A Companion

by Axel Goodbody (Volume editor) Adeline Johns-Putra (Volume editor)
©2019 Others VIII, 236 Pages


What is Cli-Fi?
Climate change fiction is a new literary phenomenon that emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century in response to what may be society’s greatest challenge. Climate change is already part responsible for extreme weather events, flooding, desertification and sea level rise, leading to famine, the spread of disease, and population displacement. Cli-fi novels and films are typically set in the future, telling of disaster and its effect on humans, or they depict the present, beset by dilemmas, conflicts or conspiracies, and pointing to grave consequences. At their heart are ethical and political questions: will humankind rise to the challenge of acting collectively, in the interest of the future? What sacrifices will be necessary, and is a green dictatorship our only hope for survival as a species?
Each chapter in this volume offers a way of reading a particular literary text or film, drawing attention to themes, formal features, reception, contribution to public debate, and issues for class discussion. Popular novels and films (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, Ian McEwan’s Solar, and The Day after Tomorrow) are examined alongside lesser known writing (for instance J. G. Ballard’s «proto-climate change» novel The Drowned World and Antti Tuomainen’s Finnish thriller, The Healer), and films not generally thought of as being about climate change (Frozen and Take Shelter).
The book, which includes an introduction tracing the emergence and influence of cli-fi, is directed towards general readers and film enthusiasts as well as teachers and students. Written in an accessible style, it fills the gap between academic studies and online blogs, offering a comprehensive look at this timely new genre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Axel Goodbody / Adeline Johns-Putra)
  • Part I Proto-Climate Change Fiction
  • J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) – Psycho-Geographical Cli-Fi (Jim Clarke)
  • Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene (1980) – Geological Cli-Fi (Thomas H. Ford)
  • Ignacio Brandão’s And Still the Earth (1981) – Political Cli-Fi (Mark Anderson)
  • Part II Speculative Future Fiction: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Narratives
  • George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987) – Urban Dystopian Cli-Fi (Thomas H. Ford)
  • Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (2003–2013) – Post-Apocalyptic Cli-Fi (Dana Phillips)
  • Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) – Biopunk Cli-Fi (M. Isabel Pérez-Ramos)
  • Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) – Riskscape Cli-Fi (Antonia Mehnert)
  • Ilija Trojanow’s The Lamentations of Zeno (2011/2016) – Prophetic Cli-Fi (Axel Goodbody)
  • Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2014) – Adventure Cli-Fi (Kiu-Wai Chu)
  • Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011) – Psychic Cli-Fi (Stef Craps)
  • Part III Realist Narratives Set in the Present and Near Future
  • Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (1998) and The Flood (2004) – State of the Nation Cli-Fi (Adeline Johns-Putra)
  • T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000) – Activism in Cli-Fi (Adam Trexler)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004–2007) – Science and Politics in Cli-Fi (Chris Pak)
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) – Class and Religion in Cli-Fi (Sylvia Mayer)
  • Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – Risk and Rationality in Cli-Fi (Hannes Bergthaller)
  • Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid (2009) – Documentary Cli-Fi (Alexa Weik von Mossner)
  • Part IV Thriller, Crime, Conspiracy and Social Satire
  • Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) – Apocalyptic Cli-Fi (Alexa Weik von Mossner)
  • Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) – Denialist Cli-Fi (Greg Garrard)
  • Liz Jensen’s The Rapture (2009) – Thriller Cli-Fi (Terry Gifford)
  • Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006) – Satirical Cli-Fi (Bradon Smith)
  • Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) – British Comic Cli-Fi (Richard Kerridge)
  • Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (2013) – Nordic Crime Cli-Fi (Lieven Ameel)
  • Part V Children’s Film and Young Adult Novels
  • Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen (2013) – Fantasy Cli-Fi (David Whitley)
  • Jostein Gaarder’s The World According to Anna (2013/2015) – Didactic Cli-Fi (Reinhard Hennig)
  • Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015 (2008) – Coming-of-Age Cli-Fi (Sina Farzin)
  • Part VI Literary Modernism
  • David Brin’s Earth (1990) – Epic Cli-Fi (Ursula K. Heise)
  • David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014) – Genre Pluralism in Cli-Fi (Bradon Smith)
  • Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) – Postmodern Cli-Fi (Louise Squire)
  • Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) – Indigenous Cli-Fi (Iva Polak)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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Axel Goodbody and Adeline Johns-Putra


Since the late 1980s, when it first came to the attention of a wider public, global warming has been generally (although not universally) recognized as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Models of its future development, predictions of its likely political, social and cultural impact, and proposals for measures to limit the rise in temperature and mitigate its consequences have been hotly debated over the last thirty years, and they are likely to remain subjects of contention for the foreseeable future. This public concern has latterly been accompanied by a growing body of climate change fiction. The emergence of cli-fi (an abbreviation in analogy with ‘sci-fi’ apparently coined by the journalist Dan Bloom in 2007) as a new genre of fiction and film, reflecting but also to a degree informing views and shaping conversations on climate change, was greeted in a series of articles in the press in the USA and Britain in 2013.1 Climate change fiction has become the subject of numerous blogs and reading forums on the Internet, and a focus of growing academic interest.

