by Amy Brady
IN HER #BURNINGWORLDS COLUMN ARCHIVES she wrote on:
February 8, 2017
“Burning Worlds” is a new monthly column dedicated to examining important trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi.” It astonishes to think just how long humans have known that the Earth is getting warmer. The term “global warming” didn’t enter public consciousness until the 1970s, but scientists have studied our planet’s natural greenhouse effect since at least the 1820s. In 1896, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrheniussome concluded that human activity (like coal burning) contributed to the effect, warming the planet further. And yet, here we find ourselves in 2017, still wrestling with manmade climate change like it’s a new phenomenon. Why have we not acted sooner? The answer may lie in what Indian author Amitav Ghosh calls humanity’s “great derangement”: our inability to perceive the enormity of the catastrophe that awaits us. That’s where fiction writers come in.* For years, authors have been writing climate change fiction, or “cli-fi,” a genre of literature that imagines the past, present, and future effects of climate change. Their work crosses literary boundaries in terms of style and content, landing on shelves marked “sci-fi” and “literary fiction.” Perhaps you’ve read one of the classics: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain. Then there’s Ian McEwan’s Solar and J. G. Ballard’s 1965 novel The Burning World, from which this column derives its name. Each of these novels—like others in the genre—help us to “see” possible futures lived out on a burning, drowning, or dying planet. Here at the Chicago Review of Books, we feel it’s time to give cli-fi more attention. To that end, we bring you “Burning Worlds,” a new monthly column dedicated to examining what’s hot (sorry) in cli-fi. It’ll feature interviews, reviews, and analyses of the genre with the hope of generating a larger conversation about climate change and why imagined depictions of the phenomenon are vital to the literary community—and beyond. Kicking us off is an interview with journalist and former teacher Dan Bloom, the man who coined the term “cli-fi” (read more about Bloom in his interview with Literary Hub). Bloom founded and maintains The Cli-Fi Report, the web’s most comprehensive site dedicated to cli-fi. He is a tireless crusader for the genre, a self-proclaimed “cli-fi missionary.”
In this interview FROM 2017, we discuss what inspired his passion for climate change fiction, why he thinks the term “cli-fi” caught on, and what he recommends we all read next.
Amy Brady: You’ve had careers as a journalist and a teacher and have lived around the world. Tell us more about yourself and your love for literature.
Dan Bloom: I graduated from Tufts, class of 1971, as a literature major. I studied American poetry under Maxine Kumin, read a lot of French, Russian, and Spanish lit (studied in Paris my junior year), and really wanted to be a novelist. I even wrote one! Never published it.
Amy Brady: What brought your attention to climate change fiction specifically?
Dan Bloom: The 2006 report released by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the powerful James Lovelock interview in The Independent in the U.K. that same year. He spoke of there being only a few people left in the arctic after global warming decimates the human population. That bit sent shivers down my spine. It was a “eureka” moment, a wake-up call.
Amy Brady: You were the first person to coin the term “cli-fi.” What inspired you to use it, and why do you think it caught on?
Dan Bloom: “Cli-fi” came to me after I read the IPCC report and was thinking of ways to raise awareness of novels and movies about climate change issues. I toyed with using such terms as “climafic” or “climfic” or “clific”. But I wanted an even shorter term that could fit easily into newspaper and magazine headlines. So using the rhyming sounds of “sci-fi,” I decided to go with “cli-fi”. The term started to catch on worldwide on April 20, 2013 when NPR did a five-minute radio segment about “cli-fi” with authors Nathaniel Rich (Odds Against Tomorrow) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior). That segment reached academics, literary critics, journalists and headline writers. Why did it catch on? For one, I conducted a prolonged, daily, 24/7 P.R. campaign via Twitter and email to reach media people after the NPR story went viral to keep the momentum going. I contacted all kinds of people in the literary world. About 90 percent of them did not respond to my emails or my Tweets. But 10 percent did, including Margaret Atwood and Michiko Kakutani, and that has made all the difference. I never give up. This is my life’s work now and has been since I first read that IPCC report. It’s all I do, and it’s all I think about. It’s my life now.
Amy Brady: Why is it important to read cli-fi?
Dan Bloom: Cli-fi serves as a wake-up call. To quote Sarah Stone, who I believe said it best in a review of Edan Lepucki’s novel California for SFGate: “If we survive—truly, and not in the unhappy ways depicted [in California]—it will be in part because of books like this one, which go beyond abstract predictions and statistics to show the moment-by-moment reality of a painful possible future, the price we may have to pay for our passionate devotion to all the wrong things.”
Amy Brady: What can cli-fi novels do that perhaps cli-fi movies can’t? Or do you think they provide a similar experience?
Dan Bloom: Both are important. Novels are often adapted into movie scripts as we see with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the forthcoming Annihilation, which is based on Jeff Vandermeer’s novel of the same name. So there is a nice relationship between novels and movies. Movies, of course, reach millions of people with powerful visual impact. But novels are also discussed widely and treat subjects with more depth.
