From American War to Line, why climate fiction is the hot new genre reflecting our burning reality
The world is falling apart. Ok, I might be slightly exaggerating but it’s still pretty bad. With 2023 already blessing us with burning forests, flooding districts and melting glaciers, my climate change bingo card is filling up nicely.
During an era of one ecological disaster after the other, we might expect readers to seek solace in escapist stories. Yet it seems that rather than choosing to ignore the swirling shit-storm around them, readers are embracing climate fiction head-on to help them interpret the new world around them.
Once a nameless sub-genre of science fiction, climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’ to us cool kids, has evolved into a class of its own. Searching for the term “climate fiction” on Amazon today returns over 30,000 results. But why? There are no lasers, no holograms, no faraway planets. Instead there’s rising sea levels, global warming and pollution. Sounds fun.
But looking at the genre’s ever-growing presence in university curriculums, along with its ability to bridge science with humanities and activism, cli-fi is making environmental issues more accessible to readers.
Adeline Johns-Putra, a literary scholar at Monash University in Malaysia, who published the monograph Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel said: “Climate fiction can open up spaces in which to think through practical problems. It shines a light on the scientific, political and economic approaches to dealing with the climate crisis, as well as psychological and ethical challenges like climate anxiety and guilt.”
Adeline Johns-Putra is a literary scholar at Monash University. Photo credit: Nelly Mao
The volume of climate fiction might have erupted over the last decade, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there. Even before the world caught fire, dystopian fiction was treating the planet as something that could conceivably continue without us. Published in 1953, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham is arguably considered as the first work of climate fiction, predicting the current effects of climate change with a frightening degree of accuracy.
Some more recent cli-fi examples include Lily Brooks-Dalton’s portrayal of a rapidly disintegrating world in The Light Pirate, Omar El Akkad’s portrait of a half-submerged, drone-patrolled Louisiana in American War; and Irish writer Niall Bourke’s Line, which conjures up images of refugees waiting in an infinite line, winding through a barren landscape.
Line touches on many of the critical issues facing our tempestuous planet: the refugee crisis, the erosion of democracy, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity, and, of course, climate change. What a world we live in.
Niall, originally from Kilkenny, said: “Funnily enough I didn’t set out to write climate fiction. In fact, I didn’t really know I was writing climate fiction, or that climate fiction was its own and distinct genre, until my book started popping up in ‘Cli-fi’ lists in some papers and magazines.
“I originally called the genre I was writing ‘Econo-fi’ – economics inspired fiction. But, looking back, it’s obvious to me that ‘Econo-fi’ and ‘Cli-fi’ are inextricably linked. And by that I mean that the lack of progress on current climate issues is largely driven by our prevailing economic systems.”
Within his novel, Niall explores the economic concepts of Game Theory, a prediction of the actions and outcomes of decision-making participants, and Nash Equilibrium, which models a combination of strategies in which no interacting player can benefit by unilaterally changing its strategy.
He said: “I think this is what’s happening with the current climate crisis. Individual governments are disincentive from taking radical action as they will be penalised economically by being the ‘first-movers’. In essence, although virtually everyone now agrees we need to take urgent action on the environment, no one wants to move first so the world is kind of stuck in a really sub-optimal state of Nash Equilibrium.”
Ted Howell, a lecturer in climate fiction at Rowan University in New Jersey, thinks that climate fiction can cultivate a sense of what it will actually be like to live in a radically changed world.
He said: “Fiction is really good at capturing and imagining the things that significantly impact our daily lives: what we eat, who we talk to and how, what it’s like to go to school or work or a party, to love someone, and most importantly what it will feel like to do all of these things.
Line by Niall Bourke
“Fiction offers insight into the interiority of a character and enables us to see the world through their eyes. Climate models and even films can’t do that.”
And so this new breed of fiction raises the question: when it comes to understanding our planet and its future, can novelists reach people in ways that scientists can’t?
It’s true that fiction has proven to be a powerful medium for increasing a reader’s empathy for others, allowing us to see the world through different perspectives. In fact, a 2014 study found that kids who read Harry Potter are more likely to reduce prejudices toward minority groups because of the way Harry befriends the outcasts of the wizarding community. Seems like a pretty enjoyable way to become less like the Voldemorts of the world.
