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‘Cli-fi’ – a new literary genre?


Julia - May 31st, 2013

It’s a bit of a horrendous-sounding term, but apparently there is now such a genre as “cli-fi” – climate fiction. Dan Bloom tells us at Teleread that he coined the term a little over a year ago; at the time, there was a fair bit of resistance – “What a stupid stupid concept … completely stupid and has no chance of catching on except among a small climate nutter clique,” wrote one commenter. But now NPR and the Christian Science Monitor have both picked up on it – it’s “so hot right now” , according to NPR.

This intrigues me. A couple of years back, Ian McEwan was mourning the paucity of authors tackling the topic, fresh from his own publication of Solar (set around the topic of environmental disaster). “I have been surprised there aren’t more novels [about it]. It’s clearly begun to have an impact on our lives already and it has huge human consequences, on a small scale, on a private level and on a geopolitical level,” he said at the time – although he did admit the difficulty in tackling the subject. “There’s physics, statistics, graphs, data – and you’ve got to make it interesting,” he said. “Novels don’t work if you badger people, which is partly why I have the comic frame [in Solar].”

Today, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, about how climate change affects a farming community in the Appalachians, is leading the charge of new “cli-fi” writing. She faced the same issues as McEwan, telling Heritage.com that she “was going to have to teach people some basic physics, some basic biology, some population genetics, the difference between causation and correlation”, but that she “didn’t want to hoodwink my readers, I didn’t want to say ‘I’ll tell you a good tale and I’ll incidentally teach you some physics.’ What I had to do was invite my readers to learn some things they maybe didn’t know they needed to know, and to do it seamlessly, to invest this story with enough science so that the readers could understand what is going on.”

It’s a tricky path to steer, but by all accounts Kingsolver pulls it off – I’m looking forward to Flight Behaviour, and also to Tony White’s intriguing-sounding Shackleton’s Man Goes South, inspired by a residency at the Science Museum, and based on scraps of an early 20th-century story which was one of the first to ever mention climate change. White’s story “flips” the Shackleton narrative, and makes it a desperate escape to Antarctica in a hot world…sounds amazing.

Other “cli-fi” novels I’ve enjoyed over the years include Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change trilogy, Stephen Baxter’s Flood – which closes as the seas lap over the top of Everest, an astonishing image, and – of course – JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. I’d love to hear other suggestions – I might not like the sound of it, but it looks as though “cli-fi” is here to stay.

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