Cli-fi: A perfect storm of sci-fi and global warming

JoeJoining me today is author Joe Follansbee, one of my nautical writer friends whose work I admire.  I have two of his books: The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime History, and Bet: Stowaway Daughter, a young adult novel.  Joe, what are you working on these days?  Saltwater fiction?  Joe writes back,

Get two or more writers in a bar and they’ll argue about genres. The conversation goes like this:

Q: What are you writing these days?

A: I’m working on a sci-fi mystery novel, though I think of it as speculative crime thriller, with elements of paranormal erotic Regency romance.

Eyes of all other writers at the table glaze over.

This happens to me at least once a week when I mention an emerging sub-genre: “climate fiction,” or “cli-fi.” A blogger friend, Dan Bloom , coined the term in 2008 to describe novels with global warming as an important part of the narrative. Dan is a public relations man and a climate change activist who noticed that science fiction writers hadn’t paid much attention to global warming as subject matter. The few who did needed a label of their own, thus “climate fiction.” Dan sees cli-fi was a way of engaging the public on climate change that doesn’t rely on boring stats or the constant hedging by scientists that leave openings for compulsive deniers.

The mainstream took notice of the term in 2013, when The Guardian newspaper  and NPR ran pieces on the genre. The debate has raged since then, with arguments falling into three main camps: Yes, it really is a new genre; Maybe, it’s just a sub-genre of sci-fi; or No, it’s a made-up genre that will fade into obscurity.

The debate smacks of the how-many-angels-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments of scholars in the Middle Ages, but it illustrates the importance of genre in the publishing world. Potential book buyers need shorthand ways to refer to fiction with certain themes or tropes. For example, “fantasy romance” didn’t emerge as a shelf label until 2005, with the release of the wildly popular, vampire-populated Twilight series. These days, you can’t swing a cat at a writers conference without hitting three or four authors with a vampire love story in hand.

Climate fiction hasn’t enjoyed a Twilight moment yet, though several well-known writers have adopted the term, notably Margaret Atwood, author of the MaddAddam series. Like most cli-fi stories, Atwood’s world is ravaged by global warming, which becomes a new crucible for human thought and behavior. In other words, climate change is a driving force behind the narrative. For her part, Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction,” but the series has definite dystopian and science fiction themes. Other recent novels that fall into the climate fiction bin include Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, and Ian McEwan’s Solar.

The NPR story, which aired on April 20, 2013, inspired me to finish a novel I had started in 2008. In Carbon Run, a tall ship sailor lives in a post-global warming world where all carbon-based fuels are banned and a Gestapo-like agency enforces draconian environmental laws. I wrote a dozen chapters over a three or four month period, then shelved the project when I found myself in a narrative cul-de-sac. It took a new label, climate fiction, to get me thinking again about the novel. If I could tie the premise to a topic on everyone’s lips, I thought, perhaps I could find a market. I finished the manuscript in December 2013 and I’m awaiting responses from agents and publishers.

Despite its usefulness, I don’t use “climate fiction” often to describe Carbon Run, even with writer friends. Their confused grimaces signal that it’s too new. “Science fiction” works better, and I use the phrase “dystopian science fiction adventure” in pitches to agents and publishers. But I do tag tweets with #clifi and mention it on my blog and Facebook page in hopes that one day, my book will sit on a shelf with the likes of Atwood, Rich, and others. That will give me bragging rights next time I’m arguing in a bar with other writers.

Joe Follansbee is the author of eight books, including the young adult novel, Bet: Stowaway Daughter. He blogs at joefollansbee.com , tweets as @Joe_Follansbee , and posts on Facebook as AuthorJoeFollansbee.  I follow him on all three

By |2013-12-29T23:03:30+00:00December 29th, 2013|How We Write; a series of essays by guest authors, writing and publishing|Comments Off on Cli-fi: A perfect storm of sci-fi and global warming