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Changing climates

Cli-fi’: could a literary genre help save the planet?

A new type of literary genre might help change public opinion about the need to stop climate change. German Poo-Caamano, CC BY

More than 10 years ago, in an issue of Granta, environmentalist Bill McKibben lamented the fact climate change has not been able to capture the literary imagination in the same way as the nuclear and political pathologies of the last century:

Global Warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On the Beach or Doctor Strangelove.

The need for a narrative form that can communicate the seriousness of climate change to a broad public is more urgent than ever, but one impediment has been been in its way. This situation is about to change, with the imminent rise of cli-fi, a new genre of climate fiction.

And to analyse this new genre, I interviewed Dan Bloom, a journalist and self-described “public relations climate activist” who began the first ever blog on cli-fi. Dan is an irrepressible ambassador for authors and readers of this literary and cinematic form. He was the first to use the term “cli-fi” in 2008, which last year was honourably mentioned by the Macquarie Dictionary as an important new word.

David Holmes: You’ve described cli-fi as a dystopian fiction form, that differs from most science fiction in that it can just as easily be set in the present than in the future. What makes cli-fi … cli-fi?

Dan Bloom: First I need to explain the way I coined the term and have tried to popularise it in English-speaking countries. Cli-fi can take place in novels or movies either in the past, the present, or the future, and it does not have to be dystopian if the authors or screenwriters don’t want to go down the doom and gloom road.

A cli-fi novel could also be utopian, and present an optimistic and hopeful future for the readers. I never started with a fixed agenda, and for me cli-fi is open to definition by writers and critics (and readers).

In general, I think cli-fi novels will take the position that climate change and global warming are real and are happening, but I am also open to the fact that some cli-fi novelists or screenwriters might take a skeptical view of global warming and climate change, as Michael Crichton did in his 1994 novel State of Fear.

But I myself am deep green and very worried about the future of humankind due to what I see as devastating climate impact events coming down the road in the next 500 years, if we as a world community do not stop C02 emissions soon. So for me, cli-fi is a fiction genre that might be helpful in waking people up and serving as an alarm bell.

Some literary historians and sci-fi writers I have spoken to have told me they like the cli-fi term but feel it is best to see it as a subgenre of sci-fi. And I accept that point of view, too. For me, in the way I am working with it and trying to popularise it, cli-fi is a new fiction genre of its own and will define itself more and more as time goes by.

The potentially devastating consequences of climate change are not widely understood. Robert De Vodo, CC BY-NC

What makes cli-fi, cli-fi? Novelists, screenwriters, literary critics, and academics will determine what makes cli-fi in an organic way over the next 100 years. This is just the beginning of a whole new world of literary and cinematic expression. I’m just a fan. I want to read good cli-fi novels and see powerful cli-fi movies.

David Holmes: You say the next 100 years, certainly this is a time frame when we are going to see dramatic impacts of climate change, but in political terms, in terms of capturing public attention via a popular medium, and in terms of it not being too late to keep global warming under 2 degrees, isn’t the critical time for cli-fi to flourish right now?

Dan Bloom: You hit the nail on the head. The time for cli-fi to take off and flourish is now, before it is too late. It might already be too late, according to some scientists and even Lovelock, who at 95 is set to publish the third part of his Gaia trilogy in April.

British nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote a powerful commentary in 2005, The Burning Question. In it, he argues writers play a crucial role in helping us to imagine the impact of climate change. He did not use the term cli-fi, but he was speaking about this kind of literature. So yes, the time for cli-fi to flourish is right now. Humankind is racing against the clock. I said 100 years to be generous, but you are right and more to the point. The time for cli-fi to make a worldwide impact is now.

In Australia, many are concerned about climate change but do not really have a handle on how urgent the issue is. Outside of the military, climate scientists themselves, climate change communicators, and resistance trolls, the seriousness of the science is not well understood. Are we still to see a cli-fi equivalent to Neville Shute’s On the Beach which became a wake up call to the nuclear sublime?

The future of the earth is in our hands. Jamie Mitchell , CC BY

David Holmes: What would you rate as the five most influential cli-fi texts to have emerged to date?

