What Is Climate Fiction For?
When the real world seems increasingly apocalyptic, what’s the point of reading novels about the horrors of climate change? Outside’s culture columnist investigates her own fascination with cli-fi.
We’re relaunching the Outside Book Club this week, and to celebrate we’re publishing a series on how the booming genre of climate fiction is helping us see our changing planet in a new light. You can learn more about the book club here, or join us on Facebook to discuss our October pick, Bewilderment, a new work of climate fiction by Richard Powers.
In the 2017 novel New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson described striking scenes of people boating around a flooded New York City. This September, kayakers floated through flooded city streets in the Northeast in the wake of Hurricane Ida. In 1993, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower drew a prescient picture of inequality, corporate greed, and racism in the midst of climate change. Today, those issues have only become central to the climate crisis, and in Trump we even saw something of the dystopian society’s President-elect Christopher Donner, who calls minimum wage, environmental regulations, and worker protection laws “overly restrictive.” Dozens of new books have since joined these in the genre of climate fiction, which can be broadly defined as literature about climate change, often with elements of speculative fiction. But in the past few years alone, the experience of reading cli-fi has become increasingly weird as real life comes to more closely resemble some of the dark futures presented in these novels.
I write about culture for a living, so I read a lot of novels about the end of the world as we know it, often related to climate disaster, both on and off the clock. For years I’ve tracked new cli-fi releases (often for this publication) while absorbing daily headlines about drought, wildfires, climate migration, flooding, historic storms, heat waves, and ocean acidification. I tend to lean toward speculative books set in a world that’s at least somewhat recognizable as our own (no space cities or magic!) but that take creative liberties to ask, how bad would things have to get for us to change how we’re living? How would we live when it’s already too late? These run the gamut from mostly realistic (Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were) to a little out there (Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness) to pretty fantastical (Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy).
Looking up from those novels at the world around me has given me a consistent feeling of exhausted, confused fascination. I first recognized it around this time last year, when I started reading Ling Ma’s Severance during quarantine. I couldn’t explain why I was drawn to a book about a fictional catastrophic pandemic in the middle of a real one and was almost ashamed to admit it to anyone (though it turns out I wasn’t alone). At best, it seemed like staring into the void; at worst, it felt like seeking a sick form of escapism by reading about an oddly similar disaster while I was lucky enough to suffer minimally from the enormous losses of COVID-19. In the year since, I’ve started to wonder if my fascination with cli-fi is purely nihilistic. Books don’t always have to be beach reads, and they don’t always have to be useful, but can we learn anything about our situation or ourselves, or at least feel something besides dread, in the uncanny valley of fictional climate change? If we’re already living through climate disaster, what’s the point of wallowing in all the imagined ways that it could go down?
Most readers of cli-fi don’t need convincing that climate change is real and urgent.
There are, of course, smarter people who spend much of their time considering this question. “Climate fiction is a very old genre in a certain sense. The big biblical story of Noah’s Ark is a story about a climate disaster,” says Tyler Harper, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, who describes himself as a congenital optimist (but not one who would deny it’s possible we may indeed be screwed). This outlook seems in contrast to one of his main research interests: sci-fi about the possibility of human extinction. “What is different and interesting about contemporary climate sci-fi is that it’s only really in the last 150 years or so that Western civilization has come to realize that we could produce our own disaster,” he says. Cli-fi is building a rich historical record of our chickens coming home to roost, and as it’s grown in popularity, it has been sold to audiences as a useful way to come to terms with just how much trouble we’re in. A series of Amazon-commissioned short stories by well-known authors, called Warmer, cheerfully sells each morbid plot: “In a climate-ravaged future, it’s not easy to grow up.” “After bringing Earth to ruin, the age of humans is over. It is a blessing for some in this tender and tragic cautionary fable.”
