Last week I talked about cli-fi, a new literary genre being promoted as a way to expand social awareness of climate issues. I regard this an an essentially good and helpful development, though with certain caveats I’ll get to later. But climate is a big topic that interpenetrates other topics almost without end. Virtually any book about anything could reasonably be said to have a climate component. Where do we draw the line?
For example, take Grumbles: The Novel, by Karen Faris.
On the face of it, this is an interesting book that isn’t about climate change. Or, rather, it is very much about a change in the climate, but not one directly due to the greenhouse effect. The novel is set in a dystopian future in which a dictator has somehow frozen the weather of the American Northeast at 72° and sunny for years on end. How this happened, or where the water for the thriving (but disturbing) plant life comes from, is not explained. Scientific explanation is not the point. The whole story has a disjointed zaniness that is at first funny (Ms. Faris freely claims Douglas Adams as a literary influence) but gradually develops the feel of nightmare.
And yet, Ms. Faris publicly describes Grumbles as an example of cli-fi. She is one of the authors advancing the concept.
Grumbles does have a message. It isn’t purely a zany romp and its resonance with reality is exactly what makes its fantasy elements memorable and creepy. For example, the title character, secret agent Pettie Grumbles (that’s her on the cover) is also a criminal because she grows and consumes a contraband plant. Drugs? No–her secret crop is the sweet potato. She lives in a world in which only industrialized, pre-processed food is legal. The insane force of the war on drugs has been brought to bear on home vegetable gardens and home cooking. Far-fetched? Maybe not, given that American agricultural regulations favor large, industrialized growers and one of the Supreme Court justices is a former employee of agribusiness giant, Monsanto. A half-dozen different issues cast their shadows over the novel, from invasive plants to social justice to fracking. And that’s just the first of the trilogy. The second one is coming out this summer, on Saturday, June 14th.
But climate change?
Ms. Faris acknowledges the validity of the question but explains:
Everything is connected and everything that you’ve mentioned—including trying to control the weather–falls under the climate change umbrella. I would caution against defining climate change too narrowly. You can’t just say oh global warming is only about temperature and rising sea levels, although these things are its dramatic effects. Why do we have climate change? Climate change is happening because of the intersection of how humans are using their resources and what the ecosystem can support.
On the one hand, a “narrow” definition of climate change–changing climate–is, in fact, correct. Not all environmental issues are climate change, even if all of them are connected in some way. But on the other hand, Ms. Faris isn’t really talking about climatology. As a former municipal conservation board member, she is hardly indifferent to conservation science. Her website doesn’t just publicize her book, it also discusses a wide range of environmental issues intelligently and well. But her creative muse seems less interested in science than in people, what people do and why they do it and how a novelist might be able to get through to them. And while climate change as a scientific issue is distinctly different from, say, genetically modified organisms or excessive and toxic lawn care, Ms. Faris is quite correct that, as social and psychological issues, these are all the same.
So, what is cli-fi? Does it include only stories firmly rooted in climate science? Does it include only stories that, like Grumbles, seek to actually do something about our environmental crisis? Or should stories that, like the movies A.I. and Waterworld, are not about climate change but include climate change as part of their back-story also count?
Here is where the caveat that I mentioned at the beginning comes in.
My concern is that cli-fi, if used as a way to categorize books for marketing purposes, could have the effect of keeping climate change marginalized. After all, if there is a section of a bookstore labeled “cli-fi,” then it follows that the books in all the other sections are not about climate and readers can decide which section to shop based on their interests. In real life, of course, climate is unavoidable because we live on planet Earth. Whether a writer wants to address global warming specifically or not, climate, like money, food, and gravity, climate is one of the background factors the characters have to deal with, unless the writer decides to pretend otherwise.
I have no objection to marketing books as dealing with climate in particularly interesting ways. Whatever gets my fellow authors the attention they deserve. But I’d rather see the cli-fi lens used to discuss books more than to sell them. How a book addresses climate should be, like how a book addresses race, gender, or other politically sensitive issues, one of the ways we talk about what a book means to its readership. As Karen Faris says,
People listen to stories differently than they listen to lectures and scientific information. The every day person doesn’t want to see charts and hear statistics and they turn off at just how dismal some of these things are. However, when you say, “and now I’m going to tell you a story”…people become engaged. So that’s what I’m trying to do. Engage people. Make’m laugh as that old show tune goes.
Given the power of stories to engage, it makes sense to pay attention to what stories are helping people engage with.