Climate change inspires a new literary genre: cli-fi

Cli-fi, or 'climate fiction,' describes a dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future. And don't call it 'science fiction.' Cli-fi is literary fiction.

'Odds Against Tomorrow,' a novel by Nathaniel Rich, is an example of the emerging 'cli-fi' genre.

Talk about hot.

Climate change has been cited as the cause behind a raft of recent phenomena, from increasing turbulence on planes to rising rates of malaria, dengue, and even domestic abuse.

And now it’s hit the publishing world.

The next hot trend in books, it turns out isn’t Fifty Shades-esque erotica – it’s climate change.

That’s according to a fascinating report by NPR, “Has Climate Change Created a New Literary Genre?”

“Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter,” reports Angela Evancie for NPR. “The genre has come to be called climate fiction – 'cli-fi,' for short.”

Among the titles in this emerging literary genre is “Odds Against Tomorrow,” by Nathaniel Rich, a novel about a futurist who calculates worst-case scenarios for corporations, including the very scenario that landed on the book’s cover: the Manhattan skyline, half-submerged in water. (We should note, the book, and cover, were created before Hurricane Sandy.) 

Other books include Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, “State of Fear,” about ecoterrorists; Ian McEwan’s “Solar,” about impending environmental disaster; and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” about a world turned upside down by climate change.

There are two key points to emphasize in this trend. Cli-fi describes a dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future, and it isn’t non-fiction or even science fiction: cli-fi is about literary fiction.

As interesting as this new development is, we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, whether it’s the Industrial Revolution, the Cold War, or the tech bubble, cultural and environmental milestones have historically shaped the world we – and by extension, the characters we read about – live in. 

In this case, literature might actually prove to be a surprise secret weapon of sorts, helping scientists convey the issue to disinterested – or dubious – audiences.

That’s because “when novelists tackle climate change in their writing, they reach people in a way that scientists can't,” says NPR.

"You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue," Judith Curry, professor and chair of Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, tells NPR. "And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this – a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness" of readers who may not be following the science.

We’re fascinated by this emerging genre and if one cli-fi writer is on the mark, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in coming years.

Predicted Daniel Kramb, the cli-fi novelist behind “From Here,” the 2012 novel about climate change activists, “I think when [people] look back at this 21st century ... they will definitely see climate change as one of the major themes in literature, if not the major theme.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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