Axel Goodbody and Adeline Johns-Putra (eds), Cli-Fi: A Companion. (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019). 236 pp. £25 RRP. ISBN: 9781788740722
In their introduction to Cli-Fi: A Companion (2019), editors Axel Goodbody and Adeline Johns-Putra explain that “cli-fi is not a genre in the scholarly sense: it lacks the plot formulas and stylistic interventions that characterize genres such as sci-fi and the western” (1). It would seem only fitting, then, that any companion to the mode would seek to equally resist traditional formal structures. With this collection, Goodbody and Johns-Putra set out to “fill what we see as a gap between longer, theoretically driven academic studies and the brief descriptive accounts and subjective views expressed in most internet blogs” (17). Contributors were encouraged to “offer ways of reading/understanding the text […] and to keep plot summaries as brief as possible, so as to leave space for an analysis capable of engaging general readers as well as students and teachers” (17). In prescribing this curious balance between academic article, critical blog and teaching guide, however, Cli-Fi: A Companion risks diluting its individual identity. Although successful for the most part, the text’s attempts to resist traditional academic discourse have the adverse effect of homogenising the essays into derivative structures. Furthermore, its desire to appeal to multiple audiences often undermines the value it could provide to any one specific group.
Following the introduction, the text is divided into six sections: ‘Proto-Climate Change Fiction’, ‘Speculative Future Fiction: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Narratives’, ‘Realist Narratives Set in the Present and Near Future’, ‘Thriller, Crime, Conspiracy and Social Satire’, ‘Children’s Film and Young Adult Narratives’ and ‘Literary Modernism’. Comprised predominantly of Anglophone literature, Goodbody and Johns-Putra qualify this limitation as a result of “the paucity of English translations of foreign climate change novels” (6). Likewise, the decision to largely exclude works that might be considered precursors to modern climate fiction, with the earliest text analysed being J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), is explained by a desire to focus on texts which explicitly engage with anthropogenic climate change. In a sense, this reads as resignation, highlighting underrepresented areas of climate fiction in order to justify the companion’s contemporary focus, rather than challenging said underrepresentation itself. Indeed, this also instils the collection with a principally Western perspective, despite repeated assertions as to the differing effects of climate change across the globe. Taken at its remit, however, what is included is a remarkable breadth of texts and themes, encompassing climate denial, the Gaia hypothesis, riskscapes, environmental justice and migration, to name but a few. The seminal texts (The Sea and Summer (1987), The Age of Stupid (2009)) are addressed alongside more outré suggestions (Frozen (2013), The Book of Dave (2006)) and those few international productions (The Healer (2010), Snowpiercer (2013)), with each providing a unique perspective, be it through medium, genre, tone or intended audience. Indeed, one of the more refreshing aspects of the collection is its commitment to demonstrating that climate fiction need not convey a positive ecological message, including such works as Michael Crichton’s anti-climate science thriller, State of Fear (2004), or Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a picture of apocalyptic excess. Rather than suggesting that climate crisis is a singular issue to which climate fiction provides a uniform response, the range of analyses presented highlights a uniquely varied form in both thematic interest and creative approach.
With twenty-nine chapters in the companion, each focusing on a single text, it would prove too cursory to explicate each and, thus, of little critical benefit. This said, the essays themselves vary in quality, hinging primarily on how deftly the authors are able to navigate the formal structure they have been prescribed. Stef Craps’ essay on Take Shelter (2011) and Hannes Bergthaller’s essay on Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) both strike an artful balance between introducing the text to an unfamiliar reader and interrogating the deeper theoretical and philosophical questions of Pretraumatic Stress Syndrome and risk mitigation, respectively, weaving critical analysis alongside steady plot explanation. Likewise, Louise Squire’s essay on The Stone Gods (2007) explores posthumanist theory in a manner that remains both critical and accessible, guiding the reader through the text’s engagements with the cyclicality of human desire while also addressing the work’s shortcomings in presenting a viable alternative solution. On the other hand, M. Isabel Pérez-Ramos’ analysis of The Windup Girl (2009) reads as circumlocutory, leaning too heavily into the subjective and ultimately amounting to effuse praise that repeatedly highlights the text’s engagement with Genetically Modified Organisms without further critical consideration as to its impacts. Indeed, many of the works become bogged down by this initial need to preach the climate credentials of their chosen texts, to justify their choice as worthy of discussion. Repetitive paragraphs reoccur throughout the companion, consisting of little more than a cataloguing of cli-fi terms, which are given little contextualisation. Far from welcoming a new reader, this flurry of specialist concepts may have the unintended consequence of alienating a scholar taking their first steps into the field. Richard Kerridge’s analysis of Solar (2010), meanwhile, proves indicative of a further flaw with the companion, undermining the structure assigned to the collection by foregoing any teaching suggestions at all. Moreover, the teaching component of the companion is largely consigned throughout to a paragraph at the end of each essay, suggesting a flurry of potential avenues for teaching without any specific guidance as to where to begin: a consequence, perhaps, of the editors’ decision to deliberately curtail “the academic apparatus of references” (17). Less a teaching guide, then, these sections instead act as a series of prompts from which further investigation is required on the part of the reader.
Cli-Fi: A Companion highlights an admirably broad spectrum of twenty-nine climate fiction texts. However, it would be remiss to suggest that the companion acts as a valuable introduction to cli-fi itself. While making an earnest attempt, Goodbody and Johns-Putra’s introduction proves too brief to fully integrate the reader into the multifaceted concerns of climate fiction, nor the history of environmentalism from which it was born, while the essays themselves often assume specific knowledge, creating a sense of structural dissonance. Indeed, Cli-Fi: A Companion may ultimately suffer from its own desire to challenge traditional academic norms. As a companion, it is too cursory for academics, too theoretical for general readers, and too vague to aid teachers. Neither a starting point nor a key text to consult, Cli-Fi: A Companion thus occupies an uneasy middle ground, a haze of uncertain identity and purpose. There are individual bright spots, and every text included is worthy of consideration, a helpful entrance to the study of climate fiction. Whether this companion is required to do so, however, remains up for debate.
Michael Wheatley, Royal Holloway