July 27, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate fiction: The anticipation and exploration of plausible futures

A few days ago Paul Collins asked me whether an emerging fictional genre, namely climate fiction or cli-fi, could help engage people with climate change. I had to confess that I had come across this new genre but had not thought about it in depth. This type of ignorance and confusion has never prevented me from writing blog posts in the past! So what I’ll do today is explore the contours of my gap in knowledge of all things cli-fi. Lots has been written about this genre already, in particular on blogs, in magazine, such as Time Magazine and in newspaper, such as the Washington Post or the Financial Times. But it doesn’t seem to have attracted sustained scholarly attention yet (nothing on google scholar), although I think this will change as growing interest in cli-fi will converge with interests in environmental humanities, ecocriticism, literary fiction studies, and so on.

However, I wondered what a new angle on this phenomenon could be, an angle that was more ‘me’… Recently, quite a few posts on this blog have been devoted to responsible research and innovation, and quite a few more are in prospect. Part of this new way of looking at science and technology assessment (plus risk assessment plus public engagement plus the exploration of ethical, social and legal issues) is ‘anticipatory governance’. According to the World Future Society this new type of governance merges “foresight with policy” and is intended “to reduce a people’s susceptibility to future contingencies (aka ‘wild cards’ or ‘black swans’)” (the concept is partially inspired by work on nanotechnology governance by David Guston).

This made me think a bit more about ‘anticipation’, so difficult to achieve in real life, so easy to read about in fiction – and I chose this as my angle for this post.

In the following, I’ll briefly point towards what cli-fi might be and where readers can find more information; I shall then talk about anticipation literature as a (French) sub-genre of science fiction and then get back to anticipatory governance and the question of public engagement with climate change – a question, I should say from the outset, I will not be able to answer. I should also stress that I am no sci-fi or cli-fi expert, so I would like to hear from people who are!


Cli-fi or climate (change) fiction, a new genre of fiction related to but quite different from science fiction, began to emerge about a decade ago, around 2005 and is gradually gathering speed, growing in popularity and attracting attention especially during periods of extreme weather, such as heat waves and floods. The genre spans novels, games, films and more. Modern cli-fi novels have links to older work, for example J. G. Ballard’s 1962 Drowned World or Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic Dune.

As Wikipedia points out, “]c]li-fi novels and films are often set in either the present or the near or distant future, but they can also be set in the past. Many cli-fi works raise awareness about the major threats that climate change and global warming present to life on Earth…The term ‘cli-fi’ was popularized by climate activist Danny Bloom and Wired reporter Scott Thill.”

Classics are Michael Crichton’s State of Fear published in 2004 and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl published in 2009, but everybody will have their own views on what belongs on a cli-fi list or not. The former novel engages in a critique of climate change science and scientists (or rather eco-terrorists), whereas the latter accepts climate science’s premises, which seems to be the case in many cli-fi novels.

Quite a few belong to the post-apocalyptic genre, imagining, anticipating and exploring a future after a climatic apocalypse. Such explorations link back to older Russian writing, according to the sci-fi expert Csicsery-Ronay who is quoted in a blog post: “The Russians… had a category, late 19th century, early 20th century, called the ‘If-This-Goes-On Fiction,’ kind of a warning,’ he says, ‘a particular kind of dystopian fiction, that if a certain trend goes on, and we don’t stop, then this is what’s going to happen.’” This seems to be a characteristic of many recent cli-fi novels.

Anticipation, expectations and visions of the future

Similarly, in a 2012 article for the New York Times James Gunn, founding director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, points out that: “Science fiction writers aren’t in the prediction business; they’re in the speculation business, using ‘hasn’t happened’ or ‘hasn’t happened yet’ to create entertaining scenarios that may or may not anticipate future realities. They’re wrong more often than they’re right — maybe 9 to 1 — but in the anticipation business, that’s a pretty good ratio.”

This quote made me think a bit more about ‘anticipation’. This is the stuff we are concerned with all the time, be it as a scientist working on an IPCC report, be it as a policy maker having to make decisions about the future, be it as a social scientist engaged in stimulating responsible research and innovation. Anticipation, forecasting, foresight, prediction, simulation, modelling, speculation, fiction – the boundaries are rather fluid and all entail a hefty dose of imagination – perhaps more controlled in modelling, perhaps less controlled in science fiction, including climate fiction.

Anticipation seems to be a particular sub-genre of science fiction, a topic discussed mainly by French scholars. The term ‘anticipation’ was, apparently used as a general term for science fiction before the term ‘science fiction’ was introduced in 1929. However, today anticipation novels typically deal with the exploration of a sub-type of (sci-fi) futures, namely credible, probably and plausible futures. The anticipation genre emerged from a confluence of other genres such as imaginary voyages, utopian and dystopian fiction and adventure stories. And, of course, Jules Verne’s work belongs to this genre.

