Solarpunk- Welcome to the club

Cityscape, by Imperial Boy

The -punk family of genres is an extremely fertile one. Though most people have only really heard of cyberpunk or steampunk, the -punks have never really stopped multiplying since steampunk first appeared in the late 1980s. The majority of them are only really known by small communities, genre-fiction enthusiasts, or TV Tropes addicts, but they’re out there. Biopunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, dungeonpunk, oceanpunk, and yes, there’s also punkpunk in the form of a trope name. But whilst I feel many of these -punks are destined to remain low key, or only a ‘thing’ to people who like naming genres, there’s a new -punk on the block that I think has the mileage and strength of community to break into the mainstream over the next few years. Its name is solarpunk, and I’d like to talk about it a little.

Despite the enthusiasm and passion of its adherents, I don’t think a great many people beginning this article will be familiar with the nascent genre of solarpunk; imagine an Art Nouveau aesthetic combined with eco friendly, green technologies. That’s the genre’s visuals in a nutshell. Its tone is generally optimistic, and like cyberpunk it is primarily geared around imagining a new, future society, as opposed to steampunk which is all about re-using bits of an older, Victorian society. That’s solarpunk.

It was something I first encountered not long after the original tumblr post suggesting a new -punk genre was created, specifically in this post. I ran into it because someone else had linked to it on their tumblr blog, which showed me that it had definitely caught attention, but at the time I had no idea whether it would actually result in anything wider or not. Fast forward a year and nine months and I can say for sure that it’s definitely caught on.

Yet I began the article assuming no one reader would already be aware of the genre, and right now no published work calling itself solarpunk has reached any kind of mass awareness. So when I’m talking about the genre catching on, I’m not talking about solarpunk being a name on everyone’s lips, and solarpunk books flying off the shelves. What I’m talking about is the stage before that, the stage where a bunch of highly talented people all get enthusiastic about an idea, talk about it with one another, and spread the idea to yet more highly talented people. There are groups and boards relating to solarpunk that have sprung up all over the internet, and even a couple of publications. This kind of movement is, in my opinion, guaranteed to start producing results, and all it takes is a breakout piece of solarpunk media or two for this creative infrastructure to be unleashed into wider awareness, where it’ll no doubt thrive.

That being said, I’ve already treated both cyberpunk and steampunk with a critical eye on Medium and, if solarpunk wants to be the new big thing, it should be subject to the same level of criticism, accounting of course for the fact that it’s a toddler compared to Grandpa Cyberpunk and Uncle Steampunk. And there are a few things about solarpunk as currently envisaged which have me concerned.

The world needs more science fiction based on this aesthetic, that’s for sure!

It seems to me that the genre is actually a new iteration of utopian sci fi without calling itself that. This is what separates it from most of its other -punk relatives, many of them are imagining possible or cool-looking societies, not envisaging a society the author thinks is great and wants to actually see happen. I’m not in any way objecting to idealistic sci fi settings, not only do I have a fondness for them but I think the pendulum in popular culture is firmly swinging back towards positive, or optimistic speculative fiction. That’s actually part of why I think solarpunk is going to be in the right place at the right time.

My problem is actually to do with setting derived tension, aka the Roddenberry Problem. Once you establish a future society that seems to have fundamentally better than our own, which from our point of view seems closer to utopian than not, what aspects of that setting can be played for drama? This was a thorny issue during a particular phase of Star Trek’s existence because not only was the Federation a pretty excellent place in which to live, Gene Roddenberry, the series’ original creator, kept trying to have humans behave and react in ways which prevented any kind of on-screen drama. In the case of the franchise’s later series the desire to burst free of these writing constraints led to writers blasting sacred cows of the franchise with phasers, not always successfully.

This is not an intractable problem. High quality slice-of-life media does exist which lacks any antagonists of any kind, for example, and a good writer could still create interpersonal drama in a setting where many material and political concerns are lacking. Likewise, some writers who used their personal philosophy to create speculative societies still managed to talk about flaws and failings of those systems they otherwise agreed with. Ursula K. Le Guin in particular has always been good at this. But this requires discipline that genre fiction has not always successfully maintained, and if the problem becomes endemic then it will definitely limit the size and scope of solarpunk, as well as exposing it to the same kind of pendulum swing that will push people towards it.

