Writing Speculative Fiction: A Nerd's Guide

Solarpunk: Brighten Your Day

Have you had enough of generic dystopias? Tired of megacorp mercenaries purging the poor? Unimpressed by the evil empire's troopers failing to hit the heroes at point blank range? Sick of scalding steam engines and complex clockworks that grind your gears? Cringing at the cosmic horrors hiding in every eldritch tome, ready to slurp your soul? Annoyed by apocalyptic wastelands full of raiders and mutants? Then solarpunk might be for you.

So, what is solarpunk? A sci-fi subgenre with a sorely missing quantity: Optimism. Solarpunk's ethos is that of improvisation, more egalitarian (and experimental) societies, and ecological preservation/restoration. There's a heavy green focus on solarpunk, and facing challenges through unconventional, often improvised, social and technical arrangements. Just because a genre is utopian (or at least, innately 'supposed' to be) optimistic, means there's no room for conflict, right? Hell no. (More on that later…)

History: The specific term 'solarpunk' has a somewhat convoluted and contradictory origin. There's essays and blog posts from 2008 through 2014 that sometimes use the term, but also a Brazilian short story anthology of the same name (by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) often cited to be the first 'official' example. The Brazilian anthology was translated into English, but it originated as an outgrowth of cyberpunk tropes with a slightly less negative spin (a future of corporate dominated renewable energy, for instance). In that way, it's similar to post-cyberpunk in its lineage. What makes it different is the specific aesthetic and themes. Post-cyberpunk has many of the social and institutional tropes of cyberpunk (megacorporations, overbearing governments, conspiracies) and has a more grounded (if identifiable) present. Solarpunk chucks the old order out the window, at least much of the time.

However, the fundamental themes of solarpunk take us back to familiar territory for longtime readers of this column. We get the ecological themes and cosmopolitan cultures of New Wave sci-fi (like Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin), utopian writing like Huxley's The Island, post-scarcity anarchists by way of Murray Bookchin and Rojava, the bucolic landscapes of Miyazaki, the organic shapes of Art Nouveau, and ample influence from Afrofuturist aesthetics. Solarpunk is still a very new genre, so retroactively applying or adding 'canon' (or even if there is 'canon' at all) is still a hotly disputed topic (pun intended).

Noteworthy Media: This list is still being populated, but some of solarpunk's inspirations might be worth revisiting. We can revisit Frank Herbert, Clifford Simak, Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guin, plus the ecological sci-fi of Kim Stanley Robinson. We can even see elements of it in relatively recent videogames, like Numbani from Overwatch, the backstory of the Horizon series, and Japanese RPGs like Zelda (especially Breath of the Wild), Final Fantasy (even as early as Cosmo Canyon in FFVII), and Pokemon. Heck, there's even Wakanda and Firelight from Arcane that might qualify. Philosophically, the works of Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson, Rousseau, Laozi, and even Thomas Jefferson have some related elements (focus on decentralized, pastoral communities as the core of a pleasant culture). Of more contemporary and bigger name writers, Nnedi Okorafor's Zahrah the Windseeker comes up as an example. Some have claimed Max Brooks' Devolution is a deconstruction of some of its tropes. However, the genre is too new to have its defining writers and works. Maybe you.

Conflict: Just because a work has positivity as a vibe does not mean it is devoid of challenge. Solarpunk should not be just a few characters gliding into utopia. It's hard fought innovation to survive against rising tides (literal, in the case of environmental collapse), political dysfunction, corporate depredation, diminishing resources, and crushing poverty. Your characters are trying to make peace with each other in a dying world, or potentially, wrest enough of it back for a good life. That does not mean you can't throw in more conventional challenges, though. For example, perhaps the heroes are a neighborhood cooperative battling megacorporate mercenaries for survival. Decentralized systems have endured until someone figures out how to centralize power and wealth once more, so your characters might need to thwart them through force of arms, activism, exposure, and innovation (or all at once). Or two characters with good intentions may have incompatible aims for two utopian futures of a community, causing a bitter civil war. Just as solarpunk is a hard to define genre, no two stories are going to be the same.

Challenges: Solarpunk's greatest strength can also be its greatest contradiction: the relative lack of defining works. Every speculative fiction subgenre has its own potential baggage and contradictions. Cyberpunk can never quite escape the oligarchy and violence it criticizes. Steampunk contrasts handcrafted individual inventiveness in a world of mass production, plus sometimes bringing along the unpleasant baggage of Victorian colonialism and conventions. Solarpunk is about idealized small communities where locals live pleasantly in harmony with their environment and each other, with which technologies are 'acceptable' varying between authors. Politically, solarpunk may (ironically) parallel paleoconservative themes, although it may also be taken as distributism, voluntaryism, mutualism, and eco-anarchism. The biggest challenge, though, I feel is simply the lack of awareness of solarpunk (relative to say, steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, etc.) in the speculative fiction space against all the rest.

Examples: I've recently taken a stab at a homebrew solarpunk tabletop roleplaying game setting, Cerulean (adapted from Paizo's Starfinder). The premise is a near-future Southeast Asia is the world's top economy after a series of solar flares trash the northern hemisphere. Each nation in Southeast Asia has its own challenges, ranging from modern pirates to self-replicating robots creating their own ecologies to new political and social forces rising to prominence. The hub for reclamation and stabilization efforts is Singapore, which launched the Cerulean Initiative to help protect and expand civilization in the region (and eventually beyond).

Another example of a more fantastic approach is a short story and fictional village called Rubble, itself built near the ruins of an ancient, advanced metropolis full of magical constructs and traps. The village has a democratic council that runs it, practices small scale sustainable agriculture and aquaculture in a series of rings and hills built around the town itself, and generally tries to reverse-engineer relics found in the ruins for their own benefit. The town has no solar panels or wind-turbines, but instead has democratized, decentralized authority arising from yesteryear's ruins. That is why I thematically argue it is solarpunk, or at least, one degree removed.

So, I hope those details help brighten your day, reader. It's been a while since I touched this series, so hope you've found this interesting. Let's look ahead, with optimism instead of the pessimism that is all the rage these days.