The literary landscape is as changing as our physical landscape—and one genre gaining momentum is looking to start conversations around that change. Author Marjorie B. Kellogg defines what climate fiction is, and offers some examples that suggests the cli-fi novel has been around for decades.
Does the term “Cli-Fi” mean anything to you?
If it doesn’t today, it will tomorrow.
It’s the hip abbreviation for “climate fiction,” coined in 2011 by Dan Bloom, author of the online Cli-Fi Report, and now accepted by such literary gatekeepers as The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Wikipedia defines climate fiction as “literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Not necessarily speculative in nature, works may take place in the world as we know it or in the near future…imagining…potential futures based on how humanity responds to the impacts of climate change.”
In 2020, blogger Theodora Sutcliffe described climate fiction as “an emerging genre of writing…[that] is teaching us about the world as we need to see it: a planet in the grip of a climate crisis that will shape our lives for as long as we inhabit Earth.”
But climate fiction is not new.
By the strictest current definition, cli-fi novels must concern anthropogenic climate disruption, which also requires that they be set on Earth. I find this unreasonably narrow. Well before the phrase ‘global warming’ became…well, global, the science fiction field had produced many excellent novels about the human response to climate change due to more natural causes: catastrophic solar flares or meteor strikes, for instance.
The narrow definition might still embrace novels centering on nuclear winter, of which there are many from the 1960s and beyond. But broadening the definition, say, to something like “humans dealing with the ravages of climate, whatever the cause” allows for speculation on a wider range of human response, expressed in a greater variety of styles and genres.
In a fine, long essay in The New Yorker from 2015, called “Writers in the Storm,” Kathryn Schultz noted that “the dystopian novelist J.G. Ballard wrote about climate change before the climate was known to be changing.” Indeed, flourishing in the 1960s through the 1980s with such titles as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere, Ballard became one of my early favorites, perhaps setting in motion my own writerly fascination with weather and climate.
After Ballard, the climate fiction standard was most valiantly taken up by Kim Stanley Robinson, from the mid-1980s well into the present. His Science in the Capitol trilogy fits even the narrowest definition of cli-fi. My broader definition would include his Mars Trilogy, ultimately about remaking the Martian climate in an ideal image of Earth.
I didn’t think of myself as a writer of cli-fi until somewhat late in my writing career. I’d always felt uneasy being relegated to science fiction or fantasy—genres I only partly identified with. Reading the term “climate fiction” for the first time gave me an electric shock of recognition: “So that’s what I’ve been writing all along!” Looking back, even my first novel, A Rumor of Angels, is essentially about how climate refugees escaping to an Edenic parallel world begin mindlessly wrecking that world as they have already wrecked Earth.
The good news is that climate fiction is finally getting wider recognition, with respected authors such as Margaret Atwood (The MaddAddam Trilogy) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior) adopting it. The bad news is that there are dire reasons for that recognition. Climate change is no longer future speculation. It is hard upon us. In the end, climate fiction is not just about what forms climate change might take—drought, sea-level rise, wildfires—or how it will impact us physically—epidemics, food and water shortages, heat stroke. Any climate scientist can offer that, and some of it we’re already seeing for ourselves.
But fiction can offer scenarios of how we might deal with these drastic changes on a personal level—as individuals, as a society, and as a species. A well-told tale, involving characters a reader can identify with, will bring home the reality of climate change, especially to the non-scientist, for whom a listing of dire climate data may seem simply a jumble of numbers. Nobody wants a sermon. We want to be entertained, but also, perhaps, enlightened. If you want to learn about the potential for water wars in the American southwest, watch the news. But it would be more fun to read—and be kept on the edge of your seat by—Paulo Bacigalupi’s taut thriller, The Water Knife.
This is my hope for Glimmer—to conjure to convincing life the harrowing experiences of a group of Manhattan residents, and one young woman in particular, as she/they struggle to survive in a flooded and lawless city, as they seek ways to restructure society in order to make the best of a ravished, climate-changed world.
If even one reader is moved enough by Glimmer to consider climate change more seriously, or better still, to lend a shoulder to the uphill efforts to reverse the damage already done, I will have achieved my primary goal.
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