On Cli-Fi and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’

I’ve hinted before that climate change is one element of NEXT BOOK, which feels a little odd to write because at this point it’s like saying NEXT BOOK will include air, or food. NEXT BOOK, though technically a fantasy novel, begins in our immediate present, and so of course climate change is a factor.

How could it not be?

But since many novels aren’t really dealing with climate change, beyond an offhand comment by a character (like the way Meredith in The Biographies of Ordinary People notices that there’s no longer snow at Christmas), the novels that specifically include climate change as an element of the story have been lumped into a subgenre called cli-fi, which is a TERRIBLE NAME.

Still, The Millions recently listed a bunch of cli-fi novels that included everything from The Parable of the Sower, which makes sense, to Station Eleven, which — I mean, if acknowledging that climate change played a factor in the spread of an infectious disease is all it takes to get your book slapped with the label cli-fi, A TERM THAT IMPLIES CLIMATE CHANGE FICTION, LIKE SCIENCE FICTION, IS NOT BASED IN REALITY, then we are doomed.

But The Millions also suggested reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a cli-fi novel set in our immediate present that did not include speculative or fantastical elements, and since that sounded different enough from NEXT BOOK that it wouldn’t corrupt my writing work, I did.*

Flight Behavior was published in 2013 and, though the story itself is fiction, centers itself on a real-world, climate-change-based event: monarch butterfly migration patterns.

Or, to quote Harper Perennial:

Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths. Kingsolver’s riveting story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians—trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world.

Flight Behavior reminded me a bit of The Overstory, in the sense that it’s also about a person who experiences a real-world, climate-change-based event and changes her life because of it, but I found it somewhat more compelling than The Overstory simply because Dellarobia Turnbow did not give up her day-to-day responsibilities and climb into a tree. (In fact, she has some thoughts on the people who make that choice.)

She’s like us, especially those of us who grew up in tiny rural towns and dreamed of getting out (aka me), and her actions are in line with actions many of us might take — that is to say, realistic.

Flight Behavior is also firmly based in science, in the sense that the beginning of the novel posits that the butterflies might have migrated to this particular town for mystical or spiritual reasons but, by the time you get to the end, you understand every environmental factor that got them there. This isn’t about God or faith or love or any of those intangibles. It’s about observable, measurable changes.

And yet people also observe and change, and those changes often involve God and faith and love and all of those intangibles. I think the biggest reason I loved Flight Behavior is because it acknowledged the importance of both love and science. The world that exists and the world we create.

Anyway, I wanted to recommend it — because you can’t have a writing practice without a reading practice, and Flight Behavior is well worth reading.

Even if your next book isn’t about climate change at all.**

*What I mean by “corrupt my work:” my mom recently suggested I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63. As soon as I figured out that the first chunk of the book would be about a man deciding whether to go through a portal, I noped out. I didn’t want my protagonist’s choices or thought processes to be influenced by this other guy’s thought processes.

**In which case I assume it’s… historical fiction? Set on another planet? Fantasy kingdom? It had better not be contemporary, is all I’m saying. With love.