Defining cli-fi

Cli-fi is not a genre in the scholarly sense: it lacks the plot formulas and stylistic conventions that characterize genres such as sci-fi and the western. However, borrowing from and often embracing elements of different existing genres, it ← 1 | 2 → provides a convenient term for an already significant body of narrative work broadly defined by its thematic focus on climate change and the political, social, psychological and ethical issues associated with it. Given the absence of a precise definition, cli-fi may be best thought of as a distinctive body of cultural work which engages with anthropogenic climate change, exploring the phenomenon not just in terms of setting, but with regard to psychological and social issues, combining fictional plots with meteorological facts, speculation on the future and reflection on the human-nature relationship,2 with an open border to the wider archive of related work on whose models it sometimes draws for the depiction of climatic crisis.3

There are, of course, some novels that do not explicitly mention climate change, but have been read as addressing it, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). And there is a larger number of others – for example, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007), and works translated from other languages such as Peter Verhelst’s Tonguecat (2003), Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005) and Rosa Montero’s Weight of the Heart (2016) – in which global warming is just one of a series of ways in which human actions are irreparably changing the natural environment on a global scale, it does not play an important role in the plot, and its causes, consequences and ethical implications are not discussed. While our working definition leads us to exclude these, it would logically embrace representations of deliberate (but usually disastrous) human interventions into global climatic conditions which predate global warming, such as Jules Verne’s novel The Purchase of the North Pole (1889) and Alexander Döblin’s Mountains Oceans Giants (1924). We have chosen not to go down this route in this collection of essays. However, we do include examples of what Jim Clarke has called ‘proto-climate-change fiction’ in a study of the dystopian novels written by J. G. Ballard in the 1960s,4 although these predate awareness of the effects of greenhouse gases, and either ← 2 | 3 → attribute climatic change to natural causes (Ballard), use it to reflect on the limitations of human control over the natural environment (Max Frisch), or invest it with other meaning as a metaphor for political developments (Ignácio de Loyola Brandão). The inconsequence of this choice is in our view justified by the themes, tropes and generic features of climate change fiction which are prefigured in these novels.

A brief overview of literary production

The warming effect of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was first identified and progressively understood by scientists such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius in the nineteenth century. However, the ‘discovery’ of climate change only came when renewed attention was paid to this in the 1960s and 1970s. Public concern about human impacts on climate emerged alongside widespread unease over other environmental impacts, over-population, pollution and acid rain – all concerns that led to the organization of the first Earth Day in the US in 1970. Paul and Anne Ehrlich mention the greenhouse effect in The Population Bomb (1968), for example. By the early 1980s, the cumulative work over the previous decades – by scientists such as Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wally Broecker, Reid Bryson and Stephen Schneider, presented at forums including the World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979 – was increasingly penetrating the public consciousness, as evidenced by high-profile news reports and popular science books, such as Howard Wilcox’s Hothouse Earth (1975) and Schneider’s The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival (1976).5

Literary engagement with the phenomenon appears to have started in 1971 with Lathe of Heaven, a short sci-fi novel by Ursula Le Guin, author of ← 3 | 4 → the young adult fantasy Earthsea novels and other works of sci-fi distinguished by their thoughtfulness. It picked up only gradually, with Arthur Herzog’s thriller, Heat (1977), and the Australian critic and novelist George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987), before experiencing a first flowering around 2000 with Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (1998), Norman Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer (1999) and T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000). As these titles suggest, issues associated with climate change were, from the outset, commonly fictionalized within the framework of popular genres, namely sci-fi and, to a lesser extent, the thriller. We shall expand further on the question of generic influences and strategies below, but note here the role played by genre fiction in making early cli-fi marketable, appealing to a specific readership and serving as a resource helping readers think through complex issues. At the same time, it should be recognized that, in some cases, generic expectations of plot and character might distort or distract from the issue of climate change. For, where the appeal of a novel resides mainly in its status within a particular genre (or even within the oeuvre of a particularly popular writer of genre fiction), this can circumscribe readers’ understanding of potential solutions to the problems it presents. Though sci-fi novelists from Le Guin and Turner to Kim Stanley Robinson and Paolo Bacigalupi have produced relatively sophisticated treatments of climate change, generic norms weigh heavily on thrillers such as Rock Brynner’s The Doomsday Report (1998) and James Herbert’s Portent (1992) (which, as a ‘chiller’, draws on both horror and thriller traditions), starting a trend that continued with Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) and Clive Cussler’s Arctic Drift (2008). In contrast, the novels of Gee and Boyle are early examples of writing that draws on generic expectations (mainly from sci-fi) but seeks to avoid the limitations imposed by the popular genre templates. They do so, on the one hand, by complicating stereotypes, introducing ambivalent characters and ironically subverting expectations, and, on the other, by foregrounding the links between human handling of the natural environment and issues of social justice, gender and sexuality, and individual or collective agency.

