Cli-Fi: An Introduction

Have you read any recent Margaret Atwood or Neal Stevenson? If you have then there’s a good chance you’ve encountered Climate-Fiction, or Cli-Fi, a genre you may not have even known exists. Art and literature have always acted as both barometers and mirrors for great world events and changes, measuring impact and reflecting those changes back at us until we can conceive, however uncomfortably, of our place, purpose and responsibility within them.

The enlightenment gave us the Renaissance painters, the printing press and Shakespeare. The advent of technology gave us the new genre of science fiction in varying stages, from Jules Verne to our modern sci-fi masters and sub-genres. Dotted throughout these epochs are the voices that offer insight and perspective on humanity’s greatest (and worst) achievements, from war, civil rights, invention and exploration to expositions on where this all might take us.

The late twentieth century brought us a new legacy: man-made climate change. It is arguably the biggest threat to the diversity of life on earth as we know it, and its changes are as far-reaching as they are grim, from shrinking water sources to rising temperatures. And it is something that wordsmiths are not able to ignore, igniting the birth of Cli-Fi, a genre that casts climate change as a main protagonist and responds to the climate crisis with a deft mixture of art, politics and sharp warning from the points of view of both activist and passive observer. And unfortunately it’s a genre which will grow in popularity before we can (hopefully) relegate it to history’s ledger as a time we’ve now safely passed.

Check out these five novels to launch your introduction to the world of Cli-Fi:

 

Solar by Ian McEwan

solarPhysicist Michael Beard may have the brain-power to solve the problem of global warming, but when his faltering career and faltering personal life intersect, can he see himself out of the tangle in enough time to save either?

 

 

 

 

 

 

waterknifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Water is disappearing from the Southwest, forcing a new wave of immigrants into the northern states, and enabling a black-market trade of the precious commodity to fall into the hands of only the very rich, resulting in a play for a water-source led by an unscrupulous band of characters.

 

 

 

 

We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Reilly

unpreparedThe “big” storm is coming, and for the inhabitants of a small Vermont town set right in its path, that means a race to the ready and a divisive, perhaps deadly crossroads between the town’s inhabitants, and one couple in particular, first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

orxyOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The first of the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood delivers a world where a plague has obliterated nearly all natural life, and corporations control what little is left, through genetic modification, fear, and intimidation.

 

 

 

 

 

flightbehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Rain and butterflies. When first one and then the other overtake a small Appalachian town, some inhabitants see it as a gift, and others struggle to help he townspeople understand that both bring messages of warning rather than beauty. Within the fray we find two people whose paths are as parallel and unmeeting as divinity as science, despite their magnetism towards each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you read any Cli-Fi novels? What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments below!

    Karen Green

    Karen Green is a freelance writer and big city ex-pat now living in rural Ontario. She writes for numerous print and online publications, and considers her library card to be one of her most valuable possessions.

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    3 Responses to “Cli-Fi: An Introduction”

    1. Karen, your intro above is one of the best and most insightful I have seen yet in three years of monitoring cli-fi memes in the media. Bravo. I especially marked and underlined this graf: — “The late 20th Century brought us a new legacy: man-made climate change. It is arguably the biggest threat to the diversity of life on earth as we know it, and its changes are as far-reaching as they are grim, from shrinking water sources to rising temperatures. And it is something that wordsmiths are not able to ignore, igniting the birth of Cli-Fi, a genre that casts climate change as a main protagonist and responds to the climate crisis with a deft mixture of art, politics and sharp warning from the points of view of both activist and passive observer. And unfortunately it’s a genre which will grow in popularity before we can (hopefully) relegate it to history’s ledger as a time we’ve now safely passed.”

    2. A top professor of ecocriticism in Canada wrties, after reading this short oped I wrote the other day to try to explain to readers worldwide what cli-fi is really all about, in all of its many iterations, she wrote: “I love this, Dan — and would love to tweet it if you are posting it to your blog. The format of the future op-ed is really resonant, and it’s like a manifesto with a sense of futurity and even evanescence built into it. I love the supple elasticity, too, and the sense that “no one owns it” is surely what is allowing it to generate so much commentary, so much pedagogical attention, and so much creative and political agency. Cheers to you for this brilliant “Rising” tide!”

      ​Here is the oped:

      ”​The Rise and Future Fall of Cli-fi​”​

      an OPED

      by Dan Bloom

      What is cli-fi and why has it caught on so strongly in the second decade of the 21st Century? The cli-fi term means many things to many people, which is the way things should be. It’s a meme, a motif, a genre, a buzzword, a PR concept, an eye-catching and useful short 5-letter headline word. There’s a reason that cli-fi caught on so dramatically in the second decade of the 21st Century. Actually, there are many reasons, each with a good backstory and a future. Anecdotes abound. Newspaper editors took the term and turned it into a piece of prime real estate. Website editors punched it up here and there. Across the seas, in France and Germany and Italy and Denmark and Norway, even in China, cli-fi went global and editors in non-English speaking countries picked up the term and started using it. There was no pressure applied, there was no orchestrated PR campaign, it all just “happened.”

      It’s important and noteworthy to understand that there is no “school of cli-fi writers” and there is no cli-fi canon, either. There is no cli-fi movement and there no leader of any such movement. No one owns cli-fi, no one has a copyright on it, and no one controls its value. Does it have a value? Who knows?

      Cli-fi has its own values, of course, as those who write cli-fi novels and film scripts know so well. The know its worth and its value, to them. Does it have a worth and a value to the culture at large? Who knows?

      Cli-fi is not science fiction and it is not ecofiction and it is not eco-fabulism. Cli-fi has charted its own course and it has caught on with the literati precisely because no one owns it or controls it.

      If anything, cli-fi is a child of media headlines. The term itself was concocted merely as a general platform for novelists to use as they see fit. The media picked up the term, beginning in April 2013 when NPR ran its now-famous radio segment on the rise of this genre. After NPR, there was no stopping it. After the New York Times and the Guardian and over 50 other publications around the world followed NPR’s lead, cli-fi became a part of the evolving culture of climate change novels and movies.

      Will the cli-fi term last? Again, who knows? It’s here now, and it’s in the air.

      It’s important to note that cli-fi never set out to be anything other than what it is: a media term, a headline buzzword, a PR concept. Is is a real bonafide literary genre? No way, not yet. Those things take time, dozens of years, decades, centuries. Cli-fi is so new it is genreless and nobody can claim it for their own.

      Will the cli-fi term still be around at the beginning of the 22nd Century? Who knows? It is quite possible that in 100 years, the cli-fi moniker will have outlived its usefulness and won’t be heard from again. Buzzwords come and go. Genres come and go. Newspaper editors come and go.

      Perhaps by 2099, cli-fi will have run it course, and be replaced by a newer, more appropriate buzzword. Time will tell. For now, it’s here, even if not everyone has heard of it yet. And truth be told, only five percent of the American public has ever heard the term or seen it in print in a newspaper or online. Maybe even less than five percent.

      The other day I was chatting online with a top newspaper editor at a major metropolitan paper on the East Coast and when I asked him in passing if he had ever heard of the cli-fi term yet, he replied in his next email with an honest question and confession: “What’s cli-fi?”

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