A quick guide to the emerging, political solarpunk genre

Solarpunk aesthetics permeate many mediums including, most notably, commercials. Chobani’s recent ad campaigns have heavily favored this style. Artwork by @freecondo.
Jonathan Logan, S&E editor

Solarpunk: a genre at the crossroads of it all

Science fiction is not just about science. While most of its famous works hinge on one or more advanced technology(ies), the genre is not so much about science as it is about speculating about our current reality and how it might be different. Science fiction has always been one of the best genres in making inroads on major political questions (“1984”, “Fahrenheit 451”, “Foundation”). Subgenres and smaller movements falling under the umbrella of sci-fi often explore how the status quo does not work for everyone– how there are people that live on the fringes of society. Examples include the pessimistic views of cyberpunk or the Victorian-influenced steampunk genre. Common to both is the idea of -punkism, a counter-culture that subverts typical societal norms and exists outside of a larger population’s discourse.

A new -punk is here. Solarpunk began as an aesthetic movement that depicted hopeful futures in which the built environment incorporated the natural environment and other symbols of progress such as public transport. Elements of the movement began to seep into literary works until now, with entire novels and anthologies being classified as solarpunk (“Sunvault,” “Green Mars,” “A Psalm for the Wild-built”).

The genre, or subgenre as it is often referred, has eluded a hard and fast definition. Many of its enthusiasts, however, identify solarpunk’s overtones as optimistic, hopeful and imaginative. Followers argue that this approach to fiction is necessary in, not just saving the world from authoritarianism and climate change, but also in saving the part of the human ethos inclined to imagine how things might be better.

In this regard, solarpunk shoulders the great weight of articulating exactly how humanity should change, the mechanics of collective action. Where cyberpunk shirks politics and space operas hegemonize, solarpunk urges readers to cut through the fog that is today’s political landscape. It encourages discourse surrounding political alternatives, advocating for expanding discourse for the sake of discourse; it offers a prognosis instead of a diagnosis for why things are the way they are.

If the great tragedy of our age is a lack of imagination in how its societies politically organize, then where else are they to turn other than fiction and art for imagining alternatives? A common theme in other -punks is that technology alone cannot remedy such crises as climate change or political extremism. Solarpunk embraces this idea, but where it diverges is in its making of conflict. The genre explores how new political structures, in conjunction with new, green technologies, give rise to unique internal struggles at the individual level. For example, in Becky Chambers’ “A Psalm for the Wild-built,” the main character seeks discomfort and challenge in an otherwise comfortable, utopian society. In other words, solarpunk is about the growing pains a person or society might experience as a result of political nuance.

Two schools of thought exist in the space of thinking about the place of politics in the subgenre. On one hand, some enthusiasts advocate for the overt politicization of its works, while on the other are advocates for the whitewashing of current problems for the sake of narrative cohesion. The trends observed in today’s world, overpopulation, a warming climate or urbanization, must be the foundation from which solarpunks build the genre, the first school argues. In becoming too political, solarpunk runs the risk of becoming too “un-optimistic” or detail-oriented as it tries to build its utopian settings.

This struggle, with politics at its heart, means that the genre is an evolving one. While it has amassed a following, it remains to be seen whether or not the once-aesthetic movement will flower into a genre of its own. In the meantime, some political philosophers and thinkers have put forth visions for going solarpunk now, arguing that “if solarpunk is employed in tandem with processes of deepening democracy, more in line with its original ethos, it can scaffold and guide the steps of transformations that are not just aesthetically superficial, but ones that will reshape the social structure, human relations and even our minds and emotions.”

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