Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'Cli fi' goes to the head of the class - and then some! A conversation with Professor Ted Howell at Temple University

Ted Howell is teaching a class this semester, Spring 2015, at Temple University in Philadelphia, and it's titled: "Cli-fi: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and Apocalypse''. As more and more universities around the world start offering classes on climate change literature, often dubbed "cli-fi" for short, the world of academia and students is catching on to the meme. From the University of Oregon to Temple University, and with academic papers on being published in journals in Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA, a trend is emerging and it's an important one.

To learn more about the nature and specifics of Professor Howell's class, we had a little chat via email the other day and here is an edited verison of our conversation.

DAN BLOOM: Professor Howell, in your class,
how much of the reading material will be cli-fi genre novels, how much
will be in sci fi genre, how much will be in speculative fiction genre, and how
much will be fantasy genre?
Do you see the chance or an
opportunity that this combining of genres might lead to a hybrid of
something like sci-fi/cli-fi?
Such as the Naomi Oreskes' novel which is on the class reading list?
TED HOWELL: You’re exactly right to point out that although the main title of the course is “Cli-fi,” I’ve broadened the topic to include science fiction and apocalypse as concepts, or genres, in addition to “cli-fi” per se. One reason I’ve done this is that less than half of the books we’re reading have been considered as cli-fi (at least in reports and lists that I’ve come across).
Importantly, the first two texts we read, “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, were written way before “climate change” as we understand it was a real concern, but part of what I’m doing by assigning them is investigating what it means to talk about “climate change” in books written in an earlier era.
This is something I’m writing about in my own academic research, so it’s near and dear to me. I do think that many of the books are best described as hybrid genres, especially ''The Collapse of Western Civilization'', and I’d argue that ''cli-fi'' itself is a hybrid genre – but I foresee that you’ll have more questions about this point.

