What is a Solarpunk Story?

[[A reddit post by herrcoffey archived here in case it goes missing]]
I have been watching the development of “Solarpunk” for some while now, and while I am thrilled with the aesthetics of the movement so far, I feel that it is in desperate need of an underlying narrative. Any movement worth its salt, be it religious, ideological, or cultural, has a story which it tells about the world. It is these stories that give life direction. They tell us from where we came, where we are, and which way to go. For solarpunk to truly grow, it needs this story. Our Neuromancer has yet to be written, but I hope that I can provide some guidance to those who want to write, but don’t know what to write.

Themes: themes are more just what a story is about, they are an argument, an implicit hypothesis which forms the warp of the story’s tapestry. I will write down what seems to me to be the fundamental themes of Solarpunk.

1): There is no “Man vs X”: How do you have a story without conflict? Well, it’s like this: Solarpunk, by its nature, is adaptive, not resistive. In permaculture, there is the saying “the problem is the solution,” which means that any problem you might have is only a problem because you haven’t thought of a way to make it useful. For example: you’re growing a crop of lettuce, but you discover that there are slugs everywhere! Now, a normal person would see this as a problem which needs to be eradicated, so they go get some poison to kill the slugs. Now they just have a new problem: poisoned, albeit slug-free, lettuce. A solarpunk would see these slugs as a problem too, but not in the same way. The problem, she might see, is not an abundance of slugs, but a lack of ducks. She gets some ducks, the ducks eat the slugs, and now she has healthy lettuce and ducks to boot! Another example: boxing vs judo. When boxing, if someone throws a punch at you, that is a problem. You can either take the punch, not solving the problem, block the punch, resisting the problem, or dodge, fleeing the problem. But with judo, you have an additional solution: help them punch. If you help them punch, by grasping their arm and guiding it to a point of maximum commitment, they are overextended, and even a gentle push or pull, with the right leverage will make them fall. The problem becomes the solution

2): One must constantly adapt: Anyone who has studied nature can tell you that there is no such thing as perfection. Nature changes constantly, and the more forcefully you try to make it still, the quicker it will move. Movements of the past have either attempted to resist change (conservatism), aimed for static perfection (Abrahamic religion, communism), passively accepted directionless change (capitalism) or reveled in constant destruction (fascism). Where Solarpunk differs is that it embraces change, but guides it to a greater good. In a sense, it combines the innovative, forward looking liberty of (classical) liberalism, the community and resilience of socialism, and the conscientious fluidity of taoism. How this applies to stories I will explain in the next theme

3): Diversity, individuality, intuition will always beat uniformity, conformity and ideology: This theme is already well established aesthetically, but I feel that in these modern times, these have lost their edge. Many, if not most, believe diversity to be a good thing. But I think that they have lost sight as to why it is a good thing. Diversity, in short, is adaptive and resilient. One solution for a thousand problems is incredibly useful, but if you fail, you’re fucked. A thousand solutions for a single problem is too unwieldy, even though it will almost never fail, it will likely never really succeed. In the real world, diversity is always a balancing act: too little diversity, you are too brittle, too much diversity, you lose cohesion. A solarpunk resists conformity as much as they resist selfishness. To do so requires wit, sensitivity and intuition. A solarpunk does must not just see balance, she must feels it.

4): There must always be hope: I have seen many describe Solarpunk as “optimistic” and I think that this is is an incorrect term. The world, as it is right now, leaves little to be optimistic about. Simply put, things at the moment are not looking up, and you can’t just sit back and let things work themselves out. But while this is no time for optimism, it is exactly the right time for hope. Hope is the scrappy, rough and tumble sibling of optimism. Hope lives on to spite despair as much as it does to love goodness. It is the dandelion in the sidewalk, still growing despite tanking an entire can of Round-Up. That is what Solarpunk is. Not optimism, but the promise and the hope, that day shall come again.

Motifs: Now that we’ve established what the arguments are (I’m sure there are more I’ve missed), let’s consider the motifs of Solarpunk and why they are important.

