Sidebar VI: Canceling the Apocalypse
Solarpunk is perhaps the youngest genre I've discussed so far, if Cyberpunk was a person (God have mercy on such a man) it would be old enough to run for President. Climate Fiction would be attending grade school. The earliest reference I can find to Solarpunk is from around 2014/2013. That means Solarpunk is barely old enough for kindergarten. Suncatcher for example was first published in 2014 and Alia Gee would have no idea for sometime that there were other novels taking up the banner of Solarpunk. The first mentions I can find (admitly I can only really look at English language sources) on tumbler date from about 2014 as well (http://missolivialouise.tumblr.com/post/94374063675/heres-a-thing-ive-had-around-in-my-head-for-a). Although the term itself had been floated as early as 2010, I couldn't works I'd really mark as Solarpunk. Let's talk about what Solarpunk gets from from each of its “parents” and then look at what makes it different from them. .
Solarpunk works tend to be critical of capitalism and of modern society in general. It distrusts authority and hierarchy and often features characters somewhat estranged from society or oppressed by it's norms and mores. Emiko is a great example of this, as she could easily fit into a Cyberpunk book. Solarpunk also brings in the idea that technology doesn't necessarily everything and may not benefit the masses in the end. The Solarpunk books we've looked at present pretty profound ideas of why technology, be it the engineered plagues and blights of The Windup Girl or the genetic experiments present throughout Suncatcher, may in fact be a problem instead of a solution. Solarpunk also adopts the punk idea of rebellion against social expectations and rules and resistance to top down authority. In fact like Cyberpunk, Solarpunk presents these institutions and organizations as inherently dehumanizing and damaging to the psychological and often physical well being of the individual. Solarpunk also is rather critical of elites that profit off the current social set up and is unlikely to present them in a flattering light. These trends are inherited from Cyberpunk and show that the themes of Cyberpunks have been pretty influential, this isn't a surprise as Cyberpunk has soaked into our culture pretty thoroughly and Mr. Bacigalupi shows that he could easily write Cyberpunk. In both Cyberpunk and Solarpunk there's a strain of anarchist influence running throughout the themes and plots of the two genres both expressing in an inherent rejection of the limitations that authority and social expectations place on a person.
From Climate Fiction we see an anxiety about our changing climate and what costs industrialization and pollution will exact from our civilization in the end. I also think the recurring pandemics that show in the Solarpunk books I've examined may have slipped in from Climate Change, representing mankind losing the hard won, if incomplete and spotty, control we've wrestled from the natural world. There's also a reemerging of traditional problems that have tormented humanity until very recently that now need new solutions. Additionally Solarpunk inherits from Climate Fiction the call to action. Where Cyberpunk is often presents it's dark future as unavoidable, Climate Fiction and Solarpunk call on the reader and fans to act. One thing many of the boosters and writers of Solarpunk works is a dissatisfaction with modern society and a strong desire for large scale and often radical change. Alongside with this is the end of the fossil fuel era, Solarpunk takes place post peak oil and Climate Fiction predicts the end of our ability to access cheap, abundant fossil fuels to power our economy. So while Cyberpunk has provided the rebellion and themes of the genre, Climate Fiction provided the general shaping forces of your standard Solarpunk work (such as standard exists, remember we're in the opening stages of the genre here) and the general idea of using fiction to urge for specific social change.
Some of the differences I'm seeing is that there isn't a central figure that has emerged to stamp the definition in place for Solarpunk. There's no Dan Bloom or Gibson in Solarpunk (yet). Solarpunk instead emerges from the fervent discussions of it's adherents, from various short stories and collections and picks up steam from self published or small press novels. This has made Solarpunk rather diffuse and I'd be lying to you if I didn't say there were some disagreements in how the genre is presented. Many would disagree with my calling The Windup Girl, Solarpunk for example due to the darkness of the setting. There is a large dividing line there, Solarpunk is an inherently hopeful genre. That's where the writers and fans of the genre find their rebellion, in confronting the apocalypse dreaded by Climate Fiction and declaring that not only will they find a way to maintain and sustain civilization but they will build a better one. One more adapted to it's environment and more in harmony with the eco-systems that civilization is part of. Solarpunk protagonists don't dwell apart from society but work to change, often being part of alternate organizations working to build what I'll call alternate infrastructure. We see an example of this in this week's book, in Suncatcher by serving as roving solar chargers and selling the energy from that to cities along it's flight path to the point that large energy corporations feel threatened by this competing model is a good example of that. In fact one of the pharses that was repeated over and over by Solarpunk advocates I found was infrastructure as a form of resistance (https://hieroglyph.asu.edu/2014/09/solarpunk-notes-toward-a-manifesto/). The act of building a vertical farm or solar powered engine isn't just an act of construction, it's an act of subversion and rebellion. For Solarpunk writers, this is a revolt of hope against despair. Which leds to another difference, the anarchism in Cyberpunk is often nihilistic and expressed by self destructive behavior in the protagonist or apathy. Solarpunk rejects that in favor of communal styles of anarchism or just using more consensus based styles of decision making. The Cyberpunk protagonist is classically a loner who fits into groups uneasily at best. The Solarpunk protagonist is either already part of a group or looking to join one and be a productive member.
Solarpunk also embraces the idea of diversity within it's casts and protagonists. While fantasy and science fiction have become more diverse over time. Solarpunk writers don't have the sheer inertia or at times worrisome history that writers of Space Opera or Lovecraftian horror sometimes have to deal with. Women are well represented here, as are various minority groups be they defined by race, religion or orientation. Part of this I think is the fact that the fiction community simply has a more diverse fandom and more diverse group of creators involved then would ever be admitted in public in the past. Where in the days of Issac Asimov, writing sci-fi was largely seen as a white man's game (never you mind those ladies writing science fiction behind the curtain), today the science fiction and fantasy community is more open (even if there is some pushback) to writers and characters who aren't straight white men. Interestingly, like a lot of science fiction, Solarpunk does have a tendency to use people who were genetically engineered as a way to explore bigotry and oppression without triggering defensiveness from it's readers. Suncatcher uses Charlie, the part dog, part girl, all roving reporter to show how damaging it can be to declare someone a nonperson and The Windup Girl shows up how treating someone as a nonperson can be incredibly dehumanizing to the people doing the oppression. I haven't spoken about transhumanism but so far Solarpunk presents the transhuman supermen of as downtrodden and exiled to the margins of society compared to transhumanism triumphant predictions of post humans ruling the roost. Which is an interesting difference as well.
Solarpunk hasn't yet reached it's fully mature and realized form as a genre. It's very possible it never will and will die a premature death. The opening years of a genre are when it's most likely to simply flop and fade away. That said, in it's brief history Solarpunk has found an interesting niche and is in the process of exploring interesting ideas that bring fresh air to science fiction. Additionally while Climate Fiction does speak to our modern anxieties and fears, Solarpunk dares to suggest that there can be hope even in the face of something so huge and unrelenting. My own thought is that we need a constant exploration of new ideas and ways of looking at the world to prevent becoming stale and out of touch with the world. Also, I not counsel despair. To quote, despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. We may have to take a hard road to the future. A road unforeseen. That said, I would say there are worse things to do then trust to hope, as long as we act to bring that hope about and do not use it as an excuse to be idle. After all sometimes revolutions win.
If you would like to read more about Solarpunk
See you Friday when we review Implanted. Keep Reading.