Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, a motif, or what?

Protoplantary Disk

Climate fiction is like a protoplanetary disk. Image courtesy NASA.

The activist and public relations man Dan Bloom, who originated the term “cli-fi” in 2008, recently posed the question to me in an email: Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, or a motif? I laughed, because these are the kinds of questions that resemble the old saw about debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. But if the small cadre of writers and editors interested in building a new form of literature called “climate fiction” hope to have any success, they’ll need an answer, just in case a burned-out academic or a newspaper intern calls.

Climate fiction is like the protoplanetary disc of dust and gas surrounding a young star. Something’s happening, but the system of planets, moons, and comets has yet to emerge. Awhile back, I posted my Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction as an attempt to help the new writer understand the emerging genre’s place in the universe of accepted genres. With a bit of tweaking, a reader or editor could use the rules to label a novel or story “cli-fi.” Using this framework, a book lover could argue, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said in a case about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

The natural environment and humanity’s impact on it are central themes in climate fiction. In literature and other art forms, a theme is a dominant idea that a work is intended to explore. For example, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove is the absurdity of war in the nuclear age. Like any literary effort, writers can explore the entire range of human experience in climate fiction, though environmental protection or degradation, or broader nature-based themes, such as the place of humanity in the natural world, help define the genre. George Turner, in his prototypical climate fiction novel, The Sea and Summer, explores themes of choice and survival in a world driven by global warming.

Motifs are typically thought of as recurring symbols that represent the themes. In the Sea and Summer, rising flood waters illustrate the changing climate. In Emmi Itaranta’s Memory of Water, water and its scarcity represent her themes of a community and culture assaulted on all sides by a drying climate. By definition, climate fiction must include environmental or nature-based motifs, though they may not be dominant motifs. In Christopher Priest’s 2013 novel The Adjacent, temperate zone hurricanes are common in a future climate-changed world, but they only exist in one of his story’s timelines as a backdrop.

Despite these general boundaries, climate fiction at this stage is whatever anyone says it is, unlike science fiction, or romance, or literary fiction. Climate fiction likely won’t emerge as an accepted genre until a blockbuster novel or movie defines the category, similar to how the Twilight series of novels defined paranormal romance, which didn’t exist as a genre 20 years ago. With enough time and a large enough body of work (see Mary Woodbury’s Eco-Fiction and Cli-Fi Books online database), climate fiction could become an accepted genre, with its own shelf in every bookstore.

Do you think climate fiction will become an accepted genre?

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