Amy Brady: What do you make of Amitav Ghosh’s recent book-length examination of cli-fi, The Great Derangement?
Dan Bloom: I loved that book. It’s a collection of climate-themed essays from a University of Chicago lecture series, and I not only read them, I watched them on Youtube. It’s a very important book, but he got bogged down in the distinction between genre and literary fiction. Novelists today don’t care much about such intellectual distinctions. Using words to tell a good story is all that matters. Genre is only important for organizing library shelves. Truly. Story is everything.
Amy Brady: How do you envision your role in the world of cli-fi moving forward?
Dan Bloom: Me? I see myself as a cli-fi missionary, a cheerleader for novelists and screenwriters, a P.R. guy with media contacts, a literary theorist, and an advisor to novelists seeking publication advice and direction. I get personal emails from novelists wanting to know more about cli-fi and how to place their novels every week.
Amy Brady: What are some of your favorite cli-fi novels?
Dan Bloom: Polar City Blues by Katherine Kerr, Finitude by Hamish McDonald, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Jean-Marc Ligny’s Acqua TM, a novel in French that should be translated into English. From Germany, I love EisTau by Ilija Trojanow, which was recently translated into English as The Lamentations of Zero. That book is even better than Ian McEwan’s Solar. I’m all in favor of non-English language cli-fi novels. Cli-fi, after all, is a worldwide call to action.
Dan Bloom is a 1971 graduate of Tufts University in Boston. He received his MA in Speech and Communications from Oregon State University. Bloom worked as a journalist in Alaska for 12 years and, later, as a newspaper editor and reporter at English-language newspapers in Japan and Taiwan.
*** note in 2020 VIA josephine livingstone: ''From Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation to Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, the last few years has seen such a steep rise in sophisticated “cli-fi” that some literary publications now devote whole verticals to it. With such various and fertile imaginations at work on the same topic, whether in fiction or nonfiction, the challenge facing the environmental writer now is standing out from the crowd (not to mention the headlines). ''
In a fictional sense, science fiction sits across the table from “cli-fi”. In recent years, the term cli-fi has moved from a fringe concept to a marketable genre of fiction, according to literary critic Jennifer Hamilton. Coined in 2011 and popularized by a NPR radio segment in 2013, it has grown so big that scholarly researchers are able to produce studies of the conventions, Hamilton says, adding “New novels and short story collections are now published in this category each year.” Cli-fi, in both film and fiction, tends towards dystopia but not always. For every The Day After Tomorrow, Snowpiercer or The Water Knife, there are also hopeful, optimistic cli-fi novels by Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff Vandermeer, among others. ”Thank you for your support of my cli-fi trends column — you know I appreciate it,” literary critic Amy Brady tonce old me in an email.
Back in 2016, before Brady had decided to start a monthly cli-fi trends column in the Chicago Review of Books, she queried me and other people on Twitter with this question: What do you guys make of the recent spate of climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) that’s emerged in recent years? Do you think it’s a bona fide new genre of literature or a fleeting trend? Or something else?”
One alert reader and an author herself, Allegra Hyde answered in a timely way for the year 2016, four long years ago:: “I’m guessing “cli-fi” is here to stay. What will be interesting to watch, however, is how this kind of fiction evolves alongside our rapidly changing world. Is climate-fiction going to become more and more darkly dystopic? Or is it going to serve as a vehicle for imagining solutions?”
Amy got in touch with me a few weeks later with a short message about her new cli-fi column in the Chicago Review of Books, which she intended to call “Burning Worlds.” The first column appeared on February 8, 2017 and now in 2020 the column still continues online.
In early 2017, Amy sent me this note: “Hi Dan! I hope this finds you well! I’m writing with some good news for cli-fi and with a request. Next month, I’m launching a column at the Chicago Review of Books dedicated to cli-fi. I’ll use the platform to conduct interviews, review recent releases in cli-fi, and discuss important conversations about the genre had by you and our colleagues in the field.”
What I envison now is a non-fiction book written by a literary critic or a cultural reporter that explains to the lay reader worldwide just how and why the cli-fi term evolved and how and why it caught on the way it has. Perhaps writers such as Elizabeth Kolbert, or Andrew Revkin, or Amy Brady, or Josephine Livingstone or John Maher will have a go at it. Or Alexandra Alter at the New York Times, perhaps for publication by a major hourse in 2025.
Meanwhile, as I end this blog, I want to send out public thank you messages to writers and authors who have supported the rise of cli-fi from the very beginning, including Michael Svoboda, Margaret Atwood, Alison Flood, Jeff Vandermeer, James Bradley, Cat Sparks, James Burgman-Milner, Andrew Milner, Emmi Itaranta, Axel Goodbody, Bruno Arpaia, Lovis Geier, Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg and Josephine Livingstone, among others.