6 Fun Facts About Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)
Climate fiction (cli-fi) is a broad genre that includes all fiction that references the climate in some significant way. Most cli-fi explores human-caused climate change and its impact on humanity and the Earth in the present or future.
Telling stories about climate change helps us understand this big, impersonal, long-term trend in more immediate and personal ways. Charts and graphs are great when we want to understand the details of the science, but storytelling really helps us make sense of it all as human beings. It allows us to experience climate change through the eyes of deeply human characters with complex hopes, dreams, and fears that may speak to our own feelings about the realities of climate change. A good cli-fi story entertains us while also helping us figure out what climate change means for us as individuals, communities, and human societies.
Cli-fi is growing in popularity because the consequences of climate change are becoming more obvious and serious with each passing day. More authors are writing cli-fi, and more readers are looking for it. In honor of this growing trend, here are a few fun facts about cli-fi.
(1) Cli-Fi Isn’t NewDepending on how you define the genre, cli-fi is nothing new. In 1889, Jules Verne published a novel called The Purchase of the North Pole that explores the idea of using a cannon to alter the Earth’s tilt on its axis and thus alter the global climate.
Many authors in the early to mid-twentieth century wrote stories about catastrophic (but fictional) shifts in the global climate. J.G. Ballard, author of High-Rise, published several well-known novels featuring such climate catastrophes. The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World explore purely natural climate catastrophes, while The Drought explores a climate catastrophe caused by human beings (but not via greenhouse gas emissions).
These early works portray purely fictional changes in the Earth’s climate. In contrast, most contemporary cli-fi explores the implications of the real-world crisis of human-caused climate change.
(2) Cli-Fi Is More Than Just Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic FictionGiven the realities of climate change in the real world, it’s not surprising that many cli-fi stories contain strong dystopian and post-apocalyptic elements. The biggest stereotype about cli-fi is that it’s basically the climate-based equivalent of zombie fiction. Human civilization has collapsed; the cities have been destroyed by climate wars and rising tides; large swaths of land have become uninhabitable; grim bands of weary survivors roam the wastelands struggling just to find food and shelter.
When it’s done well, this gritty take on the genre can be an immensely rewarding, thought-provoking, and downright chilling experience. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and The Water Knife take place in dystopian societies in a future mid-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic setting. These novels are some of the most engaging and thought-provoking examples of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic trend in the genre
However, if dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options.
If you like stories about climate science and space travel, the award-winning Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is a great exploration of the intersection between climate, science, technology, ethics, politics, and the colonization of space. Instead of addressing climate change on Earth, the series explores the implication of terraforming on Mars.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s later cli-fi addresses human-caused climate change much more directly. The Science in the Capital Trilogy (also available in abridged form as a single novel) explores the real-world science and politics of climate change through the lens of a colorful cast of characters at the intersection of science and public policy in Washington D.C. His most recent novel, New York 2140, is both a love letter to the city of New York and a remarkably broad and deep exploration of what society might be like a hundred years from now. It portrays a world that has been significantly affected by climate change, yet it does so in a way that is very realistic, non-apocalyptic, and in many ways encouraging without ignoring the dark side of climate change or pushing any simplistic or easy answers.
(3) Cli-Fi Has Some Big-Name AuthorsThe terms “climate fiction” and “cli-fi” haven’t fully gained traction among big publishers or marketers yet. But several big-name authors have written books with climate-related themes.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, has a literary cli-fi novel called Flight Behavior. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, incorporates elements of climate fiction into her popular MaddAddam Triology. As I mentioned above, sci-fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson has published numerous novels related to climate science and increasingly human-caused climate change.
On a sad and frustrating note, Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, is one of the most famous authors to publish a novel addressing human-caused climate change. Unfortunately, his novel is a ridiculous climate science denialist screed, complete with footnotes and an author’s message containing misleading information that has been debunked by the Union for Concerned Scientists and many other scientists, including some of the very scientists whose work he misrepresents. Therefore, I won’t link to it, and I highly recommend that you avoid it!
(4) Cli-Fi and Its CrossoversCli-fi is rarely just about the climate. It’s usually what I call “Cli-Fi Plus” — cli-fi plus sci-fi, cli-fi plus biopunk, cli-fi plus contemporary fantasy, cli-fi plus zombies, cli-fi plus refugee fiction, literary cli-fi, etc. One of my goals as a cli-fi reader, viewer, and author is to explore as many of these crossovers as I can to discover just how many diverse and engaging stories we can tell about climate change!
