Sunday, September 18, 2016

Some thoughts on the rise of the cli-fi genre in the past ten years, and what the future might hold in the next 50 years of cli-fi

Some thoughts on the rise of the cli-fi genre in the past ten years, and what the future might hold in the next 50 years of cli-fi

A new generation of climate fiction dubbed cli-fi has emerged in the last ten years, marking the strong consensus that has emerged over climate change and global warming.  Here are some gathered thoughts from a wide variety of sources on the rise of the cli-fi genre, and what the future might hold in the next 50 years of cli-fi.

Many cli-fi novels representing this genre focus on themes common across similar books: their framing of the climate change problem, their representations of science and scientists, their portrayals of economic and environmental challenges, and their scenarios for addressing the climate challenge.

Cli-fi novels illustrate in varying ways the problems attending the science-society relationship, the economic imperatives that have driven the characters’ choices, and the contradictory impulses that define our connections with nature.

Such novels provide a picture of the challenges that need to be understood, but scenarios that offer possibilities for change are not fully developed. Such cli-fi books represent a given moment in the longer trajectory of climate fiction while offering the initial building blocks to reconsider our ways of living so that new expectations and imaginaries can be debated and reconceived.

Over the past decade, a strong consensus has emerged over climate change posing risks that could end civilization as we know it.

Not surprisingly, astrong cultural response in the form of climate fiction or “cli-fi”has developed.

''Climate fiction'' aka cli-fi   is a cultural response to mostly scientific and policy discourses that offers a way of exploring dramatic social change through the perspectives of individual and social group experiences by way of fictional narrative.

So how is climate change ramed in cli-fi novels? We must investigate their various themes that provide templates for describing climate change as lived experience, and identify and understand the expectations that might underlie scripts of the future.

The term “cli-fi” has been adopted by the popular press, and stories about this burgeoning genre began appearing in various media outlets worldwide, in several languages.

In the summer of 2014, the The New York Times ''ROOM FOR DEBATE'' forum section online created a discussion page in its online opinion section asking the question “Will fiction influence how we react to climate change?”, inviting published authors and climate change activists alike to comment and debate. Some saw the works as a catalyst to reflect our anxieties about climate change, while others saw fiction as a way to make the issue more palatable to the general public in order to motivate them to take action.

As part of a marketing campaign in 2013 -- POLAR CITY RED by Jim Laughter -- Dan Bloom initially identified cli-fi as a ''subgenre'' of SF, but merely to get along better with those in the science fiction community. For Bloom, Cli-Fi has always been, in his mind, a standalone, separate, independent genre.

Cli-fi novels have features that make them better positioned to explore the political, scientific, and cultural dimensions of climate change.

Cli-fi novels are able to portray futures at planetary scales and make connections between global threats and individual lives, a pointed weakness in the old environmental movement.

Cli-fi novels are able to focus attention on the “what-if” scnario, a way of imagining the world that that provides a bridge to considering imaginative ways of how we “adapt” or “mitigate” beyond the confines of policy and scientific thinking.

''Oryx and Crake'', often called the number one cli-fi novel, uses climate change as backdrop to the chronicle of an apocalypse, told through the story of the last living human, Jimmy, nicknamed Snowman.

Cli-fi is a  “new” genre that is indicative of the urgencies of the climate change issue in the last decade and a half despite and reflects a joint enterprise among writers, readers, journalists, and marketers, suggesting that attribution of the identity of cli-fi novels to a text constitutes an active intervention in their distribution and reception.


Some pronouncements about the cli-fi genre have promoted the idea that such works, rather than simplistically “educating” the public, try to represent our deepest cultural fears,  while others claim they change minds.

The idea of climate change has different meanings and implications that are in the process of taking hold, becoming a catalyst for rethinking the status quo, and pushing us to construct new imagined worlds.

There are rich fictional possibilities for the cli-fi genre to provide an opportunity to explore the tensions that arise when the impersonal, apolitical and universal imaginary of climate change projected by science comes into conflict with the subjective, situated and normative imaginations of human actors engaging with nature.

