Hey, you guys hear about the billionaire space race? You know, all those billionaires spending millions of dollars to replace their dicks with rockets and then skimming the earth’s atmosphere and calling it space or shooting a car into space or, and let’s be real, probably a lot of secret space stuff we’re not told because it’s super shady? Man, isn’t it great that they have all that money and there’s absolutely no need for any of it anywhere else on earth? Isn’t it great that they’re not taxed at all so they can fuck around in space and sometimes ask for money from the government which they don’t pay taxes to so they can fuck around in space some more? Isn’t it great all these sociopathic rich white men have enough money to fix the world’s problems several times over and still have enough left over for their stupid dick-rockets but they don’t do that, they go straight to dick-rockets because they don’t want to help anybody but themselves and someday they’ll leave for Mars, not because it’s easier to terraform Mars than it is to fix the climate problem (it 100% is not) but because this way they can do it and not only kill serfs on the way there but also leave the rest of the poors to die on a planet that’s about to roast to death due to their own selfishness?
Isn’t it just fucking great?
Anyway, let’s talk about Solarpunk.
While solarpunk could be considered an off-shoot of steampunk, I think a more insightful look at the genre is to look at what it was reacting against: cyberpunk and grimdark.
The original -punk genre (I’m pretty sure based off minimal research so someone correct me if I’m wrong), the term comes from a 1980 short story by Bruce Bethke but it’s agreed by everybody including Bethke himself that William Gibson actually defined the genre with his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Since then it’s found a lasting place in popular culture with a seemingly never-ending list of works, including Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, the Judge Dredd comics and movies, Akira, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Altered Carbon, to name a few.
There are very clear building blocks to creating a cyberpunk story:
- Dystopian near-future
- Society dominated by technology, and I do mean dominated
- The technology is typically controlled by one or more giant, authoritarian corporations, and by controlling the technology they control the world
- Specifically set in a sprawling mega-city, typically in its criminal underbelly
- Protagonists are by themselves or working in a small group, essentially creating a David and Goliath situation against the corporations. They are outsiders, anti-heroes, and misfits, hence the punk suffix. Typically they are small time criminals, usually hackers, working to fight the system, but they can sometimes be detectives of sorts when blending with the neo-noir genre
- Aesthetically think Blade Runner which set the tone: large cities, lots of advertisements and bright lights, usually at night, people in punk-inspired outfits with dyed hair, tattoos, and some body modifications although if you stray too much into the body mods you’re heading into post-Cyberpunk and biopunk territory
As you can see, these are not typically happy stories, and while they can have satisfying endings, they don’t typically have winning endings. Even if your spunky, punky hacker protagonist gains a small, personal win, they will almost never take down the corporations or fully change the status quo.
Grimdark, straightforward enough, is a genre where everything is particularly, spectacularly, fucked. Deriving from the tagline from Warhammer 40,000 (and listen, what I know about Warhammer 40k could fit on a post-it note, but even I saw that on the Wikipedia page and went, ‘yeah, that’s sound right’) this is science fiction or fantasy where everybody wears black and is sad or angry or both sad and angry at the same time, all the time. Nothing good is happening. Ever. If you see a daisy growing somewhere in a grimdark universe, know that it is only there for some three-story head-crushing war machine to step on it.
I’m specifically bringing up Grimdark less for its place as a fantasy/sf subgenre and more because it became a sort-of-inevitable end-game for post 9/11 media. The 2000s were the decade of ‘gritty realism,’ giving us stuff like Nolan’s Batman movies, There Will Be Blood, The Walking Dead, and all sorts of other serious, joyless fiction where everyone wore suits and swore at each other a lot. The Best Drama Emmy winners for the 2000s and early 2010s include The Sopranos, 24, Mad Men, Homeland, and Breaking Bad, eventually leading to Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, two certified grimdark shows. Best Picture winners at the Oscars for the same timeframe show the same pattern: Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker, and how perfect that the genre trend seemingly kicked off by one Batman would be brought to its bloody, depressing pinnacle with another: Zach Snyder’s Batman featured in the DCEU (I’m not saying I want to live in the universe where Batman v Superman won the Best Picture Oscar, but I do want to see what the hell else is going on over there).
As an aside, I want to say I still have no idea why popular culture went in this direction after 9/11. I still remember this cover of TIME:
I can’t find the article, but I do vaguely remember the gist: a predication that after the immediate shock and depression of 9/11 Hollywood would start turning out more LotR-style fantasy as a way for people to escape. Reading that at fifteen years old, it made sense and I was excited to see what sort of high-fantasy and soft narratives we’d be getting in the next decade.
Five or six Bourne movies later…
The Thing Happened That Happens to All Trends: People Got Tired of It
Honestly, you can only take desaturated color palettes, shaky cam, and serious men doing serious things for serious reasons for so long before you start yearning for literally any bit of happiness or hope.
2008’s Iron Man is, I think, one of the first movies that started to buck the gritty realism/grimdark trend. It wouldn’t go away completely in 2008, but it was the beginning. Sure, it’s filmed with a pretty flat color ratio and there’s a Middle Eastern plotline including Tony flying halfway across the world in his suit to personally kill some terrorists. But Tony gets to have his bright red suit (black leather X-Men suits, anyone?), and in the end actually defeats a bigger, uglier, more cynical version of himself. This is what some of the 2010s pop culture would ultimately turn out to be – defeating the cynic. It’s like media spent the better part of a decade doomscrolling and when they finally came back up for air they tossed their phone in the bathtub and put on Yo Gabba Gabba just to see some color.
