The New Utopians
by Jeet Heer / November 9, 2015
“…Kim Stanley Robinson’s attempt to keep the flame of Utopia alive in a despairing era has made him a lonely figure. But suddenly, in the last few years, a new literary genre has emerged that hopes to revive ecological utopianism. Rallying under the banner “solarpunk,” a ragtag band of freelance futurists and science fiction writers have argued that we have an obligation to imagine positive futures where plausible technologies give us practical green solutions. “Imagine a sustainable world, driven by clean and renewable energy,” reads the introduction to Solarpunk (2012), a Brazilian anthology of solarpunk literature whose opening lines were roughly translated in an Australian article in 2014.
“Now imagine large space sailboats driven by solar radiation, production of biofuels via nanotechnology, the advent of photosynthetic humans, and, as there is no perfect society, even terrorism against corrupt businesses and governments. Welcome to the bright green world of solarpunk.” A mix of green technology, economic ideology, sociology, science fiction, architecture, and even fashion, solarpunk remains more of an aspirational mindset and lifestyle than a cultural movement, but the popularity of the term speaks to a hunger for an alternative to the apocalypse. “It’s hard out here for futurists under 30,” declares one manifesto. “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.”
Solarpunk is still a new genre, more a call to arms than a substantial body of literature. Still, in the Tumblr posts and stories that have been written so far, a few recurring themes emerge. Solarpunk writers are interested in how an ecologically balanced post-scarcity sustainable future will look and feel to ordinary people. A very popular Tumblr post by the visual artist Olivia Louise, published in 2014, served as a major spark to the solarpunk movement, because it made explicit that the goal was an aesthetically pleasing habitable future.
Louise called for “a plausible near-future sci-fi genre, which I like to imagine as based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement to create a world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech, as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies, to dress makers and jewelers, and everyone in between.” This vision is a call back to the Victorian dreams of William Morris (who wrote his own utopia, News From Nowhere, in 1890), John Ruskin, and the members of the Arts and Crafts movement who hoped to humanize industrialism. Carrying forward and advancing the kind of utopianism that runs from Morris to Robinson, and now solarpunk, is a heartening sign that the dream of a better tomorrow is still possible, even in the face of the apocalypse. To build a better future we have to first imagine it.”
‘solarpunk’, or how to be an optimistic radical
by Jennifer Hamilton / July 19, 2017
“Punks (of the 70s and 80s kind) were not known for their optimism. Quite the opposite in fact. Raging against the establishment in various ways, there was “no future” because, according to the Sex Pistols, punks are “the poison / In your human machine / We’re the future / Your future”. To be punk, was, by definition, to resist the future. In contrast, the most basic definition of solarpunk — offered by musician and photographer Jay Springett — is that it is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion and activism “that seeks to answer and embody the question ‘what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?'”
At first pass, then, Solarpunk seems to turn the central tenet of punk on its head. Its business is imagining the future. Moreover, perform an online “image search” for the term “solarpunk” and you will find colourful, leafy metropolises, flowing neo-peasant fashions and, perhaps, a small child standing next to a solar panel in front of a yurt. How, then, are the bright futures imagined by solarpunks, worthy of the “punk” suffix? Solarpunk’s optimism towards the future is the first concept that needs complicating here. Along with the original punks, there is a wide body of scholarship that critiques positive thinking. Feminists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Sara Ahmed, for instance, trace links between the capitalist establishment and happiness. They suggest that future-centred optimism serves the very system raged against by most punks of old.
Although optimistic, Solarpunk’s future imaginings do not fit neatly with current political regimes or economic systems. Self-described “researcher-at-large” Adam Flynn argues that the movement begins with “infrastructure as a form of resistance”. Solarpunks are in the business of dreaming a totally different system of energy delivery, essential services and transport. Quite different to behemoth of roads and coal-fired power plants we live amongst today. In other words, Solarpunks resist the present by imagining a future that requires radical societal change. Radical, perhaps, but not radically impossible. Indeed, many of the technologies and practices that solarpunks draw into their imaginings already exist: solar and other renewable energy, urban agriculture, or organic architecture and design. Like sci-fi authors, solarpunks remix the present to produce an alternative future…”
Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto
by Adam Flynn / September 4, 2014
“It’s hard out here for futurists under 30. As we percolated through our respective nations’ education systems, we were exposed to WorldChanging and TED talks, to artfully-designed green consumerism and sustainable development NGOs. Yet we also grew up with doomsday predictions slated to hit before our expected retirement ages, with the slow but inexorable militarization of metropolitan police departments, with the failure of the existing political order to deal with the existential-but-not-yet-urgent threat of climate change. Many of us feel it’s unethical to bring children into a world like ours. We have grown up under a shadow, and if we sometimes resemble fungus it should be taken as a credit to our adaptability.
