SOLARPUNK: WE ARE GOLDEN, AND OUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT

The following article was written by RoAnna Sylva, author of Chameleon Moon.

I love science fiction. And I even love dark science fiction—heck, I wrote Chameleon Moon, which is set in a city that’s about as dystopian as you can get. But I’m not so in love with the increasingly pessimistic direction in which a lot of sci-fi has been heading. Turn on your TV and flip to pretty much any sci-fi show. Or really anything made since the 90s. If it’s set on Earth, what’s it like? Is it a happy place? Is it even remotely a safe, pleasant, or healthy world to live in? What’s the average life expectancy for someone in the not-so-distant future? How about life quality?

How about that looming watchtower on the horizon? The oppressive police force? The ominous citizen disappearance rate? The deadly plagues sweeping through the population? The draconian set of laws and harsh punishments? The evil multitude of artificial intelligences that like to use human beings as a renewable energy source, basically turning us into Duracell batteries and—

matrix1

Okay, you get my point. Basically, yikes. This future is dark. It’s scary.

For example, what’s one of the biggest buzz-words in sci-fi or zombie apocalypse or horror or superhero movies alone, especially when it comes to reboots of classics? (Sure, superheroes, etc., as a genre might not be hard science fiction in the purest sense, but they often deal with the future and have scientific or at least speculative elements. I think they’re worth including in this forward-looking discussion.)

GRITTY.

burning city

It’s become an actual selling point. Dark. Grim. Not for kids. Not your parents’ sci-fi. This stuff is real. It’s to be taken seriously. 

Maybe it’s because our present is increasingly scary. Turn on any news program. You can’t get much more grim and gritty than actual current events. And since art so often imitates life (which in turn is influenced by the art we create), that’s what we see in our popular fiction. Since horror and tragedy are everywhere in our reality and mainstream media, they’re often in our entertainment as well.

We see that our world could so easily turn into a horrific dystopia—or it already is—so we write and read and watch it on the big screen. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with scary, dark, gritty stories. Like I said, I love them. I write them. They can be incredibly helpful for catharsis and therapeutic for getting pain and anger and fear out, especially when you feel trapped and scared by situations like I described above. You might not be living in a literal dystopia, but sometimes it can feel like it. So they can absolutely help. But when visions of hopelessness and negativity make up the consistent, vast majority of what we’re shown over and over in books, TV, and movies, it can get a little tiring. And discouraging.

Plus, they tend to be more than a little…exclusive, about whom they let survive. (Ever notice who almost always dies first in apocalypse zombie movies? How about disabled people? Where are they? Yeah. As a chronically ill person myself, that’s…not a happy thought.)

So I feel like we need some hopeful visions of the future. And no, before you ask—not rose-hued-glasses everything-is-peachy-keen hippie singalongs. Because dystopias have their place, and some of them are already here. And we have to deal with them, in reality and in fiction. But nobody says we can’t deal with them together, and in a more healing and optimistic way.

The idea I have in mind is “SOLARPUNK.” It’s a new rising speculative fiction genre and aesthetic, along the same lines of Steampunk, Cyberpunk, and others you might have heard of. It pretty much embodies 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.

The Cosmovitral, Toluca, Mexico

The Cosmovitral, Toluca, Mexico

One piece of writing I can point to that explains what I mean pretty well is an article entitled “Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto by Adam Flynn. This is part of Project Hieroglyph, a collection of books, essays, and pieces of short speculative fiction supported by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Flynn explains:

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.

Sound neat? Sounds pretty neat to me. Sounds kind of like Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful view of the future set forth in the original—yeah, way back in the 60s!—Star Trek. But that was something else, a borderline technologically based Utopia. It’s not Solarpunk, but it’s in the same ballpark. Think less chrome, more green.

Art by Imperial Boy

Art by Imperial Boy

First, SOLAR:

  • Light. In direct opposition to the increasingly dark tone our fiction—and world—seem to be taking.
  • Day. As opposed to the permanent night in which stories of cyberpunk and dystopia seem to take place.
  • The Sun.  A source of natural energy to support and power our future.
  • Which is, of course, a much cleaner energy, the use of which will not harm our environment or selves.
  • This is, then, a blending of nature and technology.
  • And this is a gentle blend, not a subjugation of the earth by force through deforestation and polluting, harsh industry.
  • Beneficial not only for the earth, but for the people who need it most.
  • Healing and including marginalized people—like the physically and mentally disabled, the poor and homeless, people of color and immigrants, abuse victims, the chronically ill, LGBTQA people, all of the most vulnerable members of society.
  • Essentially, HOPE.