Realism, cynicism, and edginess are exhausting. Physically, mentally, spiritually. Do you ever see a video of someone angry and screeching in the middle of a Wendy’s and think, ‘God, how tired must they be after keeping up that level of hate?’ It’s good, of course, to stay grounded, but we all occasionally need a break. Movies, television, books, those are supposed to be our breaks, and if they’re ever bleaker than our reality what the fuck are we supposed to do?
And this, finally, leads us to solarpunk: the break from cyberpunk’s cynicism and grimdark’s…grim darkness…that we all needed. The refreshing drink of water after shoving our faces directly into the wasabi. While the term had been mentioned since the late eighties, it really took off in its (still admittedly small) popularity in 2016, tumblr user when missolivialouise made this post describing solarpunk as:
a plausible near-future sci-fi genre, which I like to imagine as based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement to create a world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies, to dress makers and jewelers, and everyone in between. A balance of sustainable energy-powered tech, environmental cities, and wicked cool aesthetics.https://missolivialouise.tumblr.com/post/94374063675/heres-a-thing-ive-had-around-in-my-head-for-a
Look at that. Look how fun their characters are drawn. Look how beautiful and green those cityscapes are. I feel the knots in my neck working themselves out without even having to look at a coupon for Massage Envy. You can tell in the post they’re mostly concerned with describing an art style, but it didn’t take long for people to press solarpunk into an entire fiction genre. Let’s look at the
The Building Blocks of Solarpunk
- A near future that’s very much not a dystopia. While the community may not be perfect, the point of a solarpunk story is that people are capable of coming together for the greater good so often the conflict is not between members of the community, but the community against something else.
- Society has harnessed technology not only as a way to serve the community but also to help either survive against climate change or actually reverse it. These are stories of sharing the technology to save each other instead of fighting over dominance.
- There is a heavy emphasis on green, renewable technology, along with technology inspired by/built with plants/algae/bacteria. The idea of a living city, one that be hurting and dying as much as a human can, is also prevalent.
- The core idea of the setting is less a specific place, but that it’s a community working together to save themselves. Could be a living city, or a commune out in the woods.
- There’s also themes of taking back useless capitalist shit, like turning a golf course into a garden or an airport into a town.
- Protagonists are typically people with something to contribute to the society: scientists, farmers, librarians, etc. Sometimes they aren’t contributing at first, but the lesson of the story then is finding out where they fit in the community.
- Aesthetically, you’re looking at bright colors, lots of flowers, lots of skyscrapers covered in greenery, sort of a hippie-dippie vibe if all the hippies had masters in STEM
- Many of these stories have an inclusive cast, including POC and LGBTQ+ characters. It’s sort of like, well, we’re already here daydreaming about saving ourselves from climate change, might as well add in some tolerance and respect while we’re at it.
- The point of these stories is not ‘we have avoided the climate catastrophe, yippee!’ No, in these stories, climate change definitely happened. The positive thinking of these stories is not that we can keep it from happening, but that there can be something on the other side. It takes work, and cooperation, and usually the collapse of what we know now as ‘society,’ but ultimately the human race can take control of their destiny and their planet back from the, I don’t know, three dozen or so billionaires who are actively trying to set the place on fire while dick-rocketing their way to Mars.
Is Solarpunk Important?
Um. Okay. Why is Solarpunk Important?
Call it climate anxiety, climate depression, climate grief, or climate existentialism, it’s a measurable mental health effect that’s changing the behaviors of millions of Millennials and Gen-Z. Really, how else are you supposed to feel, scrolling through your newsfeed? ‘The Gulf of Mexico is Literally on Fire,’ followed by ‘Gwyneth Paltrow Tells All About Her New Gasses-Only Diet,’ followed by ‘If the President of Brazil Doesn’t Drop of a Heart Attack in Three Days the Amazon Rainforest Will Turn to Ash’ followed by ‘GOP Tells Everyone at CPAC They Love Authoritarianism and Hate Science and ‘The Coloreds’ to a Cheering Crowd, Democrats Frown Slightly In Concern,’ followed by ‘Fifteen Reasons Why Disney is Definitely About to Murder Brie Larson for her Crimes, Written by a Dude who is Definitely Not a Woman Hater,’ followed by ‘Coca-Cola Most Pollutingest Company in the World for the Fifteenth Year in a Row, CEO Promises to do Something About It but He Was Watching a Rick and Morty Episode on His Phone During the Conference and Laughing When He Said It.’
It’s easy to let the, you know, everything of the world drag you down past the usual amount of despair everyone under forty-four feels all the time into straight up nihilism. And I’m not going to be one of those people who says ‘just stop going on social media, you’ll feel better!’ Because you will feel better, right up until you’re in a coffee shop and you catch the bottom scroll on CNN saying something about the moon wobbling and causing new flooding for the next decade and you’re like, ‘okay, cool cool cool, didn’t know about that’ and suddenly you’re having to have a lie down on the floor of this very crowded coffee shop.
Don’t disengage completely. Just engage with a fantasy instead. A fantasy where somehow the people take control of the planet’s health back from the corporations and the dick-rocket billionaires. A beautiful tangent where everyone believes and trusts in the science, and even better uses and applies the science to make the world a little bit better. A lovely daydream where all of humanity understands that climate change is manmade and we can do things about it and then we start to do things about.
It’ll bring your blood pressure down to something approaching textbook, at least for a few minutes.