Curated: Climate Fiction

Curated: Climate Fiction

Climate change has firm roots in our lexicon—it’s how we name and understand otherwise inexplicable weather patterns. Winter staved off throughout December, blessing the Northeast with golden warm holidays. January threatening to bury our cities beneath record-breaking snow. We read that 2015 was a year for the books—the hottest recorded. Wildfires ravage California, again. And for one day, temperatures reach 32°F in the North Pole.

In December 2015, representatives from 195 countries signed the historic Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming from rising above 2°C—the tipping point for irreversible climate change. In our post-Conference of the Parties world, art and literature are reflecting our growing anxiety about rising sea levels, resource scarcity, drought, and famine. Think Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road—I’ll get to books in a moment.

This genre has a name: it’s called cli-fi, short for climate fiction.

“Today’s current view of a dystopic future is a product of people’s uncertainty about the future—especially amongst young people,” said Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a recent interview with Public Radio International. “[Young people] are writing and reading a lot of fictions like that. Some are just beleaguered fantasias such as the Hunger Games, but other are climate-based fictions. People are worried, quite rightly so, about a changing planet and also a changing and unstable financial landscape.”

American writer and journalist, Dan Bloom started using the term cli-fi in 2007. He caught Margaret Atwood’s attention in 2012 while promoting Jim Laughter’s Polar Red City as a cli-fi novel. Atwood tweeted a link to her followers (she currently has over 1 million), and just like that, cli-fi was immortalized. NPR, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and the Christian Science Monitor have written about the rise of cli-fi in recent years.

Sometimes referred to as “eco fiction,” cli-fi stories address climate change as well as our relationship to the environment. Like science fiction, cli-fi can be speculative and futuristic. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi takes place in a 23rd century Thailand on the brink of environmental collapse. We’ve run out of fossil fuels, and bioengineering companies control everything from food production to energy. Plagues threaten to wipe out the population, and the past—“…the time petroleum was cheap and men and women crossed the globe in hours instead of weeks,” is distant in society’s collective memory.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, however, is set in contemporary, southern Appalachia. The story follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a dissatisfied woman who abandoned her dreams of education and career after an unplanned pregnancy at age 17. Her relationships with her family, community, and herself change with the unexpected arrival of monarch butterflies, thrown from their migratory flight path to Mexico by global warming and pollution. Flight Behavior explores Dellarobia’s story as well as our inherent connection to the natural world.

“Unlike traditional sci-fi, [cli-fi] stories seldom focus on imaginary technologies or faraway planets. Instead the pivotal themes are all about Earth, examining the impact of pollution, rising sea levels, and global warming on human civilization.” Wrote J.K. Ullrich in a recent article for the Atlantic.

Several universities in the US and abroad now offer cli-fi literature classes. Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts has a course called “Cli-Fi: Stories and Science of the Coming Climate Apocalypse.” The course includes a two-hour science lab.

Margaret Atwood often emphasizes the critical role fiction can play in environment and climate change discussions.

“A novel is the next best thing to being there… it’s even more immersive than, for instance, a television show or film because the brain has to do a lot of inventing while you are reading—you are supplying the sets, the costumes, the soundtrack and a lot of the interpretation, you the reader,” said Atwood in an interview with Living on Earth. “…you’re a participant in any novel that you’re reading.”




Cli-fi Recommendations:

  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
    • A contemporary novel, with climate change as a backdrop, Flight Behavior is about people and our relationships with one another. Kingsolver addresses class division, poverty, and how climate change impacts rural American communities.
  • The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
    • Atwood’s trilogy takes us to the kind of dystopian future we often associate with science fiction. Oryx and Crake, the first book in the series, introduces us to Jimmy—a man who’s just survived a bioengineered pandemic. Prior to this ‘biopocalyspe’, the world was controlled by wealthy private corporations that produced creatures like Pigoons—pigs engineered to host human transplant organs, and ChickiNobs, which are essentially all breast and no bird. We learn about human impact on nature in The Year of the Flood; about The Great Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the “Great Barrier Reef, now dying, and bleaching white and breaking apart.” The final book, MaddAddam, is about the pandemic survivors, humanity’s last hope.
  • When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
    • A faceoff between a conservationist and an animal rights activist in California’s Channel Islands. Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Parks Service biologist on a mission to rid the Channel Islands of rats and pigs that threaten native species. Dave LaJoy is a local businessman and fervent animal rights activist, opposed to killing animals for any reason. Takesue and LaJoy attack each other through protests, publicity campaigns, vandalism, and ultimately violence.
  • Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
    • This historical fiction novel takes readers to Southern Florida at the turn of the 20th century. Edgar J. Watson is a self-described “desperado” who sets out to conquer the Everglades and establish a sugar cane empire. In a novel I’d describe as both cli-fi and southern gothic, Matthiessen chronicles Watson’s demise.
  • Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé
    • Crossing the Mangrove, by Guadeloupian author Maryse Condé doesn’t address climate change, but I couldn’t resist including it to this list. Through lyrical, haunting prose, Condé describes a community’s relationship to the fecund mangroves and gullies of Guadeloupe, inspiring readers to notice and appreciate their own local ecosystems.
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
    • Want to eat something other than SoyPRO or U-Tex rice—something organic, maybe? Best of luck—anything that’s not bioengineered might be infected with fatal “blister rust.” Welcome to the 23rd century in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.



Lauren Johnson is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

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