Cli-Fi: A New Literary Subgenre

By Peter L. RSS Wed, July 30, 2014

“He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts...”  -Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games.

There has been a recent trend in fiction, and it finally has a name: climate fiction or cli-fi.  This term has made its way into articles in The New York Times,, and The Huffington Post.  Cli-fi novels include climate change as a major ingredient in the plot.  Many novels that deal with climate change are science fiction, set in post-apocalyptic futures where the environment is in ruin (like The Hunger Games series).  But many are also set in the real world present.  Some are thrillers that deal with eco-terrorism or struggles over natural resources.  Some are about political conflicts.  And some of the most interesting cli-fi novels examine how the uncertain and uncontrollable threat of climate change disturbs people’s sense of wellbeing, their outlook, or their relationships.  Reporter Richard Perez Pena describes cli-fi novels as having ”characters whose concerns extend well beyond the climate, some of it is set in a present or near future when disaster still seems remote, and it can be deeply satirical in tone.”  Futurist Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh writes that recent cli-fi novels “focus on the more subtle, early impacts of climate change, on the lives of scientists, activists and others working on climate-related challenges, or on how life will change for ordinary people in the future as the effects of climate change slowly and relentlessly become more severe.”  

It remains to be seen whether cli-fi books and movies can help spur society to alter its dangerous path.  But there is a long tradition of fiction being used to spur social change (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, 1984) and it is hard to imagine society overcoming today’s existential threats without storytelling and the arts translating the hard data of temperature rise, storm predictions, and resource shortages into, as novelist Sarah Stone writes, “the moment-by-moment reality of a painful possible future.” 

The environmental prognosis of the planet is frightening, but it helps to face it with a few good books.  

Check out these cli-fi novels at the Free Library.  

Bacigalupi, Paolo.  The Windup Girl.  (2012) 

Boyle, T. C.  A Friend of the Earth.  (2001)

Cussler, Clive.  Arctic Drift. (2009)

Crichton, Michael.  State of Fear.  (2009) 

Kingsolver, Barbara.  Flight Behavior.  (2012)

Lee, Chang-Rae.  On Such A Full Sea.  (2014)

McEwan, Ian.  Solar.  (2010)

Rich, Nathaniel.  Odds Against Tomorrow. (2013)

Tuomainen, Antti.  The Healer.  (2013)

And since reading alone won’t reduce climate change, here is some action you can take.  Get on the bus to the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21.  Organizers promise it will make history. 

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