We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair. The promises offered by most Singulatarians and Transhumanists are individualist and unsustainable: How many of them are scoped for a world where energy is not cheap and plentiful, to say nothing of rare earth elements? Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually. Our future must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.
And yes, there’s a -punk there, and not just because it’s become a trendy suffix. There’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk, but it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance. We’re already seeing it in the struggles of public utilities to deal with the explosion in rooftop solar. “Dealing with infrastructure is a protection against being robbed of one’s self-determination,” said Chokwe Lumumba, the late mayor of Jackson, MS, and he was right. Certainly there are good reasons to have a grid, and we don’t want it to rot away, but one of the healthy things about local resilience is that it puts you in a much better bargaining position against the people who might want to shut you off (We’re looking at you, Detroit). Solarpunk draws on the ideal of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, Ghandi’s ideal of swadeshi and subsequent Salt March, and countless other traditions of innovative dissent. (FWIW, both Ghandi and Jefferson were inventors.) The visual aesthetics of Solarpunk are open and evolving. As it stands, it’s a mash-up of the following:
- 1800s age-of-sail/frontier living (but with more bicycles)
- Creative reuse of existing infrastructure (sometimes post-apocalyptic, sometimes present-weird)
- Jugaad-style innovation from the developing world
- High-tech backends with simple, elegant outputs
Obviously, the further you get into the future, the more ambitious you can get. In the long-term, solarpunk takes the images we’ve been fed by bright-green blogs and draws them out further, longer, and deeper. Imagine permaculturists thinking in cathedral time. Consider terraced irrigation systems that also act as fluidic computers. Contemplate the life of a Department of Reclamation officer managing a sparsely populated American southwest given over to solar collection and pump storage. Imagine “smart cities” being junked in favor of smart citizenry. Tumblr lit up within the last week from this post envisioning a form of solar punk with an art nouveau Edwardian-garden aesthetic, which is gorgeous and reminds me of Miyazaki. There’s something lovely in the way it reacts against the mainstream visions of overly smooth, clean, white modernist iPod futures. Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears.”
Solarpunks and Farmhacks
by John Ryan / November 25, 2015
“Looking for a bright future? Try Solarpunk, a world in which power, food, work and transportation are localized, automated, and personalized all at the same time. Luc Schuiten began writing about vegetal cities in 2006 and by 2009 Brussels hosted a conference on vegetal cities. He tries to incorporate organic shapes and organics into an existing cityscape to transform it. Look at how a Victorian-era row house is transformed.
The transformation of existing structures is important, but so too is the construction of new high density yet low-cost housing. Technology centers such as San Francisco have said NO to high-rise buildings that would enable more high-tech workers to participate in efficient job creation. The problem is that high rises are ugly and the infrastructure needed to support them is both costly and dehumanizing. Plants are not only decorative, but they are self-regulating and work for free.
Distributed power will be needed to support the Internet of Things and so less power infrastructure is needed. Biological processing of waste and local water recycling also lower infrastructure costs. But people like to live in cities, to walk to work, go out to dinner or attend a football game. Right now each fundamental need is a separate area of concern taking place at some distant location and then concentrated at the point of the city.
By localizing and integrating these concerns we can achieve huge efficiencies in the economy. Enter FarmHack.org a place where young farmers are meeting with ideas about how to apply technology and advanced ecological science to regenerate the practice of agriculture, like FarmOS an open source farm operating system in Drupal…”
Is Ornamenting Solar Panels a Crime?
by Elvia Wilk
“…Solarpunk is differentiated by precisely the technological realism that much Steampunk lacks. Toward this distinction, Solarpunk highlights contemporary crises. While Steampunks could afford be dilettantes, Solarpunks anticipate necessity: you’ll have to learn to weld when factory production inevitably breaks down and the flood waters rise. In this sense it bears similarities to its more recent cousin, Cyberpunk (discounting, for the moment, seapunk, dieselpunk, atompunk, teslapunk, splatterpunk, spacepunk, cattlepunk, and what Bruce Sterling suggests all contemporary sci-fi should be called: nowpunk).
