I am writing this in early May; by the time you read it, it will be out of date. The worst predictions will have assumed the quaint ring of nostalgia. Carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere will have set new records. The floodwaters will be higher, the storms stronger. Desertification and drought will have claimed more farmland. More species will have passed into extinction.
Amid all the evidence of the cost of inaction, what will our reaction be? Will we still be dragging our feet? While depending on our political leaders to implement solutions is a dicey proposition, the nature of literature’s response is a safer bet. If recent history holds, more and more writers of fiction will be confronting head on our climate emergency—and the future it will usher in—with each passing day. And if what they produce has a name, it’s cli-fi.
This much is clear: cli-fi is already an extremely varied genre, encompassing books that take place five minutes in the future and ones set centuries from now. Like sci-fi, the bough of literature on which cli-fi is a healthy and growing twig, this subgenre encompasses an impressive variety of work. Some books admit nothing more than the premise that climate change will alter our planet. Others envision wild, strange futures full of unrecognizable fauna, fantastic technologies, and societies vastly different from what we know today.
Cli-fi describes everything from Ian MacEwan’s Solar, a comedic novel in which a more or less contemporary scientist stumbles his way into the field of alternative energy for completely selfish reasons, to Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, set in a distant future in which our planet is warmer and wetter, nations have fallen, and several hundred thousand people from all over the world live on an asterisk-shaped floating city located off the coast of Greenland, administered by AI bots but run by crime syndicates, and haunted by the remnants of a group of people who are neuro-linked to animals such as orcas and polar bears.
What connects these disparate approaches can seem amorphous. In the face of something as dire as runaway ecosystem damage, what is the purpose of cli-fi? Louise Fabiani, writing in the Pacific Standard, claims that cli-fi is literature designed “to wake us up while there’s still time. It is a thought experiment with a plot.” In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rio Fernandes is more specific, writing that “cli-fi often depicts a grim future of a changed world, portraying how humanity must deal with years of environmental neglect.” Sarah Stankorb of Good Magazine suggests that by offering a peek into the (often not-so-distant) future, “cli-fi makes the unthinkable more proximate, or even intimate.”
In form, if not intent, it shares much with older models of storytelling. A survey of human history suggests that as long as we’ve described the world to one another in stories and songs, we’ve understood that telling of the end of that world can make for a pretty engrossing tale. The Sumerians described a world-encompassing flood long before the Old Testament repeated the account and made its promises in Revelations of earthquakes, trumpet-honking angels, the Euphrates drying up, and the Lake of Fire. In each case, cataclysm was the product of a moral reckoning, the wages of our collective transgressions, which is tonally reminiscent of cli-fi.
Run through our history since and you find that End-of-the-World narratives gain and lose purchase with the seeming frequency of hemline fluctuations. In times of plenty they tend to fade into the cultural backdrop or retreat to the fringe, while during the Black Death, for example, or approaching milestones like the turn of a millennium, they push to the fore, with small stylistic or thematic amendments, but usually with the understanding that whatever’s coming is something we’ve done to ourselves. You get the ending you deserve, they say.
In the twentieth century, reality drew alongside fiction when we harnessed technology to produce weapons capable of global destruction. Accordingly, the atomic threat was reflected in our novels, our films, our comic books, and our TV shows. Consider Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, or certain episodes of The Twilight Zone. Yet even while still in the depths of the Cold War, the English novelist JG Ballard began to triangulate his way toward the subject of climate change. In The Drowned World (1962), the ice caps have melted as a result of solar radiation, not human meddling. Nevertheless, the book gives us a warmer “neo-Triassic” planet in which London lies underwater. Shortly thereafter Ballard published The Burning World (1964), which explicitly names human pollution as the cause of planetary drought, specifically waste dumped into the ocean that interferes with the water cycle, putting an end to precipitation and thus agriculture.
It would take another two decades for another novelist to explore the same territory. In 1987 the Australian novelist George Turner published The Sea and Summer (released in the US as The Drowning Towers), an explicitly activist novel sketching a future in which the dramatic loss of land to rising seas has led to large-scale starvation and a population dependent upon the inadequate aid of a failing government. The book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1988, and its success compelled Turner to return to the setting of an Earth heavily depopulated by climate change, this time even further into the future, in 1994’s The Genetic Soldier.
Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, published between 2003 and 2013—represent the first commercially and critically important Canadian works in the field. Setting the scene, in Oryx and Crake, Atwood writes: “[T]he coastal aquifers turned salty and the northern permafrost melted and the vast tundra bubbled with methane, and the drought in the midcontinental plains regions went on and on, and the Asian steppes turned to sand dunes, and meat became harder to come by…” The biotech industry steps in to meet demand and, not incidentally, to profit from the scarcity, genetically engineering a terrifying collection of hybrid species. Those hybrids include pigoons, rakunks, and wolvogs.
Atwood’s imagined new species provide us with a prime example of what can make these books engaging and effective on an emotional level: a mix of the fantastic and the everyday, the familiar and the alien. American writer Karen Russell, in a talk called “Engineering Impossible Architectures,” calls this the “Kansas: Oz Ratio,” suggesting that what often makes such stories chilling or arresting is their setting in a near-future littered with evidence of our lives, things the contemporary reader is likely to recognize. “What authenticates setting for a reader,” says Russell, is when “expectation collides with different kinds of reality … it’s that friction that starts to make the world real.” In other words, such a mix, when handled correctly, serves to remove a reader’s fears from the realm of abstraction and instead anchors them in a tangible and emotionally accessible place.
Nevada-born author Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus (2015) largely traffics in evocations of a world reminiscent of Atwood’s, populated by scattered bands of people resembling the cast of the Mad Max films. In it, the entirety of California has succumbed to extreme drought and is all but abandoned. The title refers to the reasons people traditionally had for migrating to California, but in Watkins’ future the traveller is more apt to be swallowed by the expanding and shifting Amargosa Dune Sea than to strike it rich or become famous.
Gold Fame Citrus does the hard work of describing a world devastated by human-caused climate chaos; it rises up and sings, though, when it recalls the old life, the main character’s time spent modelling in Los Angeles, and the opulence of Hollywood as we know it today, whispering to the reader: These two points are not so far apart. It rewards investment in its second half where, in a bravura act of imagination, Watkins “recreates” a field guide called Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea: a primer, featuring such creatures as the blue chupacabra, the burrowing dwarf owl, the land eel, the Mojave ghost crab, and the ourobouros rattler, which moves over sand by putting its tail in its mouth and rolling like a wagon wheel.
While works like Gold Fame Citrus and the MaddAddam trilogy seem to strike a balance in the “Kansas: Oz Ratio,” combining the familiar with the fantastical, James Howard Kunstler’s cli-fi works are solidly realistic. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that Kunstler’s roots are journalistic. In 2005 he published the non-fiction work The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, which, as the subtitle suggests, enumerates the hazards awaiting us in the days ahead. Kunstler doesn’t subscribe to the notion that climate change is our primary threat; he’s more interested in the end of peak oil, and our inability or unwillingness to retool our society into one independent of fossil fuels. He doesn’t deny climate change; he just thinks society will collapse before its effects are fully felt.
What distinguishes Kunstler from the ever-growing number of journalists publishing non-fiction accounts of our grim future, though, is his willingness to luridly illustrate it. World Made by Hand (2008) explores post-collapse life in Union Grove, a small town in upstate New York. With the end of oil and the cheap power it afforded, the United States has dissolved into pockets of conflict. A “Mexican flu” has killed three-quarters of the town’s population, which seems to be fairly representative of the nation as a whole. The people of Union Grove have reverted to specialized labour, re-learning how to garden and to make their own wares, like preserves, bread, and beer.
Kunstler has said that he predicts, and sought to portray in the novel, a return to a nineteenth-century existence, though it isn’t a stretch to say that the world he depicts resembles late medieval Europe after the first wave of the Great Plague, when a scarcity of labour resulted in a rise in living conditions for those skilled workers who’d managed to survive. The people of Union Grove live a collective sort of existence, farming, making, repairing, and fishing in the abundant Hudson River. More than one character admits to preferring this life to the old one, even with its hardships and lack of material comforts, and despite the fact that everyone has lost loved ones. They play guitars and fiddles, trade preserves, make their own booze, and do the best they can amid an uneasy balance that is tipped out of whack by the arrival of a religious sect fleeing violence in cities further south. Kunstler continued to explore Union Grove in three further novels: The Witch of Hebron (2010), A History of the Future (2014), and The Harrows of Spring (2016).
The novels of Atwood, Watkins, and Kunstler belong to what’s generally considered the literary end of the cli-fi shelf. At the other end of the shelf rest books more likely to win a Nebula or Shirley Jackson or Arthur C. Clarke Award than a Booker or Giller, having more in common with standard science fiction and being less obviously prose-driven. They take the act of invention as their mission, the more outlandish the better. The many unknowns of a post-climate collapse planet grant the writer the freedom to roam unfettered. The results often look something like Blade Runner, filled with an incredibly diverse cast of characters and infused with maximum mayhem.
