In March, Bookriot posted an essay meant to introduce solarpunk to their audience. While I always enjoy seeing solarpunk reach more people, the way this essay framed the genre was disheartening and undercut much of the radical potenial that keeps me reading, writing, and making solarpunk. So, I wanted to point out somethings I found troubling and downright wrong that were mentioned in the article. This is in no way meant to disrespect the author of the piece, but rather a chance to continue working toward (or perhaps away from) a definition of solarpunk. Every time I read an article from a solarpunk that seeks to define the genre, their voice and location shift the meaning. Ultimately, I hope that solarpunk becomes unique to each community that adopts it as a narrative method for survival and thriving.
Indeed, the article is slow to define solarpunk in any meaningful, even in the section “What is Solarpunk?” I understand–solarpunk is hard to define. It’s not a genre that fits into a box (which is one reason I don’t think we have or will see a major solarpunk piece of literature in the current publishing world). That being said, solarpunk as nearly always focused on a response to the climate crisis and its attendant social justice issues. In the article’s definition of solarpunk, the focus of “What is Solarpunk?” is aesthetic, particularly Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Afrofuturist motifs.
The following is the closest thing provided for a definition: “The spirit of solarpunk is one of craftsmanship, egalitarianism, and optimism where technology can be put to work to solve our greatest problems.” While none of this is inherently wrong, it entirely defangs the genre. Descriptions like this are one reason why I think most people don’t think solarpunk is actually “punk” or has narrative potential. What even are “our greatest problems?” Phrasing it like this feels like a neat way to sidestep the anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and environmental justice aspects of the genre. Instead, it sounds like a Disney fantasy. That is emphatically what people in the solarpunk movement do not want.
In a similar vein, the article goes on: “More than just a motif or a take on technology’s potential, solarpunk worlds also often offer a version of humanity that has optimized its societal potential with a higher cultural awareness, equality across genders and races, and heightened creativity.” I’m not sure what the author is getting at here. What is “heightened creativity?” Again, I see this as a way to sidestep the difficulties most solarpunks wrestle with: how do we survive and thrive during the climate crisis? Similarly, what is “higher cultural awareness?” This sounds dangerously close to Enlightenment ideals of progress, of rational thought–in other words, a harmful, racist way of thinking. If higher cultural awareness means people stop being shitty to each other and the planet, which is how I interpret this line, then who is this for? Indigenous people do not need “higher cultural awareness.” And, I’ve never heard a solarpunk suggest that (though I’ve sometimes sensed an undercurrent of thought that could lean in that direction, which I’ve tried my small part of undermine).
Probably the most frustrating aspect of this article was the list of supposedly solarpunk novels. Here, the article seems to conflate solarpunk with environmental literature in general. While solarpunk is often environmentally aware, that is not the only form it takes. For example, in TX Watson’s “Boston Hearth Project” short story, the environmental aspect of the story is how extreme weather events hurt the houseless community of Boston. Yet, the heart of the story is about providing a safe, warm space for that community–not, necessarily, a direct focus on climate change. Not every solarpunk story will be a traditionally “environmental” story, just as very few environmental stories fit into solarpunk’s ethos.
Dune by Frank Herbert is a great example of this issue. Regardless of what the solarpunk wikipedia says, Dune is not a solarpunk novel. Yes, it is environmental speculative fiction, but it is not solarpunk–it’s ideas of climate adaptation are rooted in a colonial ideology that is the opposite of what solarpunk strives for. Additionally, most solarpunks are really hesitant to attribute the title to books that came out before the term originated. For example, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is not solarpunk because she did not intend it to be. It has solarpunk aspects, such as the focus on survival, community building, and acceptance of change, but it is unfair to label her work with something she did not intend.
In the list of contemporary works, the article demonstrates a lack of knowledge about who is publishing solarpunk stories. A quick google pulls up multiple anthologies, video games, RPGs, etc. that are engaging with solarpunk, but rather the article lists some environmental stories.
In other words, this article does not introduce the genre as we know it, but rather puts forth a mishmash of utopian, environmental storytelling that undermines the radical potential of solarpunk.
If someone really wants to be introduced to solarpunk, then here’s a few pieces to get started:
Jay Springett has a thorough reference guide here that tracks the historical progression of the term since it showed up in 2008.
Rob Cameron has a great essay discussing solarpunk in context of religion in speculative fiction, such as Octavia Butler’s work.
I co-wrote this piece talking about how solarpunk must recognize there is no environmental justice without social justice and decolonization.
World Weaver Press currently has four anthologies of solarpunk, including a translation of Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World. Because they’ve consistantly put out anthologies (Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters, and Multispecies Cities) they have great examples of what solarpunk writers are thinking and working on right now, as the genre has become more established.
Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation attempted to set a foundation as the first general collection of solarpunk work in English. Currently, I’m in the process of finishing co-editing what could be considered a companion volume that approaches solarpunk from a nonfiction standpoint, addressing how we could shift solarpunk from genre to lifestyle.
There’s plenty more that’s coming out and being written about solarpunk, but this is a good place to start. Rather than trying to box in solarpunk for bigger publications, I hope each community that connects to solarpunk adapts the genre to their needs.