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A Brief History of Cli-fi: Fiction That’s Hooking Readers on Climate Activism

Explore the subtle power of climate fiction, with 12 must-reads to help you get started.

BY Theodora Sutcliffe

Dec 3rd 2020

It’s a truism that fiction teaches us about the world we live in: norms and cultures, values and beliefs, the complex interplay of external events and personal relationships that keeps us reading (or watching) until the end. Now, an emerging genre of writing known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, is teaching us about the world as we need to see it: a planet in the grip of a climate crisis that will shape our lives for as long as we inhabit Earth.

Freelance writer Dan Bloom coined the term cli-fi in 2011 in a press release for Jim Laughter’s Polar City Red, a novel set amid climate refugees in a future Alaska. Today, Bloom publishes The Cli-Fi Report, an online resource serving all things climate fiction. From his home in Taiwan, he told Means & Matters he sees cli-fi as an urgent genre, a route to “wake people up via storytelling.”

And in 2020, the genre is more urgent and popular than ever. Richard Powers’ The Overstory won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy had sold hundreds of thousands of copies even before the Handmaid’s Tale TV series brought her work to the forefront of pop culture.

Cli-fi is teaching us about the world as we need to see it: a planet in the grip of a climate crisis.

“The cli-fi backlist is now hundreds of books deep, and includes works by some of the most popular and celebrated authors writing in English, German, French, Norwegian, Finnish, Spanish, Chinese, and Swedish, among other languages,” Bloom noted. There are even plans to host the world’s first climate fiction festival in Berlin this winter.

What Makes Climate Fiction Cli-Fi?

Bloom defines climate fiction simply as “novels or movies about climate change themes.” But, not least because humans have explored flood myths since long before the Bible, many experts prefer a more nuanced definition.

Andrew Milner, professor emeritus at Australia’s Monash University and co-author of a new study of climate fiction—Science Fiction and Climate Change: A Sociological Approach—is more specific. For him, the climate change explored has to be caused by humans, so that the novel is a response and reaction to the crisis authors know (or, in a very few cases, deny) exists today.

This eliminates, for example, J. G. Ballard’s steamy 60s sci-fi waterscape The Drowned World, where solar flares and radiation send Earth rapidly back to the Pleistocene, and Cormac McCarthy’s powerful eco-fiction The Road, where the unnamed catastrophe that renders the planet a hellscape is too sudden to be climate change. Further, the fictions must be set on Earth (ruling out, for example, N. K. Jemisin’s climate-centric Broken Earth trilogy).

Milner also classes cli-fi as part of the sci-fi genre. Yet, far from being limited to what bookstores might feature on their Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves, cli-fi embraces everything from detective stories to literary novels. It includes authors, such as Margaret Atwood, who reject the term “science fiction,” and even climate denial fiction such as Michael Crichton’s 2004 thriller State of Fear, featuring murderous eco-terrorists and cynical fabricators.

Cli-fi highlights and  intensifies the risks of climate change in a way that reporting simply can’t match.

The Subtle Power of Cli-Fi

In fact, if you’ve ever read Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, with its climate refugees and sinking mangrove islands, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, with its magical butterflies fleeing climate change, or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, with its chilling coda in an Ireland enduring civilizational collapse, you’ve likely been enjoying climate fiction without even noticing. If you’ve watched The Day After TomorrowInterstellarSnowpiercerA.I. Artificial Intelligence, or Waterworld, you’ve engaged with climate cinema (or, as some would have it, cli-films).

I wrote THE WATER KNIFE because I was concerned about America’s willingness to pretend that climate change wasn’t real,…

Posted by Paolo Bacigalupi on Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Climate fiction highlights and intensifies the present and future risks of climate change in a way that reporting simply can’t match. Omar El Akkad’s American War and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife both summon up an America in conflict, torn apart over precious resources, burning and drowning at the same time. There’s an immediacy to their descriptions of dried-out soil, of engines choked by dust storms, and the lengths that human beings will go to for survival (or vengeance) that extends beyond wildfire news coverage to open up new and terrifying worlds.

Gentler and more meditative works, like Gun Island, with its sinking Venice and magical temples, or Flight Behavior, set in a present of failing Appalachian farms, allow time to explore their themes that journalistic, factual writing won’t allow. The Overstory highlights the sheer brevity of human life in contrast to the long, slow lives of trees (and climate’s slow-moving but inexorable processes).

Great climate fiction, like all great fiction, teaches us not only about the world, but about the human soul. But the climate crisis, whether written as the cataclysm that shapes a book’s universe, as in The Water Knife, or a gentle, steady background hum, as in The Overstory, encourages us to virtually experience the facts of a reality that’s happening rapidly, urgently, yet almost invisibly around us.

