Can Environmental SF Help Save Our Planet?

grass-back-lit copy (1)That is the question David Holmes at Monash University asks in his Feb 20th 2014 article in the Australian ezine The Conversation.

There is an obvious trend toward environmental premise in science fiction. In the 2009 World SF Convention in Montreal, I sat on a panel with Tom Doherty of Tor Books, who shared that, “We want to see a hero who works to achieve an environmentally sustainable world through innovation and creative technology.” I was delighted to hear that Tor was officially embracing a new kind of hero and associated paradigm for storytelling; one based on intelligent innovation, creativity and cooperation and sound environmental stewardship.

Climate change is just one—albeit a global—environmental issue referred to by Doherty. Several years before Doherty’s statement, British nature writer Robert Macfarlane submitted that writers could play a crucial role in helping us to imagine the impact of climate change. Macfarlane was referring to the power of storytelling in forming and influencing a society’s changing paradigm.

Around the same time that Doherty made his statement, environmentalist Bill McKibben shared that, “Global Warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On the Beach or Doctor Strangelove.” In his article, Holmes identified the urgent need “for a narrative form that can communicate the seriousness of climate change to a broad public.”

Part of the challenge is in first defining and acknowledging this literature as its own genre or sub-genre.  In 2013 Wired Magazine defined climate fiction—as a “subgenre of dystopian fiction set in the near future, in which climate change wreaks havoc on an otherwise familiar planet.” Wired noted that climate fiction has already attracted well-known literary authors, including Ian McEwen, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood.

Climate fiction is best described as a sub-genre of the science fiction genre, itself a powerful literature of metaphor, with the highest potential to raise awareness about major social—and environmental—issues.

Many have dismissed science fiction as escapist literature (Atwood was herself guilty of this dismissal, even as she was writing science fiction). Others may not even recognize that they are reading or watching science fiction. From its early form to its contemporary form, writers of the genre have created powerful metaphor of great scope that has examined our greatest creations and deepest choices. Science fiction is subversive literature that illuminates our history and our very humanity. It does this by examining our interaction with “the other”—the unfamiliar and unknown. A scientific discovery. An environmental disaster. A calamity related to climate change. From Shelley’s promethean Frankenstein to Atwood’s environmental dystopia Oryx and Crake, science fiction has co-evolved with its culture, subverting the status quo by pointing to choice and consequence.

Critic Frederic Jameson suggests that, “Science fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself.” The genre explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms and associated cultures and beliefs. What if that went on unchecked?…What if we decided to end this or ignore that?… These are conveyed through various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s Brave New World). Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, science fiction (and climate fiction as one of its sub-genres) takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living color.

Regarding dystopian climate fiction Margaret Atwood wrote in the Huffington Post that, while earlier dystopic novels focused on oppressive and deceptive political regimes, “now [dystopias are] more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted.”—in a world of our making.

Mary Shelley’s 19th Century Frankenstein (1818) explored humanity’s fear of the monster of difference and change; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1948) was a post-war commentary on the danger of a totalitarian world where order was maintained through mind-control and propaganda; Huxley’s post-WWI Brave New World (1932) portrayed a supposed utopia built on stability through genetic manipulation at the expense of creative chaos; Ray Bradbury’s post-WWII Fahrenheit 451 explored the control of humanity through imposed ignorance. Fiction of the past two decades has shifted to reflect our emerging concerns with technology, corporate deceit, overpopulation and global environmental calamity.

A short list of eco-fiction and climate fiction written or filmed in the last several decades includes: Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach; The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard; Oryx and Crake trilogy by Margaret Atwood; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver; Solar by Ian McEwan; Back to the Garden by Clara Hume; Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis; Odds against Tomorrow by Rich Nathaniel; Children of Men; The Day After Tomorrow; Waterworld; and Avatar. My eco-SF thriller Darwin’s Paradox examines humanity’s co-evolution with technology and nature in a climate-changed world.

I have been coaching writers to publication for over two decades and currently teach how to write science fiction at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I’ve noticed that in a short time, an ever-larger proportion of student writers are exploring an environmental premise for their novels with imaginative sub-genres emerging. In my latest class, several students have independently classified their works as eco-punk, eco-action, environmental thriller and urban eco-fantasy. Several of these definitely fit the sub-genre of climate fiction.

