Woke Space Opera, Kitchen Sink Utopia, the New Weird, The Ultra-Unreal, Gulf Futurism... some useful new Sci-Fi genres


We have a healthy interest in all the genres of science fiction at A/UK. The teeming popular culture of science fiction and speculative fiction - filling movie houses, games consoles, book shops, Netflix and tv platforms, toy shops, t-shirts - is a very obvious rebuke to the charge that citizens don’t have an appetite for thinking about (and more importantly, enjoying thinking about) the future.

We often bring SF tales into our collaboratories (we had an SF drama, Fog Machine, at our recent Plymouth event), and try to keep them away from the automatic dystopian default that can seem to define the genre. Not that things have to be sunny and optimistic - just that it should encompass a broader spectrum than just verging on apocalypse (or being just saved from it).

There seems to be a proliferation of new SF genres at the moment. We have covered Afrofuturism, Solar Punk and Cli-Fi in these pages.. The How We Get To Next site has rounded up a list that includes the preceding, and adds some new ones for our consideration (and use).

A selection below:

Chinese Sci-Fi and Chaohuan, the “Ultra-Unreal”

[HWGTN]: A wave of Chinese writing has reached the Anglosphere in the last five or so years — much of it through the sterling translation work of Ken Liu — and has scooped up many of the genre’s big awards.

But why are Chinese and Taiwanese authors writing sci-fi, and why is it hitting home like this? “Realist literature often can’t keep up with the pace of the change that China is undergoing,” Alec Ash, a writer who lives in Beijing, writes in The New York Review of Books. In a 2016 article for New England Review, the writer Ning Ken agrees: “It is as if time in China has been compressed.”

Ning coins the term chaohuan, or “ultra-unreal,” in the same article (available on Lithub under the headline “Modern China Is So Crazy It Needs a New Literary Genre”). He describes chaohuan as a Chinese acceleration of Latin American magical realism: chaohuan seeks to capture a Chinese reality that is often stranger than fiction, and in which “there is nothing you can’t accomplish if you hold power.”

Gulf Futurism

[HWGTN]: A crunchy, contentious concept, referring both to the “hyperdevelopment” aesthetic of architecture in the region (“the Blade Runner fantasies of oil princes,” as Natalie Olah puts it in a 2014 Vice article) and the critique of the same.

‘Writing for Dazed in 2012, artists Sophia Al-Maria and Fatima Al Qadiri describe how the “themes and ideas of Gulf Futurism emerge: the isolation of individuals via technology, wealth and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism on the soul and industry on the earth, the erasure of history from our memories and our surroundings and finally, our dizzying collective arrival in a future no one was ready for.” Al-Maria’s and Al Qadiri’s own works swirl with imagery of shopping malls, satellite TV, and video games — the stuff of teenage life, a world seen through a screen, always mediated.

Water Crisis Thrillers

[HWGTN]: If you run out of water, you’ve got just 100 hours left to live, claims Dr. Claude Piantadosi of Duke University. This lends a particular tension to science fiction novels about drought and water crisis.

The scenario they explore is barely a “future” at all. Earlier this year, Cape Town, South Africa, only narrowly averted “Day Zero,” the point when the city’s water reserves would fall to a critical level and officials would have to turn off the supply to four million people. UN Water reports that a third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are already in distress, and that by 2030, water scarcity in arid and semiarid places will displace up to 700 million people.

A handful of science fiction writers and films are exploring this imminent reality

Kitchen Sink Dystopia

[HWGTN]: Think of this microgenre as “minimally speculative futures,” if you like — a mode of storytelling that seems wholly mundane and normal until something goes a bit wrong. Fiction writer Brendan C. Byrne calls it the “day to day debasement of Super Late Capitalism.”

Woke Space Opera

[HWGTN]: A slightly cheeky name here, as suggested by Tim Maughan, author of both Flyover Country and the forthcoming novel Infinite Detail (2019).

At the other end of the scale to kitchen sink dystopias is this microgenre, which features the familiar elements of classic hard sci-fi — faster-than-light space travel, deep futures (like 20,000-years-deep), and, of course, aliens — with a contemporary sociopolitical twist.

Several of the writers we’ve seen already are working at the interstellar scale, including N. K. Jemisin (see №2, Afrofuturism, above) with her Broken Earthtrilogy, and Kim Stanley Robinson (№5, Solarpunk) with 2312.

The New Weird

[HWGTN]: Time for some tentacles!

It’s not actually new — the name has been around since 2002 — but definitely weird. Unlike the other speculative fiction subgenres discussed here, The New Weird draws on supernatural horror as much as on fantasy and sci-fi tropes. Bodies often don’t get to be wholly human: a central character may be a mutated bear, or have a scarab beetle for a head. Plants and fungi tend to be able to do a lot more than plants and fungi are supposed to be able to do. The mood is eerie and uneasy.

Please check out the original article - they have lists of suggested authors beneath each category.


