Of Speculative Fiction and Cli-Fi

Like many boys, I was fascinated by stories of adventure during my early years. I devoured books like Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and Around the World in Eighty Days. Many of those books are indelibly etched in my mind. These books gave way to others as I discovered books in the thriller and sci-fi genre. With the passing of time, I was hooked to any book that blended fiction with science. Alvin Toffler’s books like Future Shock and The Third Wave fired my imagination, taking me on a journey into the future and I found myself captivated by thoughts of time machines, aliens, outer space et al. With that, I entered into the world of speculative fiction.

Sci-fi is an interesting genre that goes beyond the boundaries of the known and experiments with the unknown. Forrest Ackerman has been acknowledged to be the first person to use the term ‘Sci-fi’, way back in 1954. Acceptance came slowly and gradually, but soon the term gathered popularity. By 1970, the genre had a huge following of readers devoted to reading the works of prominent writers in the field. Soon, there was a plethora of books in the genre and many of these were adapted into movies.

Sci-fi had come to stay.

Who wrote the first ‘Science Fiction’ is debatable. As per Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, it was the eminent astronomer Johannes Kepler´s book, Somnium (The Dream), written in sometime between 1620 and 1630, in which he describes a trip to the moon and the inhabitants there.

According to Isaac Asimov, ‘Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology’.

Lester del Rey, the famous sci-fi writer, opines, ‘Even the devoted aficionado or fan—has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is,’ and that the reason for there not being a ‘full satisfactory definition’ is that ‘there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction’.

As the genre gained popularity, more writers entered the fray. With a large number of writers in the field, the genre evolved, taking their readers into unexplored zones. With the passing of time and the growing volume of work in sci-fi, dystopian and utopian fiction, which had earlier been loosely clubbed under speculative fiction, there was a need to differentiate them into separate entities.

And then a new genre was born. It was Climate Fiction or Cli-fi. It is a relatively new genre and deals mainly with the man-made climate changes and the likely fallouts. Broadly clubbed under speculative and science fiction, cli-fi has developed into a whole new genre in the recent years.

There have been quite a few books on the topic of climate change in the past. The Purchase of the North Pole, written by Jules Verne in 1889, dwells on the climate change due to tilting of the Earth’s axis as visualised by the author. The Wind from Nowhere, dealt with the effect of strong winds sweeping the world. The Drowned World took readers one into a world where the sea level rises due to the melting of snow.

The Burning World, which later came to be known as The Drought, dwells on the climate change due to pollution caused by rapid industrialisation. Carbon Dreams, authored by Susan M. Gaines, tells the story about the overwhelming issue of man- made climate changes.

Soon, there was realisation that these books were a class apart. Quite different from the usual speculative fiction, they dealt primarily with a specific stream of science—climate. With that realisation came the need for a separate head and ‘Climate Fiction’ or ‘Cli-fi’ came into being. By late 2000s, the term ‘cli-fi’ began to be used to describe novels and movies that dealt with climate change, particularly of the man-made kind.

To put it in nutshell, cli-fi is a literary way of thinking, reading and writing about climate change. The stories can take place in the past, present or the near future, and they can be utopian, dystopian, or what Margaret Atwood calls ‘ustopian’: a fusion of utopian and dystopian fiction. The range is far flung.

The genre becomes more relevant as the world wakes up to the dangers of global warming and depletion of earth’s resources.

Michael Crichton's State of Fear, depicts climate change as ‘a vast pseudo-scientific hoax’.  The theme pivots around a plot devised by eco-terrorists to focus attention on global warming.

With science and technology progressing at a rapid pace, new fields of research and development are being explored. As man gains control over climate, fiction is bound to become reality.

Cli-fi is here to stay.

 

Ajoy Podder is the co-author of Decoding the Feronia Files, which is a cli-fi thriller.

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