Cli-fi took off in the first years of the new century, paralleling Al Gore’s success in raising the profile of climate activism, initially with novels from Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Liz Jensen, in addition to Robinson, Crichton and Cussler. In his survey of Anglophone literature, Adam Trexler writes of ← 4 | 5 → over 150 novels,6 and there are dozens of films in the category.7 Imaginings of the future impact of climate change typically involve desertification, drought and water shortage, floods and violent storms, the spread of tropical diseases, climate refugeeism and the collapse of a society divided between rich and poor into lawlessness and armed conflict. Against this background, human dramas of hope and love, betrayal and despair play out in action-driven plots peopled by journalists and scientists, politicians and climate activists, and ordinary people struggling to live in the worsening circumstances. The changing climate is often one source of anxiety among others, alongside unsustainable levels of consumption and population growth, concerns over the role of science in society, genetically modified foods, genetic engineering and geoengineering, and more generally what is perceived as the slide into ever more individualistic, virtual and ‘unnatural’ forms of life.

After the ‘Climategate’ controversy of 2007 (when leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were interpreted as evidence that global warming was a scientific hoax) and the failure of world leaders to reach agreement at the UN’s Copenhagen conference in 2009, concerns about climate change circulated in an atmosphere of distrust, not just of scientific expertise but also of the formal agencies tasked with dealing with it – from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the UN and to domestic politicians. There was a desensitization, too, resulting from exposure to multiple apocalyptic scenarios. A second cluster of novels which appeared after 2010, including titles by Ian McEwan, Ilija Trojanow and Barbara Kingsolver, reflected and responded to this shift in public opinion, by seeking to understand the reasons for the seemingly irrational unwillingness of the public and politicians to take action in the face of the predictions of climate science, and beginning to explore the realities of living with climate change. Other titles published since 2010 in countries from Finland to Australia include: Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, Alexis Wright’s ← 5 | 6 → The Swan Book and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (all 2013); David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Simon Ings’s Wolves, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water and Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels (all 2014); Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, Clare Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, James Bradley’s Clade, Elina Hirvonen’s When Time Runs Out and the Saga anthology of short climate fiction, Loosed Upon the World (ed. John Joseph Adams), all published in 2015. Cli-fi continues to evolve (publications in 2016–17 include Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, Robinson’s New York 2140, Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station and David Williams’s When the English Fall), with a small number of novelists (Robinson and Bacigalupi, in particular) focusing their production on depicting climate change, and poets and playwrights contributing work such as Frederick Turner’s epic poem, Apocalypse (2016), and plays in the UK from Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker (1994) via Steve Waters’s The Contingency Plan (2009) to the multi-authored Greenland and Richard Bean’s The Heretic in 2011, and Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley’s 2071 (2014).8

While most cli-fi originates from North America, Britain and Australia, it is (unsurprisingly, given the global reach of climate change) a transcultural phenomenon, with films such as the Korean action movie Snowpiercer (2013) and a significant production of novels in Germany and Scandinavia.9 The small number of non-Anglophone works presented here reflects the paucity of English translations of foreign climate change novels. The absence of translations ruled out practically all the French contenders (works by Antoine Bello, Julien Blanc-Gras, Jean-Marc Ligny, Jean-Christophe Rufin and Philippe Vasset), some thirty German novels, and influential Latin American writing by Homero Aridjis and Rafael Pinedo. Scandinavian novelists, who have fared better in translation, are represented with titles by Jostein Gaarder and Tuomainen. Not only in the English-speaking world, then, climate change ← 6 | 7 → stories have become popular vehicles for reflection on our values and way of life, on patterns of material consumption and the tensions between individual self-fulfilment and responsibilities towards others, giving expression to feelings of anxiety and guilt, and asking what sort of future we want ourselves and others to live in.