The Sun: Hell, it’s in the damned name. What makes the sun so special? After all, it’s just a ball of gas! Well, for one, it is the source of all life, what’s that do for ya? The sun represents a power far greater than anyone is capable of. If you’re theologically inclined, it might be divine, if not, a bit of reverence never hurt anyone, especially when it is deserved. The sun gives life to basically everything on earth that’s not next to a seafloor vent, from the tiniest phytoplankton, to you and me. Even machines, be they fossil fueled, wind powered, or tap straight from the source itself are powered by the sun one way or another. But awe is a two-sided coin. Solarpunk has been created in a warming world, in a potentially deadly way. Global Warming, it seems to me, is a reminder of humanity’s limitations, and the sun’s true power. It the Até of humanity’s hubris. For a Solarpunk, it is a constant reminder that power without control is no power at all.

Water: Symbolically, water is the companion of the sun: both are life-giving, simple, yet powerful. Water, however, also represents the mind of a solarpunk. When water finds itself in a pot, it becomes-pot shaped, when it finds itself in a cup, it is cup-shaped. It always finds the path of least resistance, but by doing so it can create immense power. It can be scarce and precious, and yet it can always be in abundance, so long as you know what you can and can’t do, and how to find it. A Solarpunk’s mind is like water: single minded in her ultimate goal, but infinitely variable in her path to it.

The Garden: A garden is to a Solarpunk what a PC is to a cyberpunk. A garden is more than just a collection of plants: it is a means of independence, a means of community, and an encapsulation of the ethic. With a garden, a solarpunk can have food, health, independence and community. Symbolically, a garden is unique: it is distinct from the wild, which represents the world in its rawest form. There, it is beautiful, but it is also very dangerous, and very unforgiving. A Solarpunk should have an immense respect for the wild, both as a teacher, but also as a potential threat. A garden is also distinct from agriculture. Agriculture, that is to say, neatly rowed monocultures, is a symbol of the futility of ordered society. It is an attempt to create perfection, but in the process ends up with hierarchy and a complete lack of control. A garden is balance, it is not quite so chaotic and diverse as the wild, but also is not nearly as regimented as a cornfield. Gardens are polycultural, and cultivated for individual needs: for food, for medicine, for aesthetics. Moreover, a garden need not be out in a field: a garden can be a collection of makeshift pots, jars and trellises hugging an apartment window; it can be the magenta glow of grow lights emanating from a dark, unused closet; it can be the trickle of water in a makeshift-pvc hydroponic system. A solarpunk garden is only limited by adaptability and patience.

Machines: This one may be seem a bit out of place: Machines? They’re the things that got us into this mess to begin with! Not so, I say. Machines, like everything, can be benign or malefactive through our own choices. A coal power-plant is equally satisfied whether it runs or rots. What must distinguish Solarpunks from other futurists is that Solarpunks must understand that machines are a part of nature, and they are the part of nature we are responsible for most of all. This means that a Solarpunk has to understand and appreciate machines as much as she does living things. A solar panel, a water pump, a computer, and a bicycle are just as beloved to a Solarpunk as an oak or a sunflower. What distinguishes a Solarpunk machine from a normal one are adaptability, beauty and resilience. Adaptability means that these machines can be built from scratch, they can be repaired, and they can be improved. They don’t have to be a jury-rigged juggad, though that is certainly in the spirit of Solarpunk, but they cannot be a black box. If you can’t understand it, you can’t adapt it. Second, Solarpunk machines should be beautiful. This can mean many different things to many different people, but I think most of all it should look like that it belongs. A gold-plated toilet isn’t beautiful because it only exists for extravagance, but a Soviet style tenement also isn’t beautiful, because it was made with contempt for its circumstance. I am no arbiter of taste, myself, so I won’t speak further on that. Finally, the last thing that a machine should be is resilient. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be built to last, but it can mean that. It can also mean that it is built to be repurposed, reused or recycled. It is not just-purpose built, it is built for purpose. For Solarpunk, planned obsolescence is sacrilege and waste does not exist, it is simply the right thing in the wrong place.

Color: Have you ever noticed that in the 20th century, the future was monochrome? The most hopeful of all was chrome or a glossy white. The broody and melancholy was washed-out neon over a black background, with a hint of grimy green or blue. The bleakest of all, that is to say the “realist” futures are a sooty grey and brown, completely lifeless. To hell with that. Solarpunk is technicolor! Bold reds, vibrant greens, fiery oranges, deep blues! With color, Solarpunks shout out into our grey, grimy world, “we are still alive, and we are going to thrive!” This color can take the shape of ripe fruit on tree of verdant green, the geometric flurry of a hand-woven tapestry, the revolution will not be monochrome.