And that note takes us to PUNK. Something you might be a little more familiar with, but depending on your age, might associate with loud music, outlandish hairstyles, and rude kids acting out. But I assure you, there’s not much to be scared of here. (Punk rockers can be nice too! We don’t bite. Horns up!)

PUNK:

  •  Rebellion. Going in a different direction than the mainstream. But in this case, that’s increasingly going in the scary direction.
  • Counterculture. If our culture is pessimistic and self-centered, our counterculture will be made of hope, joy, and caring for one another.
  • Enthusiasm. Ever been to a rock concert? When it goes right, it’s fun! Solarpunk goes after its goals with that same level of energy! Rock out!
  • Individuality. Like the piercings and tattoos and spiky purple hair you might associate with the word ‘punk,’ it’s made to let everybody be who they are—especially those described above, who need safe places the most. As a chronically ill, queer kid, I really needed this growing up. Punk indeed!
Art by Owen Carson

Art by Owen Carson

So that’s the ideology. And you might have noticed the pretty pictures I included here! Worth a thousand words, I hope they help illustrate the more visual side of it. Solarpunk fits in with styles like art deco and art nouveau. Lots of gentle curves and swirling, bright colors, the antithesis of harsh angles and metal and stark, painful edges. Solarpunk is gentle and nurturing and welcoming.

You might say it’s also an artistic aesthetic. Like in Disney’s Treasure Planet with its gorgeous storybook ships that traverse the vast reaches of outer space with solar-powered sails on an earnest, hopeful search for hidden wonders.

Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet

Solarpunk is an architecture and building and living methodology. It’s shown in Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful films with human society living in harmony with nature, as in the floating steel-and-tree city below from Castle In The Sky. And when humanity fails to respect and live alongside nature, it quickly learns that it must.

Castle in the Sky

Castle in the Sky

And it’s a philosophy and a way of life, about lifting up instead of oppressing. The spreading and sharing of resources instead of hoarding by an elite few. Good for all instead of only benefiting the very rich. A vision of a beautiful future is rebellion. In this increasingly grim, dark, gritty world, hope is a radical act of rebellion.

Solarpunk rejects the idea that because something is dark or pessimistic, it’s more meaningful. Just because a story has a devastating ending doesn’t make it somehow more profound as an art form. Just because something is optimistic doesn’t make it silly or trite. Hope is not something to be scoffed at. It’s the only thing that will keep the world functioning.

chameleon moonAnd finally, if I can do a shameless plug (hey, an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do, right?), that’s what I’m trying to do with the Chameleon Moon Series. Is it dark? Sure. It’s a quarantined city slowly collapsing into a lake of fire occupied by an oppressive military police force. That’s textbook dystopia. But what makes it different is the radical, powerful, indomitable hope I tried to inject into every single character and line. “Everything Is Going To Be Okay” isn’t just a T-shirt slogan, it’s a promise. “Okay” doesn’t mean “unscarred.” It means, “We will survive this together and leave no one behind. You are worth saving and worth keeping alive. Love is stronger than fear. I am my own superhero, and you can be yours. We are golden.”

So maybe Chameleon Moon is solarpunk…just without the trees. It’s a dystopia that desperately wants to be solarpunk. It’s getting there. The people in it will get it there. Maybe I’ll see you there too.


Written by RoAnna Sylva.

RoAnna Sylver is an author with The Zharmae Publishing Press. This article first appeared on the F.W. Fife blog, and is republished here with permission.

Find out more about RoAnna by visiting her Facebook page, or support her by buying her highly rated novel Chameleon Moon.

  • Leonardo Faria

    First William Gibson wrote Neuromancer and then the concept of cyberpunk came about. I don’t think Manifestos can set a trend before proving highly successful, by quality and quantity, at fiction producing.
    Anyway, what’s labelled as pessimistic often is just the array of adversities a character goes through before reaching his/her goal. The story may be grim and dark but the inner propellent of the main character is mostly humanistic and hopeful, although generally unspoken. The best stories are those when the character, other than achieving an external goal, goes through a modification of his/her personalilty in the direction of more empathy, more understanding, less egocentrism. This will then reflect on the overall balance of the situation ensuing from the narrative events. So an intentional and explicit injection of optimism and “solarity” in my opinion might affect just the apparel of the story telling.

    • Anaël Verdier

      Let’s just rethink this for a minute. Optimism will emerge from the tone of the ending, not a lack of conflict within the story itself. The grim aspect of Cyberpunk and overall scifi since the 80s comes a lot from desperate endings in which the characters have little power over the world. Add to this the dark qualities of the settings in which these stories happen. What Solarpunk offers are brighter (hopeful) endings (see Princess Mononoke) and sunnier settings, not mellow stories.

      • Leonardo Faria

        I’d say a cyberpunk story doesn’t need to stage the reversal of its dystopic features for the reader to say there’s been a happy ending. The goals to reach over the troubles of the conflict may be of much more limited extent. Not to mention that often the cyberpunk “heroes” espouse a set of values typical of a counterculture and, accordingly, aim at stakes that may be of little significance for the Powers that Be, while are vital and crucial for smaller groups that fight for their own survival (often hackers or outcasts, or even out and out outlaws, or any borderline types of folks). If their goal (modest as it may be in the bigger picture) is reached you can talk of happy endings.

        • Anaël Verdier

          Ok, that’s a fair conclusion.
          I’ll have to give it more thought but I could never shake some sort of bitterness from my reading of cyberpunk stories, even when the ending was “happy” in the sense that the heroes reached their goals.
          I’m wondering if the intent with “solarpunk” isn’t to shake off that bitterness, to bring back the link between the “heroe’s” personal goal and a larger stake. It seems that the punk aspect of solarpunk still implies a rebellion against Powers that Be (be they megacorps as in cyberpunk or all powerful nations) but one that is less … helpless I guess.
          To say it otherwise, it feels like the community aspect might be stronger in solarpunk whereas individualistic traits were/are higher in cyberpunk mythology.
          Again, these are thoughts in progress on a genre that, as you pointed out, has yet to emerge.

          • Leonardo Faria

            Anyway the author of the article has certainly a point when she lays out Solarpunk as an aestehetics. It’s all very well to focus on characters and plot — as I’ve did –, but a novel (or fiction in the whole) is much more than that. Comic writers and those in the film industry know it very well: costumes, scenographies, architectures, special effects, light and sound management are all ingredients that are key to give a product its distinctive tone. I think this is something novel writers shouldn’t consider negligible. I take the Solarpunk thing as a reminder to this concept.

          • Solaria Novel

            Author of a Solarpunk novel, here. I had just started conceptualizing the project recently, so there’s naught to show for it as of yet, but I just wanted to chime in to tell you how my novel does exactly what you’d suggested in your comment, here—or at least I believe it will on outlining. There is juxtaposition between the “sustainable utopia” and the protagonist’s discovery of how it just might not be so, but it’s their actions—combined with the progressive rebellion of peers who want to start over and do it “the right way” instead—who will have their shot at saving the Earth instead of… well, I can’t say what instead of, in case you ever read it!

  • Jesse Jarrell

    I love this! One of my races in my series is a species of nature worshipers who live in harmony with Nature, and it’s hard finding inspiration art when 99% of sci-fi is dystopian Blade Runner type cities.

  • Paul Hughes

    Yes! This is beautiful and brilliant! I’ve been saying this since the 90s. I actually started an entire website/group blog in the early 2000s all about this theme which, inspired in part by the art/optimism/far-outness of Burning Man, included lots about decentralization, regeneration, bright green environmentalism, and “can do” optimism. The site became very popular while it lasted (2003-2006). Scifi author Norman Spinrad wrote that science fiction authors have a responsibility as modern myth makers to envision stories that offer believable pathways to a better future. Scifi author David Brin has been saying for years that Scifi needs a new injection of “can do” optimism. Love the included pictures – very helpful. Solarpunk – I love it!

  • Alexeon

    So you’re saying we should be space elves. No thanks, I’d rather Tech Utopia like in Star Trek.

  • Benjamin Nehring

    Your article, up till you plugged your book series, completely describes a futuristic story concept I have and am working on. Is this actually a genre right now?

