Climate change has created a literary genre

Washington PostJuly 17, 2014 

Is climate change due for an Uncle Tom's Cabin moment? The 1852 best seller helped transform abolitionism into a mainstream cause. Now, "cli-fi" is trying to do the same for environmentalism.

The emerging genre is a cousin of sci-fi. But its books are set, NPR writes, "in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter." And it's gaining fans and writers.

The climate-change canon dates to the 1962 novel The Drowned World by British writer J.G. Ballard. In it, polar ice caps have melted and global temperatures have soared. Presciently, Ballard depicts some coastal American and European cities under water.

But his work didn't pinpoint humans as the cause of Earth's precipitous decline. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that authors started grappling seriously with our role in impending environmental catastrophe.

In 2004, Michael Crichton released State of Fear, a novel about eco-terrorists. Ian McEwan followed up in 2010 with Solar, a story about a jaded physicist who tries to solve global warming. And in 2012, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior gracefully explored how one town is reshaped by a changing ecosystem. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the book by the Carlisle-raised author: "How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation?"

Perhaps the best-known "cli-fi" work is Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, released in 2013. It sold more than 100,000 copies and drew major media attention.

In it, a near-future New York is submerged when a Category 3 hurricane hits. As Rich was editing the final proofs, Sandy submerged much of the East Coast, a strange moment of life imitating art.

Rich and others say fiction can stir emotion and action in a way scientific reports and newscasts don't.

"You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue," Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry told NPR. "And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this — a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness of readers who might not be following the science.

That means finding characters or stories that resonate. And it also means getting rid of jargon and clichés. In Rich's 300-page book, for example, the term "climate change" doesn't appear.

"I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part, are examples of bad writing, really," Rich told NPR last year. "I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality ... which is that we're headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it's the novelist's job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?"

A growing number of young-adult books also attacks this topic, including Mindy McGinnis' Not a Drop to Drink, Staci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015 and Joshua David Bellin's Survival Colony 9. Even the post-apocalyptic Hunger Games trilogy hints at a climate-ravaged earth.

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