But that blunt messaging feels insufficient now. Most readers of cli-fi don’t need convincing that climate change is real and urgent, and Harper worries that an impulse to read future-telling into these narratives just leads to hopelessness. What would someone who already understands the real-life effects of climate change need from a fictional account? Elizabeth Rush, a professor of English at Brown University and climate journalist, recently reported on how rising sea levels are changing U.S. coastlines for her nonfiction book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Even alongside that work, she does read cli-fi, but seeks out the kind that goes beyond the bleak messages about how we’re doomed, without denying reality. Fiction can be a way of shaking out of the repetitive headline cycles about record-breaking storms, floods, and heat waves that may leave us thinking that the conclusion is foregone, she says. “I started to purposely go after climate fiction that takes that occasion of writing the book as an opportunity to imagine the ways in which climate change might not just be a cataclysm, but might also present needs for other kinds of human relationships with the more than human world.” She points to Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and James Bradley’s Clade, books in which the characters start out in a world pretty well screwed but still search for love, meaning, and new ways of living. “These are not blindly optimistic books, but they play the story forward in a way that’s different from how our thought ruts dictate,” she says.
The idea of abandoning a thought rut made me revisit my doubts about climate fiction’s capacity for escapism. The cli-fi books I love aren’t letting me forget about the world around me—they’re holding up a mirror to the dynamics of climate change that seem most insurmountable and pushing me to break out of fatalistic thought patterns. The best cli-fi, of course, tells us something about the real world, especially when it comes to understanding that some people are already being disproportionately affected by climate change. “There’s often this notion that when the disaster happens, suddenly the playing field will become level,” Harper says, pointing to books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which an extinction event throws everyone on Earth into survival mode, with nary a mention of race or class. “A climate disaster is not going to obliterate racial and class division, it’s going to exacerbate them profoundly.” There’s a reason Octavia E. Butler is so often held up in the cli-fi canon; she so precisely portrayed those dynamics in her fiction. Shelley Streeby, a professor at the University of California-San Diego who focuses on sci-fi and ethnic studies, remembers reading through files Butler kept on news clippings of disasters. Butler writes, “I can’t bring myself to wish for the kind of disaster it would take to get world leaders’ tiny minds off ideology and power struggles. Such a disaster would be likely to kill me. Me and millions of others.”
Butler models a kind of climate fiction that takes an honest look at reality but also points the way toward hopefulness and action. Parable of the Sower, about a Black teenager who creates her own religion with the hope of quite literally escaping her dystopian society (and Earth), is about redefining community, abandoning the confines of an exploitative society, and the promise of Black feminist leadership and Indigenous science. In Streeby’s new book, Imagining the Future of Climate Change, she writes about how speculative fiction can influence real activism, and vice versa. “When we want to get the social movement, change something, basically we’re worldmaking,” Streeby says. “We’re imagining how the world will be different. We’re plotting it out. We’re telling a story about it. That’s kind of the bridge to activism.” Writers like Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown both create and champion a kind of climate fiction that goes beyond inspiring empathy for a particular character’s struggle; instead, it imagines the collective action necessary to live in a different future. Environmental movements primarily led by Indigenous people and other people of color are doing the exact same thing.
By imagining how we might live in disastrous futures, we remind ourselves that the present doesn’t have to be the way it currently is, and that the real future-making is available to us right now, in the real world.
Speculative cli-fi can build a world, not in the traditional sci-fi or fantasy sense of invented languages and histories, but in really rethinking what is possible beyond the confines of the economic and political systems that perpetuate our current crisis. Harper points to Fredric Jameson, a literary critic who is often cited for arguing that science fiction isn’t about the future. “Science fiction circles back to our present because by giving us an image of the future, it also tells us the future hasn’t happened yet, that changes can still be made,” Harper says. Whether it’s a utopian or apocalyptic vision of the future, the message is the same: that future still isn’t here (even if it’s getting close). “I would encourage any reader to read it as a genre that’s asking you to do something in the present,” he says. This, I realize now, is what I had gotten wrong about cli-fi: the qualities that make it feel so dire can also make it affirming. By imagining how we might live in disastrous futures, we remind ourselves that the present doesn’t have to be the way it currently is, and that the real future-making is available to us right now, in the real world. As Imarisha says, “All organizing is science fiction.”