Climate Fiction by Dominic Smyth
The term Climate Fiction, often shortened to ‘cli-fi’, has been in use since the early 2000s, and its coinage is often attributed to journalist Dan Bloom. Though fiction of this kind has existed in sub-genres for some time before, such as in eco-fiction, speculative fiction and sci-fi, the term cli-fi attempts to bring all fiction that concerns itself with environmental issues and anthropogenic climate change together under one name.
Amitav Ghosh sees fiction as having failed the current ecological crisis, in that it has been largely absent proportionate to the threat and reality of climate change. ‘This era,’ he writes, ‘which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.’ The reasons for this are many, but some which Ghosh highlights are the topic of climate fiction not being ‘taken seriously by serious literary journals,’ as well as the difficult, ‘technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change.’
Almost three years on from when Ghosh was writing, however, we are beginning to see climate fiction being taken seriously by the literary world. 2017 saw the debut novel from poet Megan Hunter, The End We Start From, long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, as well as acclaimed writer Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a ‘sprawling ecological saga,’ long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The Aspen Words Literary Prize is an award that celebrates authors who ‘illuminate a vital contemporary issue and demonstrate the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.’ The End We Start From was marketed as a work of cli-fi, but is also considered as literary, with The Independent lauding it: ‘Virginia Woolf does cli-fi.’ The environmental crisis that precedes the book is in the backdrop of the story, and the details of it are occluded, and this keeps the narrative of the protagonist and her new-born son at the forefront of the story. This approach means that Hunter is able to resist sensationalising climate change and its effects, and also hints at the larger danger of the climate crisis: that of it being mostly invisible, or at least difficult to fully grasp as a physical reality.
In the only study so far to look at the effects climate fiction has on readers, Matthew Schnieder-Mayerson observes: ‘the most popular (and thus potentially influential) [cli-fi] novels were those written by established authors whose reputations guaranteed a wide readership.’ Proulx’s novel Barkskins curiously evaded the term cli-fi in its marketing, even though its concerns are with global warming, or specifically deforestation. This is perhaps to do with Proulx’s name and status already guaranteeing her a wide readership, and thus not needing to use the cli-fi term to boost the novel towards a certain audience; or possibly, it is because the book avoids typical tropes of the cli-fi genre, such as societal collapse, and an imagining of an apocalyptic world. Either way, its position on the Baileys Prize long-list suggests both a critical success as well as a departure from the typically perceived boundaries of climate fiction.
Philosopher and critic Timothy Morton describes global warming as a “hyperobject”: a concept ‘massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.’ It is ‘nonlocal,’ and we can only see ‘pieces of a hyperobject at any one moment.’ Furthermore, Critics Mahlu Mertens and Stef Craps point out: ‘to understand climate change, one needs to go beyond normal human experience.’
In light of this, it is easier to understand Ghosh’s summary of the ‘Great Derangement’ of our time. With the overall scale of climate change being difficult to even comprehend, in order to tackle it as a subject, novelists must attempt to both ‘go beyond normal human experience’ as well as present a compelling, familiar and human story for their readers. If cli-fi has been insufficient in addressing climate change—and as a result, not taken seriously—this is because it has been ‘made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future,’ which is, as Ghosh points out, ‘but one aspect of the Anthropocene.’ What cli-fi should be exploring, is how to communicate ‘the uncanniness and improbability, the magnitude and interconnectedness of the transformations that are now under way.’ To be taken seriously in fiction, in other words, cli-fi should be located not just in the future, but also in the past, and the recognisable present.
Hunter achieves this by skirting over the details of the ecological disaster in her book. With the whole of England submerged in a flood, and the widespread destruction and panic over dwindling resources and land, the reader is kept cocooned in the narrator’s concerns with her new-born baby, a present and very relatable human story. Similarly, by having her novel span centuries, Proulx invites readers to reassess traditional, human notions of time, and thus of climate change. The effects of deforestation are understood by following different generations of characters, and as we see its consequences within the timeline of the book, so we are encouraged to imagine the effects deforestation in our time will have on future generations. In both texts, climate change is not necessarily presented as a physical threat or even a single, graspable entity. It is presented as a hyperobject, something that is pervasive and ever present in the characters’ lives, ‘distributed in time and space.’
One of the hopes of climate fiction is that it will remind readers of the ‘severity and urgency of anthropogenic climate change.’ That it will be a ‘potent form of environmental persuasion’ is also a ‘key element driving the enthusiasm about its emergence.’ What Shnieder-Mayerson’s research suggests, though, is that readers of climate fiction are often already aware of environmental issues. And ‘while it might not convert many conservatives, climate fiction might be more effective in nudging liberals and moderates from the ranks of the “Cautious” to the “Concerned” or the “Concerned” to the “Alarmed.”’ One danger of climate fiction, however—and a common criticism of Barkskins—is that it can be too ‘didactic’ in its message, and in turn put readers off. This affects not only the popularity of cli-fi as a genre, but also jeopardises public engagement with climate issues.
Nonetheless, climate fiction looks certain to continue expanding and be included in award lists, as both new and established writers explore its themes. This will undoubtedly increase the likelihood of it being an effective tool for ‘environmental persuasion’.
by Dominic Smyth
 Amitav Ghosh, ‘The Great Derangement’ (London: University of Chicago Press, 2016) p.11
 Ghosh. p. 7 & 9
 Anthony Cummins, ‘Barkskins Review’ in The Guardian, [accessed 24 March 2019]
 Aspen Words website, [accessed 24 March 2019]
 Lucy Scholes, ‘The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, Book Review’, [accessed 24 March 2019]
 Matthew Schnieder-Mayerson, ‘The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers’ in Environmental Humanities, 2018, pp.473-500, p. 480
 Timothy Morton, ‘Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World’ (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) p.10
 Mahlu Mertens & Stef Craps, ‘Contemporary Fiction vs. the Challenge of Imagining the Timescale of Climate Change’ in Studies in the Novel, vol. 50, no. 1, Spring 2018, pp.134-153, p.136
 Ghosh, p.72-73
 Schnieder-Mayerson, p.475
 Schnieder-Mayerson, p.492
 Alex Clark, ‘Barkskins by Annie Proulx review’ [accessed 24 March 2019]