Monday, October 8, 2018

Anthropocene-Fi: A New Way to Write (and Read) Upbeat, Hopeful Novels About Climate Change

Anthropocene-Fi: A New Way to Write (and Read) Upbeat, Hopeful Novels About Climate Change

If you're not familiar with the new literary genre of 'cli-fi,' you might be soon.

There's  new kid on the literary block, and it's not your grandfather's sci-fi. Call it ''cli-fi" for the Anthropocene.

The way American scientist John Abraham sees it, the genre term is ''a new way to talk about climate change.''

"These are fictional books that somehow or someway bring real climate change science to the reader," Abraham, a professor of thermal and fluid sciences at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering, Minnesota, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the UK Guardian newspaper. ''What is really interesting is that cli-fi novels often present real science in a credible way. They become fun teaching tools. There are some really well-known authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood among others.''

The genre, also dubbed ''Anthropocene fiction,'' in addition to ''cli-fi,'' has become a publishing phenomenon, with sci-fi novelists Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson among those conjuring up ''what if'' near-futures.

Robinson's latest novel, "New York 2140," is set in that time period and tells an upbeat, hopeful tale about making Manhattan sustainable again. Cli-fi or sci-fi? For some people, the popular new label is simply a new take on science fiction, but for others it's a timely wake-up call that could inspire real change.

James Bradley, an Australian sci-fi novelist and literary critic whose 2015 book ''Clade'' was one of the first Australian works to be hailed as cli-fi, says it's not easy to make sense of the "incredibly difficult idea" of climate change. Novels, whether categorized as either sci-fi or cli-fi, can give us a way to start thinking about the messages conveyed by climate science in a new way, according to Bradley.

When thinking about what he believes makes a cli-fi novel worth reading in this day and age, Abraham said: "Well in my opinion, it has to have some real science in it. And it has to get the science right. Second, it has to be fun to read. When done correctly, cli-fi can connect people to their world; it can help us understand what future climate may be like, or what current climate effects are."

With a series of massive and deadly wildfires this past summer in Greece and California, newspaper headlines and TV reports around the world in 2018 have made the public more aware of climate events linked to global warming. This awareness translates to a hunger to read novels about  climate change with good emotive storytelling, such as novels by Barbara Kingsolver ("Flight Behavior") or
Bradley or Robinson.
With the latest IPCC climate report released in October, runaway climate change risks are on everyone's mind now.
Cli-fi  is in the air. Margaret Atwood tweets about it. Literary critics are taking the portmanteau genre seriously. We have entered ''the Age of Cli-Fi'' in the Anthropocene. We need novels about humankind's future, stories carrying with them hope and optimism. While many media outlets characterize cli-fi as an apocalyptic dystopian genre, the fledgling label has gotten a bad rap. Cli-fi also can tell us postiive and life-affirming tales about the climate future and many do.

How would I characterize the new genre? Cli-fi novels can take place in the past, the present and the future, the near future and the distant future. They should not be preachy or lecturing to readers. They should be storytelling pure and simple. Family dramas, love stories, psychological tales, and full of emotion and memorable characters.

They can serve, through powerful and emotive storytelling, to help make readers more conscious of what's at stake as the world warms degree by degree. These novels can be wake-up calls, alarm bells, warning flares but they need not be depressing. I prefer to see them as calls to action, after the last page has been turned.

I coined the term in 2010 in a press release for a novel titled Polar City Red that I was promoting as a PR consultant for a sci-fi author  in Texas. Margaret Atwood tweeted about the climate-themed book and called it a "cli-fi thriller" in 2011 on her Twitter feed that went to 1 million followers. That single Tweet got the ball rolling. Then in April 2013, NPR did a 5-minute radio segment about cli-fi. The NPR link went viral via social media and marked cli-fi's
rise to literary prominence. However, most people in America have never heard of it yet or seen its nickname in print. It's still early days. 

I came to coin the cli-fi term for two reasons: I'm a climate activist of the literary kind. And I felt that climate change was such a huge and dramatic existential issue that it cried out for a literary genre of its own. That was my feeling in 2010, and still is today in 2018. 

In the end, cli-fi is a literary cousin of sci-fi. The difference between them is that sci-fi is more speculative and escapist and entertainment oriented, while cli-fi is based on reality and real science. That's what sets the two genres apart.

 Cli-fi was made for the 21st Century. And here we are: floods, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, water wars, climate refugees, a major city in South Africa , Capetown, facing water shortages. I didn't invent cli-fi. Cli-fi invented itself. 

Such novels, with the correct science behind them, can help give readers an emotional release to vent their fears and anxieties about global warming. They are about empathy. That's what good storytelling can do.


''Cli-fi stories are vehicles that can help us imagine," Professor Abraham concluded in his Guardian op-ed. "The authors get us to think about these 'what ifs' – these future Earths. Cli-fi novels (and movies for that matter) can make experiences far more real than endless graphs or plots of temperature variations. And that, perhaps, is the most important contribution cli-fi can make to the discussion of climate change in our everyday lives. These authors get us to imagine what experiences are or would be like."

No comments: