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—
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.)
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
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
- 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!)
- 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
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.
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
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.
And 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.