‘This Worldly’: Cli-Fi Novels in Review, in a Way New York Times Books Section Might Emulate Someday (Part 1)

Climate change is no abstraction in cli-fi,  for many of us today, it’s up close and personal, and the new 21st century literary genre puts climate change in human terms we can all understand.

The new literary genre of fiction has joined the ranks of eco-science eco-fantasy and eco-thrillers. It’s been dubbed cli-fi, or “climate change fiction.”

One literary critic in New York has even started writing a new monthly column devoted to cli-fi novels.

She says cli-fi novels come in many different styles. For example, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel ”New York 2140” depicts a Manhattan in the distant future that has been drastically altered by sea-level rise.

Another author, Barbara Kingsolver, tells a more subtle cli-fi story in ”Flight Behaviour.” The popular novel is about a country woman who discovers a colony of monarch butterflies near her rural home in Tennessee, their migratory paths changed by rising temperatures.

The one thing that all cli-fi novels have in common is that climate change plays some role in the lives of the people that the stories depict.

As you can imagine, a novel about climate change does something for readers that a news article cannot. It makes climate change not an abstract concept but a story that readers can digest and understand and really feel at an emotional level.

The 30-something New York-based literary who writes the “Burning Worlds” column hopes that these books, and that her monthly ”cli-fi trends” column, can inspire new conversations about climate change and how it affects us all.

In Canada, cli-fi is also in the air.

In fact, a new “cli-fi” anthology of short stories brings Canadian visions of future climate crises.

”A woman waits in line to get her water ration. She hasn’t had a sip of water in nearly three days. Her mouth is parched; she stumbles as she waits her turn for over an hour in the hot sun. When she he finally gets to the iTap and inserts her card into the machine that controls the water flow, the light turns red and her card is rejected. Her water credits have run out.”

The above is a scenario from “The Way of Water” by Canadian novelist Nina Munteanu and it’s one of many contained in the recently published anthology of short stories titled: ”Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change.” The 17 stories in this book, edited by Bruce Meyer, examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after a friend finished reading the book, Cape Town in South Africa, known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather” — announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling, my friend said in his introduction to the anthology.

Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border.

”Canadian Tales of Climate Change” is a great introduction to the emerging and growing genre of Cli-Fi, an abbreviated term for Climate Fiction. Literary critics call on writers to use their creative passion to engage readers on the potential disasters of climate change and these 17 Canadian writers have answered the call, according to editor Bruce Meyer Their stories span several genres, including speculative fiction, realism, and more.

Back in the USA, a new monthly column called “Burning Worlds” is dedicated to examining important trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi.”

Writes the columnist: “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 [my] 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.”

“Burning Worlds” perhaps will one day also appear in the New York Times, although maybe under a different title. One never knows. For now the column  features interviews, reviews, and analyses of the cli-fi 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.

Here is an interview with a climate activist and journalist who coined the term “cli-fi” (read more about him in this interview with Literary Hub). The 70-something literary theorist founded and maintains The Cli-Fi Report, the web’s most comprehensive site dedicated to cli-fi. A tireless crusader for the genre and a self-proclaimed “cli-fi missionary, ” in this interview, he discusses 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.

About the Author
Danny Bloom is editor of The Cli-Fi Report.
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