Tuesday, January 27, 2015

INTERVIEW: Dan Bloom on CliFi – Climate Fiction

Dan Bloom, inventor of the term CliFiFancy some climate change with your popcorn or bedtime read? Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is a new genre of fiction that was first identified as a distinct concept by Dan Bloom, a freelance writer who has been based in Tokyo and Taipei since 1991. It is, basically, fiction which touches in some way on the topic of climate change.

Dan recently sat down with me,  David Thorpe, author of the cli-fi novel Stormteller, and I picked his brains about the cream of the genre and particularly what the writers of these works think will happen to cities in the future. This is what happened:

David: First, Dan, tell me, what is cli-fi?

Dan: Cli-fi is a new genre term for novels, short stories and movies that stands for works of art and storytelling that deal with climate change and global warming concerns: "cli" stands for the first thee letters of ''climate,'' and "fi" stands for the first two letters of ''fiction.'' Just as sci-fi stands for science fiction, cli-fi stands for what might be called "clience fiction," or novels and movies where climate change is a major theme, although not always the main theme.

Many sci-fi novels and movies also delve into climate themes, so in many ways cli-fi is a sister genre to sci-fi, but with a specific focus on climate change concerns. You could say that sci-fi and cli-fi are cousins.

But in the world we are living in today, where both scientists and the general public is well aware of what the future might look like if we do nothing to stop CO2 emissions and runaway climate change, cli-fi serves a very important function for writers, literary critics, book reviewers, film directors, scriptwriters and movie critics.

Jeffrey Newman in London has told me that in his view of things, cli-fi is a "reframing" of the national and international discussions we are having on climate issues. Scott Hill in Los Angeles has referred to cli-fi as "a cultural prism" in which to view global warming and its possible fallout, if we do nothing to stop it. I also like to think of cli-fi as a critical prism: a way to focus on what the future might hold.

In the end, what is cli-fi? It is a literary and cinematic ''platform'' for artists and writers to use to say what's on their minds.

David: Can you give examples of how cities are portrayed in cli-fi novels and films?

Dan: Cli-fi novels or movies can deal with large cities, or with smaller cities and towns as well. In "The Odds Against Tomorrow" by New Orleans writer Nathaniel Rich, the setting is Manhattan in the near future, where rising sea levels put the entire area under water, and people are seen canoeing down major streets and avenues. In "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver, the setting is the rural countryside where a massive butterfly die-off brings in scientists from the big cities to study the problem.

In "Polar City Red" by Jim Laughter, the setting is Fairbanks, Alaska in 2075 after heat waves in the Lower 48 states of the USA have made that part of the world uninhabitable and climate refugees take refuge in so-called "polar cities" – domed or underground cities – in the Arctic regions to serve as "breeding pairs" for future generations, an idea that was originally put forth by British chemist James Lovelock.

Producer Dan Bloom and Ah-Lin, actor playing JERKY, in a scene from POLAR CITY RED the movie during location shooting in Alaska

Dan Bloom and Ah-Lin, an actor playing JERKY, in a scene from POLAR CITY RED the movie during location shooting in Alaska.

David: Do you regard the way LA is portrayed (constant rain) in Blade Runner as a clifi feature?

Dan: Yes. That's a very cli fi feature of that movie. And I lived in Tokyo City for five years in the 1990s.....thirty million population....it was Blade Runner to me for five years especially at night and especially in the spring rainy season.

Blade Runner city in the rain

But it doesn't have to be all dark and depressing in cli fi novels or movies. I also hope to read and see cli fi works that portray positive, hopeful ways of coping with what is arguably the most pressing existential threat humankind has ever faced. I am an optimist, myself. I hope cli fi can help readers and movie-goers break through to the side of optimism and hope. But there is a lot of ground to cover, and not all of it is going to be a pretty picture.

In "Finitude" by Scottish novelist Hamish MacDonald, the setting is a city much like London in some un-named country much like Britain in the near future, where all hell breaks loose and a group of people search for a safe haven, against all odds. It's all one of the first cli-fi novels written by a gay author and with a major gay romance in the story.

Finitude by Hamish MacDonald cover

So cli-fi is an open genre that serves as a platform for writers and film people to explore the future, not in a sci-fi but in a cli-fi way.

David: In some cli fi novels or movies, cities are abandoned. Do you think this is likely?

Dan: Yes, I do. I can't see the future, and I don't have a time frame for when all these things are going to happen, it's anybody's guess and my instinct tells me it's still 300 to 500 years away before the shit hits the fan, so to speak, but if we cannot curb the problems that are causing man-made global warming and runaway climate change, then cities will have to be abandoned and climate refugees will have to seek food, shelter and fuel in northern areas of the Arctic. Goodbye Manhattan, goodbye London, goodbye Paris, goodbye Beijing, goodbye Sydney.

