On the usefulness of the cli-fi genre term in the climate change era

There’s been some discussion on the web recently about the use of the term “cli-fi” as a sub-genre of science fiction that deals with climate change.   Speaking personally, I like the term. I’m teaching two cli-fi literature courses at Vanderbilt University this semester (one to freshmen and one to senior citizens in the greater Nashville community) and I’ve written my own hybrid sci-fi/cli-fi novel, The Heatstroke Line, where the term appears on the cover.

Of course, as many people point out, we need to be careful about literary categories and labels, since labeling can be a form of limitation.  To describe ”Bleak House” as a “Victorian novel” or ”Hamlet” as a “revenge play” rather obviously fails to capture the complexity and splendor of these works. On the other hand, as George Lakoff points out in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, categories are an essential aspect of our thought process, even when they bring metaphorical associations along with them.

In fact, one of the essential insights of 20th century philosophy is Wittgenstein’s observation that words themselves are categories, and contestable ones at that. A word such as “game” refers to a group of practices that bear a family relationship to one another, but it does not, and cannot, possess a fixed boundary.   Is wrestling a game?   Suppose the match is fixed, or supposed it’s scripted?  If we want to say that chess is unquestionably a game, is it diminished by being placed in the same category as bowling — or hopscotch?

In legal scholarship (my day job at Vanderbilt) the problem is well understood.  Laws can only be promulgated through words, and these words create categories.  The categories make a real difference; they determine whether people are required to pay large sums of money, whether they can retain their property, and whether they go to prison.  One of the cases I teach, and that appears in my casebook, turns on whether a drug dealer who brings a firearm to the deal in his car, but doesn’t wear it on his person, can be said to “carry” the firearm.  This has a direct effect on the length of the drug dealer’s sentence.  A well-known tax case turns on whether tomatoes should be categorized as a fruit or a vegetable, and a famous contracts case begins with the question:  “What is chicken?” In resolving the ambiguities that inevitably accompany the use of a word like carry, vegetable, or even chicken, lawyers and judges must refer to the underlying purposes of the law, and the legal system generally, while accepting the reality that no term will be able to capture the variations and complexities of the situations where it might be employed.

The term ”cli-fi” is, of course, a simplification, but it has a valuable purpose.  Climate change denial remains a powerful force in the United States, and it will be the official position of one of our two main political parties in the 2016 presidential election.  As such, it threatens the welfare of our entire planet, and — if not refuted — could lead to more deaths than both World Wars by the end of the present century. Scientific arguments, despite their sophistication and the overwhelming evidence supporting them, have had little impact on the deniers.   There is good reason to think that fictional representations that confront people with the possible consequences of climate change could be more persuasive.   One need only think about the impact of Disney movies on this generation’s views about both the environment and the role of women.

The valuable purpose that the term “cli-fi” serves is that it categorizes works of fiction that address this all-important issue.  Of course, these works are not limited to their political effect.  Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow is a wonderful character study in addition to a depiction of the storm surges that our coastal cities will suffer as a result of climate change; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a beautifully-written work of prose, simultaneously immensely sad and deeply amusing, in addition to a warning about the environmental dangers that can result from unregulated private enterprise.  But the political purpose of these books is important and may contribute to rescuing our planet, and our own nation, from a dreadful future.


For that reason, it is useful to have a category to describe them.  One possibility is “anthropocene fiction, the title of a book by Adam Trexler and the subject of an essay in the Guardian last August by Claire L. Evans.   But an academic mouthful of this sort is not likely to be of much help in popular discourse.


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