What’s your favorite genre? Memoir? Science fiction? Romance?
What about cli-fi?
Oh, you’re kind, but I didn’t sneeze. I said cli-fi. Climate fiction.
The genre crept up on me before I knew it had a name. I had been eating up dystopian novels, like breakout YA series The Hunger Games and critically acclaimed Station Eleven.
Then, after moving to coastal Florida, where rising sea levels due to climate change is daily local news, a kernel of an idea popped in my mind. I told a friend the premise for a story that I couldn’t truly describe as dystopian, but didn’t fit into the supernatural mold of science fiction, either.
That’s when she told me about climate fiction, which the Chicago Review of Books defines as “a genre of literature that imagines the past, present and future effects of climate change.”
I know, it sounds grim. But this genre, which has emerged with some strength in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, is about emotion over academics. Good climate fiction, it seems, doesn’t have to get bogged down with the science of the reality of a warming earth.
Instead, it focuses on universal feelings of loss and grief, adapting to change or the pull of science versus faith.
Cli-fi: It’s everywhere!
Margaret Atwood is a self-proclaimed cli-fi writer. Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, is in the genre. Ian McEwan’s got a cli-fi novel, 2010’s Solar.
Climate fiction has even snuck into my headphones, thanks to legendary actor LeVar Burton’s new podcast, Levar Burton Reads. In “What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” written by Lesley Nneka Arimah (and excellently told by Burton), Nneoma is a mathematician who can relieve others’ grief caused by the washing away of several continents and the worldwide turmoil that followed it.
Although we get snippets of information about the events relating to the changing climate throughout the story, Arimah provides additional context in this passage:
The girl lowered her eyes to her lap, fighting tears. As though to mock her, she was flanked by a map on the wall, the entire globe splayed out as it had been seventy years ago and as it was now. Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds. And the girl had survived it.
It all feels appropriately post-apocalyptic, but ultimately the story focuses on how Arimah’s characters react and adjust to the new world they live in with those they love. There’s not much reflection in the form of nostalgia, but rather analysis of how great change has settled on human shoulders.
Hints of cli-fi also welcome
But you don’t need an entire story packed with global-warming details to dip your toe (OK, maybe not the best metaphor?) into the cli-fi genre.
Take, for instance, the short story “Fulfillment” by Chantal Aida Gordon. Focusing on a woman finding her place in the artificial intelligence industry in a future version of our world where oversharing on social media has long been considered gauche, there’s just a whiff of cli-fi to sets the scene early on:
Some attributed the reversal to the whipping storms, rising sea levels, a hip-height rain rivers that had become a constant in the forecast. Stranded, intoxicated, drowning, their survival rooms washed away, people along the eroding coasts needed to share their locations and desperation.
And then it’s back to protagonist Celine and her relationships with her parents, her coworkers and even Glenn, her personal robot. Gordon provides just enough context to put us in Celine’s world, then moves the plot onward.
I asked Gordon to ask how she would categorize her story, since to me it falls into a captivating gray area. She suggested both sci-fi and the umbrella genre it shares with cli-fi, speculative fiction.
Ready to try a little cli-fi?
Let’s be honest: I’m a cli-fi newbie. But I’m an enthusiastic one, mulling over details to weave into my work in progress that takes place about 15 years beyond the present.
If you’re interest in trying your hand at this genre, here are a few tips, from one newbie to another:
- Read, read, read. Soak up these wonderful novels. The Chicago Review of Books shares a few titles recommended by the man who coined the term cli-fi, if you’re looking for suggestions beyond the pieces noted above. Dissent Magazine also has a great primer on the genre with recommendations. Let yourself get carried away in the story, but take note of where climate-change elements are the most blatant or subtle.
- Start with short exercises or scenes. Play with cli-fi in your Morning Pages, as a warmup exercise in your writing group or when you have an idea you haven’t fleshed out. Consider the details you include carefully and why those details would be important — or excessive — for your readers.
- Don’t overdo it on the science. It’s counterintuitive to throw science out the window when writing about climate change, but remember that you’re not a scientist (unless you’re a scientist and a writer, in which case, you win this round). Don’t fall down a research hole about climate change but forget to develop your characters and plot. You can even write early drafts without the inclusion of specific scientific facts. Write the story first, then supplement scientific gems to support that story later. Remember, cli-fi is speculative fiction! Go ahead and speculate.
Have you noticed the cli-fi writing trend? Would you try writing some of your own, or would you rather read books from this genre?
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