Distinguishing Genres About Climate and Ecological Changes
Ever since starting this website in the summer of 2013, I’ve tried to be inclusive with fiction genres that describe the ecological facets of our world and have held the viewpoint that not one genre is more important than another, regardless of media attention and trends. Not one genre always defines a story. Not one story will be remembered for its particular genre but for its impact on readers. We’re no longer relying on old card catalog systems that list just one main category of literature per book, but rather the digital age has opened up metadata taxonomies (which I use in Dragonfly’s database); genres overlap and cross over. They also evolve. Authors and stories are far more important than simple labels. Authors sometimes do not like to be pigeon-holed either, so I think we should respect that. I think it’s useful to look at modes of storytelling, however, if for nothing else than to know what’s happening in literature now.
My friends joke with me about not wanting to “other” genres. This is somewhat true, especially with the “mama genre” of the environment, ecology, and climate: eco-fiction. Its history has some well-formatted explanations, but it’s diverse, inclusive, and overlaps with and is related to other genres; in fact, it may act as a composite sub-genre. Then there’s the idea that fiction inclusive of nature and the environment is innately part of cultural processes–technological, economical, political, and ideological–so it’s never separate or stand-alone. Eco-criticism is a term of scholarship that looks at the gut of this literature, but Dragonfly has always just offered a glimpse into the academics of this fiction while focusing the lens on the pragmatics. Where are the novels? Who are the authors? How are they inspired? What stories are out there? What resources are there on this literature? What do new writers and readers need to know? How does this fiction impact readers, society?
I offer this as a guide only. Genres are always tricky to nail down precisely. These explanations might help but shouldn’t be seen as authoritative. Also, these genres usually fall into the frameworks of other major genres: literary, mystery, thriller, horror, historical, romance and family, western, coming-of-age, speculative, dystopian, utopian, magical realism, and realist fictions–not all of which I’ll list here. I’ll open this guide up to comments, so if you see something that I haven’t included, just let me know and I’ll probably include it.
I’ll start with explaining the mama genre of eco-fiction, though you can find more information here.
- Eco-fiction: Mike Vasey offered a simple explanation in Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction. “Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principals.” Jim Dwyer breaks it down a bit more, embracing some other themes such as human involvement in natural history, humans not always central to the story, an ethical representation that holds humans accountable, and recognizing environment as a process, not a static thing. Dwyer’s book, first published in 2008 and representing a historical bunch of novels, also recognized climate change in fiction and eco-fiction as a genre that represents not just climate change but deforestation, plastics in the ocean, animals, and so many thousands of other objects that come into play when we imagine stories about our natural world.
- Environmental fiction: Also sometimes called green fiction, this fiction is similar to eco-fiction but isn’t as robust, as it generally deals with humanity’s impact on nature, whereas eco-fiction is more about organisms’ interaction with their environment, including human impact and fiction that leaves out humans altogether.
- Science fiction: Before anything like eco-fiction came along, science fiction had always reflected on natural processes, including the environment and the way humans interact with it. Sure, there were the pulp magazines and gadgety stuff back in the first part of the 20th century, which were flashy and scantily clad, but don’t let that small era give the entire genre get a bad rep. I still see science fiction as a valid categorization for stories about our natural world. It is based on science, after all, and constantly evolves to mirror the knowledge we have at any given time. The term “it’s just science fiction” might no longer be as relevant as it used to. Science fiction predicts and prophesizes based upon credible science, and the lines are blurring as the world is entering an era that would have previously been described as “science fiction.” I’ve met many biologists, ecologists, and other scientists working on bridging the gap between science and readers by writing science fiction. Canadian ecologist and author Nina Munteanu explains it in more detail at her blog and also in an interview I did with her.
- Fantasy: Propelled mostly by magic, myth, and folklore and other fabulisms, fantasy is also a genre of metaphor, which can speak to any real-world issue, and many fantasy authors are writing about our natural world–as they have for centuries. My very young introduction to literature that represented myth, parable, and fable came from fantasy. Once upon a time, The Hobbit was my favorite story, and it didn’t take long for me to put two and two together about how destructive industry was the bad guy and living within the limits of the land represented the good guy.