If an altered climate provides the overall premise of climate fiction, then its theme must relate to humanity’s part in it. If climate fiction—like science fiction—does not do this, then it is relinquishing the most potent aspect of its purpose: to incite action as a result of being brought to awareness. Some will argue that simply being brought to awareness is sufficient. I submit that all too often what this engenders is alarm and powerlessness. There’s nothing worse than a story that does not provide epiphany, reconciliation, and opportunity for purposeful action. I don’t mean polemic either; I am talking about opportunity for change through a resolving story arc.

Which brings us back to the question posed by David Holmes. My answer is a resounding yes: eco-fiction can save the planet—IF it provides direction and the opportunity for resolution and triumph. Otherwise, it’s just a disaster story; something to endure. Literature can provide a loud clarion call for action, change and evolution. It always has. Think of how the cautionary tales of Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury and Atwood nurtured the seeds of dissent and change. Now think of how a single book—Silent Spring by Rachel Carson—helped spawn the American environmental movement of the 1960s.

Environmental fiction is growing in prominence because it needs to. Writers from all around the world are responding to this global need and leading the wave of change. It starts with genre identification.


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  1. This discussion makes me think of music, and how there are hundreds of categories to define, what is basically just music. You’ve got electro-clash, break-beats, dub, ska, reggae, dance hall, acid jazz and so-on. So, what the emergence of cli-fi for literature is doing, is much like music fans seeking out styles they enjoy. Now, books with climate change at the infrastructure of the story can stand-out from the ocean of general fiction and the lake of science fiction. Readers can more easily find climate change themed books.

    I’m about to proudly join the new genre of cli-fi with the release of my first book ‘In Ark: A Promise of Survival’ in April 2014, a tale about a woman who gets abducted by an eco-survivalist community. I’m referencing this new work as cli-fi in all my promotional materials, and wish there was a cli-fi category I could list it with on Amazon (someday, someday!) The cli-fi category is already helping me link in with a global community of people interested in this type of literature. Without the cli-fi term, I probably couldn’t find these likeminded individuals as easily, as they would probably be swimming in the science fiction lake.

    As a new author, the new genre is giving me support and exposure that I greatly welcome. Thanks for bringing attention to cli-fi Nina!

    1. and Nina …I know Steve Davidson the publisher of this site and while we disagree on many things, we agree on other things, and in the end, we are all in this field of literature together, so i hope he will forgive my comments about clocks that strike 13 and starships to mars, i was just trying to be humorous and poetic with the starships word i like that sound of that –whooooooooooooosh. Much better sounding that Interplanetary Vehicle but of course Steve is right.

  2. Nina’s column captures the current state of “climate fiction,” however you feel about sub-genres. But Steve Davidson’s comments and his rant on the referenced column against sub-genres are more entertaining. He seems to want to live on an imaginary planet where science fiction is some kind of homogeneous goo which newbies wade into and have an experience that initiates them into the scifi tribe. The logical fallacy is immediately apparent: Isn’t science fiction a sub-genre of fiction? Isn’t fiction a sub-genre of all writing? Isn’t writing a sub-genre of all human communication? In case Steve didn’t notice, humans have a compulsion to categorize, and “clifi” is a convenient way to refer to a set of works with climate change at center stage. It neither adds nor detract from the works; it’s just a label for a shelf that might attract a reader. If the label causes a browser to stop and pick up a book, it’s useful.

    1. Joe – you are entirely ignoring the marketing aspects of creating little niches that in their own definitions attempt to distance themselves from an association with science fiction.
      There was plenty of “clifi” on the shelves well prior to the advent of the term; no one saw a need to differentiate the work any further than “science fiction”. Readers of SF tend to be at least a little more intelligent than the average and usually have no problem identifying the themes and focus of the works they read.
      You are wrong in how you identify science fiction. SF is an amorphous goo, capable of encompassing just about every other form out there.
      And furthermore, I’m sure you can find plenty of academics who would dispute your placement of SF as a sub-genre of fiction.
      We do not need to divide the field into tiny little niches, each one servicing a small (and probably shrinking) reader base. We need one broad category that encourages readers to branch out and read widely.

