What is the shape of our fears? Discussing Climate Fiction with Sarah Dimick

3 February 2023
By Sophia Heidebrecht

As you might have gathered from our last post, the journey of an English major can lead down some exciting — and diverse — paths. This week, we had the chance to hear from one Carl about her life after Laird: Sarah Dimick, class of ‘06. After getting her MFA at New York University, Sarah went on to do her PhD at the University of Wisconsin, studying environmental literature. Now she’s an assistant professor at Harvard. (Go English majors!)

New Faculty: Sarah Dimick | Harvard University Center for the Environment
Sarah Dimick ’06

Many people aren’t aware that environmental literature encompasses a whole lot more than just transcendentalism. Sarah’s focus is on the exciting (and growing) field of climate literature. When she was deciding on her field of study, she recalls being warned about how small it was at the time — alas, given the state of the world, it hasn’t stayed that way. As one of the biggest issues facing our planet at the moment, perhaps it’s no surprise that authors have felt the need to explore climate change in their work.

You might be wondering what exactly climate fiction (AKA cli-fi) entails. A lot of this writing involves speculative work, but it’s not all sci-fi! And it’s definitely not intended to provide some sort of scientific solution to the world’s problems. Sarah remarked that she finds it a bit silly when people find fault with literature for some sort of failure of “scientific accuracy.” Instead, she urged us to think about what literature has the power to access that science can’t.

Highbush blueberries and Common St. John’s Wort, two of the species studied via Thoreau’s journals.

That’s not to say that literature and science can’t go hand in hand. For example, did you know that Thoreau’s journals have been used as a source of climate data? His writing, full of meticulous detail that records, for example, the dates of certain plants flowering and bird migration patterns has been used by ecologists studying phenology (No, we’re not talking about the pseudo-scientific study of skulls. “Phenology” is the study of the timing of environmental events). Thoreau’s journals provided information that scientists could use to compare the local effects of climate change over time, from the 1850s to the present. In these cases, Sarah noted that Thoreau’s literary prestige actually served as a vehicle for climate knowledge, helping to draw attention to what would normally be niche findings (tell your neighbors that next time they ask you why studying literature matters!).

But climate fiction can have a reach that extends far beyond Massachusetts. The language we use to talk (and write) about climate change can be just as revealing as any sort of scientific data, telling us about the state of our anxieties, or, as Sarah put it, “the shape of our fears.” She noted an interesting overlap between the language of the crime novel and the climate crisis, citing terms like “climate victim,” “climate villain,” and “climate crime” — what might that say about the way we’re thinking about climate now? (Do we expect some sort of “climate judge” to bring us “climate justice”? A “climate detective” to find the “climate culprit”? If only it was as easy as it is in Sherlock Holmes…)

Sarah named several themes that recur throughout contemporary climate fiction, including a focus on young people, movement and displacement, security and borders — and in an American context, an interesting urban/rural divide. There’s a trend, she says, to end these works with the displaced city dweller returning to the land in order to survive — which is somewhat ironic, given how farmers have been impacted by the consequences of climate change (If you want to try your hand at cli-fi, it seems like we could use a story that explores the challenges of “living off the land” — Sarah’s curious about how those former city-dwellers might be doing years after their stories are finished!). Elsewhere around the world, climate writing tends to have a different emphasis — for example, an exploration of concerns about smog and clean air in Indian fiction, or an examination of anxieties over climate refugees in European fiction. There’s also been an exploration of climate change through a postcolonial lens, particularly highlighted by Indigenous authors, as only the latest in a series of disasters resulting from colonialism and imperialism.

If all this talk about climate change is getting you down, you’re not the only one — it can be difficult to know where to find hope in these stories. But if we redefine hope as a possibility for action rather than a feeling of optimism, Sarah thinks there’s lots of hope to be found in climate literature. She notes a rising emphasis on mutual aid in climate fiction, part of the trend towards a fiction that’s “heavier, but not quite as lonely.” Sarah also highlighted to us the activist role of climate writing, seen for example in the work of Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who has read her poetry at the UN Climate Summit as a push for climate justice (you can watch the performance for yourself here).

It doesn’t seem like climate fiction will be disappearing anytime soon. In the future, Sarah thinks one of the challenges facing authors who want to explore the topic will be the attempt to craft an engaging narrative that isn’t based around a single disastrous event — the sort of spectacular, world-ending event that might remind you of films like “Don’t Look Up.” Climate change in reality, she notes, is much more of a serialized, gradual apocalypse — more apocalypse-s than apocalypse, singular. Sarah wondered if there’s a better word for the plural of apocalypse — it would seem we are in need of one. Perhaps we’ll have to craft our world a new vocabulary if we want to articulate the problems of the future. Who better to lead that charge than English majors?

Want to explore the world of cli-fi for yourself? Check out some of the titles Sarah mentioned:

  • If you’re curious about an exploration of the generational divides that seem to be present in discourses of climate change, you could try A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millett. 
  • For a book focused more on young adult perspectives, check out The Marrow Thieves by Métis author Cherie Dimaline (Edz note: I read this one when it was up for Canada Reads in 2018, highly recommend!). 
  • Of course, there’s always Octavia Butler’s classic, Parable of the Sower
  • Or, if you’re looking for a mainstream literary author, there’s Solar by Ian McEwan.
  • Sarah’s personal favorite right now is The Swan Book by Alexis Wright.  
  • Apart from prose, Sarah also had some poetry recommendations — check out The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi, and Well Then There Now by Juliana Spahr.


  • 2023-03-03 18:40:42

    Does Divergent count as Cli Fi?

    • 2023-03-03 19:08:03

      to be quite honest i have not read it recently enough to remember

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