- Fantastic Futures? Cli-fi, Climate Justice, and Queer Futurity
For me, the best of cli-fi does two things: it delivers a powerful and emotional story and it pushes the reader to wake up to the existential threat that man-made global warming poses to future generations. So good cli-fi is both a great read and a call to action, either direct or indirect. If it doesn’t wake us up, it’s just escapist entertainment. I am not interested anymore in escapism.Dan Bloom, “Q&A”
Cli-Fi, Sci-Fi, and Their Disreputable Others
[Science fiction] is an educational literature. . . . It demands . . . that the critic be a Darwinist and not a medicine man.Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction
Environmentalism has an intimate relationship to extrapolation; the basic project of sustainability requires at least an imaginative extension into the future one hopes to sustain. Often, this link is eagerly supplied by environmental narrative; as Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman put it, “ecology in general has become so closely linked to narratives of the future that even to draw attention to this link between the environment and what-is-yet-to-come can seem beside the point or even tautological.”1 In the shadow of the still-unfolding event of global warming, cli-fi, or climate change fiction, has emerged as a touchstone in climate change discourse, a genre that seems capable of anticipating and articulating future prospects of a warming world. [End Page 94]
Coined, and energetically promoted, by journalist Dan Bloom, the term “cli-fi” has recently begun to garner a great deal of critical and popular attention, with more and more texts referred to as cli-fi and that label gaining more and more credence. Cli-fi has been hailed for making otherwise-difficult-to-interpret data about the future legible to its audience; as an influential article about the genre published in Dissent in 2013 argues, by “translating graphs and scientific jargon into experience and emotion,” works of cli-fi help to “refashion myths for our age.”2 In other words, cli-fi is often claimed as a privileged genre for fashioning environmental futures.
This essay seeks to add new dimensions to current critical understandings of cli-fi’s relationship to environmental futurity. It suggests that cli-fi is not in fact a coherent genre but rather a literary preoccupation with climate futures that draws from a wide range of popular genres. The critical response to cli-fi has thus far generically flattened the term, emphasizing its association with the realistic literary strategies commonly associated with scientific knowledge while excluding other genres. Yet a more nuanced account of cli-fi’s generic constitution reveals new aspects of the relationship between cli-fi and ecological futurity. Indeed, cli-fi’s use of multiple genres is an integral part of the way it narratively conjures the future—a conjuring that inflects the representation of climate justice and the queer politics of futurity itself. This is to say that the implications of how different genres articulate climate change are twofold. First, representations of climate futures matter in terms of climate justice, or the effort to combat the way that climate change is disproportionately caused and disproportionately experienced along lines of privilege. Climate justice narratives thus require an attention both to the likelihood of climate injustice in the future and to the way that such injustice is rooted, and indeed ongoing, in the present moment. Second, representations of climate futures matter in terms of resisting heteronormative systems, or the vexed relationship that queer scholarship has identified between futurity and reproductive politics. Queer climate narratives thus require sensitivity to the heteronormative values that often undergird accounts of our ethical relationship to the future. As a literary genre defined by its interest in ecological futures, cli-fi, and its relationships to climate justice and to queer temporality, is ripe for such investigation.
I begin this essay by exploring the corpus and reception of “cli-fi.” [End Page 95] I then compare that reception to critical histories of science fiction, showing how troubling assumptions about the relative merit of different genres echo across these fields. Next, I offer a...