DAN BLOOM: Recent years
have seen the emergence of a new genre of novels and movies: climate fiction literature, or
"cli-fi" movies or novels for short. NPR led the way with a major radio segment that aired in April 2013, and from there the meme took off, being reported in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Australian. The Assocated Press did a wire story in December 2014 that went to over 1,500 newspapers worldwide.
Of course, the cli fi term is modelled after the sci fi term and the sound of the sci fi term, but as I have conceived cli-fi as a literary and movie genre, it has nothing to with sci-fi and it rather a separate and independent genre. That's where I'm coming from on this.
I never use the term "climate fiction" for this since the phrase "climate fiction" has been hijacked by climate denialists in the USA, Australia and the UK to stand for what they deem the "climate fiction" of books and movies and academic articles by such people as Al Gore, James Hansern, Michael Mann and James Lovelock. So I purposely coined the term cli-fi as its own term and I never call if "climate fiction," just to make sure the climate denialists don't try to hijack "cli-fi".
So the term I created and coined is, simply, "cli-fi." It stands for novels and movies about climate change and global warming, either as dystopiana or utopiana, either way. My hope from the beginnng was that cli-fi might make a difference on how the media and academia write about climate-themed movies and novels.
TED HOWELL: I absolutely see your reasoning in not wanting to say “climate fiction,” and I’d happily use “climate change fiction” instead as the long form of “cli-fi.” That said, I do have to ask you in return: is “cli-fi” a term that’s not short for anything? It’s just “cli-fi”?
For the record, I did tell my students about why you want to stick with cli-fi all by itself and not “climate fiction” and explained the reason – it makes all kinds of sense to me.
DAN BLOOM REPLIES: Yes, cli-fi is a term in itself and not short for anything. Just "cli-fi." Yes.
DAN BLOOM'S NEXT QUESTION: Some people say, incorrectly from the way I set this thing up, that the ''cli fi'' nickname reveals its connection to the larger
genre of science fiction. But this is not correct. I love sci fi and grew up with sci fi, but as I set this up, cli fi has no connection to the sci fi
genre other than the sound of the name which was modelled on the sci fi rhyming sound meme.
A lot of news media reports have gotten this wrong also, saying cli fi is part of sci fi or a subgenre of sci fi. In my point of view, and the reason I am doing all this, cli fi is not part of the sci fi canon and represents the birth of an entirely new canon, come what may.
TED HOWELL REPLIES: As I see it, the fact that “cli-fi” is obviously modelled on“sci-fi” certainly led me to believe that it was connected in an important way to science fiction, and many of the news pieces I’ve read about cli-fi have made this point as well.
In all honestly, I think that as the term cli-fi takes on a life of its own and spreads into wider awareness, it’s going to get harder and harder to keep it strictly separated from science fiction, even if you and I can both see the point in keeping them distinct.
Significantly, I think, because many of the earliest examples being labeled with cli-fi (Ballard’s The Drowned World and The Drought, especially) were initially labeled as sci-fi this connection is going to remain strong, even as works likeFlight Behavior and Odds Against Tomorrow tackle climate change in fiction without the addition of anything fantastical or futuristic.
has for a century imagined alternative worlds
and wondered what it would be like for humans to live during (and
after) apocalyptic events, as you said in the class introduction, but from my point of view, sci fi is mostly about clocks
that strike 13 and trips to outer space and invisible people. So for me, cli fi has nothing to do wioth sci fi.
Of course, many sci fi novels do treat climate change and global warming as themes, and I applaud those books and movies and hope to see more, and if they are called sci fi, that's fine. As I said above, I love sci fi. It has an important role to play in all this, yes. But cli fi is not part of sci fi in any way. It's a totally new genre. As I see it, cli fi has a mission: to wake up readers and
movie viwers to the perial of unchecked climate change and AGW. It has
a moral imperative to wake people up. For the msot part, sci fi is mere entertainment and escapsim. emt. Cli fi
is not your grandfathers' sci fi. Can I say that?
TED HOWELL: I am not an expert on science fiction, and there are many other scholars and teachers who could answer this question better than I can, but I’d certainly contest your implication that sci-fi is “mostly” about trips to outer space and doesn’t aim to wake up readers.
Are you arguing that cli-fi can’t take place in a speculative future, but has to be in the past or present? I don’t want to accept that, especially because two of the best books we’re reading in our class, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood are set in the future, could certainly be considered cli-fi and even sci-fi (although both Butler and Atwood are careful to, and really successful at, limiting the number of fantastical elements in their novels).
To keep things within my own wheelhouse, I’d point to Wells’ The Time Machine, which is often heralded as the foundational text of science fiction, as an example of a text that certainly intends to “wake up”its readers through its fantastical elements. Wells talks about this in some of the popular science writing he did early in his career: he wants humanity to realize that they are a species among other species, and that the fossil record is littered with examples of species whose decline immediately followed their apex. Wells wants humanity to cease its self-destructive habits, among them, I would argue, anthropogenic climate change.
