Earlier this year, two major news outlets in the US and Britain, NPR (National Public Radio) and the Guardian, ran stories about a new literary term making the rounds among writers and publishers overseas called “cli fi,” for climate fiction. While some commentators have said it is a new genre, others have said it is just a subgenre of science fiction.
After the Guardian piece ran in Britain, Richard Chen (陳榮彬), a professor of comparative literature at National Taiwan University, wrote an article for the Chinese-language China Times newspaper, explaining the cli fi term for Taiwanese readers.
Cli fi has already arrived in the country’s literary circles. Taiwan’s entry into the new genre, The Man with Compound Eyes, published in Mandarin in 2011 by Taipei nature writer and novelist Wu Ming-yi (吳明益), will be published in English in New York and London, in September.
His novel fits neatly into the category because it takes place in the future — 2029 in Taiwan — and encompasses themes of environmentalism and climate change issues.
NPR put it this way: “Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter. The genre has come to be called climate fiction — cli fi, for short.”
British writer Rodge Glass noted in his piece in the Guardian that the literary world is now witnessing the rise of cli fi worldwide.
After the NPR and Guardian news stories went through the usual social media stages of tweets and retweets, a literature professor at the University of Oregon, Stephanie LeMenager, announced that she had created a seminar that she will teach early next year titled “The Cultures of Climate Change” using the cli fi theme as a main theme of the class.
According to Chen, two universities in Taiwan already offer classes in what is called “eco-fiction,” or novels about the environment. He told me that he expects cli fi courses to catch on here, too.
Cli fi is a broad category, and it can apply to climate-themed novels and movies that take place in the present or the future, or even in the past. And cli fi novels can be dystopian in nature, or utopian, or just plain ordinary potboiler thrillers. Wu’s novel, set in 2029, is set to take the world by storm once translated into English and French, with some already comparing it to Life of Pi by Canadian novelist Yann Martel.
With carbon dioxide emissions in terms of parts per million (ppm) now hovering at around 400ppm, cli fi writers have their work cut out for them. Wu Ming-yi’s cli fi novel will be part of this new genre and his success should help pave the way for cli fi novels and films to find a place in Taiwan’s literary culture, too.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.