Climate change-themed science fiction is big. Though it’s been present in the sci-fi canon for a while, with novels like JG Ballard’s 1962 The Drowned World being a well-known visionary example and George Turner’s 1987 Drowned Towers (aka The Sea and the Summer) as a personal favorite, the genre has only recently begun to come into its own. Dystopian sci-fi in particular often takes place in settings where the climate has significantly altered, naturally or by human influence, even when it is not central to the story. The 1973 film Soylent Green is an early example that always springs to mind.
Now, with “England’s national author” Ian McEwan tackling climate fiction in his novel Solar (2010) and Canada’s grande dame of sci-fi Margaret Atwood penning the Oryx and Crake trilogy, it is safe to say that a new genre has truly arrived.
Welcome to the era of “cli-fi”.
While the possible effects of climate change took on ridiculous proportions in the 2004 Hollywood film The Day After Tomorrow, cli-fi need not rely on chase scenes involving an ice monster pursuing heroes through the streets of New York City. Maybe I don’t know the science of cold snaps as well as I think I do, but plausibility surely strengthens the message in a work of cli-fi. True cli-fi, like hard science fiction and its more digestible cousin “speculative fiction”, is about the possible, not merely the fantastical. For example, Star Wars is plainly an unscientific fantasy, while the recent Spike Jonze film Her is authentic sci-fi. One could — and maybe will — happen. The other is allegorical at best.
The still nascent genre owes its nomenclature to Dan Bloom, an American journalist and environmentalist based in Taiwan. It’s Bloom’s mission to popularize cli-fi, thereby bringing its powerful message into the public consciousness.
From an interview with Dan Bloom in the online journal Former People:
My own interest, and what has pushed me on, is in Cli Fi literature that warns readers of the perils of climate change and global warming and the further perils of not doing anything about it before it is perhaps too late. So I am first and foremost a climate activist, deep green, hoping to see Cli Fi develop into a genre that serves a warning sign, an alarm bell, a wake up call for humankind.
And as a Taiwan resident, Bloom is also sowing the seeds of cli-fi and watching them grow in his adopted country. In an article for the Taipei Times he shines a light on the work of Taiwanese novelist and nature writer Wu Ming-yi’s novel The Man with the Compound Eyes, an environmentally conscious story about the future that alludes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other hot ecological issues. See this review of it in the Guardian.
Asian academics are also picking up on the cli-fi trend. Professor of literature at Taiwan National University Richard Chen has written about the genre, calling it a “global warning” to the dangers of climate change.
Asking, “will cli-fi catch on in Asia?” is a bit like asking if climate change will impact the continent. It’s coming, folks, because it’s the future. Paolo Bacigalupi’s wonderfully imaginative 2009 novel The Windup Girl straddles cli-fi and other science fiction subgenres like biopunk to produce a harrowing vision of 23rd century Thailand that takes all the terrible things that are happening now — climate change, seed patenting, biodiversity loss — and brings them to a logical conclusion. The Wind Up Girl won both Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction literature’s top honors. It has also won prizes in Japan and Germany. Global warning indeed.