What is cli-fi?
DAN BLOOM: It’s a literary way of thinking, reading and writing about climate change themes. Such stories and novels can take place in the past, the present or the near future, and they can be utopian, dystopian, or what Margaret Atwood calls “ustopian”: a hybrid of utopia/dystopia.
Cal Flyn at FiveBooks.com interviews Dan Bloom in Q&A format about the the rise of cli-fi novels worldwide
Q. Is it always speculative, imagining a future post-climate disaster?
DAN BLOOM: No. It can be speculative fiction. But it can also be literary fiction like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, or comic fiction like Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station or satire like Ian McEwan‘s Solar or T C Boyle‘sA Friend of the Earth. It’s up to each individual writer to go where cli-fi takes them. There’s no canon, there’s no agenda, there’s no ‘school of cli-fi.’ It’s an open field. No rules.
Can you trace the origins of the genre?
‘Climate change fiction,’ as academics like to call it, has been around since Jules Verne. In his 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole, Verne wrote what he called an ‘adventure novel’ – the term ‘science fiction’ did not then exist – about a climate change phenomenon that he posited was due to some kind of tilting of the Earth’s axis. Six years before, he had published a futuristic novel, Paris in the 20th Century. Written in 1883 and set almost 100 years in the future, he imagined a Paris hit by a sudden drop in temperatures, which goes on to last for three years. That was early cli-fi, but of course nobody called it that.
British author JG Ballard wrote novels about climate-related disasters in 1961’s The Wind from Nowhere, and in The Drowned World, published a year later in 1962. He imagined a dystopian future of melting polar ice caps and rising sea-levels caused not by global warming or human-caused climate change but from solar radiation. Then, in 1964, Ballard went straight for the jugular with The Burning World, his novel about a climate disaster that is man-made, with a story about droughts due to disruption of the precipitation cycle caused by industrial pollution. So cli-fi is nothing new. It just has a name now.
What I hope to see arise in the next ten to twenty years is a novel with similar emotional power to Nevil Shute’s 1957 classic On the Beach, about nuclear war and nuclear winter. Who will write the On the Beach of climate change? Perhaps someone in Australia? South Africa? India? I envision it being written and published by 2050, hopefully earlier.
Climate change is becoming an increasingly tangible threat. Has this been reflected in literary output too? Is this an expanding field?
Amitav Ghosh started a ruckus in 2016 when he published an essay collection based on some public lectures he had given a year before entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh didn’t do his homework, and got it all wrong. He basically said modern writers have not written about climate change or global warming because they’re not up to it. He published an excerpt from the book in the Guardian that got him into a lot of trouble in the literary world –
In that article, he described the lack of ‘serious fiction’ about climate change as a “crisis of culture.”
90 per cent of the reader comments were negative, saying that Ghosh’s prejudice against genre fiction was misplaced and shoddy. Ghosh never answered his critics but I think he now realizes he was wrong. In fact, many writers have tackled climate change issues in their novels for over 50 years now. So to answer your question, yes, the very tangible threat of global warming impact events on Earth has been reflected in novels and short stories, and not just in English-speaking countries. Cli-fi novels have surfaced in France, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Italy, among other nations. French writer Jean-Marc Ligny’s cli-fi trilogy – starting with Aqua™ – has been translated into German and is awaiting an English-language edition as well. Cli-fi is more than an expanding field. It’s an exploding field. And for good reason. We are in deep shit in regard to runaway global warming and novelists know it. We will see more of these books in the next 50 years. It’s on the cards. It’s in the air.
Recently on Five Books we discussed Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill. She wrote that “to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” Ghosh seemed to be making a similar argument: do we have the poetic language to discuss meteorology and climate modelling?
In many ways, that’s at the crux of all literary discussions of cli-fi. My answer is, yes, they do. Here’s why: Our writers and poets can and will dig deep to find the words and the stories they need. Alice Robinson in Australia has done it well in her debut novel Anchor Point. Meg Little Reilly in Vermont has done it in We Are Unprepared. Nathaniel Rich did it in the comic cli-fi yarn Odds Against Tomorrow, and he did it without once mentioning the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’ That’s what writers are here for. There is no poverty of language with them.
One of the functions of words is to promote meaningful discourse. Poets, playwrights, film directors, novelists, short story writers can handle climate change fiction. No problem. What we need now are publishers willing to take chances on these new writers and creative spirits.
We have the words. We just have to use them. In the end, Woolf was wrong and Ghosh is wrong. In fact, we have the words and there’s an army of writers worldwide gathering their wits about them right now and getting ready to pounce on cli-fi as a literary platform. They have the words to pen emotionally-gripping novels about climate change and global warming. Their books are coming.
What can climate change literature achieve that scientific and political discussion cannot?