Cyberpunk turned away from nostalgia and undermined technological progress narratives, “introducing as it did the corporate dystopia and a strong sense of class struggle.”(16) Solarpunk intends to wrench science fiction from both Steampunk’s magical tech fantasies and Cyberpunk’s tech-gone-wrong. If the energy substrate of the Steam era was coal, and that of the Cyber era was oil, Solarpunk foreshadows and aims to anticipate environmental catastrophe by skipping to solar. As Solarpunk manifesto-writer Adam Flynn writes, if “steampunk is ‘here’s yesterday’s future that we wish we had,’” and “cyberpunk was ‘here is this future that we see coming and we don’t like it,’” then “Solarpunk might be ‘here’s a future that we can want and we might actually be able to get.’”(17)
So who is “we”? Solarpunk has a shadow history. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, innovations in solar architecture saw a major boom. Spurred by the “Little Ice Age” spanning from 1550 to 1850—a geological oddity in which Europe went through an extremely cold period—alternate heating methods led to the proliferation of glass-cased structures and the “Age of the Greenhouse” in eighteenth-century Western Europe.(18) The ability to cultivate produce year-round was especially desirable given the new imported colonial fruits Europeans had developed a taste for. By the mid-nineteenth century, as the middle class expanded, the typology of the greenhouse led to the conservatory, a solar-heated plant-room attached to well-to-do homes. As opposed to the practical, agricultural function of the greenhouse, conservatories presented botanical wonders as aesthetic objects and proof of accumulated wealth. “By the late 1800s the country gentry had become so enamored of attached conservatories that they became an important architectural feature” of late Victorian construction.(19)
A century later, however, coal power became more widespread, and many could afford to skip the actual solar engineering required to heat conservatories naturally, so instead artificially heated them by burning coal. By the time the Art Nouveau era began, the greenhouse had already receded in function, but remained as nature-inspired ornamentation: a decorative imitation of sustainable architecture. Such indoor botany also became gendered as a sanctioned hobby for house-bound women to occupy themselves with.(20) Solar greenhouses were accompanied by other solar-tech advancements.
One French Mathematician, Augustin Mouchot, invented a solar-powered steam engine, constructing the first functional prototype in the 1860s.(21) It was applauded as a marvel, but the French sun wasn’t strong enough to reliably power the machine, and so it was sent to be implemented in the sunnier colonies. Mouchot traveled to Algiers to propose how solar power could be made an engine of expansion (with moderate success; his solar-powered ovens and wells were more popular).
Similar stories were repeated in British and German colonies over the following decades, most dead-ending with the start of the First World War. Technological innovation in no way guarantees a certain political implementation. Mouchot’s solar-engine utopia was a whole continent’s dystopia. And the global technology he was fixated on exporting was not particularly relevant or necessary to its “local” implementation. If Mouchot had only looked around when he arrived in Algiers, he might have noticed an advanced passive thermal regulation system already employed in traditional Algerian architecture…”(22)
Interview with Adam Flynn on Solarpunk / July 2, 2015
“Last year the term solarpunk came onto my radar. I read a piece at Arizona State University’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative’s Hieroglyph project called “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” by Adam Flynn. Having been a cyberpunk and steampunk reader, I thought, wow, solarpunk! This is a reflection and sign of where we should be headed, and if this is also a new genre term, it’s a cool one. In Flynn’s article, he said, “Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.” Turns out that there’s a big community of solarpunk art and ideas at Tumblr’s solarpunks network. ABC.net Australia also had an article late last year about solarpunk as a genre, stating, “A new theme is emerging in science fiction literature and art: solarpunk. It imagines the future as bright, green and sustainable.”
There have been more internet resources on solarpunk just recently, but not a lot of independent news has picked up on the concept – the concept itself wriggling through the soil and sprouting up. There is no one person promoting solarpunk; it’s a grassroots movement of visionaries, seemingly made up of people from all walks of life: writers, artists, environmentalists, engineers, scientists, and others. The concept of solarpunk may have a life of its own, born out of necessity, and as such, people have been writing and thinking about it without knowing about the term solarpunk. Adam calls himself one of the stewards of the movement, and I was very happy to catch up with him and get an interview. In the meantime, our site has a new solarpunk book category, and our Google+ community has also recognized solarpunk – but we have had more questions than answers.