Climate fiction goes beyond simplistic expectations because it does not merely address climate change but investigates potential and complex human reactions under situations of stress and change. They often present a broad diversity in character, plot, and setting. The complexities are demonstrable in the representations of the changing climate, the framing of science and scientists, the economic underpinnings, and environmental dimensions.

Simply put, in cli-fi novels, climate change is about change. The novels we read today set the problem of climate change in different ways. In some, climate change is a lived reality; in others, it serves as backdrop to the excesses of a highly technologized society. The characters also have different levels of understanding or beliefs about climate change, not unlike the landscape of opinions among different social groups.

Think on this: The glaciers that keep Asia’s watersheds in business are going right away. . . . The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, the canary is dead.

The crafting of many cli-fi novels  goes beyond common expectations about climate change as they do not fall neatly into the ecology box, showing instead the complexities of being “green.”

Cli-fi novels are not manuals for environmentalists nor do they blithely promote the environmental cause. The novels do not necessarily take the earnestness of the environmental movement seriously, and there is a self-conscious awareness of the extreme dedication required to live sustainably and the frequent contradictions that emerge.

Situating climate change problems within the social as many cli-fi novels do can elucidate the complexities of AGW problems in ways far removed from temperature charts and other scientific ways of understanding climate change.

Many cli-fi novels offer “new theories” to transform our social imaginaries and revise expectations. While new theories or clear solutions are not presented, what these novels do is outline the complexities of anticipating or living with climate change. They articulate the inconsistencies embedded in our hopes and desires, they make visible the complexities behind the broader circulation of scientific knowledge in society, and they portray the contradictions in expectations about technological solutions. Acknowledging the complexities of this problem is an important first step.

That there are multiple ways of knowing about climate change is reinforced in many cli-fi novels, sometimes even through satire. 

So “how do cli-fi novels construct climate change? Many such novels examine the issues surrounding the experience of climate change and explore the potential collective experience of social upheaval in unique ways through individual lives and community experiences, painting the global climate challenges through palettes of the local and the personal. That's cli-fi.

What unites many cli-fi novels is the idea of “complexity.” None of them for the most part resolve their issues in any complete or satisfactory way. There are no happy endings, but survival continues. While the scientific and policy frameworks on the climate have been defined by their formal methods and rules to ensure an “organized subjectivity,” the diverse ways of confronting an issue in personal or community terms that are both complex and, in some cases, divisive are suggested in many good cli-fi  novels, helping uncover the many meanings of climate change.

Cli-fi novels also provide an escape of sorts where alternate realities can be explored, allowing readers to become more aware of concepts or scenarios that they had not previously considered.

On a societal level, just as science has raised expectations for the “good life” arising from the fruits of scientific labor, so have such outcomes also been blamed for the ills of modernity, what one pundit has called “the double face of science”.  This theme can also be skillfully drawn in cli-fi novels.

So cli-fi novels can go one step further, putting conflicting expectations on full display, satirizing our human predicaments, representing science through a skeptical lens, and “narrating the essential political nature of being human.” The performative dimension of expectations in this context forces readers to grapple with such contradictions before avenues for solutions can be reconsidered.

In most cli-fi novels, climate change as cultural concept becomes a lived experience rather than a scientific projection, promissory of challenges rather than utopic solutions. Such novels are adept at tracing human and institutional shortcomings, but some scenarios and story arcs that might provide some exemplars of the challenges (or opportunities) of living with climate change are not always accessible.

Most cli-fi novels are proficient at tracing human flaws and institutional shortcomings. Such portrayals of risks, hurdles, or human weaknesses are important building blocks for imagined expectations of the future; they need to be complimented with avenues for imagining solutions.

Cli-fi novels may be illustrative of the present cultural moment we find ourselves in in 2016, a time when more realist scenarios of living under climate-changed contexts are not as frequently used, reflecting “a transition point,” “an evolving literary phenomenon” in the trajectory of cli-fi.

This cli-fi novels call for storylines reflecting other locales and cultures, whose experiences with climate change foreground different trajectories of this global problem.

Such cli-fi novels speak to the function of popular culture through fiction as pedagogical, not only emulating the varied standpoints that exist in the surrounding society, but providing a forum for how they may also serve as a catalyst for reconsidering our ways of living and surviving so that new imaginaries can be debated and collectively reconceived.

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