Thoughts on the genre from J.K. Ullrich, whose Blue Karma is a finalist in the 2015 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Indie Book
by J.K. Ullrich
In the carnival of literature, science fiction is the House of Mirrors, inviting readers to explore distorted reflections of their own world. The genre’s classics reveal a timeline of twentieth-century anxieties. Fascism in the 1930s inspired iconic dystopias like1984. Post-World War II tales like A Canticle for Leibowitz exploited fears of nuclear holocaust. During cultural shifts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, sci-fi authors pioneered themes of sexuality and alienation. The 1980s computer revolution spawned the cyberpunk sub-genre. Now, after the millennium’s turn, a new theme has emerged on the continuum: climate fiction.
Nicknamed “cli-fi,” these stories envision social and environmental impacts of climate change. For writers and readers of my generation—raised amidst “save the Earth” campaigns and schooled in the dangers of deforestation instead of our parents’ atomic bomb drills—this is the future we anticipate. Many of us have witnessed changes in our own local environments, so exploring these outcomes in fiction resonates deeply with our own experience.
But cli-fi isn’t just a platform for bleak prophecies: it’s fertile ground for exciting stories. A nudge of imagination turns today’s news headlines into epic dramas. Cataclysms such as air pollution and rising seas elide seamlessly with timeless science fiction tropes like apocalyptic survival. The result, searingly relevant themes and identifiable scenarios, gives cli-fi a uniquely visceral impact. The stories may be fiction, but the facts behind them are all too real. Some educators even champion cli-fi as a teaching tool, bridging the gap between science and the humanities.
Although the publishing industry has been slow in warming to cli-fi, an underground torrent runs beneath the mainstream. A search for “climate fiction” in the book category of Amazon.com returns more than 1,800 results, many published independently. Again, fiction runs parallel to social realities. While powerful institutions—governments, corporations, or publishing houses—look the other way, individuals are unafraid to speak. Because cli-fi represents more than just our fears. It also affirms our belief in human resiliency, and our hope that it’s not too late to change.