The literature of the Anthropocene: A genre called Cli-Fi

Gautham Shenoy November 17, 2018 7 min

Two years ago, the Arthur C. Clarke award-winning author of The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh asked “Where is the fiction about climate change?”, lamenting the fact that “serious literary fiction” had failed in its duty when it comes to addressing climate change, noting that ‘fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction’. By that reasoning, Ghosh’s next book is a science fiction novel. He describes the novel, Gun Island, as a story about a world wracked by climate change in which creatures and beings of every kind have been torn loose from their accustomed homes by the catastrophic processes of displacement that are now unfolding across the Earth at an ever-increasing pace.

When it comes out next year, Gun Island will be the latest amongst SF novels that deal with climate change. So many are the books that deal with this subject – especially in recent years when climate change has gone from science fiction to science fact – that they are now classified under a separate sub-genre – Climate Fiction, or Cli-Fi for short.

Climate change is underway, and unless concrete steps are taken, its effects could be irreversible and so far, sadly, looks so inevitable that for any novel set in the future to be a realistic extrapolation it cannot afford to ignore climate change. As Annalee Newitz, the author of Autonomous, a novel set over a century in the future, in a world where climate change has taken its toll, notes in a Yale Climate Connections interview, “Any story about the future that’s at least a century out has to include a dramatic picture of climate change Any good world-building will grapple with climate change in some way.” Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be set a hundred years in the future. Eliot Peper’s Bandwidth which I wrote about in last week’s column, is set in the near-future in a climate-changed world, while in Ian McDonald’s acclaimed novel, River of Gods – portraying India in 2047 – water wars rage across the country, and one of the more desperate states has plans of towing icebergs from what’s left of the Antarctic ice sheet into the Bay of Bengal to the mouth of the Ganga, to overcome the freshwater shortage but mostly in the hopes of kick-starting long-delayed monsoons.

Cli-Fi books sharpen this focus by taking it even further, by bringing climate change and its effects from the background into the forefront, to consider the specific problem of human-made global warming and its effects thereof. Because now more than ever, we need well-told stories. It will be critical to raise awareness and put the spotlight on the implications of climate change, on the planet, on societies, on individuals.

As Dan Bloom, the journalist who coined the term ‘Climate Fiction’ as recently as 2008 and its contraction ‘Cli-Fi’ tells me, “Cli-fi is relevant today more than ever and will remain so for the next 100 years because such novels shine a light on today’s daily headlines worldwide. It’s a global viewfinder. Climate change is on everyone’s mind now with wildfires, floods, heat waves, cyclones, droughts worldwide. So put sci-fi together with cli-fi and the hybrid mix is ablaze with timely immediacy.” And the genre’s purpose as per him? “To act as a wake-up call, a warning flare, a cri de coeur, an alarm bell. Literature matters and cli-fi has a future in the 21st and 22nd centuries for sure. Cli-fi can minister to our anxieties and fears.”

The findings of the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes for alarming reading. It predicts dire consequences if the global average temperatures increases 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, with the future a lot grimmer if it reaches 2°C.

So, is Cli-fi what we need to spur a change in our thinking, to spark action that could accelerate a positive political transformation? But can works of fiction contribute to saving this world, from itself? Perhaps they can. Because science fiction can help us imagine our planet’s dystopian future through the eyes of people like us and in doing so help us avoid it. To quote the late, great Ursula Le Guin, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” Climate change may seem inescapable, but at the very least, cli-fi can drive home the enormity of what awaits us if we don’t change through stories that engage us and help us comprehend what lies ahead, and in doing so spur us and inspire us to do our bit in doing something about climate change.

Left: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson whose cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere is the lead image. Center: Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Right: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour

So, here then are just three more cli-fi novels – to add on to the ones already listed & recommended in a previous edition of this column – that approach climate change from different perspectives.

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

Set in ‘super Venice’ as New York City is nicknamed a 122 years from now in a world forever altered by climate change, 2140 explores a wide range of topics and themes as only Kim Stanley Robinson can. Two ‘pulses’ of sea level rise means that it now stands at 50ft (above today’s levels), submerging much of New York City. Streets have become canals and the skyscrapers have all become islands. Inequality is at its extreme, with the 1% owning 80% of what’s left of the world’s wealth. Richly detailed and very broad in scope – from politics and economics (especially capitalism) to romance and kidnapping – with eight different narrative strands that each contribute to fleshing out one possible future that awaits the world if climate change goes on and gets worse in the years to come. A scathing criticism of inaction in the face of crisis, 2140 truly drives home the consequences of climate change being a current blind spot so to speak, and why we shouldn’t wait till catastrophe strikes to do something about it.

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour goes beyond the ‘drowned world’ trope and highlights the effects of climate change on the planet’s flora and fauna as well, in this case Monarch Butterflies. The novel has as its starting point a woman on a farm discovering a valley full of monarch butterflies in a place that they shouldn’t be at all, displaying unseasonal patterns that go against everything that people know about butterfly migration. The flummoxed locals and others come up with many a theory, not all of them scientific in any way, until an ornithologist proposes a very different reason for the aberrant behaviour of the butterflies: climate change. The monarch butterflies may take centre stage in this poignant tale, but what the book leaves you with is the very human consequences of climate change.

Maja Lunde – The History of Bees

Staying with insects, The History of Bess posits a world where flowers have to be hand-pollinated by people. Driving home the effects of climate change by highlighting the interdependence of nature and people, the story follows three narrative stands: England, 1851. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive that will give both him and his children honour and fame. USA, 2007. George is a beekeeper who has spent his life keeping bees the old-fashioned way and is fighting an uphill battle against modern farming, with hopes for his son, who in turn has other ideas. China, 2098. Tao is one of the many ‘human bees’ who manually sweep pollen from one flower to another, now that all the real bees are forever gone. When Tao’s son is mysteriously hurt, and taken away by the authorities, she sets out on a journey to find out what really happened to him. The History of Bees weaves these three strands into a thought-provoking story of relationships, love and loss, against the backdrop of the long-term effects of climate change.

And as you go on to explore and cli-fi novels, I bid you farewell until next week, when we shall return with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly as we together explore this many splendored thing we call science fiction. Here’s to hoping the world and the powers that be take action and act soon on climate change so that on this planet itself, our children and our children’s children can Live Long and Prosper!


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