Why you should care
Science fiction allows us to imagine new futures, so why make those futures dystopian?
Imagine a scene, set in the future, where a child in Burning Man–style punk clothing is standing in front of a yurt powered by solar panels. There weren’t many books with scenes like that in 2014, when Sarena Ulibarri, an editor, first grew interested in a genre of science fiction that imagines a renewable and sustainable future. Four years later, it’s different.
Welcome to solarpunk, a new genre within science fiction that is a reaction against the perceived pessimism of present-day sci-fi and hopes to bring optimistic stories about the future with the aim of encouraging people to change the present. The first book that explicitly identified as solarpunk was Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável (Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World), a Brazilian book published in 2012. In 2014, author Adam Flynn wrote Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto.
But it was in 2017 that this genre of science fiction — viewed by its supporters as a light of optimism in a world of despair — showed signs of taking off, riding on a set of new publications, support from publishers and increasing interest from readers.
Solarpunk for me is a reaction [against dystopian science fiction].
Sarena Ulibarri, editor
A search on Google Trends shows that searches for “solarpunk” in October 2017 were eight times the corresponding figure in October 2014. Over the past few years, the movement picked up steam mainly through short stories, Tumblr posts and anthologies. But last year saw the publication of two major works — Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, a collection of solarpunk short stories by several award-winning authors, and Ecopunk!: Speculative Tales of Radical Futures, an Australian anthology of short stories. And World Weaver Press, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, publisher of science fiction, fantasy and paranormal books where Ulibarri works, has drawn $4,000 through Kickstarter to translate the pioneering 2012 book Solarpunk from Portuguese into English.
“So much science fiction is dystopian and apocalyptic,” says Ulibarri. “Solarpunk for me is a reaction against that; it is a desire to see a future I want to live in and that I want to be a part of making.”
The genre envisions stories set in a future that runs on renewable energy, such as solar or wind, and where race- or gender-based discrimination is more limited than it is today. Solarpunk gets its name from other punk genres of science fiction, such as cyberpunk, where stories revolve around a future combination of low life and high-tech, and steampunk, which marries technology with Industrial Revolution–era aesthetics. But solarpunk combines the punk ethic with an optimistic, climate-friendly future. Its aesthetic is solar panels, windmills and leafy high-tech societies. “Steampunk is to coal as solarpunk is to renewables,” says Flynn.
The genre’s desire for more optimistic stories of the future also intersects with stories that don’t explicitly identify with it. Hugo and Nebula award winner Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest book, New York 2140, is, according to Ulibarri, “hitting all the same buttons” as solarpunk. In the novel, New York has been flooded as a result of climate change, but people still live there because of renewable energy and sustainable technology.
To many, solarpunk represents an ignition for activism. “The great programs of the 20th century often began as fictional proposals, from moon landings to Social Security,” says Flynn. “It’s time we returned to higher ambitions for what we can do as a society.” When Ulibarri picks up a book, she’s looking for an escape that isn’t as familiar as dystopia is. “Maybe it is escapism, but it gives me a sense that things can get better,” she says.
Yet dystopian fiction can at times also catapult readers into a future of ambition. Alexander Weinstein is the author of Children of the New World, a 2016 collection of dystopian stories centered around new technology. When he started writing the book, he says, “fracking was making tap water flammable; banks, with help from our government, were robbing people of their houses; the BP oil spill was spewing crude oil daily into the ocean; coal companies were blasting apart Appalachia, and on and on and on.” Weinstein wanted to reflect that moment, describing his work as “a kind of realism.” He cautions against too much utopianism; according to him, “dystopian fiction can be there to speak to the realism of our present-day struggle.”
And to some, like Canadian author Cory Doctorow, who co-edits the blog Boing Boing, writing about a dystopian future in itself isn’t pessimistic. “I think it is pessimistic to write about a future where things go wrong and we are hopeless to affect it,” he says. His most recent novel, Walkaway, is set in a heavily polluted world in which the rich have established a high-tech dictatorship, yet people choose to disconnect from society and create self-ruled communities. Doctorow calls it an “optimistic disaster novel.”
Solarpunk’s proponents, like Ulibarri, aren’t fond of boxing the genre into binaries of utopian and dystopian, though. After all, she says, because solarpunk is about people, it will never be perfect, there will always be conflict.
And even Weinstein is optimistic about solarpunk. “When I first heard about solarpunk, I thought: Yes, here’s my crew!” he exclaims.
By showcasing alternatives, solarpunk may also be returning science fiction to one part of its traditional but sometimes forgotten role, its proponents suggest. “There is a history of science fiction inspiring social change,” says Ulibarri. “It can show what is possible.”