Several colleagues have recently suggested novels that imagine the future if the world fails to arrest climate change. When a national security specialist recently asked for recommendations along the same lines, I asked around for more books, which I realized fit into the relatively new genre of “cli-fi.”
“Born as the unfortunate love child of global environmental crisis and narrative imagination, climate fiction is a timely cultural reaction to the growing societal awareness of human impact upon the planet and its climate system,” Juha Raipola wrote in Fafnir, the Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research.
Climate fiction tends to fall into two categories: one that is realistic, describing climate change affecting its protagonists in a world like the one we know, and the other more closely resembling science fiction. Raipola describes the latter as follows: “Speculative visions of flooding cities, melting glaciers, catastrophic storms, or drought-suffering environments demonstrate the potentially disastrous effects of climate change on the global environment, while the plot-level events of the narrative focus on the experience of living in a changed world.”
Cli-fi novels can play an important part in changing the conversation about climate crisis because of the way that fiction immerses readers in the reality that the author creates. It establishes an emotional connection in a way that no scientific analysis, modeling, or regurgitation of facts can do. That’s why the most dedicated policy wonks and business nerds can benefit from reading fiction related to their work.
Without an emotional connection to a challenge, it is hard to create urgency. And without a sense of urgency, it’s hard to change the way we do things.
I’ve started reading a few of the suggestions I dug up. This week, I’ll share some of the places I found promising lists and anthologies.
Grist, a nonprofit media outlet dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions, has published a glossary of cli-fi sub-genres, which you can peruse HERE. You’ll find descriptions and book recommendations exploring diverse versions of futurism; solar, eco, cyber, and hope punk; ecotopia, dystopia, and “ustopia” (a mix of the two). The list is part of the Climate Fiction Issue published by Fix, Grist’s networking and events arm.
The Guardian’s Claire Armistead compiled a list focused on “the new wave of climate fiction” and reached out to Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, and other novelists for insightful comments about their own work and the genre writ large. “Cli-fi often rests on the familiar trope of a nightmarish new reality unleashed by a catastrophic event,” Armistead wrote. But authors have also woven in various narrative tools and tropes including myth and mysticism, social comedy, thriller plots, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental formats.
Heather Hansman recently compiled a list for The Atlantic of books in which climate change plays a role. “The books below aren’t about climate change—they’re about immigration, corporate malfeasance, and tourism; they focus on families, neighbors, and friends,” she wrote. “But in each, the anxieties of our warming age force their way in, simmering quietly in the background or erupting across the page.”
Andrew Dana Hudson, himself a prolific author of climate fiction, in a Medium essay similarly poses the question of how to define the genre. “Many stories set in the future are classified as science fiction, or sci-fi. Doesn’t that make climate fiction, or cli-fi, just a form of sci-fi?” He makes the point that “In most science fiction, social change is driven by advancements in science and technology. It’s fiction about science.” In imagining science-driven transformations, sci-fi examines the impact on society. And here, Hudson argues, is how climate fiction differs from the broader sci-fi genre: It lets us pick up a different theory: that the biggest driver of social change in the coming century or more will be climate change.
The anthologies below give a taste of cli-fi in a wide-ranging set of short stories.
Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Vol. 1 (2016), Vol. 2 (2018), and Vol. 3 (2021). Published by Arizona State University Imagination and Climate Future Initiative, this series of anthologies was named after a quote from a talk that Margaret Atwood gave at Arizona State University in 2014.
Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (2018) and Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters (2020). This pair of anthologies combines utopian and dystopian visions of a future characterized by extreme heat and extreme cold.
Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. The winners and finalists of the first climate fiction contest organized by Fix and the National Resources Defense Council.
McSweeney’s Issue 58: 2040 A.D., (2019) A collaboration between McSweeney’s and the National Resources Defense Council, this anthology brings together literary luminaries including Tommy Orange, Elif Shafak, Luis Alberto Urrea, Asja Bakic, and Rachel Heng, all of whom set their stories in 2040.
Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures (2021) A global roster of authors explores the impact of climate change on cities.
The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures (2019) This optimistic anthology of short fiction imagines what a solar-powered world might look like.
Warmer. (2018) A collection of seven short Kindle books, also available as audio books, which amazon.com plugs as “Fear and hope collide in this collection of possible tomorrows.”
Next week, I’ll share a list of novels sorted by focus, ranging from drought and flood to violent conflict to biodiversity loss and social justice, with a few authors qualifying as genres unto themselves.
Do you have any favorite cli-fi authors or books? Please share them in the comments.
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