As the climate crisis grows, “cli-fi” books are driving action by showing dark, all-too-possible futures, says climate researcher Bill McGuire. Here are some of his favourites
2 February 2022
SCIENTIFIC papers, however well-written, rarely carry the emotional weight of a good story. Stories have been the prime means of imparting knowledge and warnings throughout human history. Even in today’s data-rich world, they hold a visceral clout that no amount of graphs, charts or figures can replace.
As a volcanology and climate researcher, I have spent more than 30 years communicating the calamitous future that could lie in wait should we fail to take action on climate change. But it wasn’t until I published my first novel, Skyseed, in 2020 that I realised the power of storytelling to get across the urgency of the situation.
This use of narrative as a means to galvanise action on climate change has become increasingly common, and the rapidly growing body of work on the subject is now recognised as its own literary genre. Climate fiction, or cli-fi (a term coined in 2007 by journalist and literary theorist Dan Bloom), has been around for a while.
However, as global warming and extreme weather have become a part of everyday life, and the appetite for action has grown, cli-fi has truly come of age. From the genre’s relatively slow start in the mid 2000s, the shelves of bookshops are now beginning to sag under the weight of new speculative climate tales, aimed at both adult and young adult readers.
As the genre gained ground, overenthusiastic fans and critics have reached back into literary deep time to corral any number of classics into the cli-fi fold. Notable examples include The Drought and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, and Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, a cautionary tale published in 1889 on the perils of geoengineering.
For me, though, this broadening of the genre is misguided. It dilutes a growing body of work that is, and should remain, very much of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“Cli-fi immerses its readers in futures that, without urgent action, will face our children and their children”
That is because there is an important difference between earlier tales of climate turmoil and more contemporary works. While older stories describe environmental outcomes we are now coming to expect with climate change, they don’t necessarily link human activities to environmental collapse. That is very much the point of cli-fi. Without exception, today’s writers make this connection abundantly clear and raise important questions about what we should do next.
As such, modern cli-fi is fiction with a purpose: to immerse its readers in futures that, without urgent action, will face our children and their children. By bringing these horrific scenarios to life, it seeks to spur us into action, encouraging us to do our bit to ensure that they never come to pass. Climate fiction is nothing less than a call to arms.
Among the most unsettling stories are those, such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, that paint pictures of life in a future world that, as in the pandemic, is superficially normal, yet in a climate-changed world is, in so many ways, scarily different. My cli-fi contribution, Skyseed, is an eco-thriller about a clandestine climate experiment that goes disastrously wrong. The message is that tinkering with an already failing climate is a very bad idea.
Yet the genre isn’t all wall-to-wall doom and gloom. Cli-fi is a broad church, so, alongside the horrors of The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, there is the dark humour of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes and the political focus of Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.
Others provide tough stories shot through with seeds of hope, notably Robinson’s recent The Ministry for the Future, which invokes an organisation that advocates for future generations and the protection of all life on Earth, and Blackfish City, Sam Miller’s addictive, post-climate collapse tale about a floating city within the Arctic circle.
I also recommend The High House by Jessie Greengrass, a story of ordinary folk against the background of a flooded East Anglia in the UK, and Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun, set in a desiccated California, where the corporate vultures are beginning to circle.
As our lives begin to collide head-on with the climate emergency, let’s hope that cli-fi remains in the world of fiction and, thanks to the action of present-day generations, never comes to represent the reality of the world around us.
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