melting-glaciersMy interview with cli-fi popularizer Dan Bloom drew some interesting comments when reposted on the TeleRead website.

Respondents debated whether “cli-fi” was a useful or a silly generic label.

I use the present post to talk a little more about generic labeling and also to list my major posts on literature and climate change over the past few years.

One skeptic of the cli-fi label wrote a very funny response where he imagined the “fi” being attached to a wide range of literature:

I have said this before, the term cli-fi makes me less inclined to read a book with that label. It sounds silly and trivial. It smacks of a marketing gimmick too. Or maybe all genres should get a cutesy label.

Aye-fi: pirate fiction
Cry-fi: sad fiction
Di-fi: Princess Di fiction
Die-fi: high death count fiction
Hi-fi: drug fiction
My-fi: narcissistic fiction
Sty-fi: messy, unedited fiction
Why-fi: fiction that questions the meaning of life

…et al

Climate change is a serious subject and fiction that deals with it deserves better than a silly marketing label.

I appreciate the respondent’s point. On the other hand, one age’s silly marketing label can be another age’s received wisdom. “Sci-fi” itself was not taken seriously for a long time.

I find useful Rick Altman Film Genre, one of the best books I know on generic labeling. Although Film Genre focuses on the cinema—there’s much more money at stake in labeling films than in labeling novels—it has a very useful survey of genre history, going all the way back to Aristotle’s attempts to define tragedy and comedy.

Altman’s main point is that, although genres sometimes seem to have the solidity of natural fact, in reality they always emerge through a complex interaction of authors, audiences, and cultural institutions. Some genres take hold while others seem silly and fade away, but one can’t always predict ahead of time what will happen.

To cite a couple of his examples, what we now call the action adventure genre used to be called melodrama or “mellers.” Now we most commonly associate melodrama with “women’s films,” but these used to be called “women’s weepies.” (Some now call them “chick flicks,” although these can also include comedy as well as melodrama.)

And then there are westerns, which used to be called “oaties.” The simple term “musical,” meanwhile, is a merging of “revue,” “comic opera,” “minstrel shows,” etc. And so on.

One couldn’t have predicted that sci-fi would become a respectable generic label rather than a silly way of  describing a lot of pulp fiction, some of it featuring BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). But this genre would by taken up by authors who have become canonical, like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, and Margaret Atwood. My point in Tuesday’s post is that sci-fi became respectable because science and technology are making such a mark on our world that a special fiction devoting itself to such subjects lent itself to serious artistic exploration.

I don’t know for sure that “cli-fi” will catch on, but there’s a chance it will. After all, climate matters will become more and more pressing in the years to come.

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t think cli-fi will become as big a sci-fi. It seems more likely destined to become a sub-genre of “eco-lit,” which covers the same ground but has the advantage of (1) addressing humans’ relation to nature more generally and (2) including poetry and creative non-fiction in addition to fiction.

Speaking of eco-lit, here are posts I’ve written over the years about literature that casts light upon issues raised by climate change.

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne is talking of the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but he makes a nice point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet John Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. “See better, Lear,” his most trustworthy counselor advises him, thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno.

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novelRiddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature respond when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance which the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviordirectly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions to the migration of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure

Reproduced with permission from Better Living through Beowulf


  1. I’m not a fan of the term sci-fi. Right or wrong, I still see it as a designation for low grade Hollywood style science fiction. It was Omni magazine, I think, were I first learned that sci-fi wasn’t a term of respect, and that’s what sticks despite a flood of popular use. Christopher Hitchens called it a meaningless debate, but I’m not so sure. How something is presented and named has importance.

    Cli-fi is a deliberate attempt to latch on to the sci-fi popularity, but that could be a mistake. Readers of science fiction are probably likely to be aware of climate change already. If you want to broaden the range of climate aware fiction, use a less focused label that doesn’t sound silly.

    General readers will accept the “science fiction” of Atwood or Vonnegut because Oryx and Crake or Slaughter House Five aren’t labeled as sci-fi novels.

    And weren’t Western movies once called Horse Operas somewhere?

  2. Greg M, I agree with everything you said here and also with your comment from Teleread on Dec 14, 2013 three years ago where you began your anti-clifi posts here and you wrote:

    ”I don’t mind reading climate change in fiction — I might even seek it out in some cases. But here is my promise: books marketed under the Cli-Fi label will be passed over for something else. It is a silly term — worse than Sci-Fi. And that sounds to me like a person with development disabilities trying to say science fiction but failing. Just call it Climate Ficton.”

    So given what you commented this week here and the day before, I want to tell you, I agree with you. Let’s just call it “climate fiction” — and headline writers or academic papers need a shorthand call it also CF for climate fiction. I discussed this issue with Margaret Atwood a few months ago where I asked her why she thought so many people in the sci-fi community worldwide were attacking the cli-fi term, and she counselled me last fall to just call it CF for short and write it out long always as ”climate fiction”. So that is what i plan to do now.

    People can say now: ”I don’t mind reading climate change in fiction — I might even seek it out in some cases. But cli-fi is a silly term — worse than Sci-Fi. And since ‘klai fai’ sounds to me like a person with development disabilities trying to say science fiction but failing,let’s just call it ”Climate Ficton”.

    We are on the same page now, Greg. I appreciate your POV and good wake up calls here. ”Climate fiction” it is from now on! Much better!

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