    2. I agree with your statement, Joe.

      I also think that while cli-fi is an appropriate label, authors will not probably think one day, “Oh, I’m going to write a cli-fi novel because it’s so marketable right now.” It’s more like–as happened with me and several authors I’ve interviewed–we are interested in writing a novel that reflects a relatively new understanding in our world, or a book that is built upon reaction to anthropogenic climate change, which is something not specifically dealt with in the same way in the further past by sci-fi authors. I didn’t even know a genre existed for climate change novels–and had not heard of “cli-fi” until after I finished writing my own.

      But that aside, we’re always going to be driven to dig down with taxonomies–that has never changed, nor will it. Sci-fi is a huge umbrella that other genres will sub into–or, in the case of cli-fi, exist both sub and laterally with–as not all cli-fi is science fiction.

      Thanks, Nina, for an interesting article.

  3. Furthermore, to paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, “if you’ve got a message, send a tweet”. The purpose of fiction is not didacticism. Fiction ,which -sets out- to be propaganda is usually less effective even -as- propaganda.

    The reason for telling a story is wanting to tell a -story-.

    And while it’s fine for a novel to deal with politics, the problem is that SF (like literature in general) tends to have very little grasp of how politics actually functions, or of the wading-through-glue aspects of being buffeted by multiple competing factions which generally make steering something the size of a nation like trying to control a Percheron with a bridle made out of sewing thread. Sitting on top of it doesn’t mean you can tell it where to go all the time.

    Fiction tends to have far more Grand Gestures which slice through intractable problems and produce clear solutions than real life does. It overestimates how malleable and controllable the world is. It doesn’t -work- that way.

    SF, like much literature but rather more so, also tends to “ritually over-power” its characters; I’ve been guilty of this myself, though I try to keep it under control/justify it in-universe.

    In many books it’s an adolescent power-fantasy. How many stories have the character starting out lowly, but finding the Problem-Solving Magoo that saves the world or makes him/her King or whatever?

    Most people, irregardless of their views, -don’t- have much power. That’s true even of individuals at the top of the social pyramid, and doubly, triply true for the rest of us.

    History is something that happens to them, not something they make, like my grandfather ending up at Passchendael in 1917 and breathing mustard gas. Since he was a lieutenant, he probably looked powerful to the Tommies in his platoon, but he was stuck in the same ****ing trench with the same gas shells falling on him.

    To a large degree, growing up is a process of realizing and coming to terms with how unimportant and powerless you are in the greater scheme of things.

    Eg., Beijing has just had its third month of air pollution ranging from 10x to 40x the EPA recommended maximum tolerable levels. Lots of residents are dying, their children are dying, it’s an ongoing misery for everyone there. Like being wrapped in a toxic orange-yellow fog.

    What are people in Beijing and the other affected cities — even wealthy, well-connected people — doing about it?

    They’re wearing masks, sucking on oxygen bottles, trying to seal their residences against the outside atmosphere, spraying water-fogs in the streets and if they can afford it fleeing or sending their children away. That’s all they can do.

    Policy (like the policy of burning unlimited amounts of dirty high-sulfur coal with little or no emissions control) is set at levels far, far above them. They just end up stuck with the consequences.

    And even in an authoritarian state like China, it’s rarely possible for an individual to just order something done on so broad a policy matter(*); entrenched interests have to be taken into account.

    This applies at the national level as well.

    Eg., climate change. CO2 emissions are not something the US can affect unilaterally, not on a significant scale. China burns more coal than the US, Japan and the EU put together and they’re adding 8-10 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity -every day-. India is ramping up as fast as the Permit Raj allows and Indonesia is becoming a significant producer/consumer of coal. So it goes.

    So basically we could adopt all the carbon capping we wanted and it wouldn’t matter didums. We have slightly more than zero level of influence on Chinese decision making, but not much more. We’re largely powerless.

