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    Behold the Rise of Dystopian 'Cli-Fi'

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Flickr

    Though the age of the literary fiction is supposedly waning, the age of the literary genre is at its apex. In addition to staples like thrillers and sci-fi, bookstores are littered with sections for teen paranormal romances, apocalyptic fiction, werewolf horror, and beyond. Amazon.com has turned genre-naming into an SEO bloodsport, with my personal favorite example being “Affair of the Wolf (Book One of the Jim Tankson Saga: An Erotic, Keyword, Environmentalism, Werewolf, Schoolgirl, Horror, Passion Tale)."

    And now, evidently, we've got cli-fi. Short for "climate fiction," the term was first coined by Dan Bloom, a Taiwan-based blogger in 2007 as part of an ill-fated effort to market an e-book called Polar City Red, a dystopian story about Alaskan climate refugees. The slowly growing genre is documented in an NPR piece that focuses on Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, which, despite featuring a submerged Manhattan on the cover, and taking place in a world where the climatic system is certainly skewed, doesn't actually mention the words "climate change" in its pages.

    The NPR story muses, as NPR stories are wont to do, about what constitutes cli-fi:

    Odds is the latest in what seems to be an emerging literary genre. Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter. The genre has come to be called climate fiction — "cli-fi," for short.

    Of course, science fiction with an environmental bent has been around since the 1960s (think J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World). But while sci-fi usually takes place in a dystopian future, cli-fi happens in a dystopian present."I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality," says Rich, "which is that we're headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it's the novelist's job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?"

    And then the august public news org really separates the wheat from the chaff: "Of course, science fiction with an environmental bent has been around since the 1960s (think J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World),"—and about ten thousand others—"But while sci-fi usually takes place in a dystopian future, cli-fi happens in a dystopian present."

    The dystopian present otherwise known as the actual present, where a carbon-loaded atmosphere is already beginning to wreak some havoc on human civ. Over at the Guardian, Rodge Glass runs down some recent exemplars: 

    Whereas 10 or 20 years ago it would have been difficult to identify even a handful of books that fell under this banner, there is now a growing corpus of novels setting out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come. Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour, the story of a forest valley filled with an apparent lake of fire, is shortlisted for the2013 Women's prize for fiction. Meanwhile, there's Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, set in a future New York, about a mathematician who deals in worst-case scenarios. In Liz Jensen's 2009 eco-thriller The Rapture, summer temperatures are asphyxiating and Armageddon is near; her most recent book, The Uninvited, features uncanny warnings from a desperate future. Perhaps the most high-profile cli-fi author is Margaret Atwood, whose 2009 The Year of the Flood features survivors of a biological catastrophe also central to her2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a book Atwood sometimes preferred to call "speculative fiction".

    I'd add the current bestseller The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, which is mostly about a flu pandemic, but also has a healthy dose of climate dysfunction. There are also subtle hints lurking in the background of the Hunger Games that the dystopian present was precipitated by climate changed—does that make it 'Young Cli-fi'? And I guess films like The Day After Tomorrow would have to count too, even if it did get the science all wrong.

    Bloom, meanwhile, who coincidentally has been snubbed by the press despite coining the term—NPR didn't even mention him in its story—is glad the genre is taking off. 

    "What I like about the cli-fi term is that it can serve as a convenient way to find novels about climate change in both brick-and-mortar bookstores and from e-retailers," he writes. "Already, Amazon lists cli-fi as a genre in its book search data, and you only need to type in the words for a book search at Amazon and you will be taken to cli-fi books."

    Anyhow, debating genre tags is a bit of a goofy thing to do, and authors end up hating them anyway—Atwood herself repeatedly denies any allegiance with sci-fi, so I doubt she'd be quick to embrace 'cli-fi'. But in this case, it's good to see more authors tackling a topic that is at once the most important phenomenon of our time, and the most difficult to write about interestingly. Despite the above-mentioned examples, there's a real dearth of good fiction about climate change and its impacts. So if high-profile writers like Rich and Atwood and best-selling books like The Dog Stars can demonstrate that there's a market for the genre, perhaps it will draw more interest from publishers and, subsequently, film studios. And that's where people are actually paying attention. That and YA cli-fi, of course. 

     

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