Apparently I’ve written a seminal work of cli-fi, but it wasn’t one of my books.
In a recent BBC Culture piece titled What The Last of Us, Snowpiercer and ‘climate fiction’ get wrong, self-proclaimed literary scholar Tyler Harper argues that the genre does not inspire environmental action among readers, but demoralizes them. He alleges the media has propagated the idea of cli-fi as visionary: “The first major article about this emerging genre, a 2015 piece in The Atlantic, bore the lofty title: ‘Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?‘”
“I wrote that!” I exclaimed to my breakfast plate. The freelance piece, published shortly after my debut novel Blue Karma, explored the surge of interest in cli-fi, which seemed to correspond with rising public awareness about climate change. The title Harper derides as “lofty” was not a claim, but a question. My research and interviews concluded that while cli-fi may not instill readers with instant environmentalism, it makes scientific concepts accessible to a wider audience.
Average human brains don’t process statistics as well as storytelling (a predilection our politicians and lobbyists frequently exploit). Eavesdrop on your workplace lunchroom and you’re less likely to hear discussion of the latest IPCC report than the latest episode of The Mandalorian. A quantitative assessment of, say, the fresh water volume released from a melting glacier is too abstract to engage most people. Incorporating those projections into an adventure story about Washington, D.C. swamped by sea level rise, like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities, brings the numbers to empathetic life.
Harper criticizes the dystopian bent of such stories, deeming them too bleak to motivate change. He cites other academics, critics, and studies that support his view. “Every scholar I talk to holds out hope…that there are forms of environmental art that might succeed in shaping the public’s imagination for the better. But they are equally clear that ‘cli-fi’ is certainly not the panacea that was promised.” Wait, whoever promised that cli-fi would solve climate change? Not us authors, whose voices are conspicuously absent from Harper’s editorial.
I can’t speak for all my fellow writers, but I myself have never harbored delusions that my books would spark a revolution or convert climate-change deniers. Nor do I aspire to address a complex global crisis in a single novel. Cli-fi often examines a vignette of climate impact, which precludes the kind of grand solutions Harper seems to expect. Dramatic plots, meanwhile, are simply part of the entertainment. Conventional story structure demands conflict. Would you stay up past bedtime to learn the fates of characters enjoying a sustainable idyll, or those caught in a high-stakes struggle for survival?
If those scenarios seem apocalyptic, don’t blame the writers. Blame the facts (or the spineless policymakers who refuse to address them). Cli-fi is a form of science fiction, so authors extrapolate stories from a framework of current scientific knowledge. Are we supposed to invent green utopias when humanity is expected to blow through its remaining “carbon budget” within the next decade? When half the world’s population lives in areas vulnerable to climate change impacts such as severe flood and drought, while the wealthiest few still squander resources?
Cli-fi authors cannot project a plausible future without accounting for the ecological degradation already underway. I encountered this challenge in Beat in Her Blood, a murder mystery set in near-future Baltimore. While the story is not dedicated cli-fi, a realistic depiction of that locale must consider climate change’s impact on a coastal metropolis. Thus action scenes play out in flooded harbor-side streets; healthcare workers battle epidemic heat stroke; and local seafood lovers must content themselves with ersatz crab, since the iconic Maryland Blue went extinct. Climate becomes an indiscriminate antagonist neither hero nor author can escape.
Harper sees this fact-based approach as a threat. “I not only worry that ”cli-fi’ might not be an effective form of environmental expression – I have come to believe that the genre might be actively dangerous, stunting our cultural ability to imagine a future worth living in or fighting for,” he moans. I’d like to know what titles he’s been reading; his examples largely draw from film and television, which might bias his observations. Most cli-fi I’ve read—and written—ends with flickers of hope. Counterintuitive as it seems, this is the reason I write cli-fi. It’s a coping mechanism for the eco-grief that often leaves me breathless with despair. Like a literary scientist, I take in data, adjust variables, and run simulations. Vicariously inhabiting a grim scenario blunts the edge of my fear. My beleaguered characters adapt to altered ecosystems, finding ways to thrive despite the damaged world around them.
Can books save the world? They’re not going to sequester carbon, hold back rising seas, or keep the atmospheric warming trend under that critical 2C mark. But cli-fi can help prepare us for unpredictable futures, highlighting the incredible resilience of both Earth and its inhabitants.
I think work like yours is a LOT more likely to get people involved in trying to save the planet than anything ANY politician ever says!
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It should be the ultimate non-partisan agenda: no matter whose campaign sign you plant in your lawn, you rely on Earth to survive. Alas, political systems are not renowned for sensible long-term thinking.
Interesting view of things. Sometimes, it seems that critics and such expect miracles from nothing (and then are surprised that doesn’t happen). I wonder what kinds of people are even the usual audience of Cli-Fi books.
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