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.”
Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is a uniquely 21st century genre that saw its rise with the increased prevalence of climate change in the global psyche, according to Essam Temuri, a student of environmental science who tends to write about the intersection of climate change and storytelling.
The exact origins of cli-fi as a unique genre are not exactly known, especially since there were fictional stories that dealt with the environment before the 21st century, Temuri says, adding that ”if we broadly talk about art in general that dealt with climate change, we can see that mention of it rose in the 2000s, particularly gaining prominence from 2009 to 2015,” the time frame of major UNFCCC COP meetings that discussed climate change in a decisive manner.
So popular has cli-fi become by the summer of 2020 that Josephine Livingstone, a cultural and literary critic for The New Republic magazine in mid-summer penned an major article about cli-fi titled “How to Write About Climate Change,” noting: …”the last decade has seen such a sharp rise in sophisticated “cli-fi” that some literary publications now devote whole verticals to it.”
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.