An International Footprint

Few geographies are untouched by climate fiction: it explores landscapes as diverse as Scandinavia, Alaska, and Bengal’s mangrove islands, and employs literary styles from Scandi noir to magical realism. For Milner, a passionate environmentalist, his location in Australia is one reason for his interest in climate fiction. “[My co-author J. R. Burgmann and I] both feel that Australia is obviously vulnerable,” he says. “Australia is an enormous continent, the middle of which is a desert, and with warming, the desert spreads. But where the people tend to live, the vast majority of them, is on a narrow coastal plain, which will be hit with rising sea levels.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the earliest works of cli-fi, The Sea and the Summer, is Australian and set in a drowning Melbourne. As is 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road—many consider the post-apocalyptic movie set in Australia’s red desert cli-fi, as it highlights the need for water in a future beset by climate catastrophe. One of cli-fi’s most prolific authors, veteran science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, is based in California, a state whose vulnerability to climate change has been so dramatically underlined by the string of deadly wildfires. Yet he somehow managed to summon a future eco-utopia in his 1990 novel Pacific Edge.

 

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More diverse than mainstream sci-fi, which still leans heavily white and male, climate fiction is often concerned with the role of women—Atwood’s climate fiction features women reduced to the roles of “helpmeets” by corporate greed. For authors such as Octavia Butler, who was African American; Omar El Akkad, who is Egyptian-Canadian; and Amitav Ghosh, who is Indian, race also figures. The field of environmental justice explores how climate change weighs hardest on those who are already suffering discrimination. In Butler’s works, Black characters and mixed groups encounter racism on the road; Ghosh’s Gun Island brings to life the dual victimization of Bangladeshis, first as climate refugees and then as cheap labor in the global North.

Yet such diversity should not surprise. Scientists, many world leaders, researchers, and intellectuals agree that climate change is the single most pressing issue of our time—Pope Francis has described the position as “at the limits of suicide.” It’s small wonder that some of our most important writers are turning their creativity to work on the problem.

Researchers have shown that reading climate fiction changes readers’ attitudes to climate change, at least for a time. And as factual writing struggles to cut through humans’ rich wealth of cognitive biases, the novel has its own part to play in changing hearts and minds to achieve the action the planet so desperately needs.

A CLI-FI READING LIST

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  1. American War

    Omar El Akkad, 2017

    “The bodies flew, dumb as idols, over the Florida Sea. Only the very crest of the hill remained above water, the last vestige of the peninsular state. Upon it was built an artificial island of stone and concrete, rounded and circled with high, razor-wire fencing.”

    This compelling debut novel from journalist Omar El Akkad imagines an America cast into a second Civil War by climate change (and culture wars). As the South of muscle cars and illicit diesel battles against a corrupt North, Sarat Chestnut’s journey from innocent child to hardened killer parallels the fall of a USA that’s simultaneously drowning and blazing.

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  3. The Bone Clocks

    David Mitchell, 2014

    “People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burnt our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches.”

    Magical and lyrical, Cloud Atlas author Mitchell spins an intoxicating tale of past lives that’s simultaneously deeply anchored in the mundane realities of Gen X life and shadowed by near-immortal beings. In the book’s final chapter, climate change comes home to roost, with truly shattering impact.

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  5. Flight Behavior

    Barbara Kingsolver, 2012

    “The leafless pear trees in Hester’s yard had lately started trying to bloom again, bizarrely, little pimply outbreaks of blossom breaking out on the faces of the trees. Summer’s heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in its turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for the sun with the anguish of the unloved.”

    When climate change drives a rare type of butterfly to overwinter in the Appalachians, a young mother’s hum-drum rural life is turned upside down. In Kingsolver’s gentle, meditative literary novel, her heroine’s expanding horizons challenge her marriage, her faith, her family, and her community.

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  7. The Healer

    Antti Tuomainen, 2013

    “The southern regions of Spain and Italy had officially been left to their own devices. Bangladesh, sinking into the sea, had erupted in a plague that threatened to spread to the rest of Asia. The dispute between China and India over Himalayan water supplies was driving the two countries to war.”

    In this slice of Scandinavian noir, set in a flood-wracked, collapsing Helsinki, a serial killer is on the loose, hunting climate criminals. And when Tapati Lehtinen’s journalist wife goes missing, his quest to bring her back hurls him into a past he neither knows nor comprehends.

