Photograph by Keith Ladzinski, Nat Geo Image Collection
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While much cli-fi is dystopian, some writers are approaching the evolving genre with humor and other tricks of the trade.

Photograph by Keith Ladzinski, Nat Geo Image Collection

‘Cli-fi’ writers imagine unchecked climate change

A new fiction series from top authors challenges readers to confront big questions in surprising ways.

What will the future world look like in the face of climate change? Will our cities be washed away overnight by great floods or trapped under colossal glaciers like The Day After Tomorrow?

No, climate scientists say it won’t go in the way of Hollywood blockbusters. Still, envisioning the real face of climate change, and how it may impact individuals or their families, remains difficult for many people. It’s just too abstract to be tangible. To overcome this, some are turning to one of humankind’s oldest, most powerful tools: a good story.

The literary genre known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, has been maturing over the past few years, with titles that seek to shine a light on emerging science and help readers understand a rapidly changing world.

On Tuesday, Amazon Original Stories will launch a new series of cli-fi short stories by A-list writers, what they call “a collection of seven possible tomorrows.” Called Warmer, the collection includes works by Jane Smiley (of A Thousand Acres fame), Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), Jesse Kellerman (The Genius), and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins).

The goal, according to Amazon, is stories that “offer up a collision of fear, hope, and imagination.”

National Geographic spoke with award-winning author Jess Walter about his contribution to the new series, called “The Way the World Ends.” Set during a freak storm at Mississippi State University in the near future, the story explores the intersection of climate science and activism in a fight for survival.

A newspaper-journalist-turned-novelist, Walter is a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Pushcart Prize as well as an Edgar Award. He is based in Spokane, Washington.

Why were you attracted to this project?

I love when fiction tries to tackle big topics. And climate change is such a fascinating challenge.

How did you approach writing a fiction story about climate change?

If you think about the stakes in most short stories, especially in the Western and American tradition, they are based on an individual’s triumph against society. But climate change is the thing that could destroy us all. So the stakes in this type of fiction would be people deciding to do what’s best for everybody.

At the same time, we’re all kind of the villain here. That’s what makes climate change so hard for people to see through, because our lives are constructed in a way that is causing catastrophic problems. Every time you start your car or eat something, you are contributing. If you go to a wedding or have a baby, think about all the carbon behind these normally happy events.

To imagine a story that could capture that is tricky. How do you dramatize that? Who do we root for?

Where did you get the idea for this specific story?

I had just gone to Mississippi State University as a visiting writer. I was there when Mississippi had one of those unseasonable storms. Everywhere I went, people were saying it was the coldest winter ever. That made me think of starting in a place where they just had an unseasonable weather event.

I had also done a lot of work around climate science and had become fascinated to meet climate scientists who are suffering from depression because they are warning of these really drastic problems, yet people aren’t taking them seriously enough. Some people call it pre-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to explore that with characters.

I was also moved and inspired by young activists involved in the debate over gun laws, from the Parkland shooting and others. They are often told that the political world can do nothing about that issue. But if you look at it from a distance, that’s insane. That’s so cynical and demoralizing. Of course we can fix things. That’s like shrugging your shoulders and saying we’ll never be able to wean ourselves off coal.

Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is often known for being dystopian. How did you come to write something different?

Whatever the conventions of a genre are, you have to try to subvert them in a satisfying way. Writing a climate change novel that wasn’t a dystopia was a challenge. With my dark chapter titles I was trying to disrupt what you would expect, while still ending the story on a hopeful note.

It’s interesting how quickly we skip ahead in the fictional world to a few sturdy survivors battling against the collapse of civilization. You see that in many books, movies, and TV shows. I wanted to write something before that point.

As a writer, you are particularly known for dark humor. Why do you find that an effective form of storytelling?

There is something so overwhelming about the state we are in. Look at what might happen with each degree of warming. By pulling out of the Paris agreement and having a federal government that seems intent on fracking and coal mining in national forests, rolling back restrictions on exhaust, and so on, it feels like we are almost hastening the end.

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On the personal level, we can feel the emptiness of sitting there sorting our recycling while we’re all hurtling toward disaster. It can feel like arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As in Dr. Strangelove, we are hurtling toward the end of the world, but not with nuclear weapons, with something that is more elemental to how we live.

As writers we have to talk about all of that without lecturing or being didactic, because fiction dies in the face of a lecture. The absurdity of it, the gallows humor, that’s where my mind goes.

What do you want readers to take away from your story?

Hope. By the end of the writing process I was so inspired by this young character challenging this climate scientist. When I was finished, it gave me a renewed sense of activism. I wanted to go register voters or something.

If things are hopeless, it means we have done everything we possibly can, but [when it comes to climate change] we know we haven’t. Hopefully that hope can be a rallying cry.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.