Adeline Johns-Putra re-imagines our future with cli-fi

As environmental anxiety rises, Adeline Johns-Putra explains why climate fiction is plotting an optimistic path forward.

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Adeline Johns-Putra’s segue from 19th-century British poetry to ‘cli-fi’ began with a simple question from a fellow academic: is there any literature about climate change?

It was 2009, and she was teaching at the University of Exeter’s small Cornwall campus in a similarly small English department. She had a personal interest in climate change but had never engaged academically with science fiction – or even, for that matter, contemporary fiction.

“It was totally by accident that I got into the field, and largely because we were on a campus so small that it forced us to be interdisciplinary,” she says.

“An ecologist posed this prescient question about the literature of climate change, and I said, ‘I don’t do contemporary fiction, but I can find out.’ We started the project, identified this new field and got funding. Our first job was to find the literature.”

Now Professor of Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, Johns-Putra is a world-leading researcher into this emerging genre of fiction that explores the relationship between humans and environmental change.

From steampunk to solarpunk

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Today, the environmental humanities discipline is in-demand and rapidly evolving. “It has really boomed in the past two to three years,” Johns-Putra says. “There are now scores of schools teaching climate fiction and advanced courses in climate change communication and environmental literature.”

In an age of environmental anxiety, it’s easy to see where climate fiction finds its potency. With its exploration of the social ramifications of engineering and science, it entertains readers while allowing them to work through emotions and psychological responses to climate change.

Think ‘solarpunk’ instead of steampunk:

Authors are imagining a future where we are doing amazing things with the help of science. Given eco-anxiety and climate trauma are a real collective problem, these kinds of things are extremely valuable."

Since its inception in the early 2000s, this originally niche field of literature has transcended its dystopian roots and evolved to a point where readers and authors alike are appreciating utopian visions of the future, she says.

Poetic heart

Johns-Putra’s career arc may have been unexpected, but her career choice was never in doubt. Wedded to the idea of becoming an English academic since her childhood in Malaysia, she studied English literature and linguistics at Monash University.

Her time at Monash was a family affair, with Johns-Putra living near campus with her twin sister Geraldine, who was studying economics and law, and older sister Lydia, who was studying medicine.

She completed her PhD with the help of a Monash graduate scholarship and has since worked around the world, including in Finland, Hong Kong and, since last year, Suzhou.

“It’s been a steep learning curve as I don’t speak Chinese, but I’m learning every day,” she says.

Shining light on pioneering literary women

Johns-Putra is enjoying re-engaging with her first love, British Romantic poetry, and is halfway through her “pet project” – a book about Eleanor Anne Porden, who in the early 1800s wrote poetry about science and history.

“I’ve been interested in her writings for 20 years now and I think she deserves to be rediscovered.

"She was writing at the very beginning of the European formation of disciplines and writing her scientific poetry at a time when the study of science was being professionalised in a way that meant women didn’t have access.

"She had a great sense of humour, too – her letters and her poetry are very lively, and she also gives us insight into a historical moment of knowledge.”

Johns-Putra’s interest in Porden suggests her future academic leadership in the field of climate fiction was not entirely without precedent.

There’s another delicious plot  twist in her story, too. “As for the ecologist who posed the question, I’m now married to him.”