“Cli-Fi” as a Subgenre of SF Gains Traction Down Under

5th February 2017

I am delighted to share the guest post below, written by Dan Bloom.

“Cli-Fi” as a Subgenre of SF Gains Traction Down Under

by Dan Bloom

While it’s true that Australia, unlike the U.S. and Europe, has not had a long history in the genre of science fiction,  Australia in 2017 has a thriving SF/Fantasy genre with names recognised around the world. In 2013 a trilogy by Ben Peek fantasy novel and two sequels were acquired by a major SF publisher in Britain, Tor UK.  His first novel in the series, titled Immolation, was published in spring 2014. The trilogy was called “Children” and books two and three were titled Innocence and Incarnation. By the 1950s, just as the SF genre was taking off in dozens of countries in Europe and North America, it took off across Australia in 1952 with the first of many Australian SF conventions.

Today there’s James Bradley and Cat Sparks writing SF, with other writers, including Ian Irvine, Alice Robinson. Joanthan Strahan, Peter Carey and dozens of others following in George Turner’s footsteps.

There is now a new subgenre of SF that’s becoming popular in Australia, and it’s been dubbed Cli-Fi (for ”climate fiction”). It’s not so much as a literary subgenre to compete with other literary genres,  but rather a PR tool,  a media term,  a way for newspapers and websites to signal to readers and book reviewers that climate themes in modern novels deserve a special mention.  The cli-fi expression ws created as a way for literary critics and journalists to talk about novels of the Anthropocene.

Cli-fi was not created for novelists.  They don’t need categories or labels for their works.  Even SF novelists don’t need the SF label.  Genre expressions are just marketing terms, good for selling books. Cli-fi was created for literary critics,  book reviewers,  book editors,  publicity departments,  advertising directors.  It is a “key word,”  a media attention-getter,  to attract eyeballs (and readers).
SF novelists tell stories.  They’ve been doing this for over 100 years and will continue telling stories for another 500 years.

So Cli-Fi novelists in Australia and overseas have now joined the literary circus. Their stories focus  on the possible repercussions of unchecked runaway global warming. It’s a good subgenre of SF and will be for the next 500 years, too.

The short term modelled on the rhyming sounds of sci-fi, has now caught on worldwide, first in English-speaking nations, beginning in  2013 when American radio network NPR aired a five-minute radio segment about ”cli-fi”  novels, interviewing Nathaniel Rich who wrote “Odds Against Tomorrow” and Barbara Kingsolver who wrote “Flight Behavior” .

That radio broadcast was the beginning of this new subgenre term’s global outreach and popularity among academics, literary critics, journalists and headline writers in over a dozen nations, including non-English-speaking nations France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Brazil as well.

To learn more about how ​SF writers were looking at the popularity of the cli-fi term in literary circles, a few years ago I asked David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson how they felt about the term. They both told me that they liked the expression but felt that it was best to treat it as a subgenre of ​SF and not as a separate genre.

By promoting the cli-fi term as a subgengre of ​SF, I was able to locate ​SF writers who were already using climate themes in their short stories and novels. From them I learned that cli-fi in SF novels actually had a long history, going back to Jules Verne, Arthur Herzog, J.G. Ballard and George Turner in Australia.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel “New York 2140” (set to be published in March) is a good example of the cli-fi subgenre catching on among writers peering into the future of a global warming world.

What’s the purpose of cli-fi?

We are a world now divided bitterly over climate change issues.
Novels and movies can serve to wake people up in ways that politics and ideology cannot.

And I believe that if the world does not wake up soon about the pressing climate change issues we face now, future generations of humans will be ‘doomed, doomed’ — within 500 years. I can ​”​see​”​ that far ahead. Will ‘cli-fi’ save the planet? No. But at least it might help prepare us for what’s coming in future centuries, just as SF novels have done and will continue to do.

The idea for a subgenre for speculative climate fiction ​as a subgenre of SF ​found some traction ​in 2011 when it was endorsed ​in a tweet ​on Twitter by ​Margaret Atwood, the ​Canadian ​novelist whose ​SF trilogy, ​ending w​ith ​”MaddAddam” dealt with a corrupt anti-environmentalist.

​There ​are examples ​of cli-fi ​in France as far back as Jules Verne, who imagined​ ​—​ ​in the 1860s​ ​—​ ​a future Paris struggling with a ​big drop in temperature​s​. That was a plot point in Verne’s “lost” novel ”Paris in the Twentieth Century,” which actually went unpublished until 1994.

Given the speed with which the phrase “climate change” (which actually dates back at least 50 years) has overtaken the ​global ​environmental discussion in recent years, it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s been a surge in books in the SF subgenre of cli-fi. Among them are Marcel Theroux’s ”Far North,” which the Washington Post called “the first great cautionary fable of climate change” and Ian McEwan’s  ”Solar,”which won a UK literary award for comic fiction.

These are all examples of quality fiction that happen to take climate change as a shared theme.

​A good cli-fi ​story​ ​will have the potential to attract not only climate activists, but also some of the ​climate ​deniers: The whole point is to reach people with emotions, not just preach to the choir.

​The new novel from the Hugo Award-winning ​SF l​egend Robinson submerges Manhattan under the water of globally-rising ​sea ​l​evels​. ​Robinson’s PR team puts it this way:​“Every street became a canal​. ​Every skyscraper an island​. ​How will the city’s residents — the lower and upper classes, quite literally — cope?​”​

So just as SF has helped several generations in the past 100 years cope with technological change and space exploration (and climate change), so too can cli-fi help future generations cope with what’s coming down the road as well.