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How Accurate is Climate Fiction? (And If It’s Not, Why Don’t I Feel Any Better?)

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Ann-Marie Cahill


Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

Here’s a great question to kick off your next book club meeting: How Accurate is Climate Fiction? To be clear, I am not questioning the Climate Crisis, nor any of the far-more-educated-than-me climate scientists who feel like they have been screaming into the void for eons. Unfortunately, you are more likely to elicit action out of people with an Aerosmith song and Bruce Willis brooding in space than reading the latest World Meteorological Organization report (it’s here, in case you’re interested).

The follow-up to this great opener is, naturally: Do We Even Want Cli-Fi to be Accurate? And there lies the problem. Science Fiction has always been the go-to genre for exploring our options. Climate Fiction (or cli-fi) fits in this perfectly, giving us a literary platform to test our worst-case scenarios and come up with some inspiration to make it better. Or at least that’s the theory. Cli-fi has been a fairly popular sub-genre for science fiction, with a recent surge in the last five years — not a surprise when you consider the growing need to do something about the Climate Crisis. For many climate scientists, it may be the best way to impart much-needed information to the general public. Of course, there is a fine line between accurate and “based on sound scientific principle.” One sells the hard science message, and the other sells the books. The difference is a question of how much accuracy we, as the reader, can handle in our climate fiction. And if it’s not accurate, why don’t we feel any better about our future? 

Who Fact-Checks the Cli-Fi?

To be clear, we are talking about Climate Fiction; the second word already denoting that not everything you read is going to be 100% true. Whether or not the science measures up is between you and your TBR pile. Unfortunately, there is no overriding body to fact-check the science behind any climate fiction books. It’s different for movies and television shows. They have The Science & Entertainment Exchange (AKA The Exchange), created by The National Academy of Sciences to serve as a credible conduit for scientific input on film and television projects. Their goal is to bring realism and legitimacy to creative visual storytelling while protecting the integrity of scientists and research. While The Exchange is currently limited to film and television, some of their projects have been adaptations of books as well. 

Please note: this article was written and published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work and projects associated with The Exchange would not exist without the labour of writers and actors, and includes the research they undertake for accuracy in scientific representation

In short, Climate Fiction is as accurate as the author wants it to be. Whether the book passes your mental benchmark for accuracy, reasonable scientific principle, or an acceptable suspension of disbelief is completely up to you. If you don’t like it, you can always close the book. Life’s too short to spite-read. 

It is, however, in the author’s best interests to ensure some level of accuracy. Research is a major part of writing any creative fiction, and most authors are eager to work with climate scientists to flesh out the realism in their scenarios. We also live in a world where information is readily available, as too are the fanboys with the time to fact-check the scientific plausibility of Captain Plasma’s armour rather than the plausibility of bombs “falling from space onto the planet below.” Again, it’s in the author’s best interests to check the accuracy of the science in their scenario.

Realistic Science Fiction is Hard

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler book cover

The trick is not to be too accurate. There is a whole sub-genre for realistic science fiction, AKA Hard Sci-Fi. It includes cli-fi like Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler and Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (yes, it counts as cli-fi). Both of these stories are heralded for their research and scientific accuracy. If this is your jam, check out our list of Hard Sci-Fi books here

Another example of accuracy in climate fiction is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020). Critics raved about it in their reviews, with some calling it “one of the most important books in any genre to appear this year”. It was noted KSR did his homework, showing deep research across a wide array of climate-related topics. However, even the recognition of the research didn’t save KSR from being questioned on the accuracy of his cli-fi novel. Some said it was too much, others said not enough. They all showed just how subjective our own judgment is when it comes to scientific accuracy. So, maybe it is time we were honest with ourselves and ask: Exactly how accurate do we want cli-fi to be? 

Readers’ Response to Accurate Science Fiction

Most climate scientists are aware they are not the best communicators to inspire action during the Climate Crisis. Scientists like Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick know they shouldn’t “expect everyone to be as concerned as they are when they show a plot of increasing global temperatures.” Instead, she joined a forum with Screen Australia and considered the use of Cli-Fi to connect with audiences. Perkins-Kirkpatrick noted, “By making people care about and individually connect to climate change, it can motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.” 

Like any good scientist, I went looking for data to back this up. Does climate fiction influence readers? Apparently, yes, it does, but not the way you think. A qualitative survey in 2018 of 161 American readers of 19 works of climate fiction found readers to be younger, more liberal, and already passionate about climate change. You can read the research paper here. It also found many readers found the stories to be “inspiring, although somewhat disconcerting”, often associated with intense negative emotions. While most readers understood cli-fi to be cautionary tales and not prophecies, the accuracy of events made the stories more believable and, unfortunately, more disheartening. Only 26% of responses could be classified as remotely positive. To put it simply, we need to believe what we are reading, but you need to give us a bit of hope as well. 

The Balance Between Scientific Accuracy and Hope

The greatest enemy of good climate fiction is the depression of climate science; too much “doom-and-gloom” will make readers apathetic and bring about the same dark future you are trying to prevent. Thanks to authors like Sarena Ulibarri, there has been a rise in creative work to counter the darker tones of dystopian literature. It’s called Solarpunk: a version of cli-fi with better, fairer societies using the disruption of climate change to create positive outcomes. As Ulibarri pointed out, “Any near-future science fiction that does not engage with climate change is fantasy” — however, writers still have the power to write their stories on their terms. 

Do we want accuracy in our Climate Fiction stories? For most of us, yes. The Climate Crisis is a serious issue that deserves our serious (and immediate) attention. Do we need it to be 100% accurate in the science? No, because cli-fi is still fiction, and, on some level, we need some hope that we haven’t screwed things up as badly as we initially thought. If climate fiction truly is the contemporary prose to reach the masses, then I can suspend some disbelief in the name of action. 

At least for the time being. 

For a beginner’s guide to climate fiction, check out Emily’s list of great climate fiction novels here.