Why Climate Fiction?

How speculative fiction thinks about social change.

Today the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative released Everything Change, Volume II, a short story anthology collecting the finalists of their 2018 Climate Fiction Contest. I had the honor of having my story “Sunshine State,” cowritten with Adam Flynn, included in the first Everything Change collection. These texts crack open the ominous cloudbank of our coming planetary storm, so that we may feel, just a bit ahead of schedule, the driving rain on our face or the sun, hot through the greenhouse air.

But what is climate fiction? Many stories set in the future are classified as science fiction, or sci-fi. Doesn’t that make climate fiction, or cli-fi, just a form of sci-fi? And since climate change is definitely going to be in our future one way or another, shouldn’t all science fiction also be climate fiction? Genre distinctions like this are always contested. For example, sci-fi can be “hard” or “soft” in its approach to physics and realism and can be bucketed into subgenres, such as space opera or various -punk movements.

How do we untangle these categories, while also making room for contributions to the growing body of climate fiction that don’t come out of the traditional quarters of science fiction? The past few years have seen a boomlet of literary takes on climate change, most recently Amazon’s Warmer, a collection featuring contributions from literary luminaries like Jane Smiley and Lauren Groff.

I propose that science fiction has embedded in it a particular theory of social change. In most science fiction, social change is driven by advancements in science and technology. It’s fiction about science. The average sci-fi story imagines brilliant discoveries, inventions, or technological transformations — say, the virtual reality world of Ready Player One — and plays out the ramifications on other spheres of society.

This is where climate fiction becomes a useful term, because it lets us pick up a different theory: that the biggest driver of social change in the coming century or more will be climate change.

Yorktown space station from Star Trek Beyond
Cover art of New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Consider the pictures above. The first is Yorktown space station from the movie Star Trek Beyond, and the second is Lower Manhattan from the cover from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140. In their own way, each of these images is an aesthetically compelling vision of the future, but one is sci-fi and one is cli-fi.

In Star Trek most people eat from replicators and travel via starship or transporter. The architecture of Yorktown is made possible by artificial gravity. Those inventions do much to define the social structures and material conditions of people living in the Star Trek universe. Even some of the most dramatic events in Star Trek lore are sparked by technological discovery, such as first contact with aliens taking place only after humans successfully invent faster-than-light travel.

In contrast, very little in the second picture requires us to invent anything new. Rather, the canals in New York’s avenues and the boats docked at the entrances of familiar skyscrapers suggest that the big difference in New York between now and 2140 will be substantial sea level rise — 50-foot-higher seas turn the city into a “SuperVenice,” submerging the boroughs and Manhattan up to 46th Street. That’s what cli-fi thinks will determine where and how people live, along with a litany of concomitant issues: flood rot, mandatory evacuation orders, the price of water, crop failures, asthma rates, and whether it’s too hot to go outside.

The climate fiction theory of social change highlights how much our lives will be reshaped by climate change. In periods of relative global stability, a new gadget or media format might seem transformative. In times of planetary upheaval we are forced to remember that we are fragile, living beings on a turbulent, living world.