Dan Bloom, a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Tufts University in Boston where he majored in world literature has spent the last 40 years working as a journalist and newspaper editor in Washington, DC, Alaska, Japan and Taiwan.
C. Derick Varn: What makes Cli Fi distinct from dystopian literature at large?
Dan Bloom: Good question. As I see it, and I am just a literary theorist, and I don’t own the Cli Fi genre or control where it will go in the future, and it could go in many different directions, depending on where writers and film directors and readers want to take it, but as I see things now, and in the way that I envisioned the genre term, cli fi can take place in the past, the present or the future (near future or distant future) and it can be either dystopian in nature or even utopian. So that is the difference. Cli Fi can go either way, towards dystopian themes or towards utopian themes. So Cli Fi novelists can write where their imaginations and worldview takes them: either to envision dystopian settings or utopian settings. In other words, as I see it, not all Cli Fi novels will be doomsday stories set in dystopian worlds, although many of them will be, perhaps the majority. Some will be hopeful and optimistic about how humans might fix the current problems we are facing and end on notes of hope.
You seem to be trying to be build a Cli Fi “Cannon.” What is your criteria for inclusion?
Actually, I am not really trying to build a canon, but I guess eventually Cli Fi will become a literary canon on its own. I am just trying to use my passion for being a steward of the Earth as a climate activist concerned about the future of the human species — and PR skills as a media worker for over 40 years, reporter, editor, columnist — to help popularize the Cli Fi genre as a media term and a literary term. If a canon develops later, that would be good, and I will welcome that process. For me, at this time, the main criteria for a novel or a movie to be considered Cli Fi is this: it has a climate-related theme. It could be a novel about the sun heating up and causing climate problems on Earth. It could be a novel about the sun cooling down and global cooling causing troubles on Earth, as we saw in The Day After Tomorrow, a Cli Fi movie by Roland Emmerich, the great German disaster movie director.
Cli Fi can be written by people who believe that climate change and global warming are real, or by people who don’t believe in these scientific truths at all. A climate denialist could even write his or her take on a Cli Fi novel, as Michael Crichton did in 1994 with State of Fear. So the door is wide open for all writers, from all nations, from all points of view.
My own interest, and what has pushed me on, is in Cli Fi literature that warns readers of the perils of climate change and global warming and the further perils of not doing anything about it before it is perhaps too late. So I am first and foremost a climate activist, deep green, hoping to see Cli Fi develop into a genre that serves a warning sign, an alarm bell, a wake up call for humankind.
I envision some writer, male or female, from some country, Western or Asia or African, in any language, writing a major Cli Fi novel that would have the same power to change the world and wake up humankind as Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel about nuclear war and nuclear winter On the Beach did.
But any novel with a climate theme could be part of the evolving canon.
What works do you see as most clearly Cli Fi ……and why?
Cli Fi is such a new genre that very few climate-themed novels have been called before now. In fact, until NPR radio did a radio program about Cli Fi novels a year ago in April 2013, very few people had ever heard of the term and most people still haven’t heard of it. But looking back at earlier works, surely British writer JG Ballard’s The Drowned World from 1962 was a cli fi novel. In Australia, George Turner released a cli fi novel titled The Sea and the Summer in 1987. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is a modern cli fi novel, and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow released a year ago and the subject of the NPR news show is a comic cli fi novel. Bruce Sterling wrote a short story titled Master of the Aviary that takes place 1000 years ago and is a Cli Fi short story. Maragaret Atwood’s trilogy that ends with the recently-released MADDADDAM is a Cli Fi triology for sure, although she prefers to refer to her writings as speculative fiction rather than cli fi and I respect that, of course.
Why are these books and short stories Cli Fi ? They have strong climate-related themes, they peer into the past or the present or the near future, and they are for the most part dystopian in nature, although Kingsolver’s novel and Rich’s novel express hope and optimism at the same time as they probe deeply into climate change issues.
By the way, a former WIRED magazine writer Scott Thill, now with a strong presence on Twitter, calls cli fi “a critical prism” and is more interested in looking at movies and novels about climate through this prism. I like his point of view, too. He is not interested in Cli Fi as a marketing or publishing buzzword, and not even as literary or movie genre, but more as a critical prism to use to shine some needed light on the culture we live in today.
Can you think of any other literary movements specifically concerned with contemporary scientific developments in its time?
The only one that I can think of is ”science fiction”, early on in its infancy dubbed ”sci fic” and then ”science fiction” and then ”sci fi” and then ”SF”. In some literary people and media observers (and sci fi writers and sci fi historians) have told me when I canvassed them on their opinion of the Cli Fi genre told me that while they like the Cli Fi genre term as a new literary term, they see it mostly as a subgenre of sci fi. And I respect them opionions and was glad to get their feedback. Among those who told me that they like the Cli Fi term but see it as a sub-genre of sci fi are: H. Bruce Franklin, sci fi historian; David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson, sci fi novelists; Gerry Canavan and Andrew Milner, sci fi historians and Bruce Sterling, sci fi writer.