- Climate fiction: This one’s pretty obvious. Climate change fiction is a specific subset of eco-fiction, recognized by Jim Dwyer in his study, and according to its definition on Wikipedia, it “deals with climate change and global warming.” Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is implied as the culprit, and given the newest trend of writers tackling the subject, good climate fiction rejects pseudo-science and embraces the reality of the modern scientific thinking on climate change. It’s also widely diverse and overlaps with other genres and modes of storytelling, including literary and genre fictions. Like grand-scale ecological change overall, climate change is a hyperobject: “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place” (Timothy Morton). Climate fiction can involve up- and downstream effects, but modernly understood climate change should be central to the forces that propel the story. Note that climate fiction might also possibly include non-long-term climate stories, such as weather events, but the majority of time it is represented in modern media as a long-term weather pattern specifically caused by humanity’s impact on the planet.
- Anthropocene fiction: Not a widely used term, it might more broadly represent the proposed geographic era wherein human impact on the Earth includes such large hyperobjects such as climate change and mass extinction. This overlaps with other fiction and generally begins with the industrial age. Adam Trexler’s nonfiction, Anthropocene Fictions, states: “The novel expands the reach of climate science beyond the laboratory or model, turning abstract predictions into subjectively tangible experiences of place, identity, and culture. Political and economic organizations are also being transformed by their struggle for sustainability. In turn, the novel has been forced to adapt to new boundaries between truth and fabrication, nature and economies, and individual choice and larger systems of natural phenomena. Anthropocene Fictions argues that new modes of inhabiting climate are of the utmost critical and political importance, when unprecedented scientific consensus has failed to lead to action.”
- Ecological weird fiction: Horror in today’s world is not fiction. And the world’s landscapes and species and ecological webs grow weirder and weirder all the time. But weird fiction takes it a step further, giving a preter- or super-natural effect to the reasoning behind the story, generally without any explanation at all. And by supernatural, I simply mean the unknown, not the occult. I’ve also heard “ecological uncanny,” and uncanny is a great term to use for this fiction as stories in this genre seemingly take on realistic and literary beginnings but then tangent into something else. The place is familiar. Until it is not. I am partial to this genre because I think the weird can pull at heartstrings in a unique way, making the reader feel on edge and agitated. Weird fiction does not comfort us. I hope it leads to questions and new ideas. It’s also not just jump-scares or flashy stuff, but a psychological burn. For more info, watch Lovis Geier’s interview with me on this subject.
- Ecological horror fiction: Sometimes associated with the weird, eco-horror can hold its own more realistic genre as horrors are common in our world today. Sometimes Mother Nature fights back, or perhaps something scary is happening in the forest. Just as escapist climate change movies don’t fare too well in Hollywood, a lot of horror fiction can be cheesy and B-grade. However, some fiction is more serious. Bookriot has a good list.
- African speculative fiction: Author Nnedi Okorafor distinguishes three types of African speculative fiction: Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, Africanjujuism. They all deal with Black Diaspora and futurism, but the former two are subgenres of science fiction and the latter a subgenre of fantasy. Africanfuturism can extend beyond the bounds of Africa, though its center is non-western and diverse among the continent of Africa, whereas Afrofuturism extends outward to African-American and other places in the world and does not have the continent at its focus. Africanjujism, as Nnedi points out, “respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.” None of these terms are inherently environmental, though can be and are often holistic when imagining future or present as what is and what can be. Very often, the health of the planet is included in such writing and, unlike a lot of western fiction, ties myth, spirituality, and culture experience with the ecological.
- Indigenous speculative fiction: Another subgenre of science fiction or fantasy, Indigenous speculative fiction not only looks at what is or can be but what could have been, in the sense that the past is reclaimed. These stories are generally told or written by Indigenous peoples of all continents who seek to address post-colonialism and oppression. So themes may involve, like the African literature explained above, a more positive and judicial framework wherein technology, community, and the environment forego the usual racism and violence and a more positive future is imagined and built in storytelling. Because this genre is so broad and diverse, it seems to be an umbrella for many other genres.
- Taínofuturism: An emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean. Read more at E.G. Condé’s website.
- Dystopian and utopian fiction: I turn to the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin’s article in Medium, which doesn’t take these two extremes as polar opposites but rather as yin and yang. In the article, she stated: “Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops,’ and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.” Reminiscent of an interview I once had with Cory Doctorow, in which, to me, dystopian stories are preferable when citizens work together rather than apart to build a better future, even if society is failing (it can fail gracefully). Even if we really never get there, it’s the journey that counts.
- Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction: These terms are related, as an apocalyptic story prophesizes a large catastrophic event that resembles the end of the world and post-apocalyptic follows that event. Yet, it’s tough to break down the hyperobject of any ecological collapse as a single event but a series of events. Sometimes a story zooms in on an individual event in order to make it manageable, both for the writer and reader. Other times, fiction zooms out and looks at the way the world has changed, due to several events. Note that catastrophic hyperobjects are not solvable with simple technological fixes. The nature of these novels might be depressing if the author focuses on the fright factor but may also be more optimistic if a team of characters works with to help each other through losses and death.
- Punk fiction: A number of newly recognized subgenres of science fiction have entered the scene in the wake of climate and ecological disasters. Each has its own nature, and I’ll look at the most popular of them.
- Solarpunk: Not just a literary genre but an art movement and aesthetic, solarpunk is probably the most popular of the newest punks as it deals with climate change and pollution and envisions solutions, including renewable energy, smart technology, and positive and optimistic futures. The -punk suffix realizes that to get to a more just and sustainable world one must fight the status quo.
- Lunarpunk is another term, like solarpunk but nocturnal. It might represent the moon, fungus, and so forth.
- Ecopunk: Ecopunk shares the same lineage as eco-fiction in that it is concerned with ecology, or the interactions between organisms and their environment–not just of specific concerns like climate change and pollution but the interrelated commonalities caught up in the web. Like solarpunk, it shares the -punk suffix, which may include anti-establishment ideas.
- Hopepunk: A little more general, this type of punk is described as the “opposite of grimdark,” according to Vox. It takes a viewpoint other than “everything sucks” and attempts to embrace the world and its future by seeing hope as a force one fights for, not just a passive attitude.
- Biopunk: Derived from cyberpunk, this punk is related to biotechnology and its implications, often in near-future speculation.
- A bunch of other types of fiction: I’m sure that this list is incomplete, but here’s some other nature and environmental fiction modes and genres.
- Climate strange: Probably not a true genre, but a fun thought for weird stories about climate change, though the shifting climate is, on its own, strange enough.
- Existential creativity: Came across this in a Ben Okri article in The Guardian. “It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.”
- Sea stories: They may be comprised of nonfictional nautical stories but also include fictional stories about the sea.
- Animal stories: Animal stories of the eco-variety are found in children’s stories, such as fables and parables, fairy tales, fantasy, and coming-of-age stories, but also in stories about the preservation and conservation of animals.
- Fungoid fiction: Maybe in some version of the world every species found on Earth might have a sub-sub-genre based around it, so I’m sorry if my list isn’t super exhaustive, but I was amazed at the concept of fungoid fiction. Is it a thing? According to Book Riot, yes, and possibly but not necessarily a sub-set of weird fiction. Basically, it seems that if you can find enough stories about any living thing, you can make a genre out if it.
- Crime fiction: Normally when we think of crime, we think about crimes against humanity, but what about crimes against forests, animals, marine systems, the Earth? This niche is growing now and overlaps with the idea of humans impacting the planet, but with an added layer–their impacts are seen as criminal in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of activists trying to change laws to protect the environment.
- Magical realism: Because apocalyptic destruction is something tough for us to truly realize, the literary mode of magical realism helps us to gain perspective by the introduction of the magical elements into otherwise realistic settings in our own world, with ordinary characters, thus blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Blurring lines often helps us step back and view our world from a different angle, grapple with paradoxes, and re-imagine reality in the light of modern but weird happenings.
- Lyrical polemic: A mode of writing that poeticizes or beautifully imagines and reinforces an activist’s stance.
- Other opias: Dystopia and utopia may play yin/yang with our visionary goals, but two other types of opias have been used in this literature: ustopia and optopia. Margaret Atwood, in The Guardian, stated that she combined utopia and dystopia to form “ustopia,” which basically seems to reflect what Ursula K. Le Guin was saying (see above). It recognizes the non-binary opias we already know and how they play off one another. Optopia is another newish term that seems to have come from the Optopia Solarpunk Zine, and marks an available place rather than a non-accessible opia: “the best possible world we can create.” It, like ustopia, combines dystopia and utopia.
- Slipstream: This genre falls between literary, science fiction, and fantasy and is mostly remarked by its surreal qualities. It’s kind of like weird fiction as it makes “the familiar strange or the strange familiar,” but it has its own main three traits: “it disrupts the principle of realism; it is not a traditional fantasy story; and, it is a postmodern narrative.” (Wiki)