We've Got Hollywood Covered

The Next Big Genre: ‘Cli-Fi’ — Climate Fiction, in Which ‘Mad Max’ Meets ‘The Road’

Forget missions to Mars and start thinking about mass migrations of ”climate refugees” north to Alaska.


Science fiction in Hollywood has a long history and dates way back.

The great Polish writer Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) wrote the 1961 sci-fi novel ''Solaris" — later turned into a film in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and again in 2002 in a new Hollywood remake by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney. From "Soylent Green" in 1973 to "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004, movies also began to venture into a new genre of science fiction that might be called "cli-fi" .. or climate fiction.

Cli-fi is also a new genre for novels and short stories, and one of the new practitioners is American writer Jim Laughter, 60, who has peered into our climate future — and guess what, he’s not laughing.

In a new novel, the retired grandfather of four envisions so-called ”polar cities” for future survivors of devastating climate change disasters worldwide.

No less an authority than British scientist James Lovelock has heard about Laughter's polar cities theme, and in an email to me, Lovelock said: "Thanks for telling me about these polar city themes. It may very well happen, and soon!"

Does this have any connection to today's world? Well, in the distant future — some say the near future — North America, northern Asia and Europe will see millions of climate refugees from southern lands trekking northward, and even Hollywood might be under threat from the devastating impacts of ''climate chaos'' — from rising sea levels to a scary scarcity of food, fuel and shelter.

Enter “Polar City Red,” Laughter’s 250-page cli-fi novel that is set in Alaska in the year 2080, but it could just as well be Tokyo or Oslo or Berlin, too. Global warming is borderless, and so are our fears.

Forget missions to Mars, says Laughter, and start thinking about mass migrations of ''climate refugees'' north to Alaska. (By the way, the term "climate refugees" was coined by Robin Bronen,  a woman professor in Anchorage.)

"Global warming is no laughing matter," says Laughter, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was stationed in Japan and the Philippines, among other places.

"You know, I met a man just the other day who told me, who insisted, that global warming is just a myth,” Laughter, author of ten sci-fi novels and a resident of Oklahoma, told this reporter. “He saw a program on television that said it’s a scare tactic to direct people’s attention away from truly serious issues such as the economy and the state of international affairs. He’s right about one thing; it’s a scary subject. And if projections are correct about the amount of carbon dioxide polluting our atmosphere, we’d better be scared. We may not be at the point of panic yet, but the day is coming when this is world is going to turn its back on us and invite us to leave forever.”

“So I've put my heart into this new book,” Laughter added. “It’s for my four grandkids. I hope it helps to wake the world up, too!”

“Polar City Red” is a not book written by a scientist, ”since I am no scientist,” Laughter is quick to add. “But I am approaching the story as a family man concerned about the future of our planet. If my sci-fi story can reach a small audience at first and later reach an even greater readership worldwide in translation, I’ll be happy.”

Laughter says ”Polar City Red” is just a good old-fashioned yarn for the average lay person, but adds: “I’m sure scientists many times smarter than I am will read the book and say, ‘I could have said that better.’ But I hope climate researchers will also enjoy the book, without being too critical. Hollywood screenwriters might want to take a peek, too. It’s the day after ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ but based on global warming rather than global cooling. I think a visionary film director could have a field day with this.”

Laughter says that as a fiction writer he is straddling the fence. “I hope the message I’m trying to convey isn’t overshadowed by criticism and skepticism from climate denialists and skeptics,” Laughter says.

“You never know when a scientist or activist studying global warming might read something in the book and realize their life hasn’t been wasted trying to warn humankind of our folly when we burn billions of tons of fossil fuels every year and expend dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Global warming is no laughing matter.”

Or so says Jim Laughter.

“I’m not smart enough to scientifically explain the intricacies of global warming,” Laughter adds. “But neither am I stupid enough to ignore the signs around me. I’ve driven through a few stop signs and traffic lights in my life, only to be stopped by policemen alert to the situation. The human race had better start paying attention to the signs around us if we want to leave a habitable planet for generations to come.”

Sci-fi and cli-fi fans will likely be the first and most avid readers of "Polar City Red" since it's set in a "Mad Max" kind of climate dystopia just outside Fairbanks in the not so distant future.

One might think of it as a marriage between Mel Gibson's "Mad Max" franchise and Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road."

Is it science? No, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that climate chaos is going to have a direct – and chilling — impact on the entire planet, and especially on the Lower 48 and our 49th state, Alaska.

For now, Laughter's book is just an old-fashioned cli-fi yarn, so there's nothing to be afraid of.

Still, it's "Soylent Green" food for thought for the day after "The Day After Tomorrow." I'm not afraid, but I'm worried. James Lovelock is, too! Are you?


Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Asia since 1991. During a five-year stint in Tokyo, he covered the triumphs (and occasional failures) of Hollywood movies in Japan and interviewed American actors passing through Tokyo on film promotion tours, including Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Kevin Costner.