cli-fiWhen the New York Times speaks, the world listens. And the paper of record didn’t even use scare quotes when it mentioned the new literary
genre of cli-fi, short for climate fiction.

A recent Times piece by reporter Richard Perez-Pena titled “College Classes Use Arts to Brace for Climate Change” represents the first time a major print newspaper has dipped its toes into the “mushrooming” genre that TeleRead has been tracking for several years already.

Print always follows digital now. Print editors are conservative and circumspect; digital editors are more open to new ideas and experimentation.

In fact, it was an earlier TeleRead piece here about University of Oregon professor Stephanie LeMenager’s winter 2014 course on climate change novels and movies that inspired the Times reporter to fly out of New York and do a toe-touch in Eugene, Oregon where he met with the
professor and her graduate students. He sat in one a class, interviewed the professor and came back home to write his story. On March 31, it went live on the Times website and on the paper’s international websites — and appeared in print the next day.

I first saw the news in print in a local edition of the Taiwan News, an expat newspaper in Taipei which subscribes to the Times wire service, where the UO story was syndicated to the paper’s many newsrooms worldwide.

LeMenager is teaching a class called “The Cultures of Climate Change.” It’s the first in the nation, even the world, to focus on the arts and climate change this way, as TeleRead reported more than a year ago.

The UO class focuses on ”films, poetry, photography, essays and a heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi,” the Times reported. So now it’s official. The paper of record has spoken. Sci fi has a new cousin in the literary arena and she’s called cli-fi.

According to the Times account, novels set against a backdrop of climate change are beginning to make their mark on the literary scene, with books such as The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Cli-fi novels and movies ”fit into a long tradition of speculative fiction that pictures the future after assorted catastrophes,” the Times reported.

Thirty-something Nathaniel Rich, who lives in New Orleans and often writes for the Times Sunday magazine and its oped pages, was quoted by the Times as saying: “You can argue that [trying to grapple with the fragility of our existence] is a dominant theme of postwar fiction. It surprises me that even more writers aren’t engaging with it.”

“The climate-change canon dates back at least as far as The Drowned World written in 1962 by J. G. Ballard,” the Times reported. It is just “mushrooming” now.

When the mention of a rising literary genre makes it into the pages of the New York Times, you know something important is going on. This is one meme worth bookmarking and watching as it grows worldwide.

While sci-fi is usually about space and trips to Mars, cli-fi is about our life on Earth now and in the coming future. As a climate activist who has been trying to popularize the new genre since 2008 as a PR tool and wake up call about climate issues, I was gratified to see the New York Times finally get on the cli-fi bandwagon.

I feel that by giving a label to climate-themed novels and movies, it can help readers and viewers focus on the issues involved. The response so far, over the past year especially,  has been positive and welcoming. Many writers have written to me and told me about the novels they are writing and that they are glad that there is a genre that they can fit their novels into.

And an enterprising woman in Canada named Mary Woodbury has created a webzine “Cli Fi Books” that lists cli-fi novels past and present at her non-profit site at clifibooks.com.

How do I see the future? Post cli-fi, if we ever get to that point where humankind has gone beyond cli-fi, I envision a world where humans cling to hope and optimism. I am an optimist. I hope we will have solved the climate problems using our brains and our technology. I also hope many novelists will start writing cli-fi novels and that some of them will be turned into movies. As the Times noted, the arts have an important role to play in the way we look at climate change and global warming.