‘Cli-fi’ gains traction as new literary form

Global warming

Image courtesy Inhabitat

Guest Post by Dan Bloom

Note from Joe: Originally from Boston, Dan Bloom is a Taipei, Taiwan-based free-lance journalist who has written about “climate fiction” since 2008. He blogs about the genre at Cli Fi Central.

In a London Guardian newspaper commentary in London in late May, British writer Rodge Glass issued a “global warning” about what he termed “the rise of ‘cli-fi'” — noting that “unlike most science fiction, novels about climate change focus on an immediate and intense threat rather than discovery.”

His piece about the rise of cli-fi as a literary term in English — in both the U.S. and in the UK — was well-received among his newspaper’s readership with over 100 comments joining the post-publication online discussion. NPR broadcast a story about cli-fi in April, which was followed by a second story in the Christian Science Monitor. And following the Guardian piece in late May, the Financial Times in London ran its own story about cli-fi.

Glass, himself a novelist, said that in recent months the cli-fi term has been used increasingly in literary and environmental circles — but there’s no doubt it has broken out more widely. The Twitterverse also took note, he said.

I know a little about the growing popularity of the cli-fi term, because I coined it here in Taiwan in 2008 while working on a series of blog posts about climate change and global warming. But it wasn’t until NPR and the Guardian ran stories about cli-fi that the word got out far and wide. I also want to credit an artist in Taiwan, Deng Cheng-hong, who inspired me in my PR work with his illustrations of what future survival cities for climate refugees might look like.

Author Glass said that “engaging with this subject in fiction increases debate about the issue; finely constructed, intricate narratives help us broaden our understanding and explore imagined futures, encouraging us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. This can often seem difficult in our 24-hour news-on-loop society where the consequences of climate change may appear to be everywhere, but intelligent discussion of it often seems to be nowhere.”

As Gregory Norminton put it in his introduction to a recent UK anthology on the subject of climate fiction: “Global warming is a predicament, not a story. Narrative only comes in our response to that predicament.”

Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery, according to Glass. “There are no spaceships hovering in the sky; no clocks striking 13,” he wrote. “On the contrary, many of the horrors described seem oddly familiar.”

Glass ended his piece by saying that with cli-fi as a new literary term “there is an opportunity… Whenever a literary term gains traction it is a chance to examine not only what it says about the writers who explore the new ground but also the readers who buy it, read it, discuss it. And that discussion is only going to get louder. It is already difficult for any serious writer to imagine convincing worlds on the page without admitting that these worlds, if they resemble our own, are under threat. As that threat grows, so will the vocabulary designed to make sense of it.”

After reading the Glass piece, I emailed Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature at the University of Surrey in the UK, what she though of the new term, and she replied: “I think climate change fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) has, in just a few years, moved beyond simplistic apocalypse scenarios to engage intelligently with questions of science and policy (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy) and environmental justice (for example, Barbara Kingsolver and Paolo Bacigalupi, in very different ways). By making us ‘live’ both the devastating impacts of climate change and ways of dealing with these, these novels can’t help but intervene in the ongoing debate on climate change policies.”

Mark Nykanen, an Oregonian and a former news reporter for NBC, is author of three “cli fi” novels — “Primitive” and most recently from the Harper Voyager imprint, “Burn Down the Sky” and “Carry the Flame” — and is a novelist with guts and insight into the future we as a species are facing.

“I’ve always written about characters in extreme situations, and nothing is more extreme than the historically unprecedented dangers that we’re facing with climate change,” Nykanan told me when I emailed him about his work. “It’s been fascinating for me to see how the women and men in my novels have navigated a planet rocked by the worst case scenarios of climate scientists — scenarios that appear increasingly likely.”

His last two novels, mentioned above, form part of a series he has set in the latter part of this century after climate change has led to a catastrophic collapse of natural systems. More than most novelists, Nykanan is not afraid to face the future squarely and tell readers, through superb storytelling, mere fiction, where we are heading if we do not get our collective global act together soon. On his website, he also blogs on climate change – http://www.marknykanen.com.

So is “cli-fi” as a sub-genre of sci-fi here to stay? It’s up to writers around the world, and their readers, to decide. Time will tell. But it looks like it’s off to a good start.

For more on cli-fi, read an interview of Dan Blooom by Tanya Kaur. What do you think? Is “cli-fi” a real genre?

4 thoughts on “‘Cli-fi’ gains traction as new literary form

  1. UPDATE: Mark Nykanen, quoted in my oped guest blog above, tells me: ”Thanks for sending this along. Much appreciated. I’m glad to see cli-fi gaining traction….
    BTW, I no longer live in Hood River, Oregon. I live in Nelson, BC now and hold dual citizenship.”

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  2. A new cli fi novel from Taiwan, eco-fantasy by 41 year old Mr Wu Ming-yi, titled “THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES” pubbed in Taiwan in Chinese in 2011, and picked up by major publishers in UK and USA for fall 2013 debut in Western world, they are calling the new LIFE OF PI, in English soon, and one sci fi writer of top calibre read it in a pre-pub edition and he said:

    “We haven’t read anything like this novel. Ever. South America gave us magical realism – so what is Taiwan giving us with Mr Wu’s new novel? A new way of telling our new reality, beautiful, entertaining, frightening, preposterous, true. Completely unsentimental but never brutal, Wu Ming-Yi treats human vulnerability and the world’s vulnerability with fearless tenderness.”

    5 stars blurb. Wow.

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  3. Cli -Fi is certainly here to stay. For lovers of science fiction and those who are interested in the future of the planet it is a great area for fiction to explore. Having just published Water’s Edge, the first novel in a series of three about how we will cope when climate change affects the Western world, it provides a great backdrop for writers.

    Love the new name for it!

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