How cli-fi novels and movies might raise global awareness about runaway climate change risks and near future scenarios
''I’m sure that Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain — the Bengali feminist thinker who dreamt up the utopian setting of Sultana’s Dream — would hate to say “I told you so.” But her seeming clairvoyance does beg the question: Is there climate fiction out there right now, sitting on some library bookshelf, that could pave a yellow brick road to a better future? And, if there isn’t, shouldn’t there be?''
There’s a reason that climate fiction can tend toward the dystopiana: It’s not hard to imagine things going to shit. But while dystopiana fiction can be a jarring wake-up call — it’s one reason we’re (rightfully) freaked out about nuclear war — scholars and writers are increasingly calling for stories that help us rise above our most intimidating challenges. That’s particularly true with the literary subgenre called climate fiction, known by fans as “cli-fi.”
One example: “Better Worlds,” The Verge’s recent series of optimistic science fiction short stories and videos, several of which explore themes of climate and social justice. In one story, residents of a small island community work together to survive a worsening storm season.
“At a time when simply reading the news is an exercise in exhaustion, anxiety, and fear, it’s no surprise that so many of our tales about the future are dark amplifications of the greatest terrors of the present,” writes editor Laura Hudson in an intro to the series. “But now more than ever, we also need the reverse: stories that inspire hope.”
Arizona State University is in on it, too. ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination has published anthologies spotlighting cli-fi short stories, climate literature, optimistic sci-fi.
“A big part of our work is bringing together scientific and technological reality with storytelling that’s vivid and relatable for people,” says Joey Eschrich, who works at the center and edited several of the anthologies. “[Climate fiction] gives you a sense that you can get your head around these complicated ideas, and maybe have a voice in them.”
The genre has influenced social movements, too: Detroit activist Adrienne Maree Brown gives credit to Patternist series author Octavia Butler for her vision of a just future, and Ernest Callenbach’s 1970 novel Ecotopia became the manifesto for multiple green parties, according to Yaszek.
Writers who are hard at work on present-day challenges include Kim Stanley Robinson, whose 2017 novel, New York 2140, imagines communal life in the half-drowned city.
But some in the field argue that we need more big, risky, earth-shattering ideas from climate fiction writers.
Neal Stephenson blames a dearth of forward-looking science fiction for what he calls “innovation starvation” — “a general failure of our society to get big things done.”
Stephenson can roast us all he wants. But does optimistic climate fiction sell?
Well, it’s unlikely that our disaster obsession will go away anytime soon: George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, 1984, saw a 9,500 percent increase in sales in the month following President Trump’s inauguration.
Still, cli-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, who Eschrich calls “a keeper of the utopian impulse,” is one of contemporary science fiction’s most recognizable names.
Afrofuturism, which draws from sci-fi and African traditions to envision black people at the center of a powerful, innovative future, featured heavily in Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther. Even WALL-E can be interpreted as optimistic cli-fi — at least some life finds a way to survive on a trash-covered Earth.
As Margaret Atwood said, “every dystopia contains a little utopia, or at least a better world.”
Journalist Dan Bloom, and a climate activist of the literary kind, who coined and started promoting the literary term ''cli-fi'' in 2011 (and is pretty good-natured when people confuse tbe term for “clit-lit”) told Grist in a one-hour phone inrterview that he hopes that Hollywood will soon take a crack at portraying more hopeful visions of humanity’s future.
We haven’t had the cli-fi Star Wars yet, although Interstellar may have come close. Maybe a new hope is all we need to restore freedom to the galaxy.
Yaszek thinks that video games could have a positive impact, too: They help us visualize ourselves as changemakers (rather than just letting people in shiny spandex with weird hair do it).
In Thunderbird Strike, a 2017 game by Elizabeth LaPensée, users play a thunderbird flying around Turtle Island hurling lightning bolts at oil rigs. The game is mostly symbolic — its website calls attention to the impact of oil drilling on indigenous lands — but Yaszek says that it makes you feel in control in a unique and powerful way. And it makes an overwhelming problem feel like a game that anyone can win.