I see why the SF community bristles at the implication that this style of fiction represents something completely new.
Great SF writers have indeed explored the territory that includes climate change, environmental disaster, and ecological imbalance for decades and have found fertile ground there. (Fertile for the writers; perhaps not so fertile for the story’s main characters, who may be left wandering through parched and barren hellscapes.)
Frank Herbert’s Dune series is a perfect example. Kim Stanley Robinson has mined this rich story vein brilliantly for years. And I still remember being mesmerized by Ursula Le Guin’s “The Word for World Is Forest.”
So, for science fiction fans, this is nothing new. What’s changed, then (besides the melting polar ice, rising seas, violent weather patterns, and mean Earth temperature)? I’d say two major factors contributed to the emergence of “cli-fi” in the public eye.
First, the evidence for global warming has become dramatically visible to people in their everyday lives. Extreme weather events and the nearly unanimous consensus of climate scientists have shifted popular perception of this issue. Even the deniers grudgingly admit that something is happening, although they might argue about the root causes.
Second, the theme of climate change has begun appearing in the work of acclaimed “mainstream” literary fiction writers like Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior) and Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam Trilogy). Although this rankles some SF folks who feel that we’re treated like “second-class literary citizens,” the reality is that mainstream fiction writers carry more weight with traditional media sources. (And Kingsolver’s and Atwood’s books are wonderful — I highly recommend them.)
New genre [of CF] or just newly recognized SF sub-genre, this can be a positive development for writers of speculative fiction with a passion for environmental themes. And, for those of us who also feel impassioned about environmental causes, it’s a win-win.
I believe fiction can communicate messages (like “we’re mortgaging our planet’s future for short-term economic gain”) in ways that are more visceral than nonfiction books addressing similar concerns. Facts can move the mind, but fiction can move the spirit.
Fiction writing is not activism… but infusing core beliefs into a story can make that tale more vivid and thought-provoking if it’s not done in a preachy, heavy-handed way.
Cli-fi reflects a growing movement among writers in and outside of science fiction who develop stories around a central premise of “what if global warming really does proceed unchecked?” What will the world look like if weather patterns alter drastically, the cycle of seasons becomes unrecognizable, coastal mega-cities flood, large swaths of land become arid wastelands, and masses of people are forced to migrate away from their homes in search of less hostile environments?
What kind of social and political chaos will result, and how will we cope? Will we try to geo-engineer a solution on a planetary scale, and what if there are unintended consequences? Will humans be forced to tweak their own genetics to adapt to the harsh conditions that constitute Earth’s “new normal”? A
ll of these questions fueled my own writing as I began the Aquarius Rising trilogy, and they’re still propelling my imagination as I work on the final novel, The Price of Eden. I can’t wait to see how things turn out.
Is it really cli-fi or just good old sci-fi? Ultimately, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter what label media or marketers assign as long as readers enjoy the books and consider the implications. Science fiction has a proud history of presenting cautionary tales about possible dystopian futures. Very few of the cli-fi books I’ve read so far conclude on an optimistic note. Maybe, together, we can write a happier ending!
Brian Burt writes both short and novel-length speculative fiction. His short story “The Last Indian War” won the Writers of the Future Gold Award and was anthologized in Writers of the Future Volume VIII. His debut novel, Aquarius Rising: In the Tears of God, won the 2014 EPIC eBook Award for Science Fiction, and the sequel, Aquarius Rising: Blood Tide, has just been released by Double Dragon Publishing. You can sample his writing at http://www.briantburt.com.