Fictionalizing climate change: Aims and challenges

Literature plays a part in helping us meet the challenges with which life confronts us, by interpreting the past, dramatizing the situations and choices of the present, and imagining possible futures. Like narratives of gender identity, the stories told about global warming participate in the organization of our social reality as ‘regulatory fictions’,10 deploying metaphorical concepts to define and constitute classes of objects and identities, and thereby determining how the problem is framed. Stories are forms of collective sense-making with the capacity to motivate and mobilize readers. Building on neurophysiological research into the ability of engagement with storyworlds to trigger real-world emotions and neural responses, and on narratological scholarship on how storyworlds have the ability to initiate simulation of experience and catalyse a mental and emotional ‘transportation’ of readers, Erin James and Alexa Weik von Mossner have argued that literature and film can make new things matter to us, widen our sense of identity to embrace human and non-human others, and foster a sense of care. They do this above all through textual cues which invite readers to inhabit a particular point of view, such as the organization of space and time and the depiction of characters.11 Scholars ← 7 | 8 → of moral philosophy have advanced a similar argument, the most prominent work in this area being that of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum proposes that literature, in calling on the reader to exercise empathy for characters, helps to widen an individual’s ‘circle of concern’.12 For Nussbaum, ethical understanding and action require compassion; compassion in turn comprises a cognitive judgement of the scale of another’s suffering, whether it was deserved or not, and, crucially, of whether the other is a significant part of our future goals and activities.13 Fiction and poetry encourage us to enlarge this third point, and to include previously unknown others as important to us.14

Moreover, climate change novels and films might provide what one might think of as a therapeutic space, in which collective Anthropocene anxieties are aired, shared and worked through. E. Ann Kaplan argues that the Anthropocene has induced a global ‘pretraumatic stress’, a macrocosmic version of the PreTraumatic Stress Syndrome (PreTESS) that soldiers experience when assigned to combat. Environmental disaster films, Kaplan suggests, help deal with such trauma; they become ‘intriguing, if desperate, attempts by humans to make sense of and find ways around the global catastrophes already in process’.15

With its potential for encouraging reflection and motivation, cli-fi might be seen as a vehicle for protest against climate inaction. But, for authors, the possibility of galvanizing readers into action must be balanced against the wish not to alienate them. Invited by the Cape Farewell project to write a climate change novel, McEwan ruminated in an interview in 2007 on the pitfalls of polemic: ‘Fiction hates preachiness. […] Nor do readers like to be hectored’.16 In a similar vein, Gee, speaking at the 2014 Hay Festival of Literature, cautioned ← 8 | 9 → other environmentally minded authors against being too ‘message-y’.17 Such nervousness is not to be taken lightly. The social protest novel has a proud tradition, but environmentalist sentiments are widely associated with stridency, fear-mongering and dogma, risking accusations of what Frederick Buell calls the ‘Chicken Little syndrome’ and ‘doomsterism’.18 The mixed reception of Gaarder’s World According to Anna (2013) and Trojanow’s Lamentations of Zeno (2011) in Norway and Germany – both of which were seen to be marred by overt authorial intent to drive home the environmentalist message – reflects this dislike of ‘preachy’ novels.


VIII, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
climate change novel climate change film cli-fi climate change fiction Axel Goodbody Adeline Johns-Putra climate change The Day after Tomorrow Kim Stanley Robinson Ian McEwan J. G. Ballard Frozen Michael Crichton Take Shelter disaster film Margaret Atwood Bong Joon-ho Snowpiercer Barbara Kingsolver Will Self David Mitchell The Bone Clocks Jeanette Winterson The Carbon Diaries 2015 dystopian fiction apocalyptic fiction The Age of Stupid
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. VIII, 236 pp., 31 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Axel Goodbody (Volume editor) Adeline Johns-Putra (Volume editor)

Axel Goodbody is Emeritus Professor of German and European Culture at the University of Bath. He has published widely on literary representations of nature and environment and on ecocritical theory. He was a founding member of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment and its President from 2004 to 2006. Current projects include editing a special issue of Resilience on literary and historical stories of energy and co-authoring a transnational ecocritical analysis of climate change scepticism. Adeline Johns-Putra is Reader in English Literature at the University of Surrey. Her main research interest is climate change and literature. She was Chair of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK and Ireland from 2011 to 2015. Her monograph Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel and edited volume Climate and Literature are forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. She is a member of the editorial board of Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism.


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