I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback! I’m also planning on making a list of Solarpunk inspiration stories to get some ideas rolling!

Response by a now Deleted Reddit user:

To Diversity may I add collaborative and de-centralized? Im doing some work now on de-centralized data gathering, storage and sharing. Also I think some of the failures of solcialism and communism are through centralized planned economy. The centre cant plan, its too far from the edge, its also a single point of failure. With IoT, block-chain and AI we are on the cusp of being able to plan from the edge, with miryad hosts providing real resiliency.

Conflict in Solarpunk Stories

[[A reddit post by herrcoffey archived here in case it goes missing]]


NB: This was originally written in response to /u/luigi_itsa‘s comment on an earlier text post of mine called “What’s a Solarpunk Story?” It ended up being a lot longer than I first intended, so I decided to make a new post for it /u/luigi_itsa:

A little late to the party, but I’ll add my opinion.

At this point, I see literary solarpunk as a proto-genre, maybe best defined as modern ecofiction heavily influenced by cyberpunk and the dystopian aspects of modern society, but taken a step further and infused with hope instead of pessimism (feel free to critique this definition or help me hammer it down a little better). I call it a photo-genre because, as a Wikipedia discussion points out, it has no notable written works (solarpunk’s visual aspects do seem to be more developed, however). That being said, I think there are many disparate works that contain strong solarpunk vibes: The Lorax film and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies book series come to my mind, and more works in other media are listed toward the bottom of this TV Tropes page. Whether or not any of these works can truly be classified as solarpunk, I think they all point to a new subgenre of ecofiction that hasn’t really been categorized yet, with the reconciliation of modern humanity and the environment being an important central theme.

To this end, I’m not sure how much more can be written, or whether a true solarpunk work of great merit can stand on its own; many (if not most) of the solarpunk themes have been done multiple times in other works, and there doesn’t seem to be much room for new and interesting conflicts (even the “environmentalists vs. polluters” suggestion made by u/ZalgoTheAncientOne has been done again and again).

In short, I am unsure if solarpunk will be able to become a standalone genre with literary merit appreciable by many. Please respond to me and share your opinions! I’d love to discuss my thoughts and your thoughts regarding this!

I think that a big distinguishing feature of Solarpunk could be a revision of how conflict plays out. While you could easily do the Fern Gully approach to ecofiction, I think that the lack of subtlety tends to be a turn off for most people. Likewise, a simple “Man vs. Environment” story puts far too much emphasis on the antagonism between humans and their works and “the Wild,” which is the basis for most man-environment narratives since the agricultural revolution.

Philosophically, I think that an excellent source for inspiration is Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. The very oversimplified tl;dr is that “hyperobjects,” are finite, discretely identifiable but spatially and chronically massive entities which exist independently of subjective human experience but are so massive, complex and all encompassing that people have a difficult time attributing specific phenomena which they cause to these entities. Morton identifies global warming, radioactive materials, oil as good candidates for hyperobjects. He also suggests that the great philosophical and ethical dilemma of humanity is how to fully comprehend and create a functional society among these hyperobjects now that we are aware of their true scope and power.

I think that this may be a good topic to grapple with when constructing stories.

In your classic Fern Gully style Man vs Man story, for example, you can use this to give your antagonists some desperately needed context for why they are acting in an objectively shitty manner. They don’t pollute because they just love garbage and oil spills and hate trees and animals, they pollute because they’re trapped in a specific context in which they have no viable alternative based on their current lifestyle and worldview. Instead of seeking to change, though they bury their head in the sand and double down on the practices that are harmful to themselves and others. So the central conflict changes from “Defeat the Dread CEO Litterstein and save the magical Gnome Forest from the evil humans” to “Dismantle Dumps Inc. because CEO Litterstein is in too deep and can no longer comprehend the evil he is doing, and wouldn’t willingly try even if he could”

Likewise, in a “Man vs. Environment” story the central conflict shouldn’t be “overcome the savage wilderness and rebuild civilization,” but it also shouldn’t be “overthrow the decadent society and build a new one from scratch.” I think the one failing of most dystopian novels is the failure to really emphasize the complicity of the individual in their society and environment. I don’t just mean that there should be more dystopian novels where the protagonist is the bad guy. Even good guys are complicit in a dysfunctional society, because they are the society. It is very, very rare that someone will actually be completely alienated from the society they live in. They will most likely agree with at least some of the values emphasized, if not to the same degree. But in a world with hyperobjects, the context that those values find themselves will dictate the degree they are extreme.

