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Are we getting warmer?

Works of climate fiction posit a very near future dramatically altered by global warming

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Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle.

A brave new world calls for a brave new literary genre.

Climate fiction -- or cli-fi -- is a growing branch of speculative fiction that's been gaining popularity. Although cli-fi is a buzzy play on sci-fi, the term simply describes all works of fiction in which a changing (or radically changed) climate serves as a central plot point.

Dan Bloom, 65, is a Boston-bred, Taiwan-based climate activist who has been tirelessly campaigning to get the term cli-fi into the mainstream consciousness. He'd like to see it become a recognized literary genre.

His efforts are starting to pay off. The New York Times ran a piece in March about a new class at the University of Oregon called The Cultures of Climate Change that uses works of cli-fi to encourage students to think about how climate change might affect them. Celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood has also helped to normalize the term, using it in an op-ed for Canadian Living about climate change.

Bloom's MO is simple: "Try to wake up a sleeping world (to the fact) that climate change is real and poses a grave threat to the existence of the human species.

"If we don't stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and if we do not tighten the noose around coal, oil and gas now, then it will be curtains for the human race within 500 years," he says. "I care about that future. That is what motivates me: a deep compassion for future generations."

While most people have accepted climate change as a real challenge facing society, there's still resistance. "Sadly, we humans are hard-wired to only think about ourselves and our children and our grandchildren, and after that we just don't care about the future," Bloom says. "Climate-deniers are just part of human nature. They are like ostriches with their heads in the sand. They're not bad people, just misinformed and misguided."

Novels, Bloom says, offer a different entry point into the climate-change discussion. "I believe that fiction is uniquely positioned to help change ingrained attitudes about pressing climate issues because it works on an emotional level."

Cli-fi's power to inspire change lies in its immediacy; often, these books are not taking place far in the hard-to-imagine distant future, but rather in the immediate future.

"Non-fiction does a great job letting us know the facts, but fiction has the opportunity to capture the imagination," says Mary Woodbury, a Vancouver-based author and the brains behind Clifibooks.com, a website that archives works of fiction related to climate change.

Last year, Woodbury -- who grew up in the Midwestern U.S. and studied at Purdue University in Indiana -- published a novel called Back to the Garden under the pen name Clara Hume (so as not to be confused with respected Canadian author Mary Woodbury). The book is set in apocalyptic America and imagines how climate change might affect people in the not-so-distant future.

"After I published my book, I wondered how many books were out there that were like mine."

Turns out, there were a lot. Cli-fi is a burgeoning literary trend; Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, Saci Lloyd's Carbon Diaries series, Ian McEwan's Solar and Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior are just a few recent titles in a long list. Woodbury's site serves as something of a one-stop shop for readers searching out works about climate change.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the ways people are treating the subject matter -- everything from satire to graphic novel," Woodbury says.

The fact it's not bound by genre is why Bloom stresses the fact that cli-fi is not is a subgenre of sci-fi.

"The media, and most literary critics, still file cli-fi novels and movies under sci-fi but it's not sci-fi at all," Bloom says. "The difference is that cli-fi is written with a certain moral sense of what things might be like if we do not stop climate change and global warming, whereas sci-fi is more concerned with science and amazing stories and adventures created mostly as escape and entertainment. Cli-fi is not about escapism or entertainment, although cli-fi novels and movies can be entertaining, too. But cli-fi has a moral imperative. Sci-fi does not."

The genre's breadth is a reflection of its subject matter. "Climate change is huge and overwhelming," Woodbury says. "There's no one cause and there's no one solution."

As such, there are myriad stories to tell. Don't be surprised if a cli-fi section appears at your local bookstore in the years to come.

For her part, Woodbury's imagination has been captured by pipeline development. She's working on a second novel set in a small town in Kentucky that's reeling from a pipeline spill.

She, like Bloom, is working hard to raise cli-fi's profile through her website.

"My main goal is to archive books that have climate change as a theme, but I also want to expand it," she says. Her website includes interviews with authors as well as blog posts about issues related to climate change.

"I want to bring the genre into focus. I want to give readers some background about what cli-fi is -- and what it's becoming."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2014 D3

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