''Cli-fi'': imagining ourselves in a climate-changed world
an essay by Dr Maggie Turf in the UK
''My hope is that cli fi novels and movies will play a big role in preparing humanity for what is coming down the road…'' -- Dan Bloom, cli-fi.net, 2015
- ''One of the great gifts of this kind of fiction could be its ability to
- make the unthinkable more proximate'' -- . John Steinbeck, ''The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
TEXT by Dr Maggie Turf
The idea that the human practice of storytelling can help us engage with situations we would otherwise find too difficult or distressing to contemplate has been with us for a long time. As psychologists and psychotherapists, we witness on a daily basis the crucial role of narration, and above all of narration in the context of relationship, in an individual’s struggle to come to terms with painful inner and outer realities. The stories our patients need to tell are not so much the general overarching stories (‘my mother abused me’) as the detailed specific stories (‘my mother chased me up to my bedroom and gouged me with the ring she wore, under my T-shirt where the teachers wouldn’t see.’)
Fiction offers us a succession of such stories, personified in characters we can identify with or rage against and a number of practitioners have explored the ways in which it can help both therapists and patients. Martin Weegmann, who works with substance misusers, asserted recently that he has learned as much from Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing and evocative plays as from the psychology and psychotherapy literature (1). Margaret and Michael Rustin have examined in detail the role of fiction in individual inner lives and in society more generally, making explicit links between fiction and the psychoanalytic work of rendering the unbearable bearable (2) (3).
The relevance of the general principle of storying to the specific situation of climate change was crystallised in 2008 with the coining of the term ‘cli-fi’ (an abbreviation of ‘climate fiction’), introduced by journalist and climate change activist, Dan Bloom, who founded the cli-fi.net website. Bloom states explicitly that he does not own the ‘cli-fi’ term and that the genre should and will find its own way.
This article is by way of a review, a look at what cli-fi has to offer and how the genre has faired in the first eight years of its existence. In view of my particular range of knowledge and experience, I will be writing about novels rather than films, TV shows, poetry or plays – which is not to suggest that these are in any way less important.
The story so far is nothing if not complex. Some critics have treated ‘cli-fi’ as an offshoot of science fiction while others have accepted it as a stand-alone genre. Scott Thrill, a former WIRED magazine writer, has described cli-fi as a ‘critical prism’ rather than a literary genre (4). Some authors whose stories evolve in a context of a climate-changed world have embraced the term ‘cli-fi’, while others have disregarded it, explicitly rejected it or made contradictory statements. One of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, stated at one point that she preferred to refer to her work as ‘speculative fiction’ but later sent a tweet containing the term ‘cli-fi’ which immediately extended the reach and popularity of the term. The wheel is still in spin, the situation characterised by movement, energy and uncertainty.
The work that has emerged under the cli-fi umbrella is extremely varied. At one end of the spectrum is post-apocalyptic writing, portraying a future where society has been devastated by war, disease or environmental disaster of known or unknown cause, for example ‘The Road’ (5), ‘The Hunger Games’ (6) and ‘Waterworld’ (7). Standing in contrast to post-apocalyptic offerings - and growing in number - are books set in a time of transition, in an altered but still imaginable near future, for example ‘The Heatstroke Line’ (8), ‘Flight Behaviour’ (9) and ‘I’m With The Bears’ (10). Here, the reader will encounter no zombies, mutants or super-natural forces. Instead, he or she will have the opportunity to engage with imaginable near-future scenarios, exploring them through the eyes and actions of the characters.
As might be expected, the quality of the literary offerings is similarly varied. Some are written primarily for entertainment, with an imagined disaster serving merely as a device for wiping away the complexities of modern civilisation and paving the way for a series of spills and thrills. Others qualify as serious literature and are deeply thought provoking. A good cli-fi novel does what every good novel does – takes us inside the mind of one or more characters who find themselves facing certain challenges, such that we feel we are there with them, living through their trials and tribulations and experiencing the ways in which they themselves are changed by the situations they encounter. We do not need to re-invent the discipline of literary criticism in order to evaluate a cli-fi novel: each work can be judged on its own merits.