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  9. Gun Island

    Amitav Ghosh, 2019

    “He shrugged. ‘Things about animals, and fish, and the water—he’d tell me that I didn’t need to learn what he knew because the rivers and the forest and the animals are no longer as they were. He used to say that things were changing so much, and so fast, that I wouldn’t be able to get by here …'”

    Through the prism of an antique dealer’s obsession with an ancient Indian myth, Ghosh tackles big themes: climate change, migration, colonialism, and mortality. Spanning Bengal’s cyclone-prone Sundarban islands, sinking Venice, and burning California, it’s a shaggy dog tale dense with literary references but with an old-fashioned love story at its heart.

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  11. MaddAddam Trilogy

    Margaret Atwood, 2003–2013

    “As time went on … coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on …”

    Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy focuses on genetic manipulation, but climate change is also front and center, as the evangelical Church of Petroleum and sinister corporations dominate America and species go extinct even faster than new monsters are created. Huge themes are tackled with a light, sardonic heart as we unpick the path that led to the creation of the post-human Crakers, first seen in series opener Oryx and Crake.

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  13. New York 2140

    Kim Stanley Robinson, 2017

    “The storm surge had washed right up into the southeast end of the park, they were told by the cruiser’s pilot, such that waves had been crashing into the pond and overrunning the Wollman ice skating rink. Further west, the Sixth Avenue dock … had had to be recovered and flipped back right side up.”

    Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the doyens of cli-fi. This sprawling, sloppy, exuberant novel draws hackers, traders, corrupt politicians, and treasure-hunting urchins into a compelling tale of climate change and the collapse of capitalism. It’s all set in a flooded Manhattan, where vaporettos and water taxis whizz between skyscrapers linked by skybridges, and skimmers surf the rising tide along Sixth Avenue.

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  15. The Overstory

    Richard Powers, 2018

    “‘Billions of years ago, a single fluke, self-copying cell learned how to turn a barren ball of poison gas and volcanic slag into this peopled garden… ‘ They think she’s nuts, and that’s fine with her. She’s content to post a memory forward to their distant futures, futures that will depend on the inscrutable generosity of green things.

    Richard Powers’ twelfth novel won him the Pulitzer Prize. As dizzying in its scope and ambition as the ancient lives and trillion-strong cells of the trees it chronicles, it interweaves narratives of human lives—many of them, activists—with the ancient world of trees, climate change underpinning the environmental destruction that we watch.

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  17. Parable of the Sower

    Octavia Butler, 1993

    “The rain stopped. My windows are on the north side of the house, and I can see the clouds breaking up. They’re being blown over the mountains towards the desert. Surprising how fast they can move. The wind is strong and cold now. It might cost us a few trees. I wonder how many years it will be before we see rain again.”

    As society collapses in the 2020s due to climate change, sickness, wealth inequality, and greed, teenager Lauren Oya Olamina grows up in what remains of a gated community, afflicted with a condition called hyper-empathy. But when her community falls, Lauren needs to make her own way—and build a new society in the ruins.

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  19. The Sea and Summer

    George Turner, 1987

    “Summer always returned. It was winter that faded imperceptibly from the around of the planet’s seasons while magical summer grew humid and threatening and tropically wet. There were mild winters, then warmish winters, then short winters that merged into extended autumns without any real winter at all.”

    Also published in the US as The Drowning Towers, Australian George Turner’s 1987 novel is one of the earliest examples of cli-fi. Alternating between a drowning Melbourne, with poor Swill corralled into vast, waterlogged towers and wealthy Sweet living the suburban dream, and the Autumn People, millennia in the future, it’s an eerily prescient vision of a society struggling to adapt to climate change.

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  21. Solar

    Ian McEwan, 2010

    “‘Solar energy?’ Beard said mildly. He knew perfectly well what was meant, but still, the term had a dubious halo of meaning, an invocation of New Age Druids in robes dancing round Stonehenge at Midsummer’s dusk. He also distrusted anyone who routinely referred to ‘the planet’ as proof of thinking big.”

    Award-winning British novelist Ian McEwan takes on solar energy in this cutting satire on academic life and the energy industry, centered around his grotesque Nobel prizewinning anti-hero Michael Beard. As Beard shags and blags his way through his chaotic life, he stumbles on a secret that could save the planet.

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  23. The Water Knife

    Paolo Bacigalupi, 2015

    “The sudden glare made her eyes tear. Outside, the smoke was thick, a brown haze in the cloudless sky. Ash scents clogged the air. The wind was blowing in from California and the burning Sierras, for sure. Maria waited.”

    Sexy, violent, and noir-ish, Paolo Bacigalupi’s thriller follows the journey of Angel, a water knife, a hired gun, and fixer in the water wars between desertified southern states. In an arid, dusty, superheated world where the rich live in climate-controlled eco-cycling enclaves, and the poor sell their bodies for fluids and process their urine in plastic sacks, water is all.

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