Thursday, July 10, 2014


Is climate change due for its own 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'? The 1852 bestseller transformed abolitionism into a mainstream cause, helping to lay the groundwork for the Civil War. Evocative, simple, searing, it moved the needle in ways hundreds of meetings, speeches and reports never could. Over the last few years, a new brand of "cli-fi" literature has been popping up. The genre, which grapples with the ways our changing weather will impact human life, aims to create its own kind of awareness and action around the issues of climate change and man-made global warming. Rising sea levels, increasing numbers of floods and droughts and global conferences to grapple with the problems call for a response from novelists and screenwriters. The climate-change canon dates back to the 1962 novel ''The Drowned World," by British sci-fi writer JG Ballard. The novel's depicts a future world where the polar ice-caps have melted melt and global temperatures have soared, with Ballard showing readers in the early 1960s scenes where some coastal American and European cities are underwater. Submerged. The author mined the idea that a natural catastrophe could cause the real world to become a dreamscape. Ballard wrote and marketed the novel as sci-fi since he had not heard of the cli-genre yet. Did it reach a large audience or cause much of any impact on public awareness of coming superstorms and devastatng floods? No, it was just a novel and it disappeared over time, only to be rediscovered by a new generation facing the new reality of climate change and rising sea levels. Another early book about climate change and rising sea levels was written in 1987 by Australian George Turner, titled "The Sea and Summer." While the idea that climate change is a man-made phenomenon was not current when Ballard and Turner were writing, their novels were prescient. Perhaps the first modern novel in the 21st century to address the issue of man-made climate change was Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior" in 2012. Her novel set the tone for how serious climate fiction can attract a following because she dared to create a scientist as one of her central characters who did not flinch from the truth of what we are all facing today. But the poster boy for the cli-fi genre is Nathaniel Rich, whose "Odds Against Tomorrow" sold over 100,000 copies in hardback and paperback and drew major media attention. 'Rolling Stone' called Rich's book "the first great climate-change novel." A resident of New Orleans, he believes that more books like his will be published - not just in English, and not just from the perspective of Western writers in wealthy nations. ''I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part, are examples of bad writing, really," Rich told NPR last year. []. His book aimed to be part of a sea change in American literature. Let's hope so. Other 'cli-fi' novelists include Chang-rae Lee ("On Such a Full Sea)" and Edna Lupecki ("California"). I recently asked Lupecki if one could refer to her new novel as a cli fi book, and she replied to me in a tweet: "I myself would not refer to it as cli fi, but if someone wanted to call it that, I wouldn't argue." In addition, a growing number of cli-fi novels are targeting a youthful YA audience - such as Mindy McGinnis' "Not a Drop to Drink," "The Carbon Diaries 2015" by Saci Lloyd, and "Survival Colony 9" by Joshua David Bellin (due out in September from a major New York publisher). With the popularity of "Hunger Games" -- both the novels in the series and the movies -- YA books have been flooding the market and gaining increased respectability. The trickle has become a flood. Joe Romm at ThinkProgress recently weighed in on the cli-fi genre [], writing: "The Hunger Games" books are clearly CliFi, but it is much more debatable whether the movies are, since they are stripped of any climate references." I know a little about cli-fi because I have been working for the past few years to popularize it in the English-speaking world and also among the billions of people who read in Spanish, Chinese, German and Portuguese. My approach has been through a thorough public relations campaign to give the term some air. Using my media contacts as a lifelong reporter, I worked hard over the past 12 months to get news articles about cli-fi published in NPR, the New York Times, The Guardian and Time magazine. As a result, media in Brazil, Taiwan and Spain picked up the English-language links and rewrote them in various languages. I also targetted science blogs, literary blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook to boost the fortunes of this mushrooming little genre. And my daily PR work paid off. If you Google cli-fi today, over 3,000 links come up. A big question that needs to be addressed is this: have cli fi novels and the interest in the cli fi genre sparked any kind of change in the literary world or in society at large? That's hard to say. But a FaceBook group for cli-fi writes,moderated by Paul Collins in London and called "Cli-Fi Central" has over 100 memners, including Edan Lupecki, Joshua David Bellin and literary critic Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow. It's a private FaceBook group comprised of novelists, public relations professionals, academics and critics, it's growing daily. In addition, dozens of blogs now have the cli fi genre as a theme, and have sprung up not only in North America, but in France and Holland as well. When the sea levels rise and the Climapocalypse begins in earnset, the coastal cities of all nations on Earth will be in its path, so this new literary genre, while born in America. has gone global. One of the biggest boosters of cli-fi on Twitter has been Margaret Atwood, who does not call her own novels cli-fi, but has told me in an email that she likes the term and understands what I am trying to do with it: build a platform for future writers to do their own world-building. Atwood first tweeted about cli-fi in 2011. As Sarah Stone put it in a review of Edan Lepucki's post-apocalyptic novel 'California' []. "If we survive -- truly, and not in the unhappy ways depicted [in "California'] -- it will be in part because of books like this one, which go beyond abstract predictions and statistics to show the moment-by-moment reality of a painful possible future, the price we may have to pay for our passionate devotion to all the wrong things," Stone wrote. Several U.S. and British universities are now offering literature courses on cli-fi novels and movies, as J.L. Morin recently noted at Huffington Post []. At the University of Oregon, a graduate seminar for students working on degrees in environmental studies and literature, was taught last semester by English professor Stephanie LeMenager. Her class was called "The Cultures of Climate Change," and it was written up last April in the New York Times. In Britain, Jenny Bavidge is offering a class this month called "Cli-Fi? Climate change and contemporary fiction" at University of Cambridge. Cli-fi is having its moment, not only in the media and the publishing world, but in academia,too. Several online academic journals in Australia, the U.S and Britain have already focused on the cli-fi theme. LeMenager told the Times she created the UO graduate seminar not to "marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects." Rather, she said, she wanted to consider the human impact: how we "think about it, prepare for it and respond to it." "Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies," LeMenager said. "The time isn't to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. I wanted to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem." Los Angeles media observer Scott Thill, a former Wired reporter who used the cli-fi term as far back as 2009, is writing a nonfiction book about the term now, telling me in a recent email that he sees cli-fi not as a marketing buzzword but as a "cultural prism" with which one can look anew at society in terms of not just novels or movies but also in terms of politics, economics and news headlines. Thill tweets almost daily about cli-fi themes and often uses the #clifi hashtag as well. So where is cli-fi headed. We won't know until the reallly hard work is done by more and more novelists and screenwriters. In the end,it's the writers and film directors who will be doing the heavy lifting. So is climate change due for its own 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'? Yes. AUTHOR ID: Dan Bloom is a freelance reporter based in Taiwan. He studied literature at Tufts in the 1960s and has roamed the world, living in France, Italy and Japan. He spent 12 years in Alaska where many of his ideas for the cli-fi genre came to him, admidst the constant rain of Juneau and the frozen seas along the winter coasts of Nome.

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