Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).


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6 thoughts on “Climate Fiction

  1. Hi Tony. Peter F Hamilton is one of my favourite writers. In his later work climate change is not playing such a big role anymore. I do notice the last 10 years or so that the discussion does influence sci-fi writers to incorporate more details in how a certain planet came to the climate it has in the story line. And also how advanced cultures are purposely changing it.Check out the work of Alastair Reynolds, Gregory Benford, Larry Niven, Greg Bear. But to call it cli-fi; naaah.

    • There’s a small cli-fi theme in Peter F Hamilton’s Great North Road, but I agree with you. And I’m a big fan of some of those authors, but I haven’t read Gregory Benford.

  2. I think Peter Hamilton addressed the climate change in his earlier works in an interview somewhere, and essentially said he just looked for the most dramatic estimates of climate change available for story purposes, and didn’t have the plan to send a message. I’d guess that was why the themes slowly abated from his work. Give that, as you said, Great North Road brings them up again, I could believe that it represents his first earnest attempt at discussing climate change and environmentalism in his works.

    One other work that I think could potentially fit in here is The Peripheral by William Gibson. It has narrative branches at two different points in the near and farther future, with the main dividing incident being “The Jackpot”, a cornucopia of loosely linked and often relatively small scale (at least in ‘global apocalypse’ terms) disasters that have killed off most of Earth’s population. While climate change is only one of many factors in The Jackpot, the idea is that humans were bad at responding to the events because so many of them were fallout from creeping, systemic problems rather than instantaneous catastrophes.

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