The other issue with settings that the author wants to come about in reality, which they are politically and personally invested in, comes to the matter of antagonists. Assuming solarpunk doesn’t become dominated by slice-of-life stories, or adaptations of Samuel Beckett plays, authors are going to want to include bad guys and enemies of various kinds. But reading, for example, the TV Tropes page for solarpunk, one gets the impression that the intended bad guys in solarpunk are roughly the same caliber of those on Captain Planet. When the supporters/characters enmeshed in an eco-friendly, politically stable, pretty looking world are faced with villains who are evil because they support less environmentally friendly industry, or simply because the evil organisation is corporate (and thus amoral), I am going to look askance at the credentials of calling that work speculative fiction.

The foundation of cyberpunk was creating protagonists who refused to partake in the alienating and inhumane system they found themselves in, who tried to exist on its margins or to damage that future in some way. The setting itself is an enemy in cyberpunk. Steampunk has at times regurgitated 19th century imperialism with a smattering of nostalgia, but you would still be able to find plenty of steampunk antagonists who are not evil because they want to bring the era of Victoriana to an end, and plenty where the protagonists are themselves opposed to problematic aspects of their own steampunky world. The strength of -punk fiction is often linked to how willing the authors are to poke credible holes in it. But when you are terribly invested in the notions and ideals of an eco-technology setting, how trustworthy are you to create actual complex villains that might not be entirely wrong, or opponents of the setting’s philosophy who are not actually villains or portrayed as evil at all? This is not a blanket statement claiming solarpunk authors are incapable of such things, but a call for self reflection, and a warning that creating too many two-dimensional villains limits the lifespan of a genre; those that lean too heavily on morally upstanding, happy protagonists versus entirely obviously evil people (who never have a good point), suffer exactly the same as those that rely on unpleasant protagonists and gritty settings full of murderdeath. Given its semi-utopian, optimistic nature, solarpunk is particularly vulnerable to this.

The hard part will not be creating solarpunk artwork, games, novels, comics, even from a cursory examination of the community it’s absolutely raring to go with ideas and projects and support. The trick is in creating a popular and sustainable genre, one as sustainable as the technologies that it speculates over. The unifying theme of all of the genre’s potential pitfalls is that solarpunk authors have to resist the temptation to outright preach. Given the wish to share optimism that lies at the heart of the genre, and the clear desire to tell people that their visions of the future need not be desolate, this is going to be really, really difficult. But we have been shown again and again what happens when a genre has that kind of atmosphere- as soon as there’s a significant shift in society, or enough people become tired of being talked at, it loses ground. Whether in academic history, or space opera settings, telling people ‘this is what progress looks like, isn’t it marvellous, aren’t things great, aren’t those who aren’t part of this or who oppose it evil’, again and again, will lead people to find alternatives with more complexity.

Solarpunk needs to exist outside political diatribe and polemic in order to be more than a counterreaction to cyberpunk. Given that I really, really like Art Nouveau, and also care about tonal diversity in fiction, this is something I’d rather avoid. I want more optimistic, visionary fiction in the spotlight, and weight is building up behind having more optimistic fiction across all forms of media. But if you’re publishing something just telling me how great X people are, in their great society of greatness, opposed by the ruthless, amoral, and unsympathetic Y people, that’s not genre-fiction, that’s moonlighting as an opposite-land Ayn Rand with a strong belief in how cool wind farms are. Please don’t be opposite-land Ayn Rand.

Whatever happens, in my opinion solarpunk is definitely going to ‘happen’. The part that’s still up for grabs is whether it’ll become a new stalwart genre, still vibrant and active in thirty years time, or whether in thirty years’ time it’ll be thought of like we think of 80s hair and neon-coloured clothing. But solarpunk is nothing if not founded on optimism, and I’m an optimistic person. Let’s dare to hope that all I’m doing is worrying about maybes, and what-ifs, and that any problems I’m seeing can and will be solved. We have room for a new genre, let’s make room for one that envisions hope for the future rather than fears it.