Meanwhile, we were delighted to have been contacted by writer and editor Dan Bloom, who first coined the term “Cli-Fi” (and charts its progress on this site).

Dan has written us a piece that lays out his high ambitions for the genre as it goes ahead:

Anthropocene-Fi: A New Way to Write (and Read) Upbeat, Hopeful Novels About Climate Change

By Dan Bloom

There's a new kid on the literary block, and it's not your grandfather's sci-fi. Call it ''cli-fi" for the Anthropocene. The way American scientist John Abraham sees it, the genre term is ''a new way to talk about climate change.''

"These are fictional books that somehow or someway bring real climate change science to the reader," Abraham, a professor of thermal and fluid sciences at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering, Minnesota, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the UK Guardian newspaper. ''What is really interesting is that cli-fi novels often present real science in a credible way. They become fun teaching tools. There are some really well-known authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood among others.''

The genre, also dubbed ''Anthropocene fiction,'' in addition to ''cli-fi,'' has become a publishing phenomenon, with sci-fi novelists Margaret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson among those conjuring up ''what if'' near-futures. 

Robinson's latest novel, "New York 2140," is set in that time period and tells an upbeat, hopeful tale about making Manhattan sustainable again. Cli-fi or sci-fi? For some people, the popular new label is simply a new take on science fiction, but for others it's a timely wake-up call that could inspire real change.

James Bradley, an Australian sci-fi novelist and literary critic whose 2015 book ''Clade'' was one of the first Australian works to be hailed as cli-fi, says it's not easy to make sense of the "incredibly difficult idea" of climate change. Novels, whether categorized as either sci-fi or cli-fi, can give us a way to start thinking about the messages conveyed by climate science in a new way, according to Bradley.

When thinking about what he believes makes a cli-fi novel worth reading in this day and age, Abraham said: "Well in my opinion, it has to have some real science in it. And it has to get the science right. Second, it has to be fun to read. When done correctly, cli-fi can connect people to their world; it can help us understand what future climate may be like, or what current climate effects are.”

With a series of massive and deadly wildfires this past summer in Greece and California, newspaper headlines and TV reports around the world in 2018 have made the public more aware of climate events linked to global warming. This awareness translates to a hunger to read novels about  climate change with good emotive storytelling, such as novels by Barbara Kingsolver ("Flight Behavior") or Bradley or Robinson.

With the latest IPCC climate report released in October, runaway climate change risks are on everyone's mind now.Cli-fi  is in the air. Margaret Atwood tweets about it. Literary critics are taking the portmanteau genre seriously.

We have entered ''the Age of Cli-Fi'' in the Anthropocene. We need novels about humankind's future, stories carrying with them hope and optimism. While many media outlets characterize cli-fi as an apocalyptic dystopian genre, the fledgling label has gotten a bad rap. Cli-fi also can tell us postiive and life-affirming tales about the climate future and many do.

How would I characterize the new genre? Cli-fi novels can take place in the past, the present and the future, the near future and the distant future. They should not be preachy or lecturing to readers. They should be storytelling pure and simple. Family dramas, love stories, psychological tales, and full of emotion and memorable characters.

They can serve, through powerful and emotive storytelling, to help make readers more conscious of what's at stake as the world warms degree by degree. These novels can be wake-up calls, alarm bells, warning flares but they need not be depressing. I prefer to see them as calls to action, after the last page has been turned.

I coined the term in 2010 in a press release for a novel titled Polar City Red that I was promoting as a PR consultant for a sci-fi author  in Texas. Margaret Atwood tweeted about the climate-themed book and called it a "cli-fi thriller" in 2011 on her Twitter feed that went to 1 million followers. That single Tweet got the ball rolling. Then in April 2013, NPR did a 5-minute radio segment about cli-fi. The NPR link went viral via social media and marked cli-fi's rise to literary prominence.

I came to coin the cli-fi term for two reasons: I'm a climate activist of the literary kind. And I felt that climate change was such a huge and dramatic existential issue that it cried out for a literary genre of its own. That was my feeling in 2010, and still is today in 2018. 

In the end, cli-fi is a literary cousin of sci-fi. The difference between them is that sci-fi is more speculative and escapist and entertainment oriented, while cli-fi is based on reality and real science. That's what sets the two genres apart.

Cli-fi was made for the 21st Century. And here we are: floods, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, water wars, climate refugees, a major city in South Africa - Capetown - facing water shortages. I didn't invent cli-fi. Cli-fi invented itself.  

Such novels, with the correct science behind them, can help give readers an emotional release to vent their fears and anxieties about global warming. They are about empathy. That's what good storytelling can do.

''Cli-fi stories are vehicles that can help us imagine," Professor Abraham concluded in his Guardian op-ed. "The authors get us to think about these 'what ifs' – these future Earths. Cli-fi novels (and movies for that matter) can make experiences far more real than endless graphs or plots of temperature variations. And that, perhaps, is the most important contribution cli-fi can make to the discussion of climate change in our everyday lives. These authors get us to imagine what experiences are or would be like."