Why do so many cli-fi authors cross over into other genres? Maybe it’s because climate change is such a big theme that it touches every other aspect of our lives. Or maybe it’s because cli-fi is still an emerging genre that needs the support of other genres to draw in new readers and viewers. Either way, it’s exciting and rewarding to see so many crossovers with some of my other favorite genres.
(5) Cli-Fi Isn’t Just NovelsMost people who have heard of cli-fi think of it as a novel genre. This may be because the barriers to publishing a good novel — especially an indie or self-published novel — are much lower than the barriers to producing a good full-length film or TV series. Therefore, cli-fi novels are easier to create than cli-fi films or television. This is especially true given the fact that many cli-fi plots would require special effects or visual effects that stretch or break the budgets of smaller independent producers. However, there are many examples of films, TV shows, and other media that either focus on climate change or address it in some significant way
The most famous and heavy-handed cli-fi film to date is arguably The Day After Tomorrow. The film is very loosely based on the real-world projection that human-caused climate change might disrupt thermohaline circulation in the ocean, thus leading to serious and largely harmful consequences. Of course, given the fact that it was a major Hollywood disaster film, the details were exaggerated to the point of complete scientific inaccuracy. However, in spite of its failings, many people concerned about climate change saw the film as a good opportunity to talk about climate change in real life, especially given the big-name cast, impressive visual effects, and exciting plot that gave it broad appeal with the general public.
Other prominent examples of cli-fi films include Waterworld (catastrophic sea level rise); Snowpiercer (geoengineering gone horribly awry); Interstellar (fleeing a world succumbing to climate change); The Thaw (thawing permafrost releases a deadly parasite); Moana (a light-handed allegory for climate change); Mother! (another allegory for climate change); and even The Hunger Games (although there’s even less mention of this in the films than there is in the books).
The TV series Years of Living Dangerously is a nonfiction documentary, but it uses high production values and the conventions of dramatic storytelling to provide the viewer with the same exciting and compelling experience that they might have watching a fictional drama or thriller. Utopia is a rather violent series about a global conspiracy that seeks to address climate change and other environmental issues. Surprisingly, some classic TV series from the 80s and 90s had episodes related to fictional forms of climate change, including Star Trek and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
There are also a growing number of climate fiction short stories. The two best cli-fi anthologies I’ve found so far are Everything Change and Loosed Upon The World. I also plan on publishing my own cli-fi anthology in 2018!
(6) Cli-Fi Is The Next Big ThingCli-Fi has been around in some form for over a century. However, now that human-caused climate change is having an increasing impact on our lives, a growing number of people are reading, watching, and writing stories about it. These stories are definitely entertaining, but they’re more than just idle entertainment. They’re a way of breaking the climate silence and coming to terms on a personal level with human-caused climate change.
Stay tuned to this blog for more news about cli-fi! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Patreon to stay up-to-date on my latest cli-fi releases and Real Life Superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox. And share this post to let all of your friends know six fun facts about climate fiction!
Witches, Zombies, and 'Cli-Fi' Mysteries
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In high school, Angierski found solace in books and enjoyed her English courses, but applied to Cornell as an undergraduate archaeology and French major. “I got here and did the work, but I would always procrastinate by reading novels. It was a sign. I should be studying literature because that’s where my heart is. The rest is history,” Angierski reminisces.
A Growing Interest in Academic Eco-criticismWhile a master’s student at SUNY Buffalo, she discovered her passion for eco-criticism—literary criticism that takes the natural world into account. This, paired with her love of animals and environmental politics, inspired her to pursue doctoral study in the environmental humanities.
Angierski knew that a plethora of resources would be available to her at Cornell, a leading university in environmental research with a well-established English PhD program. While it is somewhat unusual for an undergraduate English major to be accepted back into the PhD program at Cornell, Angierski was the perfect fit.
“I think the English department here is remarkable. The program gives you the freedom to kind of do whatever you want to do, to take classes in whichever department you like. This is especially helpful for my interdisciplinary style of research. The faculty is also very supportive and open; they put their trust in you as a scholar,” Angierski says.
