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It’s Time to Call Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) a Genre

Deep down, I wanted to label it Climate Fiction, but I wasn’t sure my book fit the criteria. Although I’d read a lot of climate-themed literature, I didn’t quite understand the scope of the genre. Is it even a real genre? Is a microgenre? I had some homework to do.

The term Cli-Fi was coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom. Since then, it has been simmering quietly, but never making enough noise to become its own stand-alone genre in bookstores or on Amazon (although it has garnered buzz in publications such as Scientific American, Chicago Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Guardian.) Like all good books, Climate Fiction novels must tell a compelling story, but beyond the story, they must stir an awareness, an awakening in the reader. Cli-Fi must be based on real science and should further the conversation about our changing environment. It should challenge us to see—or imagine—things differently and reconsider what we accept as normal.

Recently, I’ve seen a flurry of new Cli-Fi novels coming to market, many by debut authors. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the on-going US wildfires, and battles over Indigenous water rights, I suspect there are many more in the works.

In my own novel, Four Degrees, everything that happens is a direct result of the four-degree uptick in the temperature in a small New England town. Every plot point directly or indirectly links back to climate. But my book is not about climate change. Plot wise, it is a contemporary story about a 30-year-old murder cover up that resurfaces and derails an entomologist, just as she is about to prove invasive beetles are triggering forest fires during a drought.

I hesitate to label it Climate Fiction (even though I really want to) because I think the moniker conjures up images of apocalyptic stories of rising seas levels and devastating weather events. Most Climate Fiction novels are dystopian or science fiction. My book is neither of those things, and I worry that slapping a Cli-Fi label on it would mislead readers.

Within Climate Fiction, there exists a subset of contemporary, realistic novels. They are not sci-fi, futuristic, or dystopian, but recognizable stories relating climate change as it is already happening.

Maybe this is where my novel belongs.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Fight Behavior is often pointed to as an example of contemporary Climate Fiction. Kingsolver doesn’t get preachy. Her characters are not ecowarriors. She presents a rural Appalachian community with an unexpected event linked to climate change. She allows the characters respond in authentic ways. She doesn’t grab readers by the lapels and shout a climate warning. She doesn’t need to.

Another contemporary example is Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station about an artist doing a residency in Antarctica. Among the humorous cast of characters is a climate denier. Instead of depicting the climate denier as stupid or uneducated, Shelby treats him with dignity, which makes the story even more compelling. Her treatment of climate deniers as fully rounded characters makes the need to sound the climate alarm even more urgent.

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award, and Robin MacArthur’s 2018 debut Heart Spring Mountain are examples of literary fiction that could also be considered contemporary Climate Fiction. Salvage the Bones follows a poor Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Heart Spring Mountain is about a young woman who returns home to rural Vermont to search for her mother who disappeared during Hurricane Irene. Weather and the environment take on pressing, active roles in Ward’s and MacArthur’s novels. Both books leave the reader with a sense of unease about what the future will bring.

I’m also a huge fan of sweeping dystopian Cli-Fi books. American War by Omar El Akkad, is my favorite in this category, although I hesitate to toss it in the dystopian bucket because the story feels so real, so recognizable. It reads like history that just hasn’t happened yet. The book is set in the late 21st century in the aftermath of the Second American Civil War. Similar to our first Civil War, this war is prompted by the succession of the southern states—but this time the South breaks away because the North (as well as most of the world) has renounced fossil fuels. The South, however, clings to oil as part of its culture. Echoes of the first Civil War ring loud across the barren farmlands and rising seas.

The more I explore the loose label of Climate Fiction, the more titles I come across in the rich mix of literary, contemporary, sci-fi, speculative, dystopian, thriller, queer, and apocalyptic stories. I love them because they force me think. These authors push me ask myself, what if? What if we don’t get a handle on rising temperatures? What if we don’t curtail the species extinctions already occurring at a terrifying rate? What if the temperature climbed four more degrees? What will the toll be on human relationships, economies, culture, art, medicine, human rights, and national sovereignty?

Other recent Cli-Fi books include New York 2140, a dystopian novel which explores the financial world that emerges as a result of climate change; Autonomous explores climate change with an eye toward the biotech industry, sexuality, gender, and identity; Motherless, by Native American author Gabriel Horn, explores identity and racism; and Ian McEwan’s Solar and Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise tackle climate change with satire. I’m currently reading Fever Dream, an unsettling literary Cli-Fi translated from Spanish.

I hope you are noticing a pattern:

Climate Fiction spans most genres. I’d love to see bookstores, Amazon, and sites such as Goodreads refer to Climate Fiction or Cli-Fi more frequently when they label or recommend books. I want these stories collected under one recognizable umbrella. And I hope literary contests will start adding Climate Fiction as its own distinct category.

It’s tempting to toss these books into the science fiction bucket, but I reject this idea. Although many Climate Fiction books definitely fall under sci-fi, not all of them do. 

If you want to keep up with new Cli-Fi titles and trends, Amy Brady, Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine, puts out a fantastic newsletter called Burning Worlds [1], dedicated to climate science in art and literature.

Below, I assembled an incomplete starter list of Climate Fiction titles. I included the labels that Amazon assigns to each of these books to illustrate how broadly the Cli-Fi tag can be applied. These novels make fantastic book club reads because they generate meaningful conversations and perhaps make readers question some of their life choices.

As for my own novel, I think I’m ready to declare my book Climate Fiction—and I’m now convinced Climate Fiction is its own genre, even if Amazon doesn’t agree. I still consider my novel an upmarket thriller as well, but it’s more than that. It’s my small contribution to a rising tide of literature that I hope will alter the way we write, talk, and think about our changing world.

The following Cli-Fi reading list represents only the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg. What Climate Fiction books are you are reading? What do you expect when see a book labeled Cli-Fi? Do you see climate themes showing up in genres I’ve missed? Do you write Climate Fiction? If so, which authors inspire you?

A Climate Fiction Reading List

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Literary, Contemporary

Flood by Melissa Scholes Young: Literary, Women’s Fiction, Coming of Age, Contemporary

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Literary, Humor

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur: Literary, Contemporary

The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst: Literary, Psychological, Contemporary, Cultural

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: Literary, Contemporary

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Literary, Psychological, Coming of Age

Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake: Coming of Age, Family Life

American War by Omar El Akkad: Literary, Dystopian

Carnival by Elizabeth Bear: Space Opera, Queer

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: Dark Humor, Satire

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Literary, Political

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Literary, Thriller, Dystopian

The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: Literary, Satire

Motherless by Gabriel Horn: Native American, Fantasy

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter: Literary, Dystopian

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh: Literary, set in India

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood: Literary, Science Fiction

Solar by Ian McEwan: Humor, Satire

Fever Dream by Samanta Schewblin: Literary, translated from original Spanish

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Coming of Age

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: Literary, Magical Realism

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Literary, Dystopian

Clade by James Bradley: Literary, Science Fiction, Cyberpunk

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer: Fantasy, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin: Literary, Science Fiction

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: Native American, Dystopian

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz: Cyberpunk

Barkskins by Annie Proulx: Literary, Historical

About Julie Carrick Dalton [2]

Julie Carrick Dalton [3] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel FOUR DEGREES, a literary climate thriller, is forthcoming from Forge (Macmillan) in early 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. FOUR DEGREES won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Her short fiction has appeared in The Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and several online publications. As a journalist, she has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.