Fiction is the societal dream, one might say. Dreams embody our hopes and our fears, our expectations and assumptions, our frustrations and contradictions. When we are trying to figure something out on a deep level, recurrent dreams sometimes help us wrestle with possibilities we aren’t able to understand while awake. So, too, with fiction.
I developed this idea myself, although I’m sure I’m not the first or the only person to have done so. When I heard about how the Godzilla movies are, in their original Japanese context, about nuclear weapons, I immediately thought about dream imagery, how the mind seeks to process events through metaphor and allusion.
When I was 19, I pulled the front break on my bicycle by mistake, flew off into the air, and broke my pelvis. The pelvis is a very personal bone to break, because it lies at the body’s core. It felt like I’d broken me. I’d never broken a major bone before or had any serious medical problem. For the first time since I could remember, I was unable to walk. I dreamed, over and over, that my body was being replaced by that of an alien or a robot. In time, I healed completely and the body snatching dreams went away. Maybe someday the Japanese will heal completely and Godzilla will go away. The monster’s American fans will be disappointed.
On America’s psyche, right now, and that of all other “developed” nations in the world, rests global warming. We know, many of us, what is happening, what has to be done, and what is likely to happen if we continue to not do it. But for us, climate change is not just a logistical and technical crisis but a two-edged existential threat. If we continue to do nothing, life as we know it ends and something else happens. But in order to avert such catastrophe we must change our economy and society radically and thus, also, ends life as we know it. And what comes after, and how we get there from here, we do not know.
And so we dream.
Most fiction ignores climate change. Of books and movies that have come out in the past 30 years, most treat climate as a non-issue; those set in the near future do not even anticipate changes in climate as part of the background, unless climate change is in some way the point of the tale. The Matrix movies, for example, centered around several plot devices that utterly ignore the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the way Earth’s atmosphere works (hint: if the sky is “scorched” such that solar-powered machines cannot operate and there is no non-synthetic food, why is there still free oxygen?). When we dream, the carbon cycle still feels beside the point. Collectivity, we aren’t convinced it is really real.
Fortunately, there are exceptions.
The term “cli-fi,” for climate fiction, is being popularized by the Cli-Fi Books website, which publicizes books that deal with climate change in some way (fiction or otherwise). The website also publishes reviews, interviews with authors, and essays on climate change in literature, film, and journalism. From the site:
“Cli-fi” is a useful label to describe literature, film, and other creative media that involves climate change fiction, whose genres may be speculative, literary, or science fiction. Cli-fi is not necessarily always set in the future nor always apocalyptic. Look at Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, for instance, which tells a present-day story of Monarch butterflies that have migrated to the Appalachian Mountains rather than to their normal Mexican winter habitat. Cli-fi should be seen as wildly creative and inventive. It is both reactive and proactive. It is open-ended.
Cli-fi therefore transcends genres and unites creative works whose authors might not have thought of themselves as a group. The website is pretty clearly trying, not just to publicize books on a subject, but to create a new lens through which to think and talk about literature.
I have a mixed reaction to this development. On the one hand, I am concerned that grouping these stories together under the cli-fi heading might create a sort of intellectual ghetto for the topic. That global warming might continue to be seen as a specialty concern, to be safely ignored when people are not in the mood. But on the other hand, if we do not begin and continue the hard work of dreaming our way through the issue, how are we ever going to be able to deal with climate change while awake? The cli-fi label might become an effective way of getting these stories into the national (and international) context where they need to be.
Cli-Fi Books subdivides its reviews into subgenres, such as apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and young adult. Such categories primarily serve to direct readers towards the books that best suit their personal tastes, a fine thing for a reviewer to do. But for the purposes of social commentary it might be better to subdivide cli-fi in a more function-oriented way. For example, is the book (or movie) trying to say something about global warming, or does it just mention global warming in the course of talking about something else? The Korean movie, Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel and now set for limited release in the US, is set in an ice-age triggered by a failed attempt to stop global warming. Climate change is therefor a dominant force in the story. But the story is not actually about climate change, it is about social class. South Korea is dreaming about North Korea’s totalitarian regime. So is it cli-fi or not?
I can suggest several subheadings based on how a work of fiction engages with climate change: warnings, or dystopian novels about what might happen if we don’t deal with global warming; explorations of options, or what life might be like if we do; science education, or fictional vehicles for presenting climate science concepts; and acknowledgement, or stories that are not about climate change per se but do acknowledge that it is happening.
That last one may be especially important as a way to drive home the reality of our situation. The truth is that fiction set twenty or fifty or a hundred years in the future can no more ignore changes in climate (or changes in economy and technology that prevented changes in climate) than they can ignore changes in fashion or technology. Fictional characters set in the future shouldn’t dress the same as we do or use the same gadgets as we do, and writers know that. Those characters shouldn’t have the same weather as we do, either. Keeping the world as we know it isn’t an option.
Obviously, such categories overlap. But there are and will be some cli-fi stories that defy functional categorization because they have no particular message, or some important aspects of them have no particular message, and yet they mull, they explore, they grieve, and they question. Nature’s End, for example, works as an effectively creepy warning, but it also does something else. There is a badguy, but he is a badguy offering a cynical, but perhaps radical and maybe effective, kind of hope. Are the protagonists really correct to reject his plan? The book poses more questions than it answers. It is a restless dream.
And that is, ultimately, what dreaming is for. We can construct rational plans and cogent arguments while awake, and we should, and people are. But underneath, the way we think and feel about the world has to shift. We have to entertain nightmarish possibilities and face them and see what they’re really about. Dreams are good for all of this, the subterranean shifts that occur where the waking mind cannot follow.
We have to dream. And then we have to wake up.