Mary: Adam, thanks so much for lending us some of your time to talk about solarpunk, which a lot of people want to know more about. I have some very fledgling questions, like: What is solarpunk? I thought at first it was a genre, but it seems to be an aesthetic appearing in both reality and fiction.
Adam: Solarpunk is a somewhat promiscuous adjective, used to describe a vision of the future that we actually want. That means a future where high technology is put in service of humans and the environment. Which is to say, a solarpunk future is one that is “sustainable” at a not-just-for-rich-people level, a human-friendly future that can scale. As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently). If cyberpunk was ‘here is this future that we see coming and we don’t like it’, and steampunk is ‘here’s yesterday’s future that we wish we had’, then solarpunk might be ‘here’s a future that we can want and we might actually be able to get.’ It’s also a useful tag to throw onto intriguing areas of the “present weird.”
When we look at the fights in Spain over rooftop solar, where they’re trying to make it illegal to disconnect your home from the grid, that’s a very solarpunk development. A majority of Mongolia’s 800,000 nomads are on solar; that’s something happening in the here and now. There are a lot of pre-existing currents of thought running into it: localism, transition towns, resilient communities, solidarity economies, social ecology, and so forth. There are great many thinkers and movements pushing back against a system that encourages efficiency at the cost of fragility, wealth extraction at the cost of ecological collapse, and self-replicating sameness over the local and particular. (I once referred to solarpunk as “the futurist equivalent of Slow Food.”) Sometimes the term is used to describe things we see in the world, and want to see more of; here I’m thinking of the widely spread Tumblr post about the greenery of Saudi architect Sami Angawi’s home, which is rooted in traditional Islamic architecture rather than what some excited kids on Tumblr are passing around.
Mary: How did you get involved with this movement (do we call it a movement?).
Adam: I’ve been following solarpunk as an embryo of an idea since about Spring 2012. (I’m also the main poster on Solarpunks.tumblr.com.) It’s been coined independently half a dozen times, mostly because it’s an easy analogy to make from steampunk (steam-powered is to solar-powered, etc.), but no one was really doing anything with it. I gathered some interested parties in summer 2012, and we explored the subject of, “Solarpunk should be a thing. How do we make it a thing?” We had a lot of theories and notes, but not yet a strong visual aesthetic, not yet something that would make it pop into broader awareness.. So I tended the Tumblr, read more about distributed energy and localist infrastructure, and kept an eye on the hashtag. I also made contact with the folks from Arizona State who run the Center for Science and the Imagination, around May of last year. Anyway, all this came to a head in the summer of 2014, when the Olivia Louise post blew up on Tumblr. She pulled out the art nouveau elements and really gave it a visual language. Around that time I pitched the ASU folks on the “Notes toward a manifesto.” Solarpunk has been gathering steam ever since. (I’m actually really curious to see if there have been any completed NaNoWriMo projects working with solarpunk themes.) As the term gains salience, we’re also seeing some identification with the term from a number of authors with completed works; they tend to say things along the lines of, “I was writing solarpunk before I knew about the term.” I don’t think anyone “owns” solarpunk, but I certainly feel like one of its stewards. As to whether it’s a ‘movement,’ I think it definitely has the potential to be one, but I think we’re another year out from it really being there.
Mary: I understand that you are involved with ASU’s Hieroglyph project, which seems to call for a positive or utopian outlook for our future, rather than the doom-and-gloom one we often see. Can you describe this project, and where solarpunk fits in?
Adam: If I recall correctly, it all started with a piece written in the World Policy Journal by Neal Stephenson (better known as the author of Snow Crash, etc.) about our growing inability to “do big things” anymore. In the mid-twentieth century, the argument goes, science fiction not only made science and engineering seem heroic, but they also provided “a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” Experts across vastly different disciplines could talk to each other, because they had both grown up with Asimov. It’s an intriguing idea, and I really like what they’re doing in terms of connecting scientists, writers, and policy people to figure out what futures we might want to aim for. Now, sometimes “positive futures” are framed in terms of technological megaprojects, which has a whiff of the Promethean about it. One frequently suggested date for the onset of the Anthropocene is 1945, which corresponds exactly to that postwar flush of high-modern confidence that led us (mostly Americans) to intervene massively in ecological and human systems we didn’t fully understand. Some of that “doing big things” came out of an overconfidence in our abilities, and an inability to appreciate the dynamics of exceedingly interconnected systems. We went the to moon! That can’t pull our eyes away from the fact that we’re living in the Sixth Great Extinction, and we are the asteroid. That all said, I’m a big fan of Hieroglyph. Mostly because crafting positive or utopian futures is really hard and valuable work at this particular moment. There’s a tremendous amount of energy expended in our society today to block the exploration of meaningful alternatives to “the way things are.” Things are not getting better, the status quo is not fixing the problem, and we don’t have time for the luxury of self-pity. (This isn’t even a radical position; it’s basically the theme of the papal encyclical on climate…)
Mary: What past, present, or coming books and movies would you describe as solarpunk?
Adam: The Brazilian sci-fi magazine Draco published a sci-fi anthology with that name, but we’ve yet to see an English translation. That’s probably the most direct source. In terms of past books, Kim Stanley Robinson (the Mars trilogy, Pacific Edge), Ursula K LeGuin (particularly The Dispossessed), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower could be seen as an example of a near-term ‘things will get worse before they get better’ setting that could lead into solarpunk. I particularly like the way Miyazaki’s films depict worlds finding balance with nature. Sometimes that’s the explicit theme, but it doesn’t have to be. (It’s perpetually 1930 in his films, which I think relates to certain aesthetics around design, industrialization, and the natural world.) Digging further back, there’s an entire genre of visionary novels of the 19th century that were half science-fiction, half political manifesto.
The most well known is Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, but there’s also News from No-Where by William Morris, a British artist and socialist of the late 1800s, better known as the initiator of the Arts and Crafts movement, which was a major influence on art nouveau, so he’s probably someone for budding solarpunks to read up on. Morris aside, most of those 19th-century thinkers tend to have that Promethean undercurrent, even when advocating for alternative energy: in Powering the Dream, Alexis Madrigal hails John Etzler as “a forgotten visionary,” who advocated for a massive shift to solar, wind, and tidal power, providing reams of calculations to show its feasibility, give or take a little geo-engineering. Interestingly enough, Henry David Thoreau picked up on that; he reviewed Etzler’s book and said, “hmmn, maybe we should think about more subtle interventions in nature,” citing beekeeping as an example: “How meanly and grossly do we deal with nature! Could we not have a less gross labor? What else do these fine inventions suggest, — magnetism, the daguerreotype, electricity? Can we not do more than cut and trim the forest — can we not assist in its interior economy, in the circulation of the sap? Now we work superficially and violently. We do not suspect how much might be done to improve our relation to animated nature even; what kindness and refined courtesy there might be. There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance, is a very slight interference. It is like directing the sunbeams.”
Mary: I’ve heard the phrase innovative dissent used with solarpunk. Can you expand on this idea?
Adam: I’m definitely not the expert on it, but it seems to me as though, if you’re thinking about technological and social progress, it should probably also extend to the ways we gather together to petition for a redress of grievances. Some of that is rooted in the idea of infrastructure as a point of resistance: If you’re better able to withstand being shut off from the system as-it-is, you’re more able to protest against it. Self-reliance and communal resilience helps safeguard you against reprisal. But a lot of it is coming out of just being alive and watching Twitter. Greenpeace activists are doing crazy daredevil boat-climbing to scale and chain themselves oil rigs before they’re delivered to the drill site. First Nations groups are doing amazing things to block pipelines through their land. There are drawings of Bree Newsome as Wonder Woman, taking down the confederate flag. Every day, some group is doing something brilliant, innovative, and fearless to punch through the bubble of manufactured normalcy that we tend to live in. It’s there if you follow the right people.
Mary: If one wants to find more about solarpunk, where would they look? Can you foresee it having a big following like steampunk? How is this aesthetic being promoted?
Adam: I’m hoping to put together a zine or ebook this summer, fingers crossed on that. At present the best way is to get on Tumblr and start searching, reblogging, and running down the couple dozen solarpunk Tumblrs up there. But it’s grown to the extent where there needs to be a bit more in the way of signposts, orientation guides for someone who’s just heard about it. I should probably just put my money where my mouth is and write some solarpunk fiction.
Mary: Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
Adam: Also worth talking to is Matt Cloyd from Code for Boston, who quoted me extensively in his Ignite talk, and Justin Pickard, a grad student and fellow explorer of the intersections between sustainability and possible futures ahead of us. He’s done some interesting investigation into the fights over rooftop solar and public utilities, and given talks on the concept to confused punks in Brighton. We worked together on a great big essay (unfinished), some of which was adapted into the Hieroglyph piece.”
