It’s Time to Call Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) a Genre
It’s Time to Call Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) a Genre
Deep down, I wanted to label it ''Climate Fiction'' aka Cli-Fi but I wasn’t sure my book fit the criteria. Although I’d read a lot of climate-themed literature, I didn’t quite understand the scope of the genre. Is it even a real genre? Is a micro-genre? A subgenre of SF? I had some homework to do.
The term Cli-Fi was coined in 2007 by American journalist Dan Bloom. Since then, it has been simmering and lingering and gaining steam and traction with the media and among literary critics, but never becoming its own stand-alone genre in bookstores or on Amazon (although it has garnered massive media buzz in publications such as Scientific American, Chicago Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Guardian.) Like all good books, Cli-Fi novels must tell a compelling story, but beyond the story, they must stir an awareness, an awakening in the reader. Cli-Fi must be based on real science and should further the conversation about our changing environment. It should challenge us to see—or imagine—things differently and reconsider what we accept as normal.
Recently, I’ve seen a flurry of new Cli-Fi novels coming to market, many by debut authors. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the on-going US wildfires, and battles over Indigenous water rights, I suspect there are many more in the works.
Dan adds: Yes, Neal Shusterman's cli-fi novel DRY is coming out in October!
In my own novel, ''Four Degrees,'' everything that happens is a direct result of the four-degree uptick in the temperature in a small New England town. Every plot point directly or indirectly links back to climate. But my book is not about climate change. Plot wise, it is a contemporary story about a 30-year-old murder cover up that resurfaces and derails an entomologist, just as she is about to prove invasive beetles are triggering forest fires during a drought.
I hesitate to label it Cli-Fi (even though I really want to) because I think the moniker conjures up for most of the general public images of apocalyptic stories of rising seas levels and devastating weather events. Most but not all Climate Fiction novels are dystopian or science fiction. My book is neither of those things, and I worry that slapping a Cli-Fi label on it would mislead readers.
Within Climate Fiction, there exists a subset of contemporary, realistic novels. They are not sci-fi, futuristic, or dystopian, but recognizable stories relating climate change as it is already happening.
Maybe this is where my novel belongs.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Fight Behavior is often pointed to as an example of contemporary Climate Fiction. Kingsolver doesn’t get preachy. Her characters are not ecowarriors. She presents a rural Appalachian community with an unexpected event linked to climate change. She allows the characters respond in authentic ways. She doesn’t grab readers by the lapels and shout a climate warning. She doesn’t need to.
Another contemporary example is Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station about an artist doing a residency in Antarctica. Among the humorous cast of characters is a climate denier. Instead of depicting the climate denier as stupid or uneducated, Shelby treats him with dignity, which makes the story even more compelling. Her treatment of climate deniers as fully rounded characters makes the need to sound the climate alarm even more urgent.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award, and Robin MacArthur’s 2018 debut Heart Spring Mountain are examples of literary fiction that could also be considered contemporary Climate Fiction.Salvage the Bones follows a poor Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Heart Spring Mountain is about a young woman who returns home to rural Vermont to search for her mother who disappeared during Hurricane Irene. Weather and the environment take on pressing, active roles in Ward’s and MacArthur’s novels. Both books leave the reader with a sense of unease about what the future will bring.
I’m also a huge fan of sweeping dystopian Cli-Fi books.American War by Omar El Akkad, is my favorite in this category, although I hesitate to toss it in the dystopian bucket because the story feels so real, so recognizable. It reads like history that just hasn’t happened yet. The book is set in the late 21st century in the aftermath of the Second American Civil War. Similar to our first Civil War, this war is prompted by the succession of the southern states—but this time the South breaks away because the North (as well as most of the world) has renounced fossil fuels. The South, however, clings to oil as part of its culture. Echoes of the first Civil War ring loud across the barren farmlands and rising seas.
The more I explore the loose label of Climate Fiction, the more titles I come across in the rich mix of literary, contemporary, sci-fi, speculative, dystopian, thriller, queer, and apocalyptic stories. I love them because they force me think. These authors push me ask myself, what if? What if we don’t get a handle on rising temperatures? What if we don’t curtail the species extinctions already occurring at a terrifying rate? What if the temperature climbed four more degrees? What will the toll be on human relationships, economies, culture, art, medicine, human rights, and national sovereignty?
Other recent Cli-Fi books includeNew York 2140, a dystopian novel which explores the financial world that emerges as a result of climate change; Autonomous explores climate change with an eye toward the biotech industry, sexuality, gender, and identity; Motherless, by Native American author Gabriel Horn, explores identity and racism; and Ian McEwan’s Solar and Lydia Millet’sMermaids in Paradise tackle climate change with satire. I’m currently reading Fever Dream, an unsettling literary Cli-Fi translated from Spanish.
I hope you are noticing a pattern:
Climate Fiction spans most genres. I’d love to see bookstores, Amazon, and sites such as Goodreads refer to ''Climate Fiction'' or ''Cli-Fi'' more frequently when they label or recommend books. I want these stories collected under one recognizable umbrella. And I hope literary contests will start adding ''Climate Fiction'' such the annual cli-fi short story contest judged by KSR at ASU with a $1000 prize as its own distinct category.
