New York Times embraces ‘mushrooming’ genre of cli-fi

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 [easyazon-link asin=”1597801585″ locale=”us”]The Windup Girl[/easyazon-link], by Paolo Bacigalupi and [easyazon-link asin=”B007HBY89E” locale=”us”]Flight Behavior[/easyazon-link] 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 [easyazon-link asin=”B007HXL4CG” locale=”us”]The Drowned World[/easyazon-link] 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.

17 Comments on New York Times embraces ‘mushrooming’ genre of cli-fi

  1. UPDATE [and only one]: FRENCH SCI FI FAN WRITES: [Cli fi and sci fi in French? A French scientist, 31, with interest in sci fi novels, read this piece today and replied to me via email:] we are truly a borderless world now: – dan

    ”To introduce me better, my interest as scientist and sci-fi reader is to promote science and discuss great challenges during this century, as global warming. In french sci-fi we call it “anticipation”, following subjects there is “climate anticipation”, “political anticipation”, “space anticipation”, etc. This is the fiction I like the best ! ”

    ”Actually I tweet about “cli-fi”and connect it with our so frenchy “climate anticipation”, because very few authors as been translated in french. Now Bacigalupi is published by “Au Diable Vauvert” editor and won some awards. So yes, we can say “cli-fi” genre is coming in France !”

    ”Well, I hope my english is not too bad, and it’s a pleasure to discuss with you :)”

    Sincerely yours,
    Guillaume

    He added: ” I don’t have enough time for a long email because it’s midnight at Paris, but quickly, yes “anticipation” is in french all kind of sci-fi in a speculative near future; so “The windup Girl” is an anticipation for french readers. Well, what we call “science-fiction” is a large definition, including far future novels, dystopian futures, post-apocalypse, space opera, planetary romances, cyberpunk, etc … “Science-fiction” is a general keyword, we include on it all the genres. Anticipation can be considerated as a kind of science-fiction. Seems ambiguous but not really a problem in french, as “science fiction” is a general definition. Why we use “anticipation” ? Because it gives an more distinct definition. And the adjective “climate” used with “anticipation”(say “anticipation climatique” for a correct french) is the best translation for “cli-fi”, because french readers will understand there’s a story about global warming impacts and challenge in the near future.

    As we say in french, anticipation is a possible world, maybe tomorrow. But science-fiction is a dream : star wars lightsaber is not for tomorrow ! And you know, french is a language with many adjectives and expressions ! A well known french anticipation writer was Jules Verne, born at Nantes where i’m living. Maybe the best french town for sci-fi ! If one day you want to discuss, please ask me my skype account, it’s more easier for me.”

  2. SF (not sci-fi) has always included stories about life here on earth. There are infinite themes in SF, none of which have ever required being promoted as a subgenre. Cli-fi is nothing more than a promotional gimmick which, as far as I can see, is being ignored by anyone actually devoted to the science fiction genre.

  3. Ellena Emdares // April 4, 2014 at 8:39 am //

    Catana, to still be writing at 70 and speaking out for things you believe in, so good to see your comments here.

  4. I’m not sure what the big deal is about “Cli-Fi” either, but to be fair, there have been plenty of subgenres of SF that have gotten a lot of attention over the years.

    I remember when cyberpunk used to be the big thing, and later on it was post-singularity fiction. I haven’t been paying enough attention to know whether there’s really something to this “Cli-Fi” thing or not. I do remember when Niven, Barnes, et al wrote Fallen Angels, a work of SF which used climate change as one of its mcguffins—except that instead of global warming, it turned out we were entering another mini-ice age and all the greenhouse gases had been the only thing keeping it at bay. Would that qualify as “Cli-Fi,” I wonder, or does the sobriquet only apply to works that feature global warming?

  5. Chris, the sobriquet refers to novels and movies with climate themes of all stripes, from global cooling to global warming to it’s a hoax to whatever a novelist wants to way. It’s just a platform and it’s open to all writers in all nations of all points of view. Glad you brought that up: it’s for all writers to explore accorrding to their POV, sure. the 1994 novel by Michael Chricton titled “State of Fear” which was very anti global warming and anti-greenies is a good example of a cli fi novel too. There’s no agenda in the sobriquet and no specific ideology involved. And a good way to look at it might be to just consider it another one of the many subgenres of sci fi.

  6. Chris, that’s the point, isn’t it, that labels like cyberpunk and post-singularity eventually disappear? Who bothers with them anymore? They’re as temporary as the current “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian.” In the long view, they’re subsumed into “science fiction,” which is a stable genre, not a temporary tag.

  7. I’m not sure I agree. As a reader, I like the tags and sub genres. While yes, cyberpunk is sci-fi, it’s a different feel from say, Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall, which I wouldn’t classify with a sub genre tag. Also, there’s a huge difference between urban fantasy and high or epic fantasy, though they are all definitely fantasy. I like to have an idea of which I’m getting, and the tag makes it easy to differentiate. Whether the tags die out in the future or not, I appreciate them now. Yes, a friend could describe a book as being “similar to the Dresden Files,” and that identifies it for me. But calling it “urban fantasy” does basically the same thing in fewer words.