MODELING POSITIVE OUTCOMES
The Politics of Science Fiction: KSR and the Rise of Solarpunk
by B.A. Mahrab / 05/19/2016
“A while back, I submitted an academic paper on the politics of science fiction and how Kim Stanley Robinson was using his knowledge of hard science to create science fiction stories that realize more utopian (or solarpunk) themed outcomes. I was able to pull a lot of wonderful insight from other writers across the genre and I thought, with a little tweaking here and there, it would make a pretty decent blog. And, so, here you have it – refreshed and legitimately “re-cycled.” Today’s literary science fiction is eerily comparable to the current American political climate – drenched in a dystopian landscape full of dark futures and doomsday scenarios. While our culture is saturated with an apocalyptic fascination for ecological disasters, Kim Stanley Robinson is using his influence to help shape a major science fiction sub-genre. Solarpunk is considered one of the fastest growing sub-genres making headway in modern literature today. It challenges the status quo and encourages mobilization toward environmental solutions and effective change. Robinson uses a more innovation based, scientifically backed, utopian voice, which looks beyond the debate of climate science, to position solarpunk as literature’s parallel to a political revolution.
So, what exactly is solarpunk and how is it different? As I’ve stated in the past, possibly the prettiest definition I’ve stumbled across to date is this: Solarpunk identifies with a new ecologically positive, futuristic speculative movement that stresses a vision of a positive future with positive outcomes. This is a future that sits beyond scarcity and need. It is a visionary existence where hierarchy is shunned for a collective good. It is a future where our species is reintroduced to the natural world, while technology is remanded to purposes which further humankind’s needs on a whole, while continuing to remain ecologically green. Solarpunk breaks through the historical boundaries of science fiction and embraces the idea that “while the future might be an overwhelming prospect, it doesn’t have to be frightening, and it doesn’t have to hurt” (1). In Frankenstein we are introduced to the pre-Victorian age’s view of the expanding scientific field. Frankenstein is a story which highlights the repercussions of an unregulated, morally bankrupt scientist playing “God” (3).
The daughter of two of England’s most well-known intellectual radicals, Ms. Shelley wrote Frankenstein in direct opposition to her parents’ utopian outlook on scientific and political matters. By focusing on a more pessimistic and cautious view, she executes an alarming interpretation of how both ideologies could shape society’s future (6).To understand why solarpunk is gaining traction as a science fiction sub-genre, it is essential to recognize the historical influence politics and science fiction have had on each other, and why that influence is important. Looking back at the history of science fiction, it is not difficult to see patterns at work. The partnership between the two subjects can be traced back almost 300 years to the publication of Gulliver’s Travels (2). Viewed as a story heavily infused with political satire and peppered with elements of fantasy, there are also many strong, emerging science fiction elements present, such as utopian and dystopian societies, and flying islands inhabited by scientists (3). This association continues in other important pieces of science fiction such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (4) and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (5).
In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne introduces science fiction to a strong use of Libertarian ideologies through his character, Captain Nemo. Nemo is a brilliant researcher who was ostracized from civilization and harbors a deep distrust of the military industrial complex. A strong desire to keep his ship, the Nautilus, from falling into the hands of a corrupt military drives Nemo to keep the ship secret from those he considers to be the self-appointed “elite.” These anti-establishment and anti-military leanings are highly prevalent in modern day science fiction (7). Additionally, the last 120 years have produced many science fiction classics which have helped to influence science and push political scrutiny well past established comfort zones. Some further examples include The Time Machine (8), A Brave New World (9), and 1984 (10). These classics all center around how the roles of scientific, political, and societal views influence humanity’s actions and, in turn, affect the environment. Nowhere is that influence more evident than in matters such as climate change.
“California’s new solar power plant is incinerating birds mid-flight”
The rise in the solarpunk sub-genre can be tied back to growing concerns surrounding the global climate crisis. For example, the increasing awareness of the harmful effects humanity has on our ecosystem. More Americans today acknowledge global warming is happening than they did last year and, more importantly, they are acknowledging that mankind plays a role in that increase (14). Even Pope Francis has gone on record stating, “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation…” (24) The argument for the importance of the influential role politics plays in science fiction can be found by taking a detailed look at the relevant demographics. For example, a 2010 Harris poll found that more than 26% of Americans read science fiction compared to the 17% who read political pieces. A large portion of science fiction readers tend to be younger, with 31% falling in the 18-33 age range; and research has shown that a person’s political outlook is more prone to persuasion when they are younger (11).