I’d love to hear from others about any other literary movements specifically concerned with contemporary scientific developments.
There is a small niche genre dubbed “lab lit” coined by a lab lit writer in Britain, and the New York Times did a piece on her idea three years ago. The link is lablit.com and the term stands for laboratory literature, novels and short stories specifically about scientists or lab technicians working in science labs and focusing on any number of scientific questions such as climate change, medical advances, space rockets, cancer, aging, etc.
What Cli Fi do you see as not belonging to the Science Fiction genre?
Cli Fi novels or movies like Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and Darren Aronofsky’s new movie Noah are all good examples of Cli Fi that ten years ago might have been labeled as science fiction, but with the rise of the Cli Fi term now, we can see that they are not sci fi at all but Cli Fi at heart. While sci fi novels have had and will continue to have an altered climate is part of the plot, what makes Cli Fi different from sci fi is that sci fi is often also about space travel, colonizing distant planets, clocks that strike thirteen and other “Twilight Zone” kind of events, Cli Fi is focused solely on climate change and global warming issues, pro or con. Sci fi is often about fantasy and the fantastic, while Cli Fi is based on the reality of climate change and how it is impacting or will impact later on life on Earth. Sci fi has a long and important literary history, and most of us grew up on sci fi. I hope Cli Fi will have a long and important literary history, too, not replacing sci fi, but merely going in a different direction. As I see it, the two genres are not opposed, but joined at the place where writers and scriptwriters play with their imaginations. Sci fi will always have a place in our culture, for sure. And now, as the reality of climate change sinks in year by year, IPCC report by IPCC report, Cli Fi will take up a new and important place in the arts.
Most Cli Fi will not be sci fi, but some sci fi could qualify as Cli Fi, too. So there will be a mixing of genres in some cases, and writers will find their way — and feel their way — on their own.
Sci fi movies or novels can also be Cli Fi, if they delve into climate themes, even climate themes on faraway planets such as the climate on Mars or Jupiter, and Cli Fi movies and movies can also be sci fi in some cases, if their main theme is climate but with a sci fi twist. For example, a new movie set for late 2014 release from director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, is a sci fi movie but with a strong Cli Fi sub-theme as well. So some novels and movies can cross the lines between sci fi and Cli Fi.
Do you think disaster movies are helping or harmful to the Cli Fi genre as a rule?
In general, I feel that disaster movies are helpful to the rise of Cli Fi and not harmful at all. Raising public awareness is pivotal in terms of understanding climate change impacts on humankind
in the future, so disaster movies have an important role to play in the rise of Cli Fi, including Soylent Green (1973), Escape From New York (1981), Escape From L.A. (1996), Southland Tales (2006), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013). Movies, perhaps more than novels, impact the public more than ever these days.
The Fifth Sacred Thing is soon to be a feature film, too, I have heard.
The thing is for the movie directors to try to get the science of climate change right, and while not every Cli Fi movie will be written by a scientist with a PHD in climate science, I think Hollywood is moving in the right direction with Noah now and Interstellar coming later in the year.
One the one hand, disaster movies are mere escapism and entertainment. But on the other hand, they have a role to play in raising awareness about the iffy future our descendants are going to face during the next 30 generations, if we get that far.
Do you have anything you would like to say in closing?
Where ”Cli Fi” as a genre will go in the future is anyone’s guess, and time will tell. Literary critics and media observers around the world will likely add their input to the meme and what direction it goes, as will academics and newspaper editorial writers. But the real direction of Cli Fi novels and movies will be determined by the men and women who sit down to write Cli Fi novels and Cli Fi movie scripts and TV shows, so the real work on this evolving genre will be done by writers themselves, from many nations, and in many languages. My hope for the genre is that is will lead to increased public awareness worldwide about the very real dangers of unstopped climate change and unstopped global warming due to the excessive amounts of fossil fuels the human race is burning and putting into the Earth’s fragile atmosphere every day. My hope is that Cli Fi novels and movies will play a big role in both preparing humanity for what is coming down the road, three to thirty generations from now, and in helping the to stop the insanity that we humans are allowing to happen on our watch here on Earth. So for me, Cli Fi is not just an evolving literary genre; it must also serve as a global alarm bell about what we are doing to our climate and how this will impact future generations of humans, if there are to be any. For the rest of my life, I will be watching from the sidelines of the internet to see how Cli Fi reaches out and increases public awareness, hopefully reaching our leaders in government around the world. They have the power to stop this insane build-up of carbon dioxide that threatens to put an end to the human species within the next 500 to 1000 years. Cli Fi novels and movies can help raise the public discussion to a higher level.