Adeline said: “Fiction immerses the reader in a realistic or convincing world and fictional narratives can activate empathy and compassion.
“It can also present what-if scenarios for readers to consider worst-case situations or positive outcomes. So it is potentially more powerful than (or, at least, an important complement to) factual accounts.”
It’s safe to say cli-fi can teach us a hell of a lot. But these authors have a very fine line to tread as research suggests that apocalyptic narratives can actually lead readers to stick their head in the sand, hampering any possible positive action.
Ted Howell is a lecturer in climate fiction at Rowan University
Ted continued: “Even though fiction can definitely be good at increasing people’s awareness about climate science and climate justice issues, the real goal is to get people to change the way they live and act, which is hard.
“I think fiction can be good at doing this if it exposes unjust things that are happening in the world and when it portrays a better, more hopeful future that enables readers to see that there’s another way—it’s not all just doom and gloom.”
Climate fiction ranges from the technically accurate to the fantastic, but with the climate being a topic so susceptible to confusion, can far-fetched cli-fi be irresponsible?
A study by the University of East Anglia surveyed 400 filmgoers before and after watching the sci-fi disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, in which the planet is plunged into a new ice age overnight. The study found that viewers felt slightly more concerned about climate change at first, but also confused when it came to separating science fiction from science fact.
Adeline said: “All good authors do their research in order to ensure a factual basis to their plots, characters, and settings. Writers of historical fiction need to do their historical research, science fiction authors will do their research to ensure that their futuristic or interplanetary settings and plots are scientifically plausible. Climate fiction requires authors to be accurate in their settings in this way, with some added responsibility.
“Not only do they need to translate quite complex scientific data into believable and imaginatively appealing stories, they need to be careful about misrepresenting what has become a highly politicised issue with plenty of doubters.”
But can accuracy stifle authors, and what good is fiction when it starts to sound just like the headlines?
Ted argued: “Although I think accuracy is really important, fiction writers shouldn’t feel the need to triple-check their futures against the latest climate models.
“The problem is that when you get a movie like The Day After Tomorrow and it becomes popular, that actually leads people to think that unless the entire East Coast is under a giant snow drift, then climate change actually isn’t that bad.”
“That said, I don’t think it’s the primary responsibility of fiction writers to make sure every aspect of their world is scientifically accurate because that constrains their imagination and limits the directions they can go with their stories. In the end, I think that readers aren’t really turning to climate fiction for perfect accuracy, but I do think it’s best not to lead them wildly astray.”
Ultimately, there seems to be space on people’s bookshelves for the exactly-detailed, well-researched climate novels (such as those written by Kim Stanley Robinson), as well as the wild and wacky works of pure climate speculation, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or anything written by Jeff Vandermeer. After all, some readers just want a good book, not a warning.
There’s no denying that cli-fi is heating up, and so is our planet. And maybe these books aren’t going to save the world in any simple way, but they might just tell us how to (or at least keep us entertained until the end).
If you liked this post then read So you want to try Cli-Fi: Here’s where to start or Is listening the new reading? The pros and cons of audiobooks.
Adeline is a Professor of Literature, with primary expertise in the relationship between climate and literature. She has taught at universities across the world including the University of Tampere in Finland, the universities of Exeter and Surrey in the UK, and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China.
Niall is a writer and a teacher. His work has been published widely in magazines and journals in Ireland and the UK, and his poems and stories have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Costa Short Story Award and the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. He lives in South London with his partner, his daughter, his son and his cat.
Ted is a Lecturer at Rowan University with a joint appointment in the Departments of Writing Arts and Geography, Planning, & Sustainability. His teaching focuses on environmental and sustainability issues, specifically climate change. He loves to help students develop their capacity for ecological thought and enable them to find actionable solutions to incredibly complex problems.
Sophie is a trainee journalist at The University of Sheffield who specialises in feature writing. She has a keen passion for books and would love to work in the publishing industry in the future. She’s particularly passionate about how our ever-changing planet is represented in the books we read.
Favourite genres: Thrillers and Contemporary Fiction.