Possible refuges might be New Zealand, the island of Tasmania, and all of the Arctic from Alaska to Canada to Greenland to Scandinavia to Russia and northern China. This is all fertile ground for storytellers to explore with the cli-fi platform.

David: Are all cli-fi films and novels dystopias? Or are there examples of how we might cope positively with climate change in the future?

Dan: "Cli-fi" movies and novels are emerging as a niche genre, taking the pomp of doomsday science-fiction films and novels and mixing it with an underlying message of environmental awareness. Cli fi works do not have to be dystopian, and I hope to see utopian cli fi as well.

Margaret Atwoodmargaret atwood reading year of the flood (right, reading her book Year of the Flood) has coined a term she calls "ustopian" for novels and movies that are both ''u''-topian and dys-''topian'' in theme. Most of what I have read and seen so far in literature and cinema has been what I call dystopiana. But I really hope to see cli-fi take on more optimistic approaches to what ails the Earth these days.

Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and a filmmaker himself, believes that cli-fi movies allow people to view a changing part of the world through what he calls ''the prism of an anecdote.'

By relating the scientific part of a cli-fi story in a way that people can be entranced by it, cli fi storytellers can win their audiences over, he believes. I like the way he frames it.

What I hope to see in the future are cli fi movies and novels with the power of Neville Shute's 1957 novel "On the Beach," which painted a wake up call picture about the dangers of nuclear war and nuclear winter. We need an "On the Beach" about the dangers of climate change and with, hopefully, a hopeful, positive ending, to raise awareness and also to goad people to take action in ways they see fit.

We need to go beyond abstract, scientific predictions and government statistics and try to show the cinematic or literary reality of a painful, possible future of the world climate changed. I do believe that cli-fi is a veritable cultural prism, a powerful critical prism, that we need to cherish and nurture among our artists and visionary storytellers. Time will tell.

David: What are your favorites?

Dan: For me, "Finitude" and "Polar City Red" resonated deeply. Neither novel is well known, and neither novel was reviewed by the mainstream media critics in London or New York or Los Angeles and both were released by small presses. But I read them both three years ago, and the stories they tell still remain with me. I'd love to see either of them turned into a movie. Hollywood, are you listening?

David: Do we have an idea of how popular they are and who reads them?

Stormteller coverDan: Cli-fi is still such a new term that only ten per cent of the population has ever heard of it, and such novels and movies – classified as cli-fi – are not on the radar of mainstream book reviewers or movie critics.

So for the time being, the publishing industry and the Hollywood establishment has largely ignored the rise of cli-fi (even with major news stories about the genre in Time magazine, the Guardian, The Financial Times and the New York Times).

I believe the public is hungry for cli-fi – both movies and novels. But how to get such storytelling distributed to the public is a question I cannot answer. I'm looking for the answer now but it still eludes me.

Follow #CliFi on Twitter to keep up.

David Thorpe's novel Stormteller is available from the publisher here. or on Amazon.com

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cli-fi: envisaging the future of humanity under climate change

'Clifi' Stormteller by David Thorpe cover is a new genre dedicated to climate fiction, or fiction about climate change. Film-makers, novelists, graphic novelists and playwrights are using the science and predictions of climate scientists to construct human dramas around possible futures in an effort to stimulate us into action.

I myself am guilty of having written a clifi novel, Stormteller, which envisages rising sea levels causing a temporary breakdown in society in the UK around 2030.

A basic vulnerability here is the fact that if ports are incapacitated by storm surges, the 'just-in-time' logistics model upon which supermarkets and other shops depend breaks down, people stockpile food and fuel, and shortages quickly turn into riots and lawlessness.

This is one way in which our society is not resilient to a general, widespread climate event.

The story follows a group of teenagers whose lives are shattered by these developments.

IDP:2043 and New Atlantis are two other examples of clifi specifically relevant to cities. The former is a graphic novel published last August and the latter is a piece of eco-drama to be staged later this month at The Crystal, Royal Victoria Docks, London.

IDP:2043

IDP:2043 IDP:2043 is set 29 years in the future. IDP stands for Internally Displaced People. The scenario is that rising sea level in the UK has caused internal migration. NWI or New Wanlockhead is a new city created as a result on high land.

It displays all the characteristics of social breakdown: a hinterland of shantytowns clustered around a gated community where the rich and powerful live. It hints that social breakdown caused by climate change will cause developed world cities to become more like those found in the developing world nowadays.

