Behind the new literary genre: Cli-fi

A sampling of cli-fi, also known as climate fiction
A sampling of cli-fi, also known as climate fiction
Courtesy of publishers

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: What is cli-fi?

Cli-fi is a term that's been bubbling up in bookish circles for several years, and it's still gaining traction.

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Coined by former reporter Dan Bloom in the early 2000s, it's a snappy name for "climate fiction": novels that imagine the consequences of climate change.

That idea isn't new — Margaret Atwood, for one, has been writing books about cataclysmic climate shifts for decades — but the term is, and more novels seem to be gathering under the banner.

Last month, the Chicago Review of Books went so far as to announce it would feature a regular column on cli-fi. (It's called "Burning Worlds," a nod to the 1964 J.G. Ballard novel, "The Burning World.")

Bloom and others hope that such fiction can help reach those who question whether climate change is real. Novels can build a world around an abstract idea and give it depth — even if the authors still take artistic license.

Consider Kim Stanley Robinson's new book, "New York 2140," which imagines what life would be like in Manhattan if sea levels rise 50feet. Today, the threat of rising sea levels is a common topic in international headlines. In Robinson's book, the streets of New York City become canals and the skyscrapers become islands.

For further cli-fi reading, check out Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior," which imagines the future effects of climate change in Appalachia, or Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Water Knife," set in a drought-ravaged American West where people are killed over water rights.

It's no secret that authors love to imagine the end of the world, but many of these premises are pulled straight from scientists' cautionary warnings.

There's not likely to be a cli-fi section in your local bookstore any time soon, but as topics of climate change continue to fill the news, we're like to see more from this speculative genre.