As one French blog post points out, “Le genre ‘Climate Fiction’ proposé par Dan Bloom correspond à de l’anticipation climatique, c’est à dire une spéculation romancée des enjeux et changements climatiques attendus à l’aube de ce nouveau millénaire, ainsi que la discussion de leurs impacts sur l’environnement et nos sociétés.” (The genre ‘Climate Fiction’ proposed by Dan Bloom corresponds to climate anticipation, that is, a fictionalised speculation about issues regarding climate change expected at the dawn of this new millennium, and the discussion of their impacts on the environment and our societies.”)

Anticipation shares certain semantic and conceptual properties with ‘expectation’ and thus perhaps might and should become a concern for the sociology of expectations. This type of sociology examines how anticipated or envisioned futures (hopes, fears, uncertainties) are used to shape and manipulate the present. I have not seen sociology of expectation scholars engage with anticipation yet and certainly not with anticipation fiction and cli-fi. However, I found one Science and Technology Studies course at Cornell devoted to ‘anticipation’. It asks for example: “How are society and subjectivities reoriented in anticipating these impending futures?” These are questions that sci-fi and cli-fi literatures address. And these are also issues that cli-fi scholars and Science and Technology or STS scholars could try to examine together (with science fiction scholars and so on).


So, why is cli-fi important and should be studied more? First, it attests to the vitality of sci-fi as it gives birth to a new genre which, according to Dan Bloom, rather then looking “outward at the stars and the cosmos, … looks inward, at our warming planet, this third rock from the sun, a planet in trouble” and tries to anticipate, imagine and, to some extent, prevent its future. Second, its growth attests to a growing concern amongst ‘ordinary’ people (‘publics’), readers, gamers about climate change, at least a growing curiosity.

Bloom claims that cli-fi is “where data meets emotions”. It might be that cli-fi brings modelling from the laboratory bench (imagine rows of supercomputers) to people’s bedside (imaging reading a cli-fi novel in bed). However, unlike scientific climate modellers, writers and readers of cli-fi novels are ‘allowed’, indeed it is their task, to extrapolate from modelling certain scientific futures to imaging, exploring and testing out political futures. This means that cli-fi novels provide a space for engaging in and with climate science as well as climate politics, albeit in a fictional way.

This brings us to the question that Paul posed. Can cli-fi be useful for public engagement with climate change (and thus contribute perhaps to anticipatory governance, responsible innovation etc.)? It certainly ‘engages’ a growing community of readers, it seems. However, this community is still quite a niche community. I don’t know how ‘engaged’ readers within this community (or out in the wider world) become with issues of climate change after reading cli-fi novels or watching cli-fi films…. Of course, one should not forget that cli-fi novels of the State of Fear type might also lead to disengagement with climate change and that lots of people read things just for fun and entertainment and not for ‘education’ and/or ‘engagement’.

There must be some research out there on these topics. If anybody knows about cli-fi (or nature fiction) readership and public engagement let me know. I just found one research project using digital methods which looks quite intriguing, but it doesn’t deal with the engagement issue.

Image: John Martin, The Deluge, 1834 Wikipedia


Correction: after some feedback from Dan Bloom and others I deleted the clause where I said that cli-fi was a genre or sub-genre of science fiction.


In 2012 Judith Curry published a post on cli-fi and climate scientists

For those interested in cli-fi please consult Clifibooks.com, which is nearly a year old and has built an online library of over 150 books in this genre and about 40 more books in another newer “shelf” of other environmental literature. See also Goodreads for an expanding list of books.

Since the publication of this post clifi has attracted some more attention in The New York Times. And there will be more I am sure.

And, finally, Margaret Atwood will be speaking about creative writing and science at Arizona State University in November, a University to which my co-director on the Making Science Public programme, Sujatha Raman, has just gone for a year. Atwood’s visit will mark the launch of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative.

People who want to stay in tune with developments might want join the Cli-fi Central Facebook group maintained by Paul Collins: https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/320538704765997/.


Dan Bloom has alerted me to a new website and research resource: cli-fi.net

Ted Howell has alerted me to a series of student blog posts. He is teaching an English Literature class at Temple University on Cli-Fi. They have a course blog: http://sites.temple.edu/clifi. His aim was to situate the genre within larger discussions about science fiction’s anticipatory bent and the impact of apocalyptic fictions.








Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScience Fiction