Cli-fi: exploitative or transformative literature?

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I’ve been reading a lot about climate change lately.  You can’t avoid it.  It’s everywhere.  ‘What’s the climate change angle?’ you imagine editors saying to their reporters, politicians to their staffers, teachers to their students, children to their parents.

Even my precious pile of bedside reading is now sagging with dystopic depictions of a warmed world.

A new genre of literature and film….

A relatively new genre of literature, “cli-fi” has arrived in tandem with the increasing attention paid to climate change science and its in-laws: global and environmental politics.  Complementing the observations of the scientific community, writers –  through novels, short stories and screenplays – are seeking to predict life in a warmed planet, in a new climate-shaped future.

The term ‘cli-fi’ was coined around 10 years ago by journalist Dan Bloom – see more in his interview here with The Chicago Review of Books in 2017.  Bloom highlighted cli-fi as a critical tool in combating climate change, in part, he says because “novels are also discussed widely and treat subjects with more depth” than other media forms (though he seems to have had a change of heart – see further below).  Indeed, as The Guardian‘s John Abraham said in 2017, novels make climate change “more real” than graphs or plots of temperature variations.

But it’s not just literature. The Merriam-Webster dictionary also uses the term to describe climate change film, as does Reuters in an interesting discussion on climate change themes in The Game of Thrones.

…….which can help save the planet?

Some academics, such as Monash University’s David Holmes, have posed the question: “Cli-fi – could a literary genre help save the planet?   More recently, heatwave scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick has written of how cli-fi – films and novels can “ignite conversations” with people whom “mainstream science fails to reach”.  They can also encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint.  The idea of using film to nudge the community has recently been taken up by British Academy for Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) – see more here.

….or does it erode support for climate change action?

A contrary view is that placing climate change in a fictional context erodes its legitimacy as a serious threat.  For example, in 2014 climate change activist George Marshall warned:

‘Cli-fi’ will reinforce existing views rather than shift them. The unconvinced will see these stories as proof that this issue is a fiction, exaggerated for dramatic effect.  The already convinced will be engaged, but overblown apocalyptic story lines may distance them from the issue of climate change.

Still waiting On the Beach…..

I’m enjoying my cli-fi collection and don’t feel at all ‘distanced’ from the issue.  But I agree with Bloom’s recent statement that he’s still waiting for an On the Beach style of cli-fi novel which can influence world leaders.

None has emerged yet but a good example of the cli-fi genre is John Lanchester’s thriller, The Wall (Faber & Faber, 2019).  Lanchester depicts a high sea-level world bereft of beaches; just a manned high wall around the UK keeping climate change refugees out.  (Some see this novel as a product of our times: a comment on contemporary US politics or a metaphorical Brexit novel.)

…..or already under water…..

A more lyrical imagining of England under water is The End We Started From (2017) by the poet Megan Hunter.  And for those who like short stories, in 2018 the New Yorker described the stories in Warmer, an online collection, as possessing “the urgency of a last resort and the sorrow of an elegy”.  For other new cli-fi novels, see for example those listed in April this year on Literary Hub; for older titles see The Guardian list here.

Cli-fi: Utopia or dystopia?

Damon Gameau’s new film 2040, though billed as a documentary, also fits into the cli-fi genre as it explores what the world could look like in 2040.  The film imaginatively renders a future more utopia than dystopia: it assumes we have implemented various solutions to climate change including greater use of renewables.  An interactive website accompanies commercial release of the film.  Interested in reading more about cli-fi film?  See this piece published in 2016 by the climate advocacy club.

Wait – it’s not fiction…..it’s science

Cli-fi is distinct from older imaginings of floods like John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (1953), as the writers don’t look to emissions-based climate change as the primary cause or context of the catastrophe.  The genre is also distinct because of the science behind it; it doesn’t belong in the ‘speculative fiction’ basket.

Sadly, The Economist has usually turned up its nose at science and speculative fiction, but – perhaps grudgingly – now concedes that with an increasingly porous line between literary and other forms of fiction, “the literary establishment has begun to recognise the possibilities of climate change”.  The journal warns that

All too soon the theme may revert from the territory of science fiction to the realm of old-fashioned realism.

So what’s the role here for literature?

How should society respond to climate change?  And how can this be pursued through literature?

Take a look at some of the literary analysis coming out of Australia’s Monash University.  Their typology of climate fictions pretty much covers the field.  In their analysis, cli-fi explores a range of responses to climate change: denial; mitigation; positive adaptation; negative adaptation; deep ecological anti-humanism; and pessimistic fatalism.

Some argue that cli-fi is merely a sub-class of the dystopia genre and not a game changer for the climate change debate – see for example this article in Scientific American.

Moreover, proponents of this view claim that cli-fi exploits the issue, using climate change as “a handy and timely plot element to get the story going” rather than exploring how society should respond to climate change.  An exception, in the view of Scientific American, is the 2010 novel Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver.  The author says she was driven by the questions:

Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change?…I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it’s possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides….between scientists and non-scientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative.

The novel South Pole Station (2017), by Ashley Shelby, might also go some way towards ameliorating Scientific American‘s concerns.  This novel features ‘climate deniers’ and ‘regular scientists’ at the polar coal-face, as it were, of climate change measurements.

Anyway, surely there’s nothing really wrong with being classified as a dystopia?  Cli-fi works are in good company – think Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

As The Atlantic suggests, cli-fi’s placement on university reading lists, and potential to link the science with the humanities and activism, is exposing younger generations to environmental issues.  It’s an important tool in collective efforts to address global warming.

Still, some argue that the transformative potential of cli-fi should not be overstated.  For example, Dan Bloom said earlier this year (he seems to have had some kind of dystopic epiphany):

Art is wonderful, language matters, words are important, storytelling is vital, but in the end all the cli-fi novels in the world cannot stop runaway global warming. They are just books, stories, movies, cultural artefacts. Interesting to read and see, but in the end, useless at stopping climate change.

We think that kind of misses the point of literature and the role of novelists.  A novel can have a transformative effect on the world.  As Nathaniel Rich, a New York Times Magazine editor and author of cli-fi novel Odds Against Tomorrow (2012), put it in an interview with American media organisation NPR in 2013:

we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re heading towards something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand: what is that doing to us?

Agree on all that.

Cli-fi can propel activism and political change

But we’d add that action can follow fiction, as life imitates art.  Climate change fiction not only introduces readers to climate science, its imagining of a (dark) future can be persuasive – hitting the buttons which can propel activism and political change.  Fiction, whether as a political novel like 1984, or a social reformist novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has long been ahead of the game.

Rosella Room readers: do you think cli-fi is exploitative or transformative?

Image credit: Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

3 comments

  1. A clear-cut example of a novel changing an important part of life is A.P. Herbert’s “Unholy Deadlock”, which ensured the passage through the House of Commons of (then) radical divorce laws.

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  2. Bravo, Rosella Room editor! Wonder essay. Tweet by @ktmounce27 led here today in Taiwan where I work on cli-fi ideas 247 at cli-fi.net

    You made many important points, I salute your writing and research. Email me if any questions DanBloom at gmail dot com or tweet me @theclifireport and see new book review in Times of London today by Siobhan Murphy re linked at my blog 5511hour.Blogspot.com

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