- ''Dear Dan, Thanks for getting back to me so quickly! I’m interested in doing a listicle/round-up of Cli-Fi novels for the Times, and am wondering if you can help?
- Do you have a running list somewhere/thoughts on where the most comprehensive one might be?
- How did you get into this yourself?
- - Livia''
Yes. Can help. How many books you need for a list! Top ten cli-fi novels? Top 20?
> Barbara Kingsolver, "Flight Behavior"...2012
> "South pole station" 2017 by Ashley Shelby
> "0dds against tomorrow" by Nathaniel Rich. 2013.
> "New York 2140" kim Stanley Robinson (new clifi novel )
> Paolo bacigalupi "the Water Knife" ...2016
> Claire vaye Watkins "Gold Fame Citrus"....2016
> "Ice" by laline Paul in UK ...2017
Are Cli-Fi Novels All Too Real? We Asked 7 Climate Scientist Experts
When extraordinary hurricanes and floods battered parts of the United States and Caribbean this month, Paolo Bacigalupi’s readers started sending him news clips. In “Ship Breaker,” which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2010, Bacigalupi, a climate fiction writer, had invented a monster “Category 6” hurricane.
Now, his readers were asking: Is this what you were talking about?
Climate change presents a peculiar challenge to novelists; it often seems to simmer without a singular moment of crisis. So cli-fi authors like Mr. Bacigalupi hurtle current science into drought-ravaged, flooded, starved, sunken and sandy futures. Climate-themed fiction, also known as cli-fi and covered in the NYT's ROOM FOR DEBATE forum in July 2014, is extension, not invention.
But as scientists’ projections about the effects of climate change have increasingly become reality, some works of cli-fi have begun to seem all too plausible. We chose seven cli-fi novels and asked the experts: How likely are they to come true?
- Climate Effect: Water Wars‘The Water Knife’by Paolo Bacigalupi
“What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?” Mr. Bacigalupi said. “If you put those questions in people’s mind, it changes how they look at their daily life.”
Leon Szeptycki, an attorney and professor specializing in water rights at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, described the book as fictional extension. “Climate change will cause a lot of social and economic disruption in the American Southwest, but not at the level the author envisions,” he said.
Eighty to 90 percent of water in the Southwest is used for agriculture, so rural communities would be hit first by shortages, Mr. Szeptycki said. “Available water will shift to cities,” he said. “There will be less water, less food, fewer jobs.”
- Climate Effect: Desertification‘Gold Fame Citrus’by Claire Vaye Watkins
- Claire Vaye Watkins’s 2016 cli-fi novel, her first, imagined drought differently. Sand has swallowed California; now it’s known as the Amargosa Dune Sea. Nothing grows in the lawless desert, but a wandering dowser claims that new species — a diurnal owl, carnivorous plants and albino hummingbirds — have emerged through a “super-speed evolutionary time warp.”
“Absolutely, climate change can accelerate evolution,” said Jeffrey Townsend, a professor of evolutionary biology at Yale. Humans have set off many evolutionary changes, like when insects have adapted to pesticides or when the peppered moth lost its spots to more closely resemble industrial soot. Plants becoming meat eaters would be more of a stretch, Dr. Townsend said.
The novel is “not an unreasonable fictional depiction” of drought, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth system science at Stanford. California already has a “new climate,” he added. Anthropogenic warming has increased the state’s drought risk, but permanent rainlessness remains unlikely.
“That’s probably where the scientific literature and the novel diverge,” Dr. Diffenbaugh said. “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.”
- Climate Effect: Species Extinction‘Flight Behavior’by Barbara Kingsolver
- The central character in Barbara Kingsolver’s 2015 cli-fi novel doesn’t believe in climate change until she has a “vision of glory” — a colony of monarch butterflies from Mexico appears in southern Appalachia, disoriented by warming temperatures.
“I think it could happen, but pretty far into the distant future when global warming really has an effect further north,” said Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College, whom Ms. Kingsolver consulted while writing the book.
Dr. Brower, who has been studying the death of monarch butterflies for six decades, said their numbers were already “way down” because of a combination of pesticide use, logging and the impacts of climate change. But he guessed it would take about half a century before temperatures in Appalachia rose enough to accommodate the butterflies during their winter migration.
“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” Dr. Brower said, “but I don’t think it will be good.”
- Climate Effect: Disrupted Food Chain‘The History of Bees’by Maja Lunde
- China, 2098: Tao is up a tree, hand-pollinating its blossoms with a tiny brush. The bees are long since gone. Maja Lunde’s first cli-fi novel and her debut book for adults, published in 2017 in Norwegian and later translated into German and English, chronicles three generations as they exploit, try to save and eventually mimic bees, whose extinction has become a familiar device in climate-themed fiction.
“It’s a crazy idea, and it’s being done,” said Jeremy Kerr, a biodiversity researcher at the University of Ottawa, describing the hand-pollinators of Hanyuan County in China’s Sichuan Province.
Pollinators like bees (and birds, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, beetles, bats and mosquitoes) are crucial to the food chain because they move pollen between fruit, vegetables and nuts. Plants that depend on pollination are 35 percent of global crop production. While Colony Collapse Disorder — previously believed to pose a major threat to all bees — has declined substantially in recent years, Dr. Kerr said it was conceivable that five or six “keystone” species, which pollinate crops like canola, tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, could be lost, in part because of global warming.
But hand-pollination? “The question of whether you could do something like that on a planetary scale,” Dr. Kerr said, “Holy moly, if that’s where we got to, I think other things would probably kill us first.”
- Climate Effect: Refugees‘Borne’by Jeff VanderMeer
- In Jeff VanderMeer’s 2017 novel, rising waters force a child named Rachel to flee her island home, so she moves “from camp to camp, country to country,” hoping that she “could outrun the unraveling of the world.” Later, in a nameless ruined city, the 28-year-old Rachel befriends an amorphous creature, Borne, who smells like brine and reminds her of the sea animals of her childhood.
Extreme weather events uproot 21.5 million people each year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and climate change is expected to increase that number. But there is no internationally accepted legal status for people who have been displaced by the impacts of climate change.
“What would be fair,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, “would be for each of the major emitting countries to accept a portion of the world’s climate-displaced people proportional to its historic contribution” of greenhouse gases.
Back in August, New York Times reporter Livia Albeck-Ripka, an Australian journalist now living in New York City, contacted me by Twitter and email about a news story she was developing on cli-fi novels, and she asked if I had time to chat with her. I said sure.
She wrote (August 19 email): "Dear Dan, thanks for getting back to me so quickly! I am interested in doing a listicle/round-up of Cli-Fi novels for the New York Times interactive section at the Climate Desk and I am wondering if you can help us. Do you have a running list somewhere/thoughts on where the most comprehensive list might be? Cheers, Liva."
I sent her a list of cli-fi novels, one short, and one a long list. She decided to use four of the novels I recommended to her and she chose three other novels for her listicle as well. Her news story is reported in an edited version (for clarification and amplification) here.