Cli-Fi: A New Genre Takes Flight

When I posted a small blog on Goodreads about an online site recommending books for their 2014 Cli-Fi summer reading list, I didn’t anticipate the reaction I would get. Instantly, I received emails from all over the world and an invitation to join a climate fiction group on Facebook. Just what is this term, and why are folks so passionate about it?

One of the emails I received was from Dan Bloom, a journalist who lives in Taiwan. Bloom was the first to come up with this catchy literary label. After time spent in France, Italy, and Japan, he spent 12 years in Alaska along the winter coasts of Nome, where many of his ideas for the Cli-Fi genre came to him. He has taught at the Experimental College at Tufts University, Nome Community College, the University of Alaska, Juneau, and Chung Cheng University in Taiwan.

So here is my brief interview with Mr. Bloom, and a peek into this new genre. . . .

Tara Masih: I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to know two writers who have coined popular contemporary genre terms: James Thomas for Flash Fiction, and now Dan Bloom for Cli-Fi. While I am not a label person, I do think genre terms help to shape literary cannons and give writers some direction. Can you tell me how you came up with this term, and why?

Dan Bloom: I prefer to say that my main work here has been to help popularize the cli-fi genre term, working the phones (and the emails and tweets) to try to get the media, both here and overseas, to pay attention to what the New York Times has called "the mushrooming genre of cli-fi." I don't take credit for "coining" the term since I merely modeled the sound of it after sci-fi, so that is not coining something, that is merely riffing on an earlier genre term.

My main work has been as a PR operative working 24/7 to boost the profile of cli-fi in the world's media platforms, and we had good luck in the last two years, with NPR, The New Yorker, Dissent magazine, Time magazine, the New York Times, the Guardian and the Financial Times coming aboard, not to mention dozens of blogs . . . thousands of tweets and retweets, several from Margaret Atwood, who has been a big booster of the term.

TM: What makes you so passionate about this type of literature?

DB: I woke up the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report of 2007 and from the time I read the news reports about possible climate ruin in the future, I decided to devote the rest of my life to pushing the cli-fi meme up the hill as a platform for novelists and movie directors to use to frame their climate-themed stories and movies. I did this as a climate activist and a literary provocateur. I am not a novelist at all, but I majored in literature at Tufts in the 1960s and I have always been a reader of serious fiction from many countries, not just the USA. I see cli-fi as a global meme now. So why did I work so hard on this? I hope that cli-fi novels and movies can save the planet from what I called C.A.D. (climate-assured destruction).

TM: What would you define as a Cli-Fi novel, story, or poem? What elements make a piece of prose Cli-Fi and not Science Fiction?

DB: A cli-fi novel or short story, poem, movie, or play has as its main theme climate change or global warming. It could be a dystopian story or it could be a utopian story with a happy ending.

And cli-fi writers for the most part will display a moral imperative—either their own or of the characters they create—to speak out on these issues. This is above all a moral genre. And that is the main difference between cli-fi and sci-fi. Sci-fi does not necessarily exhibit a moral imperative to impact the world. Cli-fi should show this morality to be cli-fi. It is not a marketing buzzword or a shelving category. It is a moral imperative.

TM: Can you give some examples of your favorite Cli-Fi?

DB: I liked Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior best, so far, because in addition to a great story in the novel and interesting characters she created a scientist who really speaks up, with moral imperative. . . .

I also hope that a novelist in some country will one day emerge with a cli-fi novel equal in power to Nevil Shute's 1957 anti-nuke war novel On the Beach, and that this new novel will impact the world and wake people up worldwide. To help find this writer, I have created what I call the Nevil Shute Climate Novel Award, which I have dubbed as "The Nevils," which is being handed out every year beginning in 2014. In 2020 it will morph into a major literary prize with a purse of $200,000 for the best cli-fi novel of the year, and the Nevils will continue to be handed out until 2120.

TM: And would you consider nonfiction in this category, even though it won't neatly fit into the Cli-Fi label?

DB: No, this is just for novels and short story collections (and poetry, too). But mostly for novels. Big impact novels.

TM: Finally, what global reactions have you gotten to this new term?

DB: After the New York Times and Time magazine stories about cli-fi were published, in addition to the NPR radio program on the genre, news reports about the emerging genre have appeared in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, and Chinese. There are cli-fi writers publishing novels now in Finland and Norway and Germany. This is not just an English-language genre. This is world literature genre.

About the Author

Tara L. Masih is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (a National Best Books Award finalist), and is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) andThe Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (a Skipping Stones Honor Book). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (such as Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, New Millennium Writings, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer), and her essays have been reprinted in college textbooks and read on NPR. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She judges the intercultural essay prize for the annual Soul-Making Keats Literary Contest, and has taught flash at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and at Grub Street. She received her MA in Writing and Publishing from Emerson College, and is the founder of and managing editor for The Best Small Fictions series. For more information, visit www.taramasih.com.

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