Wednesday, April 6, 2016

'Cli-fi' genre puts positive spin on dystopian nightmares

by staff writer

With novelists and Hollywood producers reaching for the angst-ridden teenage market in recent years with a spate of dystopian stories about evil governments and doomsday scenarios about climate change, from ''Hunger Games'' to ''Divergent," there's a new literary genre being born that tries to put a positive and optimistic spin on global warming anxities. Called "climate fiction" and dubbed "cli-fi" for short, the rising genre is still so new that most people have never heard of it yet.

But all that is about to change as ''cli-fi'' gains traction among publishers, literary agents and Hollywood producers. And most importantly, among budding novelists and screenwriters themselves.

"You want 'cli-fi'? I'll give you 'cli-fi'!" I imagine a few Hollywood producers already thinking.

In fact, Dean Devlin, who teamed up with German director Roland Emmerich to produce 1996's "Independence Day," is producing a ''cli-fi'' saga titled "Geostorm set for release early next January.
Producers include, in addition to Devlin, Skydance's David Ellison and Dana Goldberg and Electric Entertainment's Marc Roskin and Rachel Olschan.

Devlin wrote the script and secured Gerald Butler to star in it. When I recently asked Devlin viaTwitter, if I could call his movie "cli-fi," he answered in the affirmative.

The story, according to Devlin, centers on an American  satellite designer who prevents a major disaster in some near future time when global climate-control satellites fail to function. The movie is not dystopian at all, and ends with a good dose of optimism and triumph.

For one of the top literary agents in New York, John Silbersack, who represents debut novelist Meg Little Reilly with a ''cli-fi'' novel titled "We Are Unprepared," the genre is gaining traction in the publishing industry, too. From what I hear, people in publishing worlds in the both Manhattan and London are beginning to take the rise of the genre seriously in terms of literary agents being open to 'cli-fi'' pitches, editors being open to ''cli-fi'' novelists and their works, and in terms of authors themselves being interested in writing such books.

You could say that "cli-fi" is in the air. It's time has come.

So to answer a question I am often asked -- ''Is the publishing world warming up to cli-fi, or is it still cool to its rise?'' -- the answer is a resounding, positive yes.

Publishers on both sides of the pond (and in Australia, too) definitely have been warming up to the new genre in recent years, ever since an NPR radio story by Angela Evancie went viral in 2013. And with major news stories about ''cli-fi'' in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, the optimism of the genre is serving as a counterpoint to the dystopian visions of other genres.

Nan Talese, a veteran publisher and editor -- and a legend of the international publishing industry who runs Nan Talese Books and publishes Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, among others, has signaled her own interest and acceptance of the cli-fi genre in a recent tweet that read:

''Cli-Fi (Climate fiction): subfield of literary studies that includes @MargaretAtwood''

When someone of Nan Talese's stature tweets a tweet like that, entirely unprompted, and out of the blue -- it signals a major turning point in how the publishing world is reacting to the genre's rise.

Meg Little Reilly's novel is set for release in September. When I asked her what the book was about, she told me:

"When I set out to write 'We Are Unprepared,' I wanted to explore the most intimate human costs of our changing Earth. I had just left a good job at the White House and, while I was proud of the unprecedented environmental steps taken by the Obama administration, I was frustrated by the pace of progress and tyranny of corporate interests. Writing fiction was an entirely logical extension of my politics, if an unconventional one in Washington."

The first thing you need to know about Reilly's novel -- an emotional roller-coaster of story set in a near future Vermont -- is that the narrator of the book is male, the husband of the novel's centerpiece couple, Ash and Pia. With a daring and splendid ventriloquist's knack for putting herself in Ash's voice as the narrator, Reilly pulls off a virtuoso feat of literary sleight of hand.

Her debut novel is cli-fi, yes, and it's got some mild dystopian elements in it, but it ends on a note of hope and optimism. she told this reporter.

But Reilly, 37, a former White House policy wonk and a native of Vermont, is not lecturing, and she is  not preaching to the choir. Now based in Boston, Reilly is adamant to insist, via her cast of Vermont characters, that we are not doomed.

To repeat: we are not doomed. It's that kind of novel.

The Vermont location serves Reilly well, as she mines it for all it's worth, both as a place full of homespun locals and ''rednecks" and as a mecca that Yuppies from Boston and Manhattan have moved to to claim as their own piece of Paradise. There's Ash and Pia, a married couple who left New York for what they hoped would be a new start in life. And then there are the back-to-the-Earth people and even "Preppers" who want to live ''off the grid'' and prepare for what they feel could very well be the end of American civilization. The story also involves religious fanatics, government bureaucrats and idealistic hippies.

Reilly's vision is not a ''Day After Tomorrow'' scenario but a warmed-over, storm-chased Vermont tale that ends on a note of hope.

It's a love story about climate activists in a once-bucolic state, and not everything turns out pretty. But the way the author keeps at it, chapter after chapter, never giving in to nihilism or despair, gives the novel it's upbeat character.

For climate activist and Hollywood producer Marshall Herskovitz, who went to college in New England and he knows Vermont well, taking an option on "We Are Unprepared" might be, well, an option.

As one of Tinseltown's most outspoken and visionary producers, Herskovitz is looking for properties to develop into climate-themed movies, and "We are Unprepared" is a book he needs to read. I hope he does.

Taking an option on film rights doesn't guarantee a movie will ever get funded and greenlighted in a Hollywood that cares more about profits than prophets, but if anyone could turn Reilly's take into a feature movie, Herskovitz could.

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