  8. To be honest, I think the whole marketing approach to “Climate Fiction” is the wrong method to stir a reader’s interest. If a good book has strong themes about the environment and climate, then let the words speak and draw the reader in and perhaps ponder the issues. This is the more subtle way – rather than the sledge hammer knock against the reader’s head – READ CLI-FI FOR AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE! Be a watchmaker, not a piledriver.

    And would also be less likely to read a “cli-fi” marketed book than an obscure science fiction novel. I’d be fine with climate change themes and stories – but hoopla drives me away.

  9. Greg, just a quick note to try to clarify things: nobody is marketing cli fi to stir readers’ interest. There are no marketing people behind this project, which yes, is intended to promote good books with strong themes about the environment and climate and let the words speak and draw the reader in and perhaps ponder the issues. Exactly as you said it above. There’s no sledgehammer knock on anyone’s head. But term of ‘cli fi’ was created mostly for newspapers and headline writers and literary critics to start thinking more about climate-themed books and for writers themselves to be the watchmakers, as you say. No publisher is marketing a cli fi book anywhere in the world as a cli fi book and that is not the purpose of the project. But to reach the mainstream media is not easy, the NYT is the first newspaper anywhere in the world to even mention the cli fi term and in the story you read, if you read the NYT article, cli fi was used just once in the second paragraph and never used again. So there’s no marketing effort going on, just some news stories in the media about different ways of talking about using novels and movies to discuss climate issues. The cli fi term is not even necessary, genre labels in general are not needed. As a reader, we like to read GOOD books, period. Whether they are called sci fi or chick lit or romance novels or lab lit or steampunk or “literary fiction” or speculative fiction, not important. what really matters is the story itself inside the book. so i agree with you 100 percent.

  10. I just keep thinking of that line from the movie True Stories.

    “You know, things that never had names before are now easily described. Makes conversation easier.”

  11. And french readers knows Jean-Marc Ligny, author, for his two cli-fi books : “AquaTM” and “Exodes” (L’Atalante editor) :)

  12. I thank Mr. Bloom for coining the term; I thought I was writing “post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction” with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. The new handle helps. Cli-fi writers write a world you want to prevent.

  13. Peter Kubicek // April 5, 2014 at 11:43 am //

    The arguments about semantics do not get us anywhere. To me, what is important are the facts. And the facts are that climate change is undisputedly happening and very little, if anything, is being done about it. Just look at the steady, scientifically measurable, increase in the level of oceans. Small islands are actually disappearing; hurricanes are more frequent, with devastating effects. It is not that long ago that a hurricane knocked out power to half of the island of Manhattan; and all we do is sit back and await the next one.

  14. As Aristotle noted in Poetics, “The historian speaks of what has happened, the poet of the kind of thing that can happen.” Fiction grabs hold of our imagination in a different, and possibly more powerful way than non-fiction. Indeed, it dares us to imagine what isn’t—and what might be. “Exposure to literature may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds,” write University of Toronto researchers in a recent study that found that people who have just read a short story have less need for “cognitive closure,” meaning that they are more able to handle the kind of uncertainty that leads to a more complex level of thinking and creativity. “The thinking a person engages in while reading fiction does not necessarily lead him or her to a decision,” they say, which reduces the desire for a neat and tidy conclusion, meaning that people may have a better chance of being open-minded after reading fiction. “While reading, the reader can stimulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character. This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind.” And when it comes to solving the climate crisis, we need all the high-level, open-minded creative thinking we can get, especially if it helps change the kinds of individual behaviors that are ultimately bad for the health and sustainability of the planet.

  15. Dan, Good article. Looks like Cli Fi will be a word in dictionary soon as long as human beings continue to pursue capital gains with no regards to climate effects.

  16. Oh, where, oh, where was this genre tag (I know, anachronism) back in late 1980s when I was attempting to peddle my “The Female Creature” about the bride, the mate, created on Orkney Isle, torn apart and dumped into the North Sea by Victor Frankenstein (not a doctor and not a baron — just another –albeit presumably rich– college dropout)? I just enrolled in a local design e-books course–it may yet get out there. By the way, The Creature is not stupid and bumbling, he’s very ugly, true (probably in a sort of vaguely anti-Asian racist way: long straight black hair, yellow skin), but he’s very strong, agile and athletic and quickly learns languages: French, German, Italian, English, Arabic). And at the very end, Victor is dead, but not The Creature. And, meanwhile, like humans everywhere, Mary Shelley has drowned The Female Creature, dropped her into the ocean and forgot her.

    Guess that’s a cue to post something from “The Female Creataure” on my blogsite (messed up as it is):

    http://www.lisbethjardine.com

  17. Cli-fi should not be pushed as a subgenre of science fiction despite the play on the name. It’s true that many futuristic novels about climate change are science fiction, but many are not. Check out Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” or John Atcheson’s “A Being Darkly Wise,” for example, both set in the modern age, both dealing with what is already observable today.

    Cli-fi simply relates to art/literature/film where the central theme is climate change (some might also say weather in general, but I see it more related to anthropogenic climate change given the genre is new and emerging). This is more of a subset of eco-lit or nature writing than anything else.

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