Monday, 2 December 2019

Yearning For Policy-Intentional Science Fiction

There will come a day when novels about climate change will be marketed as historical fiction instead of science fiction.

That day is probably closer than most of us care to realize, which is why all near-future science fiction is naive if climate change is ignored.

This is both a burden to the genre of science fiction, and a set of related opportunities: The opportunity to credibly predict the ramifications of a warming planet; the opportunity to envisage effective climate change mitigation strategies; the opportunity to build a public narrative that
Paolo Bacigalupi's The
Water Knife
is one of the
most underappreciated
novels of the decade.
(Image via
engenders positive policy changes.

It is this last opportunity that we would like to discuss. There is a need for policy-intentional science fiction that is rooted in the most accurate available forecasts.

The sub-genre of climate fiction (or cli-fi) offers some notable examples that genuinely tackle the human-caused warming of the planet; Paolo Bacigalupi, Saci Lloyd, Barbara Kingsolver and Kim Stanley Robinson have ably attempted to bring the issue into focus within science fiction. Is the general public’s reticence to embrace these works simply a general disinterest with science fiction or a more reactionary resistance to accept climate change science?

It has been argued that one of the most important roles of science fiction is to provide the self-defeating prophecy. That is, to build fictional predictions so compelling — and so well-realized — that they affect the public consciousness and, sometimes, force political responses. Orwell’s 1984 is often held up as the case example of this, having perhaps persuaded generations of voters to reject authoritarian politicians.

Sadly, there does not seem to be a book of comparable impact for climate change. When politicians refer to science fiction about climate change, it is often with derision.

The climate change novel most cited by politicians in Washington seems to be the lamentable State Of Fear by climate change denier Michael Crichton. The book depicts eco-terrorists faking the evidence for climate change. In fact, State of Fear has been cited in congressional records more often than the combined totals of all books by Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi and Barbara Kingsolver.

Senator Jim Inhofe suggests that a
conspiracy of scientists are faking
the case for human-caused climate
change and cites SF novel State of Fear
as evidence for this claim.
(Image via Politico)
“Dr. Crichton, as I said, is a medical doctor and scientist.
He very cleverly weaved a very compelling presentation
of the scientific facts of climate change 
— with ample footnotes 
and documentation throughout, I might add — into a gripping plot.”
 Jim Inhofe (R - OK) January 2005

It is clear that — as in most crises — the poor, the disenfranchised, and the ethnically marginalized will bear the worst brunt of the consequences of climate change. Which is why it’s interesting to note that in their lists of novels about climate change, several mainstream sources neglect authors who can speak to those perspectives. We would suggest Moon Of The Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice deserves to be recognized as a vital, vibrant and essential text that should not be omitted from such lists, as is Omar El Akkad’s American War.

It is shocking to us that cli-fi remains a surprisingly small sliver of the overall science fiction field. It’s a niche that warrants an obligatory panel discussion each convention, but which is often overshadowed by subgenres like steampunk and space opera. A review of programming at the latest Worldcon corroborates this (e.g., discussions of Doctor Who and of superheroes far outnumbers discussions of climate), as does a scan of novels published by the major science fiction publishers in 2019.

This dearth of reality-based cli-fi can be seen in public discussions. The climate change narratives that seem to be top-of-mind for members of the mundane public are exceedingly problematic from the perspective of presenting a believable warning about the effects of climate change. The Road; The Day After Tomorrow; Snowpiercer; Oryx and Crake; State of Fear; Waterworld. Many of these are enjoyable works of fiction, but they can inadvertently serve to undermine understanding of climate change and delay urgently needed action.

Stephen Baxter (an author respected by this book club) offered possibly the most egregious example of this trend in his books Flood and Arc — which depict oceans rising unabated until the world has no more dry land at all. The beginning of the first volume is compellingly real, but this warning is
Waterworld is so risible it discredits
the idea of climate change, much to
the detriment of good policy.
(image via
quickly submerged by scenes of complete fantasy.

Waterworld, as fun as it is, may be the most extreme example of alarmist (and unbelievable) depictions of rising ocean levels, and unfortunately one of the most iconic. The effects of climate change in Waterworld is almost as nonsensical a fantasy as the science-denial fantasy that the Earth isn’t warming at all. The broader public is being fed competing nonsensical narratives — making it more difficult to parse fact from falsehood in the mundane world.

Projections of how climate change will impact society should be influencing policy. This is an important burden that science fiction should be taking up. There needs to be more policy intentional climate change-related science fiction, and the more it is based in real-world science, the more seriously it is likely to be taken.


  1. I really really really like this blog post. Bravo for your thoughts on this! I'm the bloke who coined the cli-fi term in 2011 and have tried to promote it online everywhere since then in a daily basis from my kitchen table computer in Taiwan, see I'm Dan Bloom, from USA, age 70, tufts 1971 lit major, retired newspaper editor in Japan and Taiwan. Your insights into mixtures of sci-fi and clifi is very insightful. You are the only sci-fi commentator to articulate these ideas, although Charlie Jane Andres gets close. More more! May I tweet your link? May I reprint yr post on my blog with credit to you and link to your post? See my latest blog post at

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Daniel. I've read some of your blog (IIRC, you had a very good piece on Greta Thurnburg?) Please feel free to reprint this post with credit.

  2. Brenda Cooper's recent diptych that starts with "Wilders" (published by Pyr) fits neatly in this slot too.

  3. Yes, Brenda Cooper is on it. Brilliant!