  • Kiki

    Since when greenpunk is called solarpunk?

  • quickpost

    I like the idea but I don’t see it being possible to run this sort of utopia on solar power. Switch that solar energy source for a fusion reactor (and afterall fusion is what powers the sun, it’s just that this way we’ll be cutting out the inefficient middle-men of interplanetary photons and photovoltaic panels) every 50 miles or so along the coast (they’ll be near the coast so they can use seawater to get their deuterium from) and this makes some sense. And such a world seems like one which would be very nice to live in.

    Actually this “solarpunk” seems a bit like the 1950s dreams of what the world would look like with widespread nuclear (fission) energy, ofcourse uranium would run out pretty fast if everything was powered by it, but we’ve trillions of years of deuterium in the ocean when fusion power can be made to work. So “solar”punk could morph into “fusion”punk and become quite plausible (for optimists).

    Adding a final note, now about how this sort of thing could fit into stories rather than as general discusson about whether/how it could happen, I would say that in my writings I aim to create a “partial” utopia as the setting, because it’s nice to have somewhere nice for things to be set, it’s nice to have a future worth dreaming of, but if there’s nothing wrong AT ALL within (or no outside entitiy threatening your utopian civilisation) you can’t have much of a story.

    • Solast Century

      I’m always on the lookout for some good solarpunk to read. So far the best thing I’ve read is ‘Shine’. It labels itself as an anthology of optimistic science fiction. While everything in there could not be considered solarpunk, those that fit the solarpunk mould really hit the mark. I’d also like to point out that I’m not in anyway connected with this anthology in any artistic or commercial sense (with the exception that I bought a copy and read it).

  • Steven Lyle Jordan

    I’d love to see more Solarpunk stories; maybe it would give people a future concept to look forward to, instead of the incessant panicking over overblown and downright impossible threats. After all, examination of past predictions of the future have shown that it’s not nearly as bad as we imagined (even Star Trek had the world embroiled in a third World War by now, and movies like Logan’s Run, Soylent Green and Mad Max have depicted an incredibly bleak future). We should recognize that, and work harder to develop more realistic visions of the future, not just futures designed to scare us and sell box office tickets.

    We guide our future (and our present actions) based on our fears and hopes; and when our fears are stronger, we imagine a fearful future and react accordingly. Maybe Solarpunk stories can present people with enough positive and hopeful futures that we’ll be able to change our reactions, act positively and make a better future (and present) for all. My own short stories, The Onuissance Cells, describe such a positive, sustainable and sensible future, one that we could conceivably build with the tools we have right now.

  • This seems to be Utopian Science Fiction with a bit of polish and a name change.

    • Not really. Utopia, as a word implies “Perfection” and SolarPunk as a concept doesn’t even come close to that implication. It just says that there’s more hope to life than sorrow.

      • Utopian science fiction encompasses all aspects of the concept (including distopia) – something that ties together Star Trek federation and Miyazaki’s harmonious societies as she points out in her article – even using the word “Utopia” to describe it. “There’s more hope to life than sorrow” is a thematic element you can dress up any way – for what its worth, Slaughterhouse Five has that theme.

  • DanielRedOak

    Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga fits this concept perfectly.

  • I really like the second image! for some reason I imagine it to be some sort of futuristic san fran cisco/venice fusion, I might use this design for my story (btw mark, I’ve begun a complete refurbishment of it and I plan to put it up on fictionpress in a series of “episodes”, I’ll send you them to edit but I might only publish the first on scifiideas as I want to try and expand onto different platforms

  • BTW, castle in the sky is steampunk, not solarpunk

  • mordred

    How about doing an article on ‘neuropunk’

    Neuropunk blends mentality and punk together.

  • Ted Cross

    People classify my novel The Immortality Game as cyberpunk, but the only grim aspects really are the story arcs that the characters go through and the Dark Times that the world is slowly coming out of, while the actual world is full of solar powered advancements, from solar cars to solar coats and more. I don’t really see cyberpunk and solarpunk as distinct from each other. I’ve never viewed cyberpunk has having to be a bleak, dismal setting. If it involves the blending of minds with data then to me it is cyberpunk.

  • Alyx Vance

    Let’s just throw the word punk on random different concepts because we like them and pretend it makes sense after we grab enough straws instead of making it our own thing.