It’s tempting to toss these books into the science fiction bucket, but I reject this idea. Although some Climate Fiction books might be seen to fall under sci-fi, or a subgenre of SF, not all of them do.
If you want to keep up with new Cli-Fi titles and trends, Amy Brady, Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine, puts out a fantastic newsletter called Burning Worlds, dedicated to climate science in art and literature.
Below, I assembled an incomplete starter list of Cli-Fi titles. I included the labels that Amazon assigns to each of these books to illustrate how broadly the Cli-Fi tag can be applied. These novels make fantastic book club reads because they generate meaningful conversations and perhaps make readers question some of their life choices.
As for my own novel, I think I’m ready to declare my book cli-fi or Climate Fiction—and I’m now convinced Climate Fiction is its own genre, even if Amazon doesn’t agree. I still consider my novel an upmarket thriller as well, but it’s more than that. It’s my small contribution to a rising tide of literature that I hope will alter the way we write, talk, and think about our changing world.
The following Cli-Fi reading list represents only the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg. What Climate Fiction books are you are reading? What do you expect when see a book labeled Cli-Fi? Do you see climate themes showing up in genres I’ve missed? Do you write Climate Fiction? If so, which authors inspire you?
A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle, in the year 2000A Climate Fiction Reading ListFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Literary, ContemporaryFlood by Melissa Scholes Young: Literary, Women’s Fiction, Coming of Age, ContemporarySouth Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Literary, HumorHeart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur: Literary, ContemporaryThe Floating World by C. Morgan Babst: Literary, Psychological, Contemporary, CulturalSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: Literary, ContemporaryWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Literary, Psychological, Coming of AgeStrange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake: Coming of Age, Family LifeAmerican War by Omar El Akkad: Literary, DystopianCarnival by Elizabeth Bear: Space Opera, QueerMermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: Dark Humor, SatireGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Literary, PoliticalThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Literary, Thriller, DystopianThe Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: Literary, Satire
Motherless by Gabriel Horn: Native American, FantasyThe End We Start From by Megan Hunter: Literary, DystopianThe Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: Literary, set in IndiaNew York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Science Fiction, Post-ApocalypticThe MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood: Literary, speculative fictionSolar by Ian McEwan: Humor, SatireFever Dream by Samanta Schewblin: Literary, translated from original SpanishParable of the Sower by Octavia Butler: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Coming of AgeThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: Literary, Magical RealismThe Road by Cormac McCarthy: Literary, DystopianClade by James Bradley: LiteraryBorne by Jeff Vandermeer: Fantasy, Dystopian, Post-ApocalypticThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin: Literary, Science FictionThe Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: Native American, DystopianAutonomous by Annalee Newitz: CyberpunkBarkskins by Annie Proulx: Literary, Historical
About Julie Carrick Dalton
Julie Carrick Dalton is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master's in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her short fiction has appeared in The Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and the anthology Turning Points: Stories About Choice and Change. As a journalist, she has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is the winner of the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition, among other literary awards. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and is currently seeking a home for her first novel. Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn't writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.
2. Old readers find books similar to ones they like.
3. Those who professionally reflect on the meaning of literature give us deep thoughts about a category of stories.
of such a world.
After seeing a (thankfully) positive review of my debut novel, “The Straw That Broke,” Dan Bloom contacted me and asked if I knew I was writing Climate Fiction. This was in 2014 and my response was something like, “Uh…writing what?”
But after Dan, a tireless warrior for the planet defined Climate Fiction and expressed his deep commitment to getting the Cli-Fi message out, I was thrilled to have my thriller (neither science fiction nor dystopian) included by the man who coined the term.
“Straw” involves deceit, abduction and yes, murder resulting from battling over water stolen from the overtaxed and endangered Colorado River. The Colorado, as you may know, is stressed to historic lows due to drought related to climate change. “Straw” was chosen as all-school book for a school in Pennsylvania for it’s ability to “educate and entertain” (vis -a-vis your comment regarding compelling stories stirring awareness), which also pleased me.
The second in the “thrill-ogy”, “Some Say Fire” is about intentionally set forest fires. Western forests are also stressed—and are tinder dry and beetle infested—thanks to drought related to climate change. This is a subject you clearly know well from your writing.
And my third is a work in progress about fracking and the working title is (We may need to talk, Juli.) “The One Degree Difference.” That one degree being, of course, the critical difference between 32 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit.
I learned a great deal from your post. It is heartening to know so many authors and artists are addressing the effects of climate change. Thanks for that. And thank you for allowing me to contribute to this discussion. May there be many more like it.
But it is (in part at least) about what happens to a land which ignores the ecology-preserving traditions of its magic-based religion in favor of maximizing short-term profit.
A topical subject, however, regardless of which ‘parent genre’ one approaches it from.