'Cli-Fi', A Fiction Genre for Climate Change

April 22, 2016 | Patricia Naughton

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It's Earth Month 2016 and the time has come to take seriously our impact on the planet. Toronto Public Library is happy to present the best of our collections on environmental education, geared to children, teens and adults. Watch for environmental displays in branches across the city and pick up some reading material. At the same time, please join us for Our Fragile Planet, our free environmental programming series. Learn about issues that impact our city, and what you can do to tread lightly on our planet.


April 22.  ‘Earth Day’. ‘Protect Our Planet’ should be the watchword for this day, and motivate us into action.

But what are the dangers threatening Earth? Why does our planet need protecting? And more importantly, what can we do about these dangers?

Worrying about the future of our fragile planet has become a feature of everyday life, so much so, that a genre of fiction called ‘cli-fi’ or ‘climate fiction’, has grown out of these anxieties. The term ‘cli-fi’, originated by author Dan Bloom, is a variation of ‘sci-fi’, and first made an appearance some 10 years ago. See this article from The Guardian, Global Warning: the rise of 'cli-fi'.

There are similarities between 'climate-fiction' and 'science-fiction' -- both genres tend to feature dystopian worlds, and characters who take on the struggle to prevent further devastation to give humankind some hope of survival.

However, in 'cli-fi', the major threat to Earth and its civilization is climate change and its deadly outcomes, and not necessarily an alien invasion from Mars or a takeover by hostile robots equipped with artificial intelligence.

Search tip: TPL has a sizeable 'cli-fi' collection and a catalogue search using the term ‘climatic changes fiction’, will give you access to these titles.

Check out some of the cli-fi titles in TPL’s collection:

The Drowned World   Gold Flame Citrus  Loosed Upon the World

The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard, 2006 (first published in 1962)
Authors such as J.G. Ballard were speculating about the possible effects of climate change long before the term 'cli-fi' made its first appearance. First published in 1962, Ballard's highly imaginative novel examines the psychological effects on its characters when they are forced to adapt to a new Earth, irreversibly transformed by the effects of global warming.

Gold Fame Citrus, Watkins Claire Vaye, 2015
Watkins won numerous literary awards for her debut story collection, Battleborn (2012). Critics claim this follow-up novel is equally impressive. Set in the near future, Luz an ex-model and her friend Ray, a soldier just back from serving in the Middle East, join forces to survive in drought-devastated California.

Loosed Upon the World: the Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, various contributors, 2015
New to ‘cli-fi’? Want to find out what it’s all about but don’t know where to start? Then this collection of ‘cli-fi’ stories, with contributions from award-winning authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Seanan McGuire, is for you!


Memory of Water  The Healer  Flight Behaviour

Memory of Water, Emmi Itaranta, 2014
In this coming of age novel, the effects of global warming bring about a new world order -- China rules Europe, and water is so scarce that wars are fought over it. Against the backdrop of a remote, northern landscape, 17-year-old Noria carries on the family tradition in her role as 'tea-master', responsible for guarding fresh water sources. After her father dies, Noria is alone, faced with making the most difficult decision of her life: "Should she keep the location of a fresh water source secret to prevent it from being controlled by the military, or reveal the location, at risk to her own life, to save a village slowly dying from thirst?"

The Healer, Antti Tuomainen, 2013
Tapani and his wife Johanna decide to stay behind in a Helsinki devastated by climate change, even as its inhabitants seek refuge further north. When Johanna, an investigative journalist goes missing, Tapani is determined to find her. Amid the devastation, Tapani’s search for his wife uncovers a puzzling connection between her and ‘The Healer’, a serial killer bent on punishing those he believes responsible for climate change.

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver, 2012
Dellarobia Turnbow witnesses a mystifying sight -- a forested valley absolutely teeming with Monarch butterflies. The locals believe the event to be a miracle, but Dellarobia and Ovid Byron, a gifted entomologist, suspect that the effects of climate change may be responsible for preventing the butterflies from migrating further south for the winter. A New York Times bestseller, this suspenseful drama is a real page turner.


I'm With the Bears  Solar   Far north

I'm With the Bears, ed. Martin, Mark, 2011
Ten short stories on the theme of climate change and its possible consequences by various award-winning authors such as Margaret Atwood and Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author and founder of 350.org, an organization dedicated to increasing public awareness about environmental issues.

Solar, Ian McEwan, 2010
There's no dystopian setting here. Instead, McEwan looks at the issue of climate change in the here and now, and through a rather satirical lens. Nobel prize winning physicist Michael Beard funds his extravagant and environmentally UN-friendly lifestyle by educating the public about the threat climate change poses to civilisation. When Michael is given the chance to save the climate and his marriage, will he accept the challenge and change his self-indulgent ways? McEwan's storylines are never predictable and Solar is no exception.

Far North, Marcel Theroux, 2009
In this post-apocalyptic Arctic adventure, civilization has been wiped out by global warming. Sheriff Makepeace Hatfield, the only survivor from her remote Siberian town, sets out in search of other possible survivors. Along her journey, the resilient Makepeace faces danger and loneliness, but never loses her insight or sense of humanity.


The Year of the Flood a Novel  The Road

The Year of the Flood: a Novel, Margaret Atwood, 2009
This second installment in Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, expands on the storylines and characters of Oryx and Crake (2009). Extreme social inequality and catastrophic climate change have brought about a tipping point. Most of civilization has been destroyed by 'The Flood' with the exception of two women, Ren and Toby -- their affiliation with 'God's Gardeners', an eco-religious group devoted to protecting plants and animals, has helped them to survive. This is dystopic cli-fi at its best! 

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006
This is the story of a father and son and their quest to reach the coast through a post-apocalyptic, climate ravaged America, where it is always ‘winter’. Intense, dark and reflective, The Road is considered McCarthy’s ‘masterpiece’, something to read in 'late-night solitude’.