“I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do after receiving my master’s. I knew that I wanted to think ecologically about literature and become a part of that ever-growing community here,” says Angierski, who stressed that blending every aspect of oneself into the work one wants to do is needed to get through the gruelling process of obtaining a PhD. “Passion pulls you through the tougher moments.”
cli-fi, for short. “It’s different from, but indebted to, traditional science fiction, which may or may not have an ecological focus. I am especially interested in novels and films that have been made in the past 20 years, including movies like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Witch,” says Angierski.
Angierski’s work examines how the literary world is responding to environmental instability, especially climate change but eco-disasters as well. More specifically, she works on the Gothic aesthetics of cli-fi, identifying patterns in the fiction and thinking about why they might matter ecologically, politically, and culturally.
One important aspect of Angierski’s research is that it bridges the gap between scientific data and artistic production—for a political purpose. “Climate change and its future are hard to see, to imagine, to feel (here in Ithaca, at least). If you look around today, the sun is shining, the sky is blue. Nothing appears obviously wrong. Climate change fiction and film can fill in this imaginative gap in a way that data alone cannot,” explains Angierski.
Fear and Occulture in Contemporary CultureThe day-to-day work of cli-fi and ecogothic research involves lots of reading, from climate change fiction, to literary ecocriticism, to archival reading in Cornell’s Witchcraft archive. Angierski’s first dissertation chapter is on the figure of the witch and witchcraft in cli-fi. Angierski thinks a lot about how cli-fi relies on the legacy of Gothic literature—which consists of things, such as ghosts, haunted mansions, witches, zombies—and tries to understand why it matters. Fear might be part of the answer.
Indeed, Angierski also studies fear and its political potential, resisting the knee jerk assumption in some critical circles that fear is always, inherently bad.
“You look at something like the resurging interest in witch occulture and craft right now, especially among young women, and it’s not accidental. In a fear-filled age, we turn to fearsome figures for guidance, for solace, for resistance.”“The escalation of environmental and political volatility in this country and elsewhere causes fear, especially for marginalized people. I think you look at something like the resurging interest in witch occulture and craft right now, especially among young women, and it’s not accidental. In a fear-filled age, we turn to fearsome figures for guidance, for solace, for resistance,” Angierski says.
Gothic themes—tarot cards, crystals, spells—are much more prevalent in contemporary culture than one might assume. A quick Instagram search makes it clear that interest in witchy magic is widespread. “I examine these pop culture manifestations of occulture, which often have a natural component like using certain herbs for spells, and ask what it might be saying about ecological politics,” says Angierski.
Ironically, one positive aspect to Angierski’s research on ecogothic as a genre is that it has the potential to teach its readers about coping with fear. Ecogothic fiction can theorize a counter-intuitive politics of acceptance in the current political landscape.
“Fear can be productive rather than paralysing. A lot of ecogothic fiction isn’t really about overcoming fear or coming out of disaster absolutely okay; it’s not about the happy ending. It often, like Gothic fiction, is ambivalent. That state of ambivalence, existing with the terrors of climate change for instance, is something that can actually be politically productive,” Angierski says.
Angierski was at first surprised by the prevalence of supernatural themes in climate change fiction, a genre one might expect to be predominantly realist. “You wouldn’t necessarily open a book about climate change expecting ghosts, witches, spells—seeing the supernatural all over the natural. But there it was,” explains Angierski.
In Addition to Research in the Environmental HumanitiesWhen Angierski isn’t knee-deep in literature, she enjoys going for a hike, visiting the local SPCA, or watching horror films with her cat, Milo. Angierski, with a fellow graduate student, also began an environmental humanities reading group on campus.
One of the most rewarding aspects about getting a PhD is teaching the next generation of undergraduates at Cornell. “Teaching about climate change and animal rights is a means by which I make, I think, a real impact—one that grows exponentially as my students talk to their peers and parents about the issues we study in class,” says Angierski.
Although Angierski despises the word trendy, she concedes that the type of work she is doing is becoming increasingly popular and, perhaps unfortunately, important. “Occasionally, the humanities are looked at by the sciences as mere communication, but the environmental humanities are far more complicated than that. I believe the sciences and humanities really need each other, especially now, in the face of climate change. We need art and data, and data as art—a genuine alliance that, while it might not save us, it can maybe help us imagine how to adapt, creatively and ethically,” says Angierski.