Cli-Fi: My Latest Obsession

It’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve written anything for  monkey’s uncle. One of the problems with waiting a minute to write anything is that the pressure mounts to write something good (and writing something good becomes increasingly difficult as the responsibilities pile up). Seems like a list should be easy, right? So that’s what I’m writing. A list. And maybe some words to go with it…

I’ve recently become interested in the power of narrative to teach people about complex scientific and societal problems and maybe even to motivate people to take political action.  I am particularly intrigued by the possibilities of climate fiction, a.k.a. Cli-Fi, to explore the possible consequences of a warmer, more-variable world, to help us imagine better futures in which we take on the challenges of climate change, and to motivate people to engage in political action to respond to what is perhaps the biggest challenge that modern humans have ever faced. To this end, I gave a talk at The Interval, the hilariously steampunk bar in Fort Mason Center that is the San Francisco home of the Long Now Foundation.  Following this talk, I was interviewed for the Stanford News Service (along with Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson!) and was one of several people interviewed for a piece in Tor magazine by novelist Charlie Jane Anders on why we need climate fiction.

In my talk, I promised to post a list of climate fiction. The interview includes a short list of some important works, but I figured it’s definitely time to post a longer list. I have a quite extensive list of Cli-Fi novels that I keep in an always-growing Evernote note, but I thought I would just include a greatest-hits list of novels I’ve read and been moved by. There is a very long list here. As I said, these are all books that I’ve read. They’re also books that have had a strong impact on the way I think about society, the future, human adaptability, technology, the meaning of existence, etc.

  • Charlie Jane Anders,  All the Birds in the Sky
  • Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
  • Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl
  • David Brin, Earth
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • William Gibson, The Peripheral
  • Moshin Hamid, Exit West
  • Frank Herbert, Dune
  • N.K. Jemisin, Broken Earth Trilogy
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
  • Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City
  • Annalee Newitz, Autonomous
  • Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death
  • Richard Powers, The Overstory
  • Nathaniel Rich, Odds Against Tomorrow
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Earth (Science in the Capital Series)

A couple notes about these choices: First, there are two books that might seem like a reach Cli-Fi. Moshin Hamid’s fabulous Exit West is about human mobility and (as you would see from my talk), this is one of the key themes for understanding the human dimensions of climate change. Richard Powers’s novel, The Overstory, probably isn’t Cli-Fi in the strict sense, but it is a remarkable ecological novel. Deforestation and land-cover change more generally are major ecological features of climate change, so I feel like it’s fair to include a book whose main characters are trees on this list.

And then there’s Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Is that really Cli-Fi? Hell yes, it is. Think about it: Liet-Kynes, the leader of the Fremen and the prophet who sets the stage for the ascendency of Mau’dib (not to mention is the grandfather of the God-Emperor), is the planetary ecologist with not just a dream of terraforming the desert-planet Arrakis, but a plan to effect profound global environmental change that was all but ready to roll out when the Atreides arrived on Arrakis. Dune was actually the first novel I ever read (long story) and I’ve now read it 14 times.

Many of these novels are not about climate change per se, and I think that this is actually really important. Both N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy (amazing) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (incredible) take place in dramatically altered environments and the reader gets a number of clues that climate change played a major role in the transformed Earths on which the action takes place.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is the least Sci-Fi of all these books and I also think that is fundamentally important. Cli-Fi is too easily conflated with Sci-Fi, and while most of the great Cli-Fi novels at least flirt with that genre, there is nothing necessary about that.  Indeed, critics such as Powers and Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh have called out literary fiction for its lack of engagement with the fundamental challenge of our age. If you watch my talk or read the Stanford piece, you will see I have opinions about this. That said, Flight Behavior is as fine an example of literary Cli-Fi as you will find. Kingsolver writes about regular working people struggling in economically-depressed Appalachia — all climate-change skeptics to start — who are confronted with a bizarre ecological event that changes lives and shakes up world views. It is on the very short-list of my all-time favorite novels and I think about some aspect of it nearly every day (it probably helps that I spent time working in Appalachia and felt like I already knew most of the characters when I read it).

I read my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel (The Gold Coast) my second year of college. He has hard-Sci-Fi cred and is also incredibly sophisticated in his treatment of both finance/economics and politics. As I note in my interview with Charlie Jane Anders, KSR is sometimes known as the “master of disaster” (since his novels often turn on some major disaster like catastrophic sea-level rise of the Gulf Stream stopping), but his novels “are generally incredibly hopeful. People adapt. They fight back. They go on being human. They work to build just societies. And the heroes are just regular people: scientists, public servants, working people.”

My short-list of books to read in the near future includes:

  • Omar El Akkad, American War
  • Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
  • Antti Tuomainen, The Healer
  • Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

I have lots more to say on this topic, so maybe I’ll write more in the near future.