DAN BLOOM: Contemporary science has
begun to understand the irrevocable interconnection between humans and
the Earth's climate, the frightening fact that human beings
have altered the climate itself, for now and for long into the future.
That is where cli fi comes in. Cli fi, over time, will replace sci fi in the
future. But yes, sci fi novels and movies and TV shows can explore climate issues too and some
of them have for sure. I am not anti-sci-fi. I am just pro cli-fi. Does that makes sense? This is something new.
TED HOWELL: The best answer to this, I think, is to bring up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which is hardly about the Earth at all (although it does feature heavily, along with references to dramatic forms of climate change), yet explores climate issues with a depth and breadth beyond any work of fiction I’ve read to date. I know you’re fond of the Mars trilogy, so you’ll certainly agree.
DAN BLOOM: I do agree with you on this.
DAN BLOOM'S NEXT QUESTION: Your course is exploring
contemporary fiction (and, to begin, some fiction
from earlier in the 20th Century) that depicts and/or imagines
the impact of climate change. I love what you and your students are doing
with this kind of pioneering literature class, and I am following it with much
interest. That's why I contacted you when I heard about the class at Temple.
But I feel, as a proponent of cli fi as a rising new genre, a "mushrooming" new genre, as Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times called it in his very good Times article on April 1, 2014 -- yes, it was published on April Fool's Day! -- I feel that sci fi, fun and entertaining and sometimes probing as it can be, does not at the present time show
any moral imperative to fight climate change and global warming and is just a marketing term for a huge publishing market of readers and fan sites and writers of sci fi as well. But so far, sci fi has not shown much interest in fighting climate change and that's what cli fi is all about. It's not a marketing buzzword. It's, for me and the way I created it and set it up in the media worldwide now, it's a cri de coeur, a wake up call, an alarm bell, the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. Words matter, novels matter, moves matter. That's where I am coming from on this. Your point of view?
TED HOWELL: But does ''cli-fi'' have to demonstrate a moral imperative to fight climate change in order to merit the label? I’d rather define it by its engagement with climate change, whether it’s a depiction of it or some consideration of it, rather than by its political or moral aims. Not that fiction can’t have or show a moral imperative, but I’d rather look into the work rather than judge it by its goals.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was written, according to its author, to inspire sympathy for immigrant laborers and aid the socialist cause—but instead it led to the passage of public health measures regulating meat production. (Thus Sinclair’s famous quote “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach.”). It had a moral imperative, and made a significant impact in the world —but not the impact its author intended.
DAN BLOOM REPLIES: Good points, and I like what you said about how Sinclair's novel had a kind of unintended consequence. Yes, true. Good point. Cli fi novels -- and sci fi novels, too -- could have similar unintended consequences, yes.
DAN BLOOM'S NEW QUESTION: In your class this semester, your key questions will be these:
1. ''How can
something so gradual, so significant, and so mind-boggling as climate
change be treated in literature?''
2. And: "Can fiction help to alter our
conceptions of the Earth and our role in changing it?''
I love both questions and your focus is perfect!
Margaret Atwood says that novels and movies that are cli fi or sci fi
novels or speculative fiction novels about climate issues issue will most likely do nothing to
change public opinioon on the issues. Only powerful, unspeakable, natural events that
kill millions or uproot millions of climate refugees in one fell swoop
can wake people up but by then it will most likely be too late, she says in interviews online.
And I tend to agree with her.
So no, ''cli fi'' will not wake anyone up -- but I still hope the genre might serve
some purpose and make a difference in the future world. My mission as coiner and convener of cli fi is to put it out there -- the term itself , as a PR tool, a PR vehicle -- as a wake up alarm, a shout from
the rooftops. What is your position in this PR angle of my work?
TED HOWELL: In our course at Temple University here, we spent the majority of last week’s class discussing this very thing in relation to Phillippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science. I proposed that an extreme natural disaster — or even a series of them — tied directly to climate change would be the only thing that might turn the tide. (My students, as a whole, were skeptical than even this would make a difference. In part, as one of them mentioned, “cli-fi” films like The Day After Tomorrow haven’t helped here by placing unreasonable expectations on what we think of when we think of extreme weather events tied to climate change).
That said, one of the fundamental assumptions of the class is that fiction can enact social change by altering public opinion.