As an example, in 1984, the specific value that is examined is the scarcity of power. Winston lacks power, but wants it. O’Brian, the Party and the three global hegemons all have power, and conspire to undermine those who seek it. 1984 is essentially a feudal system in an industrial context: the vast majority of the real power of industry is wasted on war, overproduction and surveillance because their value system is out of sync with their context. The Party would actually have much more to gain by limiting their power, as not only would it free up the many resources they used to oppress their population and wage their phony wars, but the newly empowered citizenry would be able to innovate and adapt in a way that would create an even more powerful society, over which the Party would still govern. But because of the very idea that political power is a scarce resource to be jealously guarded or enviously coveted, neither O’Brian or Winston are capable of realizing just how far out of context they really are, and thus double down on their oppression and revolution until one of them breaks.

For a Solarpunk story, I think, the conflict with the environment should revolve around what social belief is out of context with the environment and thus causing problems of extremism. Rather than adapting the environment to the protagonist, as is the standard practice of “Man vs Environment,” the protagonist should adapt to the environment, not simply with a passive resignation, but with an active aim for achieving their goals.

To me what really separates Solarpunk from its older cousin Cyberpunk isn’t just the optimism and the colorful, eco-friendly aestetic, but that it is fulfilling a different but related function in critiquing modernity. Cyberpunk, essentially, is a rebuke of Logical Positivism in application: science and technology cannot improve society on its own, and usually ends up exacerbating the inequalities that already exist. In this sense, Cyberpunk is diagnostic. The main problem Cyberpunk runs into, however, is that it lacks an objective. It calls for vigilance for dystopia on the horizon, and for rebellion in its wake, but it doesn’t give any sort of goal or method to achieve it. It is essentially reactionary in that way.

Solarpunk, on the other hand, is fundamentally prognostic. Thanks to Cyberpunk, we are well aware of the social problems that we must anticipate in a digital and globalized society, and so it is the role of Solarpunk to dig deep and explore potential solutions to these problems, in all the nuance and complexity they deserve. This is why people call Solarpunk “optimistic.” It’s the first subgenre of science fiction since OG Star Trek that is solution oriented, and one that is desperately needed. Star Trek was written for the Atomic Era, where the major contention was of the sheer overwhelming power which humanity had unlocked, which was simple to understand but incredibly dangerous. Solarpunk, on the other hand, is an exercise in humility. Rather than a realization of our overwhelming power, Solarpunk is essentially about how limited in power we really are, even in the power to fully understand the consequences of our own actions. It’s about asking for help, both from other people and from the environment. It’s about learning to negotiate our needs with the needs of things both smaller and bigger than ourselves. Most of all, it’s about the prodigal son of humanity returning to Nature, not forgetting what we know as in a primitivist return to nature, but remembering the lessons we learned in our time apart from it, and constructing a better future for both of us. The conflict in Solarpunk stories are about the mistakes, wrong turns and growing pains we make during the course of that reconciliation.

Response by Reddit user alxd_org:

Solarpunk, on the other hand, is an exercise in humility. It’s about learning to negotiate our needs with the needs of things both smaller and bigger than ourselves.

I agree wholeheartedly and want to thank you for your post. I find a lot of people understanding solarpunk as just “elven fiction”, when for me it’s an experiment to dream a different society than the one we live in. Imagine different social systems with less inequalities and more incentives to cooperate with other people.

I want to see the conflicts in Solarpunk to be conflicts in groups, where we learn how to work with each other, negotiate and achieve common goals. I think Cory Doctorow started to sketch it pretty nice in his very solarpunkish Walkaway.

Multiple subcultures of anarchism with squats all over the world are a beautiful example of potential Solarpunk fiction. Let’s stop seeing them through Cyberpunk 70′ or 80′ lenses, as punk rock stars and drug addicts. Let’s see very real anarchists in Greece building camps for the refugees and addressing problems our current governments and societies cannot.

Another (if similar) take is my own Glider Ink, where I’m trying to describe hacker communities. People staying outside of official “knowledge market”, working on open source, sharing ideas and building independent infrastructure.

There is a lot of story potential in that.