[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to a special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]
On the long legacy of cli fi, and a stunning recent novel that reveals the genre’s true potential.
The term “cli fi” (for “climate fiction”) has only been around for the last 10 years or so; it was apparently first coined in 2011 by activist and author Dan Bloom to describe Jim Laughter’s novel Polar City Red, and then gradually picked up by various media voices and stories around 2013-2014. But as with so many literary genres, there are numerous earlier authors and works that can productively be classified within this frame, including Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole (1889), Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke (1933), multiple novels by J.G. Ballard, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), among others. While all of those works are distinct and specific, I’d say that all of them fall under the broad umbrella of science fiction, wedding as they do their realistic depictions of science and the natural world to imagined futures in which (generally) worst-case climate and environmental scenarios have come to pass and humans (individually and/or collectively) are dealing with the aftermaths.
Sci fi cli fi (say that five times fast) has continued to be a prominent sub-genre here in the 21st century, as exemplified particularly clearly by science fiction legend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy (comprising the novels Forty Signs of Rain , Fifty Degrees Below , and Sixty Days and Counting ). But as we’ve moved further and further into a world where climate change is not an imagined future scenario but a very, very real present reality, we’ve concurrently seen authors begin to produce as well cli fi novels and stories that depict, respond to, and engage in more socially realistic ways that present world. That list includes, among others, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (2018), a number of the stories in John Joseph Adams’ edited anthology Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction (2015), and one of the most acclaimed and powerful American novels in recent memory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory (2018).
Yet in truth, to classify The Overstory as an example of more contemporary and/or socially realistic fiction is no more accurate than to describe it as science fiction. Powers’ book does trace the individual yet ultimately interconnected stories of nine realistic fictional characters, all Americans living in our early 21st century moment, all descended from family and communal histories involving trees in central ways. But through that shared theme, and through his structural and narrative choices as well, Powers ultimately produces a work that I would call a historical novel in which the history (as well as the present and future) of the world is viewed through the lens of trees and forests, rather than through the perspectives or experiences of humans (individual or collective, fictional or real). Which is to say, Powers’ first cli fi novel (his latest, 2021’s Bewilderment, has been described that way as well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it) isn’t just about climate change or environmentalism—it makes the environment, and specifically trees, its main character, main narrative perspective, and ultimately main emphasis, above (in every sense) and beyond us transient humans.
Next tree tale tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other tree texts you’d throw in?