The key question! Every day, all over the world, online and in print, in newspapers and magazines, there are scientists and academics droning on and on in boring ways about this and that in terms of climate change. They never talk about emotions, they never talk about culture, they never talk about poetry. It’s all PhD talk and political punditry, and it comes from both the right and the left. Their discussions don’t and won’t change a thing. Tomorrow, more such ‘discussion’ will be published in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Toronto Star and Le Monde. Useless.
But come the novels that are part of what we now call climate change literature, they can and are making a difference. They use heart to write stories about these issues, not brain. They create characters the reader will care about and perhaps even identify with. Novels are about empathy. Scientific and political discussions in the media are never about empathy.
The American writer Sarah Stone said it best in a review of Edan Lepucki’s novel California. She wrote that if we survive, “it will be in part because of books like this one, which go beyond abstract predictions and statistics to show the moment-by-moment reality of a painful possible future, the price we may have to pay for our passionate devotion to all the wrong things.”
Look at what novels such as The Jungle and On the Beach and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird and New York 2140 have done. That have all, in their own ways, changed the world, and changed the literary climate. Novels have heft. Political and scientific op-eds lead only to media distractions and political and scientific squabbles.
Let’s look at your first choice, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 Flight Behaviour. In it, the changing patterns of the monarch butterfly migration are a warning signal of a changing world. Why do you recommend it?
Because it’s top-flight storytelling, written by a seasoned pro. It wasn’t published six years ago as a ‘cli-fi’ novel, and Kingsolver herself never called it that. The novel isn’t about global warming per se. It’s a fable, a poetic fable, with a strong cast of memorable characters. Whether you’re a woman or a man, the novel will resonate with you. The vision of the monarch butterflies at the beginning of the story is almost mystical, religious, spiritual. It’s pure storytelling with no false moves.
What makes her book work for me was that it didn’t fall into the trap of being preachy. As a non-scientist, I loved the book and read it with the same page-turning excitement as I felt when I used to read novels when I was a teenager in the 1960s, when literature was still fresh and new to me. The chapters in Flight Behaviour about the climate denialists in the local community are powerful and get to the heart of the matter. This isn’t a novel using government statistics and scientific studies to preach to the choir: it goes for the reader’s EQ rather than her or his IQ. I liked that.
All cli-fi books should be like this. I couldn’t stop reading, over a period of several days, as I entered Kingsolver’s world here in my apartment in Taiwan. She is pure genius.
The novel portrays a culture clash between the local Appalachian residents and incoming scientists. “Team camo,” says the main character, gets “the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side… get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants.” Is environmentalism a luxury that only the middle class can afford?
Kingsolver has lived in Africa – which was the setting for her 1998 novelThe Poisonwood Bible – and she wrote Flight Behaviour while living in rural Virginia, so she knows a thing or two about the rich and the poor, and the haves and the have-nots. In this novel she explores class in rural America, and it’s not always a pretty picture.
To answer your question, I might answer with a slight modification to novelist William Gibson’s often-quoted quip that ”the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” to the effect that “climate activism is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” So yes, the novel explores class in America, and class differences in the environmental movement. Kingsolver shines a light on this, and it’s illuminating.
Your second choice of book is Anchor Point, the debut novel of Australian writer Alice Robinson. Tell me about it.
This book was published three years ago, and it’s interesting that it was set in both the past and the near future. The story is told in the third person and is divided into four sections, starting in 1984 then segueing to 1997, 2008 and what was then seen as the “near future” of 2018. Which is where we are today.
It’s not a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, far from it, and it tries to give readers a sense of hope rather than grind them down with doom and gloom. It’s a family drama, about white people in Australia living close to the land and sometimes visiting the big cities. It’s also about the indigenous people of that island continent, and Robinson is not afraid to look into the nation’s Aboriginal origins.
And while Australia is far away from North America and Europe, the land is also beset by massive wildfires, floods and droughts, just like in California, France and Spain. Anchor Point means a safe harbour, and I feel that Robinson meant for her novel itself to be a safe harbour in the midst of gathering global storms that are linked now to climate change.
The book seemingly appeared in Australia out of nowhere at the time, with the novel making small, hopeful literary waves in the country, but getting little recognition overseas in North America or Europe. It’s too bad because it’s a very good cli-fi novel and deserved a wider readership. I asked Alice by email about the book back in 2015. I wanted to know if she wrote the novel out of fear for an uncontrollable near future or as a book about grief. She told me:
I am living in a culture here in Australia that has been incredibly slow, negligently slow, to come to terms with the reality of climate change. I feel that talking openly about the prospect of a perilous future in this nation is received as alarmist, unhinged, hysterical. In the long term, I feel profound grief over the loss of beautiful, magical places, plants and creatures in the world. It is a horrible consequence of taking climate change seriously that my encounters with nature now already feel somewhat nostalgic, even painful, as though the beauty of the world is fleeting, already lost to me.
