April 3, 2014

University class focuses on cli-fi, the newest trend in dystopian fiction


A course offered at the University of Oregon in Eugene is all about cli-fi. No, that’s not a disease affecting unmentionable body parts: it’s shorthand for “climate fiction,” or speculative fiction set in a world affected by global warming. The New York TimesRichard Pérez-Peña reports that Professor Stephanie LeMenager is teaching a class on cultural reactions to climate change, or more specifically, “how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it.”

The student and academic population of Eugene “have moved beyond debating global warming to accepting it as one of society’s central challenges,” Pérez-Peña notes, not terribly surprising since Eugene’s only a couple hours away from one of the few temperate rainforests in the United States. LeMenager’s class studies materials like comics, poetry, and that special subgenre of speculative fiction, cli-fi, to engender discussion and raise awareness of the effect the arts and popular culture have on “galvanizing people around an issue.”

While the course doesn’t exclusively feature climate change-related fiction, it is part of a more larger movement bent on teaching fiction with an environmentally challenged setting in more American classrooms. Pérez-Peña explains:

“To some extent, the course is feeding off a larger literary trend. Novels set against a backdrop of ruinous climate change have rapidly gained in number, popularity and critical acclaim over the last few years, works like The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi; Finitude, by Hamish MacDonald; From Here, by Daniel Kramb; and The Carbon Diaries 2015, by Saci Lloyd. Well-known writers have joined the trend, including Barbara Kingsolver, with Flight Behavior, and [Solar by Ian] McEwan.”

Nathaniel Rich, a cli-fi author himself, attributes this trend to postwar fiction’s attempt to “grapple with the fragility of our existence, where the world can end at any time.” It’s hardly a new concept—Pérez-Peña cites the 1962 J. G. Ballard novel The Drowned World as a potential start date for the “climate-change canon.”

While the Young Adult market in particular is inundated with dystopian or downright apocalyptic fiction, Pérez-Peña says LeMenager is looking less for no-win scenarios or “scientifically dubious” situations and more for a new perspective:

“Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies,” Professor LeMenager said. “The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”


Sadie Mason-Smith is a Melville House intern.