SolarPunk: Sci-Fi for a Sustainable Future

Is it time for a little vitamin D in your dystopia?

Out of the Darkness…

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic themes are all the rage in Science Fiction these days. Arguably, they always have been. Sci-Fi has been a sounding chamber for early warning signals, from George Orwell’s vision of an omniscient government in 1984 to H.G. Well’s prediction of the atomic bomb in The World Set Free, and in some ways that is its greater purpose. Beyond simple entertainment, speculative fiction gives an outlet for great minds to explore the “what-ifs” of new technologies and the effects, both positive and negative, on the world as we know it.

Human nature being what it is, we are drawn to the dark side. Readers and writers alike dive into worst-case-scenario disasters with a kind of morbid fascination. Is this how it will end? Is this what will become of us?

Indeed, dwelling on disaster can be cathartic. We can console ourselves that at least our world isn’t that bad yet. Or that, if it gets that bad, it will still be possible to survive. As with the infamous “preppers,” considering catastrophic events in a logical way and planning for future solutions can be a great way to cope with the anxieties that surround the uncertainty of our fates.

I’m not suggesting you start hoarding cans of sardines and dehydrated mashed potatoes just yet, but hear me out!

Pessimistic Science Fiction has its purpose. Fear can catapult people into action. A lot of sci-fi scares are not all that far fetched, and sometimes fiction is more effective than reality at forcing people outside their comfort bubbles to think about the consequences of their cozy lifestyles.

However, there are risks to clanging the old doom and gloom bell too loudly and to early. People easily become desensitized to alarm. We have seen the effects of this first hand in public opinion on climate change and if/how/when we need to address it. Skepticism, and the desire to maintain the status quo, will win out over making small, necessary changes that cause us minor inconvenience and costs.

… And Enter the Light!

What is SolarPunk?

SolarPunk, a relatively new subgenre of science fiction, is making lightwaves in some circles. It all appears to have started with this post HERE from 2014, and has evolved since. Ultimately, SolarPunk is a response to SteamPunk’s romanticization of the Industrial Revolution and the nihilism of CyberPunk. It envisions an optimistic future in renewable energies and sustainable earth-centric practices are woven together to create egalitarian societies in which which the art, craft, and science of renewable energies takes center stage and egalitarian societies that are more community driven than corporate controlled.

That’s cool and all, but who cares?

Consider the ways that modern environmentalism has stagnated. It has become an echo chamber of like-minded people talking amongst themselves and becoming more and more convinced that they are right. Unfortunately, that conviction has been slow to translate out to the general public and into official channels. My feeling, is that one of the reasons for this failure is not that environmentalists are pushing for too much too soon. It’s that they are trying too hard to uphold the status quo.

Our visions of the future look too much like our current lives. It assures us that we don’t have to change too much. We’ll still drive cars and trucks, the fuel will just be a little bit different. We’ll still eat meat, farming practices will just be tweaked a bit. We’ll get better at taking care of the earth and you’ll hardly even notice the difference!

Science Fiction to the Rescue!

Fear of being labelled as extremist or alarmist has silenced a lot of brilliant people. The goal now seems to be a slow seep into public consciousness rather than radical change. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Other, more informed, people have discussed it better than I can. Check out this article on Medium.

But is this really the future that we want? When we imagine these brave new worlds, do we want it to look like the world today? As a reader and writer of science fiction, my answer is an emphatic NO! And I wonder if maybe we could inspire greater participation in the green movement by showing people how wonderful and exciting and DIFFERENT our world could actually be if we chose to make radical changes in our lives.

This all sounds a bit fluffy…

I mentioned the need for optimism in science fiction in a discussion with a writer friend the other day and I was met with some reluctance. Optimism sounds fluffy, doesn’t it? Where’s the conflict in a perfect world? What’s the point of stories without struggle?

Well, let me just clarify that for a moment. Optimism is not perfection. And it’s not easy.

We are primed for pessimism, these days. Just turn on the news, read your social media feeds… bad things are happening, and even when they aren’t we catastrophize good things because that’s what we do. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism that has been twisted by technology, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is increasingly easy to become anxious, depressed, and pessimisitc.

It is a heck of a lot easier to imagine a dystopia than a utopia. People question uptopias, critics pick apart any idea that dares to be too hopeful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean that if we succeed, we’re going to have a boring story.

The best books are always, in the end, about people not places. People are not perfect. Perfection is poison: to conflict, to character development, to tension, you name it.