Further, those who read science fiction are more likely to be professionals who have received a higher education (12). A study conducted at the 31st World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto found that 52.8% of convention goers had either received, or were in pursuit of, a 4-year degree, and 24.5% had attended graduate school (13). This is important to note because those who have received a higher education tend to be more politically active (25). Finally, there is historical data which shows science fiction influences our perception of what the future could hold in relation to political structures and economic trends (26). By pairing up the knowledge that science fiction has the ability to shape society’s perspective of what the future may look like, along with demographics that present those who read science fiction as young, impressionable, educated, and politically active, we begin to see how important political influence can be on the genre’s audience.
Climate change is deeply embedded in science fiction and remains a highly charged and hotly contested topic in political discussions. This association between politics and science fiction has presented authors like Kim Stanley Robinson with a link in which to introduce their unique brand of positive visionary change to science fiction enthusiasts. Tiring of the destructive and cataclysmic norms, those same enthusiasts had already begun calling for a change in dialog. RoAnna Sylva, author of Chameleon Moon (15) states: “The term “gritty” has become a selling point. Science fiction is brimming with dark, grim, scary futures while our present is becoming increasingly frightening and dangerous – many people are yearning for more positive outcomes” (1). By writing stories which embrace the idea that the future doesn’t have to be rife with dark and dismal dystopian landscapes, Robinson is creating those “positive outcomes.” A rebel among his peers, he is well known for his work in “hard science fiction” – where he relies on a solid knowledge of recognized, natural laws (16). Described as a “spiritual descendant” of Jules Verne, Robinson deals very little in the “fantasy” arm of the science fiction genre. His expertise in actual science and technology is vast and impressive, giving his work the impression that it was written for a future that is “the day after tomorrow” (17).
Dystopia is a staple in science fiction. Robinson has stated that “anyone can do dystopia” because it is a common theme that is threaded throughout our society. However, he holds firm that utopias are much harder, and more important “because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better” (16). Through environmentally charged works such as Three Californias (18), a trilogy which depicts three possible futures for California through the use of environmental and political approaches; the Mars Trilogy (19), where scientists establish agriculture and effectively change the atmosphere to make Mars hospitable to humans; and The Science in the Capital (20) series, which tackles climate issues that are currently wreaking havoc on Earth, Robinson successfully showcases this more utopian direction. Further, Robinson’s work is considered rich in human involvement, suggesting scientific solutions that are entirely possible, plausible, and attainable – if we wish to make the future better than the present world we live in. This is the main tenant and qualifying ideology of the solarpunk movement.
In his Mars Trilogy (19), Robinson brings his knowledge of hard science to the mix by introducing readers to a future project of making Mars livable for humankind, a possibility currently under debate in present-day scientific communities. One of the primary themes of the story resides in the struggle with how we approach this process – should humanity change a planet’s ecosystem to support life, or should we keep the planet pristine and instead change human actions to avert an environmental situation’s ability to evolve in the first place? In this series, Robinson uses not only science and technology, but he also dives into other significant areas of influence such as politics, economics, business, and social trends. He brings with him an in-depth understanding of why society behaves as it does, and explores the possibilities and problems associated with social behavior in terms of scientific advance (17). Robinson helps clear a path for discussion by avoiding the extremes of apocalyptic ruin and impossible perfection. Instead, he opts to open up the conversations to possibilities. These conversations are sparked when Robinson gives his readers a glimpse of future worlds completely dependent upon their action, or inaction, in the present. For example, his Three Californias trilogy (18) outlines three very different futures for Orange County, California, from a nuclear holocaust in The Wild Shore, to a capitalism-gone-mad, overdeveloped county that pushes one man out of apathy and excess and into epiphany in The Gold Coast, to a modern utopia consisting of healed ecosystems achieved through innovation in Pacific Edge. This series delves into the different types of future scenarios we may very well face as a species – each one completely within mankind’s ability to create now, and none of which fall outside the realm of plausible possibilities.
