom’s website The Cli-Fi Report both takes note of and seeks to promote new climate fiction Here are excerpts from an e-mail interview I had with Dan:
Bates: When did you realize that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was a problem?
Bloom: I was following the news about a warming world as far back as the 1970s and I even wrote a disaster novel in 1975, set in a flooded 2025 Manhattan. I sent the manuscript to New York literary agent, and one of his interns returned it with a note saying, “Interesting theme but your characters never come alive. Thanks for sending, though.” I never tried my hand at writing a novel again, but it was a good learning curve, and it taught me about the New York book industry.
Climate change caught my attention again when I was working at a Tokyo newspaper in the 1990s and we sent one of our reporters to Rio for the first big climate talks. His reports back to the paper made a big impression on me then. But I didn’t become personally involved until 2006.
I was in Taiwan when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report saying basically that if we don’t clean up our act soon, then our goose is cooked. I knew I had to do something.
I got in touch with James Lovelock, who had written an article in The Financial Times about the Earth as a living organism. He encouraged me to raise the alarm and I have been blogging ever since. The following year, I was encouraged when the New York Times wrote a piece about my essay on “polar cities.”
Bates: And how did you arrive at the name for the genre?
Bloom: In one of my blogs in 2008, when trying to find a Hollywood producer for a movie idea, I typed out the words “cli-fi movie” and the term was born. In 2011 I commissioned Jim Laughter (pronounced Lauder) to write a cli-fi novel, titled Polar City Red. We marketed the book as a “cli-fi thriller” and published it on Earth Day 2012. Margaret Atwood retweeted one of my tweets, informing her 600,000 followers that “there’s a new genre called cli-fi.” With Atwood’s book, the cli-fi term gained traction.
It received a second boost later that year when climate scientist Judith Curry at Georgia Tech, in her blog Climate Etc., discussed 25 cli-fi novels, past and present, including Polar City Red. The following year, in a story headlined “A New Genre Is Born: Cli-Fi,” NPR did a five minute segment on two new books about climate issues: Nathiel Rich’s Odds against Tomorrow and Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. At that point the term went viral.
Bates: What impact do you believe cli-fi can have?
Bloom: I have always loved literature that has an impact, books like On the Beach, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Stranger, Animal Farm, and Flight Behavior. For me, the best of cli-fi does two things: it delivers a powerful and emotional story and it pushes the reader to wake up to the existential threat that man-made global warming poses to future generations. So good cli-fi is both a great read and a call to action, either direct or indirect.
If it doesn’t wake us up, it’s just escapist entertainment. I am not interested anymore in escapism. We are facing a dire threat to our continued existence within the next 30 generations. I especially hope for cli-fi that will reach high school and college students.
Bates: How does cli-fi achieve these aims more effectively than non-fictional treatment of climate issues?
Non-fiction is good but charts and stats and photos only go so far. A great novel, on the other hands, hits the reader in the gut and leaves them with the feeling, “I must do something about this issue.”
Bates: There’s suspicion in certain literary quarters towards “social cause fiction” — which is to say, fiction that puts the cause that a work is propounding above aesthetic concerns. Is that something you worry about?
Bloom: The novel must be a novel, written with power. Otherwise it is just a comic book. But given how much of a threat climate change poses to humankind, one can’t quibble with a novel that wakes people up, whether it is great or pulp fiction. I think we need all kinds of novels. A pulp fiction cli-fi novel that does what On the Beach did for nuclear awareness would work wonders. It’s up to writers to write and literary critics can determine the line between classic and pulp later.
Furthermore, there’s a place for so-so cli-fi out there, self-published by hobby weekend writers. Most of them could never be published by a major publishing house. But that’s okay because they are exploring the issues. My own failed attempts at writing a novel, after all, brought me to where I am today.
Sometimes the most effective cli-fi literature, like Flight Behavior, doesn’t appear to be promoting a cause. You can tell that it raised awareness, however, because it was attacked by rightwing climate deniers.
Flight Behavior, I’d say, is one of the best cli-fi novels so far, a 10. Solar, a satiric yarn by Ian McEwan, I’d award a 5.
Bates: Tell us about your work alerting the world to climate change.
Bloom: It’s really just a hobby that fell in my lap with that now-famous NPR broadcast just a few days after my 65th birthday. I am not a professional public relations person and I’m not an academic with a PhD or a literary critic or a theorist. Nor do I get paid. I have been working on behalf of cli-fi since 2006, 24/7 without any days off or vacations.
I do it as a labor of love and I haven’t looked back since. It’s solo work, there’s no staff, no office, no funding, no secretary or support crew, no university sponsorship or backing, and I don’t even own a computer! I work out of a smoky internet cafe in Taiwan, renting the computers there by the hour.
It is the most meaningful work I have done in my life.
(Reproduced with permission from a slightly different version appearing in Better Living through Beowulf: How great literature can change your life.)