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.)




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