At the same time, there seem to be two pitfalls to which cli-fi is especially susceptible and which have been repeatedly highlighted by on-line reviewers. The first is the pitfall of didacticism. For example, one reviewer posted this comment on Annie Proulx’s novel ‘Barkskins’ (11): ‘Yes, the historical detail was quite interesting, and I learned about the early history of logging, but the book was written, it seems to me, to convey a message rather than out of a desire to write an absorbing and compelling saga.’ Another reviewer expressed the same sentiment in stronger terms. ‘This is environmental and ecological fiction at its most didactic and, for me, it was a lesson I soon tired of hearing. I ended up skipping large chunks of the book because I was basically bored.’ Harsh words for Annie Proulx, an acknowledged writer of excellent literature.
The second pitfall, particularly for authors with a background in science or technology, is a tendency towards long-winded descriptions and explanations of ‘stuff’. The following comment formed part of an otherwise favourable review of Julie Owen’s ‘The Boy Who Fell From The Sky’ (12). ‘Because this book presents a fully realized future vision, there is a fair amount of exposition. I found some of this exposition to be heavy-handed, breaking away from the scene to explain functionality or design specifics.’ Another reviewer complains about authors who ‘ram facts into the text’ and cites this as a common problem with cli-fi literature.
Looking again to our experience as psychotherapists and the ways in which our patients’ stories emerge and evolve, in small, partial and always provisional narratives, we might conclude that there is an inherent problem with the idea of ‘a fully realized future vision’, a view shared by Bill McKibben, who notes in the introduction to the short story collection ‘I’m With The Bears’: ‘The problem with writing about global warming may be that the truth is larger than usually makes for good fiction.’ (13) Too much information, whether in the form of political context or technological explanation comes at the expense of literature that can truly engage us and take us on an emotional and thoughtful journey we would not have made on our own. The difference is perhaps akin to the difference Bion describes between ‘knowing’ – as a consequence of subjective experience – and ‘knowing about’ – as a consequence of acquiring factual knowledge. (14)
Finally, what of the potential cli-fi readership? Are cli-fi authors writing only for the ‘converted’, for those already tuned in to the scale of the crisis, or can the literature reach out to a wider audience? In thinking this through, I was interested in comments made by Guardian journalist, Anna Karpf, in which she described herself as a ‘climate change ignorer’ (15). She explained that she fully accepted the reality of climate change but also found herself avoiding thinking about it because of the overwhelming sense of helplessness she felt when she did so. Most of us are probably ‘ignorers’, at least some of the time. We cannot function properly in our work and relationships if we are continually overwhelmed with distress or anger or despair, hence we have to find ways to regulate our emotional states or, in neuroscience terms, our levels of arousal. As readers will be only too aware, both denial and ignoring serve this purpose but at the expense of thoughtful engagement and ameliorative action. We continue to function in our day to day lives while in the wider world the situation remains unaddressed and becomes ever more threatening.
Against this backdrop, climate fiction opens a window to knowing about the frightening and distressing situations heading towards us without our becoming overwhelmed. We can put a book down to give ourselves time to process what we have read. We can pause to remind ourselves that these things are happening to invented characters, not to us or family members or friends. We can inhabit the dual world offered by fiction, where one is both really and truly in the situation of a character while at the same time in one’s own armchair at home. We have the opportunity to explore our emotional responses to the events that occur and exercise our problem-solving skills: ‘What would I do if…?’
There are signs that the idea of entering a fictional altered world in order to engage with the difficulties and uncertainties associated with climate change is gaining ground. The book-selling giant Amazon now includes ‘cli-fi’ as a separate genre category, albeit without the inclusion of some of the titles we might expect to find there. Cli-fi modules have become part of the literature curriculum at more than one hundred colleges in the US, in various German universities and at the University of Cambridge and University College London in the UK. The first (as far as is known) cli-fi dedicated community book group has formed in Minnesota. And the first ‘how to’ book: ‘Saving the world one word at a time’, (16) has made its appearance – surely a sign of a coming of age!
