The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


The Courtauld Gallery, London, WC2: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery, 14 June – 9 September

This new exhibition draws from The Courtauld’s archives, spanning over 500 years of art historical drawings with an emphasis on both the “great masterpieces” and “rarely seen” works from artist like Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Matisse. The Courtauld Gallery is home to one of the most important and extensive drawings collections in Britain, with over 20,000 pieces ranging from the Renaissance through to the 20th century. This is an unparalleled opportunity to view 60 of the finest in the flesh, as well as attended a related program of tours, talks and events held throughout the summer.


Snape Malting Hall, Aldeburgh: Aldeburgh Music Festival, 7 – 24 June

The town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast is home the “vast skies” and “moody seas” that inspired Benjamin Britten, in 1948, to found the eponymous Aldeburgh Festival of classical music.  Reclaiming and converting old malting buildings, Britten and fellow musician Peter Pears laid the foundations for what was to become a flourishing performance space. It’s been called “arguably the best musical event in Britain” (the Guardian, 2009), and last year’s festival won the coveted Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award. Early highlight from this year’s 65th annual festival will include the Where the Wild Things Are opera, Sea Change – a unique musical adventure from guitarist James Boyd – and special performance from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.


Kings Place, London, N1: Poetry & Sport, Monday 11 June, 7:00 pm

This special “Olympic inspired” literary event rejoices in the oft under-acknowledged union of the poetic and the athletic. Poetry readings on the subject of sporting achievements and feats of human strength will offered by an eclectic mix of writers and athletes, including award-winning sports journalist Clare Balding, former Romanian fencing champion Laura Badea, and Britain’s most medalled Paralympic swimmer Chris Holmes MBE. With accompanying jazz music from The Denys Baptiste Quartet, this event promises to be “the perfect warm up to this year’s Olympic summer”.


Jacksons Lane, London, N6: Postcard Festival, 7 – 30 June

The Postcard Festival will be a draw for warm weather revellers in search of a thrill. Postcard offers a platform for the best new talent from the world of circus, cabaret and visual performance – showcasing exciting, original and unexpected work. Expect their roster of enthusiastically named shows, including Boom!, Domestic Burlesque, Pop Magic!,  Lab Time: Experiments in Circus, Death Row Diva and Party Piece to knock your socks off. This is experimental, contemporary vaudeville at is most exhilarating.


Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Science Festival, 12 – 17 June

Cheltenham is the Gloucestershire town lauded for its impressive yearly calendar of brain-stimulating festivals, including jazz, literature and global music. Next week the town gives itself over to the realm of science, with over 300 thinkers, scientists, comedians and writers converging in a meeting of minds that celebrates and explores all things scientific. Saturated with familiar faces (Brian Cox, Marcus Brigstocke) and groundbreaking talks from botanists, evolutionists, geneticists, astronomers and others, the festival tackles though-provoking themes such as: Space and the Universe, Engineering and Technology, Politics and Ethics, and Being Human.

"Study for La Grande Odalisque" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, featured in the Courtauld Gallery's new exhibition. (Photo: The Courtald Gallery)
Show Hide image

How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.