Dan Bloom: I grew up as a kid in the 1950s and 1960s in America, and I remember reading On the Beach in high school. Books do impact our lives. I do believe a cli-fi equivalent to On the Beach is going to be published soon – by either a well-known literary fiction author or by a complete unknown, and perhaps right there in Australia where it seems the memory of Shute’s novel is still part of the culture.

Part of the reason why I am working night and day to help popularise the cli-fi genre is I am hoping to inspire, with the term, that writer somewhere in the world who is perhaps right now working on this very important book. This is all I care about in my waking hours now. I have no distractions in this distracted world. I am entirely focused on creating a platform for others to use cli-fi to change the world. I am not a novelist at all. I am just an observer of all this.

For me, five most important cli-fi novels that have emerged so far are:

  • The Sea and Summer - by George Turner, Australia (this novel should be brought back into print and read worldwide, way ahead of its times)

  • Flight Behaviour - by Barbara Kingsolver, USA, an emotional tour de force

  • Odds Against Tomorrow - by Nathaniel Rich, USA, a tragic comedy about Manhattan under water in the near future and completely flooded by a fierce hurricane of untold proportions

  • Shackleton’s Man Goes South – by Tony White, UK, (which is set in Antarctica, of all places) and is a literary novel released by the Science Museum in London

  • Polar City Red – by Jim Laughter, USA - a little-known “cli-fi thriller” from 2012 that describes the desperate life of people in a domed “polar city” in Alaska in 2070. It is set after Mexico, Central America and the lower 48 states of the USA have been abandoned, as millions of climate refugees seek survival in Canada and Alaska. It is in this film James Lovelock’s 2006 vision of future humans serving as “breeding pairs in the Arctic” takes literary form.

David Holmes: I note all of these books are dystopian which strikes me as the default setting for any cli-fi that aims to be influential in an eco-critical sense. I have been reading some non-fiction literature on geo-engineering of the earth to mitigate warming (using aircraft to emit albedo aerosols – tampering with earth’s orbit to be further from the sun, for example).

Is such speculation on human-made high-tech solutions to a human made low-tech problem suited to utopian cli-fi? Or is this form of cli-fi literary escapism from the fact that we can still do something about global warming right now just by altering our behaviour?

Cracked earth at a dam site in Thailand may be caused by climate change. AAP/Barbara Walton, CC BY

Dan Bloom: You make a good point, which is that the current default setting for most cli-fi novels is and will be set around dystopian gloom and doom. But at the same time, I feel that speculation on geo-engineering fixes would be very well-suited to utopian cli-fi novels or movies. Margaret Atwood has even coined a word – “ustopia” – for works of art that are both utopian and dystopian.

One could imagine a future Peter Jackson or Baz Luhrmann production similar to this year’s Hollywood sci-fi hit Gravity, with amazing special effects geared around geo-engineering fixes that “save” humankind from extinction. Perfect for a utopian cli-fi saga.

But at the same time, cli-fi, as I see it, is not merely for entertainment or literary escapism. I am pinning my hopes now – and it’s not just me, there’s a large cli-fi community of writers and readers worldwide now; there’s even a Twitter hashtag for it (#clifi) – so “we” are pinning our hopes that literature has an important role to play in getting people (and especially our political leaders) to understand on an emotional and moral level just how important it to alter our plush, gas-guzzling, C02 emitting, coal-burning, slash-burn-consume lifestyles before it is too late.

Although Margaret Atwood does not write cli-fi per se, and prefers to call her novels “speculative fiction”, she has been a big Twitter booster of the cli-fi meme and even wrote an opinion piece in the Huffington Post late last year praising cli-fi. Sci-fi writer David Brin (The Postman) recently told me in an email literature does have the power to raise awareness of major social issues and he mentioned 1984 and Brave New World as examples. So there is hope, and I feel cli-fi has an important role to play as a postmodern literary genre.

And one more thing: Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky (The Black Swan) has produced a cli-fi movie about a flood, Noah, set for release next month. It stars Russell Crowe as the old man himself. Entertainment? Yes. A wake up call on global warming? Definitely yes. Cli-fi? Well it’s not sci-fi anymore.

I believe if Isaac Asimov was to come back to life today, he would be writing cli-fi novels for sure. As early as the 1980s, he understood what global warming was doing to our planet. No more clocks that strike 13 and starships to Mars. We need to save the earth first.

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