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Ullrich: In your new book, you describe cli-fi as a form of social activism. Why?
Szabo: In 1998 I discovered that a professor, Dr. Thomas Walz, at the University of Iowa, School of Social Work was teaching a course called Creative Writing for Social Work – to my knowledge, the only one of its kind at the time. I took the class that year and it changed how I defined my professional identity and aspirations. Tom advocated for the use of creative writing as a tool for social activism, and his course opened my eyes to the capacity of fiction to inform and transform. He invited me to teach the class with him the following year, and our work together over the years influenced my thinking and teaching about creative writing.
The genre of cli-fi first captured my interest when I read an article describing Dan Bloom’s advocacy of that term to describe fiction that focuses on the consequences of climate change with the intent to raise awareness.
Given the gravity of climate change issues, and the high profile resistance to climate science and remedies, cli-fi is a perfect fit for writers who want to make change possible. A growing number of scientists and writers are turning to this genre as a medium for important messages about climate change. I realized that’s what I’d been writing, and now I had a name for it.
Ullirch: Why do you think fictional climate stories seem to resonate with readers more than non-fictional climate science?
Szabo: Media reporting on climate change has emphasized disastrous trends and catastrophic events. This captures the public’s attention, but inadvertently, it has helped to manifest a pervasive and paralyzing sense of hopelessness. If we feel helpless to make meaningful change, we are likely to shut down and give up. It’s not enough to be informed. We must have a sense of agency, a belief in our capacity to exert influence. Activism by its very nature implies a deeply held belief that things can be better – and that we can do something meaningful to make that happen.
In fiction, disaster and suspense are exciting because they are vicarious. Cli-fi is a venue detached enough from the real world, that it can be a nonthreatening way to identify threats and injustice. This allows us to process information that we might otherwise shut out to protect ourselves.
Writing and reading are personal, even intimate, acts, and perhaps because of this, fiction can access consciousness and conscience more effectively than ‘fact’. Fiction can also help us to imagine something better, by offering insight, and suggesting ways to make sense of the world. Good fiction and inspiring characters can prompt personal transformation and even social change.
Ullrich: Do you see differences between young adult cli-fi novels (or social activism novels writ large) and those targeting adult audiences?
Szabo: Climate change will transform the landscape of future generations. So while there may be some differences, the message of cli-fi is relevant to all, and may be less intimidating or frightful than factual reports of research findings about climate change.
I wish someone had told me when I was young that separation of the ‘sciences’ and ‘creative arts’ was a false duality, a revelation that has changed how I perceive and write about the world. Cli-fi is a fantastic marriage of literary fabrication and science, and it can be instrumental in capturing the interest of youth. To write convincing cli-fi, you must know and understand real climate science.
Imagine if some science were taught through the lens of literature and creative writing, students could become the new messengers of climate change – and science would become accessible to students who think they aren’t interested in science. Here’s an idea for a class; ‘Science and Creativity – Reading and Writing Cli-Fi.’ I’m not advocating for a curriculum that blurs the line between science fact and fiction, just suggesting that there are other ways to engage students in a learning curve about climate change.
Ullrich: What, in your opinion, makes cli-fi distinct from other popular genres—such as science fiction and dystopia—that often embrace similar themes?
Szabo: I think of Cli-fi as a literary genre with a mission - to change how we humans think about, inhabit and interact with our planet. By anticipating and elaborating on the implications of climate change in the not so distant future, many writers of cli-fi use knowledge of science and climate to imagine and create apocalyptic or dystopian worlds that we hope will remain fiction.
Ullrich: In your work with writers and readers, have you observed any instances where a cli-fi story inspired action or changed a reader’s perspective?
Szabo: An underlying message of hope in everything we write – no matter how subtle – is essential if we are to inspire change. Many writers I work with express alarm and a sense of helplessness when it comes to climate change. I urge these writers to create a mission statement for their work –whether it is poetry or narrative, fiction or nonfiction. Things may be bad, but we must believe that we can have agency if we are to inspire others to act.
Lasting change happens gradually (usually). In writing, and in reading, all it takes is one aha moment to inspire changed perspective. It is difficult to know what impact we will have long term – but one word at a time, and one reader or writer at a time, it feels good to be part of a larger effort, moving in the right direction.
Ullrich: What novel(s) would you highlight in a cli-fi curriculum, and why?
Szabo: Margaret Atwood has been one of the most influential writers in my life - her writing exemplifies the capacity of literature to seamlessly integrate ‘entertainment’ and critical, social messages in ways that fascinate, invite and include. Her Maddaddam Trilogy is phenomenal, and I recommend it in my classes and workshops. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is another riveting imagining of climate change fallout. Both books are beautifully written – the language is inventive and fluid and the power of the message is embedded in, and enhanced by, complex characters, relationships and even hope.
you can find J.K. Ullrich, author of Blue Karma at
Szabo's book is available exclusively on Amazon.com
Saving the World One Word at a Time; Writing Cli-Fi
Discover how writing fiction can make the world a better place. This book offers instruction, inspiration and prompts for writing cli-fi (Climate Fiction). Cli-fi is speculative fiction that focuses primarily on the ways that climate change is transforming our world. Explore how plot, place and character development can make climate change personal. By anticipating and elaborating on the future implications of climate change, writers of cli-fi use knowledge of science and climate to imagine and create apocalyptic or dystopian worlds with the goal of changing how humans think about, inhabit and interact with our planet. Place your writing at the forefront of efforts to reimagine the message and the messengers of climate change, taking the issue out of politics and into the realm of the personal.
more about cli-fi coming soon