I mentioned The Jungle above, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the classic example of this, and one made all the more significant when you consider the extraordinary essay written last year by Christopher Hayes, “The New Abolitionism,” in which Hayes argues that because fighting climate change requires making oil companies leave money in the ground, the best parallel for climate activists is the abolitionist movement. A sobering, terrifying thought, yes.
And it’s hard to trace the impact of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, precisely because it gathered and consolidated as much as it instigated, but there are examples of this sprinkled throughout history. Do I think we can predict when or why a book (or, in our era, it would likely be a movie or TV series) will make a big impact? No. But let’s not give up.
DAN BLOOM: I like your positive outlook and optimism on this, Professor Howell. And I agree with you.
DAN BLOOM: Many media reports about cli fi have used sexy or sexed-up headlines
which are good for attracting reader eyeballs, of course, such as "CAN CLI FI SAVE
The answer is that no they can't.
But my PR work with cli fi has been to try to boost the
term into the media as a media wake up call so that the media will
maybe review more climate-themed books of any genre -- cli fi, sci fi, spec fic, fantasy, romance, literary fiction, whatever.
And I also hope that my PR work on behalf of cli fi might help prod the TV networks and HBO and BBC and CNN to put more climate change
coverage on TV networks worldwide. So I am not so much a literary theorist or
genre maven as a PR guy with with climate activist concerns
and hoping against hope that cli fi movies nad novels might wake
people up in the future somedayin the way ''ON THE BEACH'' in 1957 by Nevil Shute did. And the movie of that book, too, the next year.
In fact, Ted, I am planning started a new literary award event
called ''THE NEVILS'' which will award the best cli fi novel of the year
starting in 2020 to the best cli fi novel with a prize of $202,000 the first
year and $202,100 the next year and so on for the next 100 years and I am searching for funding and a prize committe and jury in academia now to help launch it.
TED HOWELL REPLIES: Dan, I think this is a fantastic way to draw attention to cli-fi, and that if you’re successful in obtaining funding of this kind, it has a chance to make a big splash. The combination of prize money and the dishing out of a yearly award sounds fantastic.
DAN BLOOM: The book review sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times refuse -- for the time being -- to review any cli fi novels anc call them
cli fi novels. One top books section editor at the New York Times told me last year by email that her section will never ever use the term of "cli fi" in print as long as they are the editor there! Can you imagine such a statement? While the news sections of those newspapers will report cli fi news, the book review sections have put blinders on and won't face up to the fact that there is a new genre in the neighborhoold and she is called cli fi. Why the resistance, do you think? It's not academia that is resisting, it's the New York Times Book Review section. Why?
"I'm detached from the inside intricacies of the world of newspaper book reviews — although I do read all three of the ones you mentioned regularly — but I’d say that book review sections are wonderful precisely because they are wary of what they perceive as “trends,” even if you and I would immediately point out that climate change is not a trend but a major threat to civilization as we know it.
I think it’s also worth thinking about how often these newspapers review work that falls outside the boundaries of “literary fiction,” and how genre writing is still marginalized in this sphere, even as the boundaries between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” blur in fascinating ways.
DAN BLOOM: What do you hope your sutdents will take away from
your class, and if it goes well, will you repeat the class in future
TED HOWELL: My hope is that my students will take away 2 things from the class:
First, an appreciation for and greater awareness of the significance of climate change. As I mentioned, I think the best way to think about the impact of climate change is as a disruption to our way of life — we have to learn to live differently, either preventatively or in response to major shake-ups. And I think this is what fiction, especially speculative fiction or science fiction, has to offer the larger conversation about climate change and the environmentalist movement as well: new ways of imagining the near future, explorations of alternative life-styles and cultural values, and explorations of contingencies that lie outside the ruts into which our thoughts too commonly fall.
Second, I hope my students take away from the course a better understanding of how “popular fiction” — this is, after all, the umbrella title for the class, and cli-fi is my effort to narrow it down —reflects and employs current events in ways that can be really exciting to think about in an academic setting.
As I see it, the class is in effect a microcosm of what we might call a “reading public.” Only about half of the students are English majors, but all of them are eager and insightful readers who (I like to think) will be reading fiction throughout the course of their lives, after the graduate and while I’m still in the classroom talking and teaching about the intersection of climate change and fiction. In this sense, the way my students react to and evaluate the stuff we read — whether they enjoy it, whether it’s educational, whether they think it compellingly engages the larger issues surrounding climate change—is indicative of how well the novels land with “readers” more generally. For this reason, I’m excited each week when I walk into class to see how it goes.