A a world that envisions solutions to current problems will have problems of its own. Characters, even in the most utopic world are going to butt heads with life. I invite you, fellow readers and writers, to explore what social, political, interpersonal, environmental, etc. conflicts look like in the exciting possible-futures of SolarPunk.

Are You Up to the SolarPunk Challenge?

If you have read any SolarPunk, drop your recommendations and thoughts in the comments. I have no experience in this subgenre yet, and I’d love to dive in!

Writers, would you care to join me in a little challenge?

Write a flash fiction story in the SolarPunk genre and leave your link in the comments. I’ll write one and post mine in the Story Laboratory by the end of the Month. Let’s see what we can do with a little sunshine!

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26 thoughts on “SolarPunk: Sci-Fi for a Sustainable Future

  1. Great post, but I’m of the mind that asks where is the conflict? If this is utopia, it’s just another romance in a pretty package. Would this involve possible failure of something they’ve come to depend upon to bring a bit of stress? Aging infrastructure of what keeps it utopia? Also, where is the punk? This might be the greatest new thing out there, but I don’t understand.

    1. Hey! Thanks for reading.

      I guess what I’m getting at is that Utopias are hard to write because, like perfection, they don’t exist. Not just that they don’t exist, but that they cannot exist. So, there is no real danger of writing a story set in an optimistic future setting and accidentally writing a story without conflict. Even the fluffiest of romance stories is rife with conflict (or so I’ve been told).

      Human beings create conflict. For every problem we solve, new ones will arise. The possibilities for conflict are as endless as they are in any kind of fiction. Even if, hypothetically, it was possible to imagine a human world that lived in perfect balance with nature, something would go wrong. The setting is never the sole source of conflict in a story, but limiting that option by making it work well could potentially challenge a writer to explore other types of conflict in a deeper way, too?

      In keeping with the “punk” subgenres, I guess solarpunk would involve some kind of subversion of the real-world systems currently preventing our “enlightenment.”

      I don’t know. I haven’t read any or attempted to write any yet. I’ve certainly never been accused of being an optimist, so it will definitely be a challenge, haha. The idea interests me, though. I’ll keep you posted as I dig a little deeper into it all…

    1. Ya, I’m definitely curious! If you decide to check some out, let me know what you find πŸ™‚

    1. Yesssss. I might actually try it for my 12SS this month. Which I still haven’t started because I’m doing another frickin’ rewrite on The Sea Hag. Ugh.

  2. I love this idea. Most of the speculative fiction I’ve read does have a hint of optimism, sometimes just at the end with the exception, perhaps of Orwell’s 1984. That little nugget of hope keeps you reading the stuff. I agree that it is also therapeutic in these desperate times to imagine or read about scenarios of survival once the shit has hit the fan. It helps one to sleep at night. πŸ˜‰

  3. I have read a bit of solarpunk and I don’t think it is a utopian genre. It’s more about novel ways of surviving what could be catastrophic climatic events. Yes, the survivors often creatively use “green” technology but it’s generally because they have no other choice. I “accidentally” wrote a solarpunk short story recently called (and you’re going to laugh) Riverhag. I say accidentally because I thought I was writing a post-apocalyptic story but in retrospect, it IS solarpunk.

    1. Ha! We’re on the same wavelength. I’m writing a fantasy story called The Sea-Hag right now!

      Yes, I haven’t read any yet, but my impression was that even if the concept for solarpunk was a bit utopian, or sprung from a desire to see some utopian visions of the future, realistically you could apply all kinds of conflict to even the most egalitarian eco-friendly society. I’ve been seeing a lot of eco-fiction come up in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy magazines I subscribe to, and I’m really starting to dig it in spite of my skepticism for rose-tinted future. I guess I’m starting to admit that I was bringing that preconception to the genre without any real evidence for my reservations. I’m going to try to stay open minded and explore this in a little more detail. I think it could be something I really enjoy!

      Is you solarpunk story up on your blog? I’d love to read it!

          1. I’m not on MeWe! Is there another with my name creeping around out there?? Sorry, I will email you today. I have been all over the place this week, haha.

          2. I went and made an account just to see what it was all about, and to see if I could find my doppelgΓ€nger πŸ˜‚ So I’m on there now! Although I have no idea how to use it yet…

    1. I’m giggling at the double entendre there….

      I hope you do read and write some! I need to take a break from the sea-hag and try something totally different to cleanse the palate. Don’t forget to post here if you give it a go!

      1. I would like to give it go. As for the double entendre… I’m shaking my head, but I’m sure if it’s at me for missing it and putting it in or you for spotting it. Something on your mind I suspect. πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

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