    (*) occasionally you get a system so centralized that one dictator really -can- make major decisions all on his ownesome and ram it through regardless; Stalin, Hitler and Mao all had this sort of power at the height of their reigns. It usually requires a thoroughgoing reign of terror for this to happen and the results are rarely happy. There’s a reson that it’s tightly autocratic states that tend to start the really big wars or have the wholesale massacres.

    1. We cannot effect China’s decision therefore it is useless to limit our own pollution?

      No actually it isn’t. First of all, pollution does have local effects in addition to global ones. Second of all, when China directly negotiates with other nations about whether or not they should lower their offsets, they say exactly the same thing about US. Because we create so much pollution, they say that their pollution doesn’t matter. If we lowered our levels, it would increase pressure on them.

      You mention things that are frequently done poorly in science fiction, and use them as evidence that there is no reason to try. Since when did that logic ever make sense? Others did a poor job, so nobody try? Here’s a thought. Maybe someone should try to learn from past mistakes and do it right?

      Testimony was first given on this issue with real evidence in 1984. It’s 2014, and we are in some ways putting out measurably more carbon than before. Its amazing just how much resistance there is to doing the right thing. If we lived in a healthy culture, you would be ashamed to put out stuff like that now. Our children will pay the cost.

      You are correct that no single person can ever solve the problem. Strangely, you seem to miss the point which is that writers are actually one of the groups of people with the power to effect change, even if only gradually.

      A well written book slowly modifies the opinion of many people over years, possibly millions of people. Your comment is a direct appeal to the idea that writers who are living in the new gilded age. A time when food prices are rising and agriculture is being damaged, and massive harm is being inflicted on the world our children will live in, and you argue for escapism.

      Sometimes I look around me, and I wonder who all you people are. Is there anything you actually care about enough to act on?I wonder when this will become real for you. This is the tone I always get around here. It’s why I stopped coming very often.

      Science Fiction should have been the genre that at least tried to make some kind of statement about this. It’s sad that Orson Scott Card has been the one to set the tone. Just fantasy with rayguns… no meaning at all.

  4. Oy vey, yet another faux-genre designed to distance a science fiction author’s work from science fiction.

    — yeah, precisely. It’s not as if writing SF was something mildly disgraceful that needs an external purpose to justify it.

  5. Oy vey, yet another faux-genre designed to distance a science fiction author’s work from science fiction.
    If everyone who’d written a science fiction novel had owned up to writing science fiction, authors would be falling all over themselves to get their works labelled as SF, as it would be recognized as the hottest selling genre on the market.
    Instead we get “lab-lit” and “cli-fi” and “techno-thriller” and who knows all what else, with a bunch of authors willingly denying the truths of their own works, and in the bargain denigrating and diminishing the very genre they draw example and inspiration from.

    On another point: as Nina pointed out, there has been a long relationship between climate science and science fiction, much of it dating from before the invention of the term “climate science”; Brunner delves deeply into the human impact on ecology (and attendant climate) in Stand on Zanzibar and the Sheep Look Up; Dune has been called one of the greatest eco novels of all times for years, even Hal Clement has made various inroads into the subjects by comparing what we know here on Earth to the climates generated on other planets under different conditions.
    And yes, I know that previous engagement with the subject has largely couched them in ecological terms, but that encompasses climate. There’s a long history, excellent examples and those writing “cli-fi” would do well to study it. Maybe after doing so they’ll find that they want to associate themselves with those works and give up on trying to pretend that they’re doing something new.
    (PS: this comment is not directed at the author of the post, Nina, but rather at those whom she covers in it.)

    Forgot to add: perfect example: Dan Bloom sounds just like Atwood with his closing statement from the interview linked to: “. No more clocks that strike 13 and starships to Mars. We need to save the earth first.” Sounds just like “talking squids in space”. (Maybe this is petty, but you don’t take a “starship” to Mars, you’d take an interplanetary vehicle…)

    That also sounds an awful lot like “why are we spending so much money to go to the Moon when we have problems here on the ground?” Well, for one thing, those satellites that help us monitor the climate and the deforestation of the rain forest and track and predict major weather patterns and…wouldn’t have been there to do all of that if we hadn’t gone into space.

    For more on my concerns regarding the proliferation of (unnecessary) faux sub-genres –

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