Blackfish City (2018) by Sam J. Miller—mentioned at the beginning of the essay—combines sci-fi with queer crime saga and a dollop of family drama, along with scattered fantasy elements that border on magical. Miller’s “Kansas: Oz Ratio” tilts more heavily toward Oz, but what the book sacrifices in emotional resonance it eclipses with daft creativity and—though it feels wrong to say it—fun.
But it’s no trifle. Speaking to Tor.com’s Charlie Jane Anders (herself a respected sci-fi writer), Miller suggested his aim was serious: “I wanted to paint a realistically terrifying picture about how the world will change in the next hundred years, according to scientists, but I also wanted to have hope, and imagine the magnificent stuff we’ll continue to create. The technology we’ll develop. The solutions we’ll find. The music we’ll make.”
At the same end of the shelf, The Water Knife (2015) by Paulo Bacigalupi is a futurist neo-noir spy tale set in a drought-stricken world, where states in the south-western US do their best to steal water from one another. Bacigalupi’s touch is more quick than careful, but underlying the energy rest concerns similar to Miller’s.
A generation earlier, Octavia Butler approached ecological devastation from an Afrofuturist perspective. Butler’s Parable series of books, written in the 1990s, can’t be called anything but sci-fi, and they certainly feel as genre-adherent as Miller’s and Bacigalupi’s books, but they’re underlain by a deep seam of spirituality. In them, Butler proposes a new faith called Earthseed, which promotes the idea of spreading life beyond this planet and throughout the universe, made necessary in the books by the ecological collapse of our planet due to overdevelopment. The books—Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and the unfinished Parable of the Trickster—are scripture for a time of privation, and an effort to point our way forward. When Butler began them, they were viewed as outright fantasy, but as our awareness of our self-inflicted plight has grown, they’ve come to look exceedingly prescient. If we’re going to emerge from the challenges ahead, they suggest, we’re going to have to rethink everything, including religion.
Here in Canada, Indigenous writers are approaching the issue of climate change with a moral clarity not seen elsewhere, forthrightly treating it as the social justice issue it already is, or should be. Métis author Cherie Dimaline’s young-adult novel The Marrow Thieves (2017) allegorizes the manner in which we lean on Indigenous and marginalized communities when change must be made, or when crises descend upon us. It’s the story of Frenchie, a young man who finds himself with a small group of other Indigenous characters wandering the post-collapse wilds of Northern Ontario, doing their best to survive while avoiding the attention of “Recruiters,” who seek to harvest the only cure to a very strange epidemic: non-Indigenous populations have lost the ability to dream.
Anishinaabe writer Waubgeshig Rice’s novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018), also paints a post-collapse scenario wherein settlers from the south encroach upon a northern community while fleeing scarcity and violence. The novel climaxes in a confrontation that makes very clear the rapacious hunger and devastating violence the colonial project still inflicts on Indigenous communities. Both Rice and Dimaline recall the horror of residential schools and the long-term governmental strategy of cultural erasure, drawing parallels between the desire to subjugate and exploit human populations and the fantasy of endless consumption. In this sense they re-frame the notion of apocalypse: as more than one character says, they’ve experienced the end of the world already. These novels bestow on their Indigenous characters a resilience in the face of catastrophe, hard-won from facing it repeatedly and surviving. Each of the books manages the deft trick of deploying just enough colour on its canvas to avoid utter bleakness, remaining stubbornly human and real as a result. In one memorable scene in Rice’s novel, two men drag a body to a makeshift morgue while arguing about whether or not the Leafs would have made the playoffs if the world hadn’t ground to a halt shortly after the season got underway.
Rio Fernandes, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in March 2016, reports that the cli-fi genre “has seen a fourfold increase in published books in the past six years.” That number will only grow. And as the field expands and the shelf gets longer, it will become looser, baggier, admitting more variations, riffs, hybrids, and divergent entries, works which will nevertheless remain united by some common tropes. One is a more or less common vision of the loss of human habitat, whether of arable land no longer usable, coastal communities submerged by rising seas, or territory destroyed by war or terrorism. Inevitably, such precarity leads to resource conflict: water wars, food wars. As in real life, there is a great migration: populations on the roam in search of greater opportunities for survival. All of these plot devices could be adapted from contemporary headlines.