Robinson also employs the use of current situations to create a realistic picture of the environmental perils facing society. The Science in the Capital (20) trilogy relies on a type of ecological realism which helps illustrate a climate disaster currently in full swing – rising rivers, tents in trees, and sleeping bags arranged for increasingly colder winters (21). Here, Robinson illustrates that there isn’t a catastrophic event looming on the horizon – it is, in fact, occurring now. He successfully introduces the “social life” of eco-activism at a point where humanity actively engages with the idea of environmental advocacy across “personal, national, and global” levels (22). This series touches on more positive outcomes by showcasing what humanity is capable of accomplishing when we shake off our tendency to lean towards apathy and denial. Robinson achieves this by showing society that, when we refuse to continue a culture of handling issues through hindsight and employ our knowledge and ingenuity to avert looming disasters, we are truly capable of achieving a brighter future.
Robinson’s utopian slant may put him at odds with the current dystopian saturation in science fiction, but it also presents him with a clear channel in which to broadcast more positive solutions to rapidly elevating climate situations (16). Joining him in that approach are other influential science fiction authors such as Terry Bisson, whose work combines both humor and environmental action, and Ursula K. Le Guin whose work is a study in environmental utopias (1). This collective voice is beginning to resonate with other writers who are, as RoAnna Sylva stated, “yearning for more positive outcomes.” (1) In contrast, many popular works of science fiction focus on future scenarios that occur after disaster has descended, by using dystopian settings brought about by corrupt governments who come into power due to devastating climate change. For example, in Suzanne Collins’ highly successful Hunger Games (23) series the climate issue is mentioned only briefly and then disappears. However, it is the catalyst for the oppressive regime coming into power and then stifling the free will of the people – a story line with strong Libertarian leanings. That oppressive regime and out-of-control government then becomes the central theme, while climate change becomes a background issue to the politics. Robinson does not use this approach in his work. He keeps issues in the forefront and presents the opportunity for humanity to intercede and change the future for the better.
Science Fiction can be viewed as a form of future-scenarios modeling; by keeping current issues in the spotlight the solarpunk movement suggests actual, measurable, and necessary change in our societies and our political establishments. The movement helps to validate the idea that the closer to the present the science fiction elements remain, the clearer the thinking will be about what actions need to be taken to avoid ecological disasters. Robinson has said, “When we see the full range of potentials by reading a lot of science fiction, we can figure out better what we should be trying for as a society now. Thus I think all science fiction has a utopian underpinning, in that it’s a tool of human thought for deciding on current actions to make a better world for our descendants.” This idea is spreading among influential science fiction enthusiasts like Adam Flynn, who perfectly sums up the solarpunk sub-genre: “Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually…it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community…Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears.” (27) A bold new idea is springing up from the seeds of solarpunk; one that wraps around a growing desire to envision a more positive, realistic future. This idea doesn’t shrink from the challenges it faces, but helps point us in different directions of exploration. And, through this exploration, perhaps our species can find a way to utilize the tools we already possess, and the knowledge we already have access to, in order to realize a brighter, more sustainable civilization for our descendants (28).
Kim Stanley Robinson is using his experience and expertise to shape solarpunk into a literary equivalent of genetic evolution. Solarpunk has diverged away from standard science fiction’s use of end-times stories with no-hope scenarios – stories that rely largely on technological advancements, and are the result of government failures that are heavily rooted in politics. By placing the weight of ingenuity and responsibility to create a better future squarely back on the shoulders of humanity, it challenges the brightest minds to think differently about what the future should, or could, look like. This is accomplished by removing the reach of science fiction’s historically political influence and replacing it with a different outcome – an outcome which can only be achieved through a combination of critical thinking and a synergistic cooperation of humanity. By embracing this vital and influential evolution in the science fiction genre, Kim Stanley Robinson is helping to position the solarpunk movement as one with the potential to change the literary landscape, political landscape and – most importantly – the shared landscape of our future.”
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1st Harper Perennial Modern Classics ed. New York;London; Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
- Orwell, George. 1984. Boston, MA, USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 March 2016.
- Sylva, RoAnna. Chameleon Moon. First ed. Spokane: Zharmae, 2014. Print.
- Robinson, Kim. Three Californias (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, Pacific Edge). 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1984-1990. Print.
- Robinson, Kim S. Mars Trilogy. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1992-1996. Print.
- Robinson, Kim S. Science in the Capital Series. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 2004-2007. Print.
- Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.
SPACE SOLAR POWER
SWIMMING POOL FARMS
POST CAPITALISM or BUST
with LUXURY for ALL