Aliens invade. Robots become sentient. Nuclear war rages. Something is turning humans into flesh-eating zombies.
We’re familiar with the tropes and we’re fascinated by them. Dystopian themes are everywhere in our movies, tv shows, and books. They reflect our most primal fears – outsiders, technological change, violence, disease… Dystopian fiction captivates us because it’s a safe place to explore our worst fears. We can read a story about the arrival of unknowable creatures that turn anyone that sees them into deranged murderers (Bird Box, I recommend it) and then put it down, feeling thankful that, while the story seems possible (plausible, even!), today the sun is shining and all is right in the world.
It’s no surprise then, that there is a whole genre of books chronicling humanity’s doom from environmental catastrophe. These are stories that deal with peak oil, climate change, and mass extinctions. Pretty heavy stuff. And there’s a snappy new name for it: Cli-fi. As in sci-fi, but the “cli” stands for climate. Get it?
From the handful of books in the genre that I’ve read, one thing that stands out is the sheer hopelessness of them. Cli-fi, not that surprisingly, is a pretty bleak genre. If you’ve read The Road, a loosely classified cli-fi, you have an idea of what the basics are. Earth is dying, or has died, and humanity is trying their hardest to hold on, despite the fact that they all know they’re doomed.
I picked up The Book of Strange New Things to get some more cli-fi under my belt and while the story didn’t captivate me, it does hit the themes pretty hard. In this book, the author tells the story of earth’s destruction through letters to the main character from his wife, Bea. Peter, our protagonist, is a missionary to a pretty benign alien species on a strange and habitable, if somewhat boring, new planet. Meanwhile, his wife is mostly hinting at the devastation of extreme weather and resource depletion back in England, until her fate is no longer avoidable. I found myself wanting to hear Bea’s story much more than Peter’s, but the structure does allow the author to make an interesting point. What do people do when they know the worst is happening, but it seems far removed from their own reality? Do we choose to engage or ignore? It’s a question we are increasingly actually facing, and in its mission as a true sci-fi novel, The Book of Strange New Things forces you to tackle it.
Though the vast majority is, not all cli-fi is depressing. Well, the earth will pretty much be shot, but sometimes humanity survives. I racked my brain (and Google) trying to come up with a few “happy ending” examples, but I could really only come up with one. Interstellar, last year’s underrated Christopher Nolan film is a great cinematic example of cli-fi. Switching back and forth from the survivors on earth and the astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity, Interstellar navigates the different ways both parties react to the inevitable.
I imagine now that book lovers of the future will look back on cli-fi the same way we look at much of the science fiction of the 50s and 60s. They’re filled with anxiety about space travel, an anxiety which has ebbed, but not vanished. Now we find the fear of little green men to be quaint, even as stories of abandoned space crews and black holes remain. I wonder what aspects of today’s cli-fi will be considered overblown hysteria, which will still hit close to home, and which will be realities of everyday life.
I apologize for such a downer of a post, but I’ve been reading a lot of cli-fi lately. Maybe Robin can cheer us all up tomorrow? I’ve got to find a picture book about a kitten or something…
Further Reading and Some Book Suggestions:
The Storytellers Will be Cli-Fi Heroes
The Rise of Climate Fiction
Global Warning: The Rise of Cli-Fi
So Hot Right Now