Archive for the ‘Words to Watch’ Category


Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Via Michael Quinion, I’ve discovered a new subgenre of SF (or, rather, a new name for a subgenre of SF), cli-fi, short for climate fiction, created by analogy to sci-fi. It refers to fiction that deals with climate change, and therefore includes both disaster and post-disaster stories, like J. G. Ballard’s classic The Drowned World (which features climate change as a result of natural, rather than human, forces), as well as works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy (not to mention Antartica and parts of the “Mars” books) that I probably wouldn’t classify as either disaster or post-disaster novels. I note in passing that, thus far, the term doesn’t seem to be applied to works in which aliens change the Earth’s climate as a terraforming exercise, as in Gwynneth Jones’ The North Wind, but cli-fi is still nascent as a genre label, so I would hesitate to make too many generalizations about it’s use at this point.

The earliest cite I can find in the relevant sense is from a 2009 review of The Age of Stupid in Wired by Scott Thill. It’s an unusual first use, in that it’s used in passing in the “Wired/Tired” section at the end of the review:

Wired: Killer CGI, dystopian cli-fi, heart-wrenching footage

Most reports on the term cite a second use by Thill in Wired in 2010, which is much more satisfying as far a citations go:

The cli-fi flick finds Bones’ Brendan Fehr and Alias’ Victor Garber struggling to survive after the Alaskan permafrost thaws, unleashing subterranean rivers of volatile liquid methane and planet-killing earthquakes on Christmas Eve.

In a tweet, he implies that Wired didn’t care for the term, which explains why it only shows up twice on

It got a bump in a tweet by Margaret Atwood, presumably this one, from Jan. 14, 2012:

“Polar Cities” Sci-fi-cli-fi: : …

It’s pretty much everywhere now, as a Google search will attest. Dan Bloom maintains a blog dedicated to both the term and the genre; WordSpy has covered it; and it naturally has a Wikipedia article. Dan Bloom himself claims to have coined it, although I can find no evidence online (take that for what it’s worth). Regardless of the coinage, it seems to be quite trendy right now. Certainly, there is a large amount of fiction (both prose and film) addressing issues of climate change, and this is only likely to continue. If having a handy label continues to be useful for discussing them, we’ll probably be hearing about cli-fi for a while to come. (And if the media really takes to it, crotchety people might start talking about cliffy — really bad examples of cli-fi.)

(As I implied earlier, cli-fi has had an admittedly brief earlier career as a shortening of climbing fiction, although Googling only shows two uses total, first apparently in 2005, one of them embedded in an otherwise Czech title, which doesn’t suggest that it’s much more than a nonce occurrence.)




“The Black”

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

This is a term I’ve always associated with the Firefly theme song, and in fact, had assumed was one that Joss Whedon had made up (and he may have done so, independently). It turns out that the OED SF citations project has a cite for this as well, although it’s only in the quotation for “spacer” (it’s the 1986 cite), rather than as its own catchword. Now I’m wondering if this use is actually more common, or whether these are two isolated instances. There’s no easy way to determine this, of course — I haven’t encountered it elsewhere in my research, and nobody has suggested it to us at the OED project, and there searching for instances of “the black” in places like Google books and Amazon (which both have good collections of recent SF) is a completely futile endeavor. Even a corpus might have difficulty with it, since “black” can be a noun in other senses. I’m not betting on its being very common, so I’m not bothering to put it on the OED site (we have a backlog of many much more promising suggestions as it is), but I’ll have my eyes out for it, nonetheless.

SF Word Watch

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Paranormal romance. A subgenre of blending romance fiction with imaginative fiction. I found this in an article in the Internet Review of Science Fiction. One interesting (to me, anyway) thing about this term is that the subgenre it describes can include elements of either SF or fantasy/horror, even though “paranormal” usually refers to supernatural phenomena. Not that I think this is wrong, I just think it’s interesting. The history of SF/F/H nomenclature is full of modifiers that don’t necessarily make sense on their own, starting with “imaginative fiction.” I’m here to tell you, if you haven’t noticed already, that a great deal of SF/F/H shows very little imagination on the part of the author. But that doesn’t matter, really, because “imaginative fiction” doesn’t mean “fiction that’s imaginative,” it means fiction that is set in a world that is different in some way from our own. If you worry too much about these things, you can use “non-mimetic fiction” instead of “imaginative fiction,” but you’d still be stuck with “science (or speculative) fiction” which has its own problems. My own favorite of these terms is the doomed-to-failure “different” story (quite often with the quotes), which hung around for a few decades in the pulp era. (“Doomed” because a magazine can’t realistically keep promising different stories every issue, and expect readers to know, unequivocally, what they mean.