The book spans 35 years and it ends with the final chapter in 2018, when some massive bushfires begin to impact on big city dwellers as well as rural people. It’s written in a quiet, controlled way, and in many ways it does not read like a climate fiction novel at all. There are no lectures, there is no preaching, there are no long information dumps. Anchor Point is literary fiction, with the people and the land of the author’s native country forming the backdrop to her controlled storytelling. I loved reading this book.
Your next choice, Meg Little Reilly’s We Are Unprepared, was also a debut novel. In it, a young Brooklyn couple move to the woods in Vermont; one finds inspiration from the local ‘prepper’ movement in the face of meteorological threat. Do they have the right idea?
They think they are doing the right thing and have the right idea, but as millennials in a climate-impacted world they are “unprepared,” as the title aptly puts it. Notice the title is “We Are Unprepared,” rather than “We Are Not Prepared.” There’s a subtle difference.
As the story unfolds, the couple and their friends find out that even in idyllic, rural, hippie Vermont, chaos, disintegration and mixed signals reign. Reilly’s book is a cli-fi novel of the current moment, set in the present. A major east coast storm, remnants of a hurricane, turns Vermont upside down.
Little Reilly described her book as “a psychological anxiety inducer, born out of a frustration about the slow movement on climate change.” This seems to echo Robinson’s comment from the other side of the world. Is this activism-by-literature?
That’s a good way to put it. The very act of putting pen to paper is a kind of activism for some writers, yes. In Reilly’s case, earlier in her life she worked as a policy wonk in Washington DC in the Bill Clinton administration. There, she rubbed elbows with government officials, sat in on high-level staff meetings and socialized after work with power players with close ties to Clinton.
Then she left the world of politics and Washington games, and decided to move to her native state of Vermont and write a novel. A climate-themed novel, it turned out, and the result was We Are Unprepared. She wanted to use literature, literary fiction, to make a difference, if books can ever really make a difference in society at large. So yes, like Robinson in Australia, Reilly was doing activism as literature. She did media interviews, went on a book tour and spoke as a guest author at Washington bookstores. The inside Washington policy wonk was now a book person, trading places to become a Washington outsider.
Next is Polar City Red by Jim Laughter. I saw that Margaret Atwood credited you with the invention of the term ‘cli-fi’while promoting this book back in 2012.
Yes, Polar City Red was the first novel ever to be published and promoted explicitly as a cli-fi novel. I commissioned the novel back in 2010, to promote my work on the concept of ‘polar cities’ – with all credit and royalties going to Jim. To give the concept a literary handle, I asked Jim to write a novel under his own byline and with his own plot, timeframe and cast of characters, set in 2075. The only things I asked were that the book be about one such city in Alaska and that the title be Polar City Red.
What are polar cities?
I was involved in promoting the idea that survival communities might be built in the far north of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia in the event that future global warming impact events forced millions of climate refugees to those regions. The New York Times wrote about my concept back in 2008. Jim had written several science fiction novels already; he accepted the commission and published the book in early 2012. I wrote dozens of press releases and op-eds calling the novel a ‘cli-fi thriller.’ Margaret Atwood was kind enough to tweet, and with her large Twitter following, word got around. So Jim’s book gave birth to the cli-fi term, and Atwood’s tweet solidified its ascent.
Polar City Red is about a family of Americans who are forced to leave their home in Minnesota and make their way north to a pioneering polar city in northern Alaska, threatened daily by looters, marauders and survivalists living around the fortified perimeters of Polar City Red. Laughter’s novel was a hybrid of science fiction and climate fiction, and thanks to Polar City Red, we’re talking about cli-fi today. That’s why I consider it a pivotal book in the early history of climate fiction literature. It’s still available in paperback.
Let’s move onto your final book choice: Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink! by Gregg Kleimer. Why have you selected this book for children?
I love, love, love this book. Here’s the elevator pitch: Four years ago, when Kleiner’s daughters were young, he worked with a fabulous illustrator to produce a 44-page children’s picture book – what I call the world’s first cli-fi picture book – about the danger CO2 poses to the planet. Notice the subtitle of the book is “A Story for Children and Their Adults.” So this is not just a book for kids but it’s also for their parents and their teachers to read and discuss with them at home or at school.
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The conceit is: what if someone painted all the CO2 in the atmosphere pink, so that everyone could see it, and how it is overloading the atmosphere? Now, no children’s book is going to turn the tide on the fight against global warming impacts alone. But, on the other hand, what if this little book became an animated cartoon that was shared online worldwide and on TV? One never knows how children’s books travel in time. Look at how popular the Dr Seuss picture books became worldwide after the author died. Some literary critics even say that The Lorax was a cli-fi picture book that was way ahead of its time.
Which books from the cli-fi genre do you think we’ll still be reading in 100 years?
I have to think that our descendants in 2118 might still be reading Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, James Bradley‘s Clade, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, Ling Ma’s Severance and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow. And for sure, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
Interview by Cal Flyn
April 23, 2018
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