DAN BLOOM: Thank you, Professor Howell, for a very good chat online.

TED HOWELL: Thank you, Dan, and please feel free to read our class blogs, too.



Steve Jacques said...

I've read one or two writerly arguments over how to define genre before. This is the first one that doesn't strike me as purely theoretical (read: artsy-fartsy, useless). This is practical. There is a need for the term “cli-fi”: to raise awareness, and better yet to heighten the emotional responsiveness of the public to the reality of climate change.

I'm not sure if I agree with you, Dan, when you say that “sci fi, fun and entertaining and sometimes probing as it can be, does not at the present time show any moral imperative to fight climate change and global warming.” I haven't read enough to be sure. But in most of the fiction I've read, sci-fi or otherwise, I've felt some kind of moral imperative underscoring the story.

I certainly agree that “sci-fi” is a marketing term, though: I look for “sci-fi” on bookstore shelves, specifically. I'm sold on it. I bet this is why the NYT editor is hesitant to let “cli-fi” catch on: It's less marketable. It doesn't have a ready-made fan base of die-hard awesome geeks, like sci-fi does. She probably doubts that the term “cli-fi” will stand the test of time… but of course it will: As the world's climate spirals more and more horrifically out of control, interest in cli-fi will only increase. I think you're making a great big wave, the crest of which we won’t be seeing for years and years to come. I'll be following The Nevils.


Hi Steve,

Very good comment and thanks for postinmg here! I LIKE MANY OF THINGS YOU SAID re:

1. ''There is a need for the term “cli-fi”: to raise awareness, and better yet to heighten the emotional responsiveness of the public to the reality of climate change.''

2. ''I certainly agree that “sci-fi” is a marketing term, though: I look for “sci-fi” on bookstore shelves, specifically. I'm sold on it. I bet this is why the NYT editor is hesitant to let “cli-fi” catch on: It's less marketable. It doesn't have a ready-made fan base of die-hard awesome geeks, like sci-fi does."

3. ''[The NYTimes book editor] probably doubts that the term “cli-fi” will stand the test of time…...SIGH

4. "... but of course it will: As the world's climate spirals more and more horrifically out of control, interest in cli-fi will only increase. "

5. ;;I think you're making a great big wave, the crest of which we won’t be seeing for years and years to come. I'll be following The Nevils."

THANKS for very good, and insightful comments. Welcome to TEAM CLI-FI......!



Steve Jacques, who is student in Professor Howell's class at TEMPLE this semester also write this post at the class blog:

By Steve Jacques

February 17, 2015

''Viewed from the Future, the Present Looks Backwards ''

I was surprised to read, in the interview with Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway at the end of the book, that they see The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future as merely an essay. I found the preceding chapters pretty literary in their writing quality and creative and even playful in form. While there is unmistakably a Big Idea underlying everything in the book (like there is a thesis in every essay), it is still a fun, relatively light read. What’s more: their Big Idea is important.

The authors offer a view of what the year 2393 might be like—not just based on their guesses or fantasies, but grounded in all kinds of science from chemistry to politico-sociology, with sources cited. So their predictions are all plausible. Their critiques of the modern world, seamlessly interlaced with their projections all throughout the book, ring truer and louder as a result. And they make us sound like we should feel guilty, here in the present, because of how knowingly we’re polluting the Earth despite known fact of what they call the “Penumbra,” which is Latin for something like “encroaching shadow.” This is their term for the fast-approaching mass extinction of many species worldwide, and the widespread disorder among human beings, as people will be dislocated from their flooded homes or their failing farms or otherwise climate-ruined lives, all because of unnatural changes to the climate that we are ultimately responsible for. It makes us look like like we’re all backwards, is what I’m saying. The Collapse of Western Civilization is about how we can solve our climate change problem, but don’t, and probably won’t.

I like to think of myself as more conscious than the average Westerner, but many of the insights that Oreskes and Conway reveal have never occurred to me before. They even challenge logical empiricism, a philosophy that I thought all scientists agreed was more or less sacred! This was off-putting for me at first, but after reading their argument—a very broad argument, but not obtuse—I see they make a lot of sense. Their point is that, sometimes, just sometimes, the 95% certainty criterion to declare causation (not just coincidental correlation) is too rigid. Sometimes, just sometimes—and in the “approaching shadow” of a man-made climatic apocalypse, now is definitely one of these times—we need to spring into action as if the uber-conservative nay-sayers (the doubt-sellers, who insist on dismissing masses of scientific evidence converging on the same conclusion from a thousand different approaches) did not exist.

However, Oreskes and Conway do not say this with even half the melodrama that I’m employing here. It is an understated book. Their just-the-facts narrative voice, like a history textbook, allows for a quick pace to the storytelling; but it’s like a very introductory textbook, not too unbearable to read because it doesn’t get into too much depth. They allow in-depth, topic-by-topic study, however, by referring readers to many real and available scientific, economic, and historical/political records. So they manage to craft a great piece of cli-fi that is at once summary and comprehensive and a good, shocking book.