It follows the story of Cait, a woman from the shantytown initially favoured by the elite but then found to be too rebellious to be permitted to survive...

As in Stormteller, there is a problem feeding people. A solution has been found which benefits the rich: a type of indoor vertical farming, which only the rich are allowed to pursue while the poor are prevented from growing their own food.

This gripping and fascinating story is written and illustrated in different styles by a variety of artists and writers, who each explore different aspects of the theme. They include Irvine Welsh (author of Filth), Pat Mills (the creator of 2000AD comic and the anti-war series Charley's War), Hannah Berry (author of Britten and Br├╝lightly) and Kate Charlesworth (responsible for the New Scientist's non-fiction graphic novel Life, the Universe and (Almost) Everything.

IDP:2043

While one may quibble about the few technical details in this book, as a moral fable exploring the human reality it paints a very plausible picture of what may happen if we do not prepare sufficiently now for the ravages of climate change that may well come.

New Atlantis is a piece of multimedia theatre that explores the climate-change world of 2050, where people are being punished retrospectively for past climate crimes, cities like London are experiencing water austerity and Miami has been abandoned due to rising sea levels.

New Atlantis

It follows the agents of something called New Atlantis, which the audience becomes part of, as it tries to come to terms with the new reality and what should be done. It aims to engage the audience in thinking about the issues by forcing them to participate in discussions about the options as part of the drama.



It is the brainchild of LAStheatre who have collaborated with scientists and engineers from UCL, Pennine Water Group and Rutherford Appleton Space Lab. to come up with their scenarios.

Dan Bloom, who came up with the clifi label, says that this is an inevitable imaginative response to climate change. "It's a genre term that can be regarded as part of the broader category of 'speculative fiction'. While the two genres share some features in common, they are separate genres," he says.

If we are going to inspire people and planners to create more sustainable ways of living, then it is vital to employ the arts. Clifi is here to stay.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The difference between writing for adults and children when a child is the protagonist

What is it that distinguishes a book written for adults where children are the main characters and one written for children, where children are the main characters?

When I am writing for children or teenagers at the back of my mind is always this question of the difference between the two.

Here are the opening sentences of In The Country of Men by Hisham Matar, which was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. The narrator is recalling a time when he was nine years old:

"I recall now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979 and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and and went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything."

The novel describes the gradual discovery by the child of his father's involvement in anti-revolutionary activity and what this means, and his desperate love for his mother.

Here are the opening sentences of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, which controversially won the Carnegie Medal in 2014:

"10.00 a.m."This is what I know. I'm in a low-ceilnged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. It's about twelve metres wide and eighteen metres long. A corridor runs down the middle of the building, with a smaller corridor leading off to a lift shaft just over halfway down. There are six little rooms along the main corridor, three on either side."

Much has been written about Brooks' book and whether it is suitable for children, so I'm not going to stray into that territory. You might consider that I have chosen a non-typical example, but many children's books deal with uncomfortable themes and issues.

Both of these openings are physical descriptions which imply a sense of claustrophobia. They perfectly set the scene for what is to follow, which only gets worse.

The two books have several more things in common:

  • there is no happy ending in either of them; 
  • very unpleasant things happen along the way;
  • the main character is not conventionally likeable.

You can see other parallels from these extracts: the language in both is direct, the sentences straightforward. These stylistic points are undoubtedly a requirement for writing for children. But one can equally find instances of quite 'literary' writing in books for children, for example in the earlier novels of, say, Philip Pullman, such as A Ruby in the Smoke.

The Bunker Diary deals with important psychological and philosophical themes, that are uncomfortable to contemplate. So does Matar's book.

One aspect which perhaps distinguishes In The Country of Men (and other novels for adults) from most novels written for children is the retrospective angle: the narrator is now about 25 years old, and the narrative eventually catches up with him. This is less common in writing for children.

Another aspect that might signify a difference is non-linear storytelling, in which the narrative darts around in time. This is, again, less common in writing for children (however I did use this technique in my new novel Stormteller and, whilst I can't think of one at the moment, I'm sure I've read other children's books which do this).

The other observations to make about the difference between them are the setting (Gaddafi's Libya compared to contemporary London) and the degree of sophistication in the form of prior knowledge or experience that is assumed in the writing of Matar's book.

So to answer my original question, all other thngs being equal, the main aspect I am monitoring as I write for children rather than for adults is constantly gauging that level so it is pitched correctly.

I'd be very interested to know what you think about this topic?

David Thorpe is the author of Stormteller and Hybrids.