Climate Fiction is Dead! Long Live Climate Fiction!

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November 17, 2018

pie chart with climate fiction categories

I’ve been following the evolving Climate Fiction (CliFi) genre for several years. But what IS CliFi? I suspected we were in trouble when the media began referring to the recent movie remake of Godzilla as a CliFi movie (for reasons I’ve never figured out). In other cases, it seems all it takes is mention of the words “global warming” for a novel to be called CliFi.

Now Amazon has entered the field, recently releasing its Warmer Collection series of CliFi books. The seven books are relatively short, ranging from just over 30 minutes to about 2 hours in the audio format. I’ve listened to all of them. So where are we, some five years into the CliFi genre?

I’ve read some great books I would consider to be CliFi, including Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, James Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow.

Of course, the term “great” presupposes what you expect from CliFi (or any other genre). Is CliFi as a genre intended to influence readers’ thinking about climate change? Or as a catharsis for writers worried about climate change? Is it little more than a branch of apocalyptic fiction?

I don’t claim to have the right answer to these questions. But I will say that I come to CliFi primarily out of my interest in communicating climate change. As a result, I tend to ask whether CliFi books are likely to engage readers in thinking about global warming in new ways. And that’s the frame I define as “effective” below.

What are some different sub-genres of CliFi? How are they represented in the larger CliFi literature? One way to categorize CliFi is: CliFi as catharsis, CliFi as apocalyptic sledgehammer, CliFi as effective communications tool, and CliFi as something else entirely (like in the movie Godzilla). My admittedly arbitrary effort to quantify these categories is:

pie chart with climate fiction categories

I would argue that 6 of the 7 Amazon Warmer Collection CliFi books fall into the Sledgehammer category. While apocalyptic fiction is certainly a form of communication, it is hard to imagine a sledgehammer approach to communicating global warming as being very effective with audiences unfamiliar with or skeptical of the topic.

I’ll be the first person to note that different readers can have totally different reactions to a specific CliFi work. With the entry of a player like Amazon onto the CliFi playing field, though, it’s a good time to take stock. My bottom line is that “Climate Fiction” doesn’t have a particular meaning or purpose today. This makes it hard to get the “right CliFi” to the “right reader,” and diminishes the impact of CliFi as a chess piece on the global Climate Chess game board. We need to be much clearer about what we mean by CliFi, or assign new terms to specific categories of CliFi. Climate Fiction is Dead! Long Live Climate Fiction!

Leave me a comment below with your thoughts. I'm really interested to hear what people think about cli-fi and its effectiveness as a communication tool!

About the author 

Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

  • I like these ideas, also the story v. setting (Mad Max Fury Road, Water World).

    I’m thinking cli-fi can be a subgenre of nearly all main genres. I’m into screenwriting, so I think it could be a subgenre of drama, action, comedy, sci-fi, thriller, etc. It could be the main theme or a tiny side issue — like the brief mention of the pesticide-breast cancer link in 1000 Acres (a movie I would include in a category of “environmental movies” just for that) — which might work better on those unaware or in denial than sledgehammer.

    I’ve written 2 sci-fi screenplays in the cli-fi subgenre. However, I have ideas for a (non-sci-fi) comedy and one for a drama, and many others. I even have one for a musical comedy (Tejano Brigadoon). Also I’m thinking there could be some true story movies about climate change. Now I don’t plan to write all of these, even though screenwriting is easier than novel writing. As it is I don’t think my 2 screenplays will ever get produced, though one has won a “table-read” in a contest: THE VENUSIAN CHRONICLES: When a spaceship discovery strikes fear of invasion, a Venusian must stop attacks on innocent people and steer Earth from the fate that ended life on Venus.

    As for cli-fi considered as the main genre, then all these other genres could be subgenres of it.

  • This is an interesting take on cli-fi! For a while, the main categories that I divided cli-fi into were “Plot Cli-Fi” and “Setting Cli-Fi.”

    In Plot Cli-Fi, the main plot of the novel specifically revolves around either trying to stop climate change or responding to its catastrophic effects. These stories are very much “about” climate change. In Setting Cli-Fi, the climate has changed the world, but the plot exists within that new world. These stories use climate as the stark backdrop for a dramatic tale, but the plot and characters aren’t responding directly to climate change. It’s just “the new normal.”

    This framework was helpful to an extent, but ultimately I’ve started searching for new ways of framing (and sub-categorizing) cli-fi. Your categories and pie chart are an interesting contribution.

    Side Note: Do you ever update your “CliFi 101 Doorway” with new titles? I’d like to have my books listed in there (or anywhere else you list climate fiction) if that’s still possible. I have three cli-fi novels (Change, Goodbye Miami, and Order) and one cli-fi short story anthology (Cli-Fi Plus). Thanks!

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