Arts & culture, Literature

English professor on climate fiction: Powerful, terrifying — and inspiring

By Anne Brice

two book covers: oryx and crake, and salvage the bones
Katherine Snyder, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, first taught Climate Fiction in 2019. Two of the novels the class has read are Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
two book covers: oryx and crake, and salvage the bones

Katherine Snyder, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, first taught Climate Fiction in 2019. Two of the novels the class has read are Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.

It was fall 2019 when Katherine Snyder, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, first taught her course Climate Fiction. Wildfires were blazing across California, prompting a series of public safety power shut-offs across the state. At Berkeley, classes were canceled for several days, and when students came back to campus, the skies were a deep, hazy orange.

portrait of a person smiling

In addition to Climate Fiction, Snyder has also taught science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction classes. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Snyder)

“There was nothing theoretical about our interest in this material,” said Snyder. “It was very live.”

Snyder, who joined the English department in 1993, had taught science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, but this was the first time she’d created a class explicitly about the human experience in relation to environmental change.

“One thing that the humanities can contribute to the more science-based disciplines is that we look at the more imaginative aspects of responding to the world and envisioning the world,” Snyder said.

Berkeley News talked with Snyder about her Climate Fiction course and the challenge of teaching a subject that explores the devastating consequences of climate change.

Berkeley News: What classes have you taught over the nearly 30 years you’ve been at Berkeley? What led you to teach climate fiction, or cli-fi, as it’s often called?

Katherine Snyder: Well, my teaching has shifted from when I first got here. My first decade or so, I worked on late 19th and early 20th century modernism and gender studies. Then, really, over the past 10 or 15 years, my focus shifted to the early 21st century. My gateway text was Margaret Atwood’s 2008 novel Oryx and Crake. That started me down a path of writing and teaching about post-apocalyptic fiction, climate fiction, and more recently, pandemic fiction. Often, you’ll see at least two of these genres come together in one story. Across the country and throughout the humanities, climate fiction has become a really major critical focus, for obvious reasons.

How do you define climate fiction?

Synder’s top 10 climate fiction novels (not in order):

1. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

2. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

3. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

4. The Overstory by Richard Powers

5. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

6. The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

7. American War by Omar El Akkad

8. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

9. Weather by Jenny Offill

10. I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet , edited by Mark Martin

That’s a difficult question, and it’s something that we actually talk about in class: whether cli-fi is an actual genre or more of a way of looking at fiction through a particular lens. There’s fiction set in the future and fiction set in the present, but critics are also looking back to the 19th century, exploring, for example, the portrayal of fog in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House . So, defining climate fiction doesn’t depend on a laundry list of specific textual elements. Instead, climate change fiction partly reflects the human experience in relationship to both small-scale and large-scale environmental change and everything that comes with that, as well as texts that we might look at differently through a climate lens.

What are some of the books you have read in your climate fiction class?

We have read speculative fiction, such as Oryx and Crake , which is set in a post-pandemic near future, a world that has also been destroyed by environmental collapse. We’ve also read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which tells the story of a family that lived through Hurricane Katrina, and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, about a dystopian California ravaged by extreme drought. We have also watched the two films Mad Max: Fury Road and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Is there something about fiction, in particular, that brings people into the topic of climate change in a deeper way than they might otherwise engage in it? I know that I absorb a fictional story differently than if I’m reading a science report about climate change.

Climate fiction certainly has an emotional and visionary value. It can be painful to read, particularly when things are literally on fire. Reading and studying this material can be really overwhelming. I think we’re all experiencing a kind of mourning. So much has been lost, and so much of this literature is about loss. The last thing you want to do is put a smiley face on it.

A graphic with the words "The Climate Crisis: Justice and Solutions"

A new Berkeley News series examines how the campus community is confronting the climate crisis.

One reaction to loss and mourning can be found in a subgenre of climate fiction that refers to itself as solarpunk. It’s a very self-conscious attempt to counteract a pervasive sense of doom and gloom. It imagines certain kinds of futures that can actually recover. It’s about adaptation and reorganizing society with an ethic of community and collaboration.

Climate fiction is powerful stuff. It can be terrifying and depressing, but it can also be inspiring and fun. But even fiction that portrays a truly dire environmental future, if it’s beautifully written and reflects interestingly on this world, well, that in itself has value, even if it doesn’t have a happy face ending.