Cli-fi’s most stark feature, however, is the levelling event, which is present in virtually all of the novels that might be considered examples of the genre. The levelling event is almost purely a literary requirement. Great, horrific traumas are the stuff of good stories. The levelling event is also a concise and sure-fire way to start with a clean slate, to neatly divide history into before and after, and to quickly get from our contemporary world to a post-calamity hellscape without the lurching, uneven, decades-long process that the actual climate crisis is more likely to occupy.
Levelling events come in a variety of forms, and their specific details can mean the often subtle difference between apocalyptic fiction and cli-fi. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the event is mysterious, and never given a name. The same is true of Waubgeshig Rice’s novel. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), it’s a flu pandemic. That such pandemics are likely to occur more often in a warmer world is a fact that seems to linger at the margins of Station Eleven, even if it’s never mentioned by any character.
All of the above-named books certainly have the feel of cli-fi, even though they don’t point to our climate emergency as the instigation point of the levelling event. Others, however, such as Omar El Akkad’s gripping American War (2017), are explicit about the ecological cause. American War features several levelling events, all linked directly to our devastated climate: a virus, a civil war, a massacre, an act of terrorism. These are necessary in El Akkad’s book because they allow him to set his story in the alarmingly proximate year 2075, while still altering dramatically the world we know.
Characters plunged into these severe circumstances almost invariably allow themselves (or rather, their authors allow them) the use of memory as a temporary salve. Cli-fi is often generous with its use of flashbacks, interspersing descriptions of life as it is within the book’s timeline with scenes depicting how things were before the fall. This contrast casts all that came before, from fast food to movies to working streetlights, in a prelapsarian light, elevating the comfort of our contemporary society, with its relative safety and reliable weather patterns, to Edenic stature.
Cli-fi also offers, seemingly as a matter of course, minor reassurance, in differing doses. Cli-fi authors tend to inject a tender human moment somewhere toward the end of a book to remind us what it is that’s worth saving about human society, waving a ragged rally towel over their fevered heads. In Station Eleven, the need to make and share art helps people endure terrific hardship and provides continued meaning to human life. In The Road, McCarthy gives us the possibility, even amid unbelievably bleak circumstances, that the boy will survive beyond the book’s final page. For both Dimaline and Rice, the collapse of existing systems contains the promise of a rebirth of Indigenous communities, and a rediscovery of their traditions.
It’s a dual-chambered heart that beats within the cli-fi genre—indeed, often within the same work. On the one hand, some writers use the opportunity of collapse to imagine wild, harsh, or intriguing possible futures; on the other, the books endeavour to mourn that which we have lost or will soon lose, providing an emotional monument to a planet we took for granted before irreparably destabilizing it. In that way some cli-fi serves the same function as the elegy, being, to borrow a phrase from the poet Carolyn Forché, a “poetry of witness.” It can also perform a feat similar to literature’s great works of satire by providing a warning in parable form; think of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting the absurd logical endpoint of a current course of action.
Writing for Tor.com, Charlie Jane Anders offers a prescriptive case for cli-fi when she suggests, “Any real-life solution to climate change is going to depend on imagination as much as technical ingenuity, which is one reason why imaginative storytelling is so vitally important. Imagination gives rise to ingenuity and experimentation, which we’re going to need if humans are going to survive the highly localized effects of a global problem. Plus imagination makes us more flexible and adaptable, allowing us to cope with massive changes more quickly.” Cli-fi authors are proposing possible outcomes or waypoints along our path to possible extinction. It’s worth noting, however, that cli-fi remains a deeply anthropocentric field, as the Anders quote shows, reinforcing some of our worst narcissistic tendencies: namely, equating the world with our presence in it.
As poet Yvan Goll wrote: “Decline is also a form of voluptuousness, just like growth.” It winds up being a perversion, this need to probe the wound we’ve inflicted on the world, to track and imagine the effect it will have on us. But the overarching project of cli-fi is also animated by a desire for continued awareness, below grief and beyond activism. As warnings, as elegies, as parables, these books participate actively in drawing attention to our planetary emergencies while offering a wealth of vividly imagined responses to it.
—From CNQ 106 (Winter 2020)
Andrew Forbes was the 2019 Margaret Laurence Fellow at Trent University. He is the author of What You Need, Lands and Forests, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays.
We post only a small fraction of our content online. To get access to the best in criticism, reviews, and fiction, subscribe!