Saturday, July 26, 2014


A few days ago Paul Collins in Bristol, UK, asked me whether an emerging fictional genre, namely climate fiction or ''cli-fi'', could help engage people with climate change. I had to confess that I had come across this new genre but had not thought about it in depth.======================== So what I’ll do today is explore the contours of my gap in knowledge of all things cli-fi in the sense of climate fiction. A lot has been written about this genre already, in particular on blogs and in newspapers. But it doesn’t seem to have attracted real scholarly attention yet (nothing on google scholar), although I think this will change as growing interest in cli-fi will converge with interests in environmental humanities, ecocriticism, science fiction studies, and so on. =================== However, I wondered what a new angle on this phenomenon could be, an angle that was more ‘me’... Recently, quite a few posts on this blog have been devoted to responsible research an innovation, and quite a few more are in prospect. Part of this new way of looking at science and technology assessment (plus risk assessment plus public engagement plus the exploration of ethical, social and legal issues around emerging sciences and technologies) is ‘anticipatory governance’. According to the World Future Society this new type of governance merges “foresight with policy” and is intended “ to reduce a people’s susceptibility to future contingencies (aka ‘wild cards’ or ‘black swans’)” (the concept is partially inspired by work on nanotechnology governance by David Guston). ========= This made me think a bit more about ‘anticipation’, so difficult to achieve in real life, so easy to read about in fiction. ================== In the following, I’ll briefly point towards what cli-fi might be and where readers can find more information; I shall then talk about anticipation literature as a (French) sub-genre of science fiction and then get back to anticipatory governance and the question of public engagement with climate change - a question, I should say from the outset, I will not really be able to answer. More research needed! I should also stress that I am no sci-fi or cli-fi expert, so I would like to hear from people who are!=============== = Cli-fi or climate (change) (science) fiction, a new genre of ‘sci-fi’, began to emerge about a decade ago, around 2005 and is gradually gathering speed, growing in popularity and attracting attention especially during periods of extreme weather, such as heat waves. The genre spans novels, games, films and more. Modern cli-fi novels have links to older work, for example J. G. Ballard’s 1962 Drowned World or Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic Dune. ================== As Wikipedia points out, “]c]li-fi novels and films are often set in either the present or the near or distant future, but they can also be set in the past. Many cli-fi works raise awareness about the major threats that climate change and global warming present to life on Earth...The term ‘cli-fi’ was popularized by climate activist Danny Bloom and Wired reporter Scott Thill.” Classics are Michael Crichton’s State of Fear published in 2004 and Paola Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl published in 2009, but everybody will have their own views on this. The former novel engages in a critique of climate change science, whereas the latter accepts its premises, which seems to be the case in many cli-fi novels. Quite a few belong to the post-apocalyptic genre, imagining, anticipating and exploring a future after a climatic apocalypse. Such explorations link back to older Russian writing, according to the sci-fi expert Csicsery-Ronay who is quoted in a blog post: “The Russians... had a category, late 19th century, early 20th century, called the ‘If-This-Goes-On Fiction,’ kind of a warning,’ he says, ‘a particular kind of dystopian fiction, that if a certain trend goes on, and we don’t stop, then this is what’s going to happen.’” This seems to be a characteristic of many recent cli-fi novels. ==================== Anticipation, expectation and visions of the future Similarly, in a 2012 article for the New York Times James Gunn, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, points out that: “Science fiction writers aren’t in the prediction business; they’re in the speculation business, using ‘hasn’t happened’ or ‘hasn’t happened yet’ to create entertaining scenarios that may or may not anticipate future realities. They’re wrong more often than they’re right — maybe 9 to 1 — but in the anticipation business, that’s a pretty good ratio.”========== This quote made me think a bit more about ‘anticipation’. This is the stuff we are concerned with all the time, be it as a scientist working on an IPCC report, be it as a social scientist engaged in stimulating responsible research and innovation. Anticipation, forecasting, foresight, prediction, simulation, modelling, speculation, fiction - the boundaries are rather fluid and all entail a hefty dose of imagination - perhaps more controlled in modelling, perhaps less controlled in science fiction, including climate fiction. Anticipation seems to be a particular sub-genre of science fiction, a topic discussed mainly by French scholars. The term ‘anticipation’ was, apparently used as a general term for science fiction before the term ‘science fiction’ was introduced in 1929, but today anticipation novels typically deal with the exploration of a sub-type of futures, namely credible and plausible futures. The anticipation genre emerged from a confluence of other genres such as imaginary voyages, utopian and dystopian fiction and adventure stories. And, of course, Jules Verne’s oeuvre belongs to this genre.=========== As one French blog post points out, “Le genre ‘Climate Fiction’ proposé par Dan Bloom correspond à de l’anticipation climatique, c’est à dire une spéculation romancée des enjeux et changements climatiques attendus à l’aube de ce nouveau millénaire, ainsi que la discussion de leurs impacts sur l’environnement et nos sociétés.” (The genre ‘Climate Fiction’ proposed by Dan Bloom corresponds to climate anticipation, that is, a fictionalized speculation about issues regarding climate change expected at the dawn of this new millennium, and the discussion of their impacts on the environment and our societies.”) Anticipation shares certain semantic and conceptual properties with ‘expectation’ and thus perhaps might become a concern for the sociology of expectations. This type of sociology examines how anticipated futures (hopes, fears, uncertainties) are used to shape and manipulate the present. I have not seen sociology of expectation scholars engage with anticipation yet. However, I found one Science and Technology Studies course at Cornell devoted to ‘anticipation’. It asks for example: “How are society and subjectivities reoriented in anticipating these impending futures?” These are questions that sci-fi and cli-fi literature addresses. And these are also issues that cli-fi scholars and Science and Technology or STS scholars could try to examine together (with science fiction etc. scholars). Engagement? So, why is cli-fi important? First of all its growth attests to a growing concern amongst ‘ordinary’ people, readers, gamers about climate change, at least a growing curiosity. Second, it attests to the vitality of sci-fi as it gives birth to a new genre which, according to Dan Bloom, rather then looking “outward at the stars and the cosmos, … looks inward, at our warming planet, this third rock from the sun, a planet in trouble” and tries to anticipate, imagine and, to some extent, prevent its future. According to Bloom cli-fi is “where data meets emotions”. It might be that cli-fi brings modelling from the laboratory bench (imagine rows of supercomputers) to people’s bedside (imaging reading a cli-fi novel in bed). Unlike scientific modellers it is ‘allowed’, indeed, it is its task to extrapolate from modelling certain futures to exploring political futures. They provide a space for engaging in and with science as well as politics, albeit in a fictional way. This brings us to the question that Paul posed. Can cli-fi be useful for public engagement with climate change (and thus contribute perhaps to anticipatory governance, responsible innovation etc.)? It certainly ‘engages’ a growing community of readers, it seems. However, this community is still quite a niche community. I don’t know how ‘engaged’ readers within this community or out in the wider world become with issues of climate change after reading cli-fi novels or watching cli-fi films…. Of course, one should not forget that cli-fi of the States of Fear type might also lead to disengagement with climate change. There must be some research out there. If anybody knows about cli-fi readership and public engagement let me know.

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