Developments such as these have lead some to speak of a ‘very energized time, where people in literature have just as much to say as people who are in hard science fields, or technology and design fields, or various social-science approaches to these things.’ (17) On-line attacks on reporters, authors and course leaders, accusing them of peddling propaganda and indoctrinating students and readers, lend indirect support to the idea that these developments are substantial and important – important enough for climate change deniers to attempt to discredit those who raise their heads above the parapet. It was recently reported in the New York Times (05/08/2016) that members of ‘American Rising Squared’, an arm of the Republican research group, have been following and filming Bill McKibben and his daughter and ‘naming and shaming’ them as hypocrites on the internet by posting videos of them, for example, stepping in and out of their car. McKibben describes finding himself constantly on edge. ‘To be watched so much is a kind of never-ending nightmare.’ To be a cli-fi author, it seems, requires not only imagination and excellent writing skills but also a fair measure of courage.
Mutual support between people working in different disciplines, each in his or her own way confronting the narrative of climate change denial, is crucially important and cli-fi, along with reporting and campaigning, has its particular part to play. Fiction writers imagine their stories into being against a backdrop of facts and figures provided by scientists. Scientists increasingly acknowledge that facts and figures alone are not enough to bring about change and look to writers to play their part. ‘We await the great play, movie or novel on climate change. Something to stir the soul, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath did during the US Dust Bowl era.’ (18)
From an author’s point of view (I am currently working on a cli-fi novel), there is a desire not only to write an engaging and thought-provoking book but also to be relevant. In the 1930s, environmental destruction in the form of soil erosion was Steinbeck’s relevant theme. In the 2010s, to be relevant is to have in mind a hotter/wetter/dryer/stormier world and, crucially, the socially and politically fractious situations that will arise as the changes gather pace and test our capacity to adapt to the very limits. In coining and promulgating the ‘cli-fi’ descriptor, Dan Bloom has done us all – authors and readers alike - a great service. An umbrella has been opened under which books and films and plays and TV series that engage with the greatest threat ever to have faced humanity can be gathered - and hence be found.
August 20, 2016
(1) Weegmann, M. (2016) ‘We’re all poor nuts and things happen, and we just get mixed in wrong, that’s all’ lessons for psychotherapy from Eugene O’Neill’s play, Anna Christie, in Psychodynamic Practice, 22.2, 131-141.
(2) Rustin, Michael and Rustin, Margaret (2001) Narratives of Love and Loss: studies in modern children’s fiction, London: Karnac.
(3) Rustin, Michael and Rustin, Margaret (2002) Mirror to Nature: drama, psychoanalysis and society, London: Karnac.
(4) Scott Thrill, www.cli-fi.net
(5) McCarthy, Cormac (2009) The Road, Picador
(6) Collins, Suzanne (2009) The Hunger Games, Scholastic
(7) Collins, Max Allan (1995) Waterworld, Arrow Books
(8) Rubin, Edward L. (2015) The Heatstroke Line, Sunbury Press Inc.
(9) Kingsolver, Barbara (2012) Flight Behaviour, Faber and Faber
(10) Ed Martin, Mark (2011) I’m With The Bears: short stories from a damaged planet, Verso
(11) Proulx, Annie (2016) Barkskins, Fourth Estate
(12) Owen, Julie (2015) The Boy Who Fell From The Sky, Volume 1, Mean Time Books
(13) McKibben, Bill I’m with the bears, Introduction, in ed Martin, Mark (2011) I’m With The Bears: short stories from a damaged planet, Verso
(14) Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning from Experience, London: Heinemann.
(15) Karpf, Anna (30/11/2012) The Guardian
(16) Szabo, Ellen (2015) Saving The World One Word At A Time: Writing Cli-Fi, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
(17) Wicke, Jennifer (University of Virginia), www.cli-fi.net
(18) Pearce, Fred (11/05/2015) New Scientist