Climate change has created a new literary genre

July 11, 2014
Dan Bloom is a climate activist who graduated from Tufts University in 1971 and now blogs about cli-fi issues.

The Jet Star roller coaster is seen in the ocean at dawn as it was left by Hurricane Sandy, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

Is climate change due for an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” moment? The 1852 bestseller helped transform abolitionism into a mainstream cause. Now, “cli-fi” is trying to do the same for environmentalism.

The emerging genre is a cousin of sci-fi. But its books are set, NPR writes, “in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter.” And it’s gaining both fans and writers.

The climate-change canon dates back to the 1962 novel ”The Drowned World” by British writer J. G. Ballard. In it, polar ice-caps have melted and global temperatures have soared. Presciently, some coastal American and European cities are under water.

But Ballard’s work didn’t pinpoint humans as the cause of Earth’s precipitous decline. It wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that authors started grappling seriously with our role in impending environmental catastrophe.

In 2004, Michael Crichton released “State of Fear,” a novel about eco-terrorists. Ian McEwan followed up in 2010 with “Solar,” a story about a jaded physicist who tries to solve global warming. And in 2012, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” gracefully explored how one town is reshaped by a changing ecosystem. As ‘The New York Times wrote in its review of the book:

How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation?

Perhaps the best-known “cli-fi” work is Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” released in 2013. That book sold more than 100,000 copies and drew major media attention.

In it, a near-future New York is submerged when a Category 3 hurricane hits. As Rich was editing the final proofs, Sandy submerged much of the East Coast, a strange moment of life imitating art.

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Rich and others say that fiction can stir emotion and action in a way scientific reports and newscasts don’t.

“You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue,” Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry told NPR. She went on:

“And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this — a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness” of readers who may not be following the science.

That means finding characters or stories that resonate. And it also means getting rid of jargon and cliches. In Rich’s 300-page book, for example, the word “climate change” doesn’t appear once.

“I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part, are examples of bad writing, really,” Rich told NPR last year. “I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality … which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?”

A growing number of YA books also attack this topic, including Mindy McGinnis’s “Not a Drop to Drink,” Staci Lloyd’s “The Carbon Diaries 2015″ and Joshua David Bellin’s “Survival Colony 9″. Even the post-apocalyptic  “Hunger Games” trilogy hints at a climate-ravaged earth.

Academia has begun paying attention to the trend, too. Several U.S. and British universities are now offering literature courses on cli-fi novels and movies. And the professors who teach those classes say students are moved by the literature they read. According to the ‘New York Times’:

Stephen Siperstein … recalled showing the documentary “Chasing Ice,” about disappearing glaciers, to a class of undergraduates, leaving several of them in tears. Em Jackson talked of leading groups on glacier tours, and the profound effect they had on people. Another student, Shane Hall, noted that people experience the weather, while the notion of climate is a more abstract concept that can often be communicated only through media — from photography to sober scientific articles to futuristic fiction.

“In this sense,” he said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

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