Solarpunk: The Fiction of the Future

There are limitless options for storytelling, if you set your mind to it. Have you ever wondered what the future might be like? And I am not talking about the future of tomorrow or next week; I’m talking about the future of our species, our civilization; our world.

Solarpunk: The Fiction of the Future
Photo by Fas Khan / Unsplash

Have you ever wondered what the future might be like? And I am not talking about the future of tomorrow or next week; I’m talking about the future of our species, our civilization; our world.

I think about this a lot because it’s my job. Being a science fiction writer has some obvious perks. But, of course, the world of the imaginitive tomorrow is vastly varied. When we look to the realities around us, now, it seems like the future is wide open with possibilities, both profoundly good and disturbingly horrible.

Right now, technological ability is increasing at an incredible pace (especially when you think that, just a century ago, the wireless radio was still newfangled). Scientists are working to synthesize the human genes with viral resistances (with an eye to the near future when it may be possible to create entire humans… artificially.) Mars and NEOs (Near Earth Objects) are becoming, rapidly, more than a source for study — they are becoming destinations on the widening roadmap of our species’ expansion; stepping stones for our exploration into the unknown.

The things which were, fifty years ago, utter science fiction, are now being realized in labs all over the world — and all through the public sphere as well. Star Trek envisioned a future of “faster than light” travel (a NASA department is currently considering the possibility of warp drive) and handheld communication and scientific devices of awesome power (cell phones are fulfilling the role of communicators, “tricorder” technology advances every year, and universal translators are slowly becoming feasible). It’s a beautiful time to be alive.

It is also a terrifying time to be alive. Global climate change, far from being a hoax or Hollywood construct, threatens to alter the face of our planet within the next century. Already, massive changes are taking place — though these cannot always be felt at home. Soon, however, the changes will become intimate, and far more deadly. Plagues are a possibility, too — with superbugs rapidly proliferating as immunity falls and antibacterial agents cease to be effective. Science tells us that the solar system is within our grasp, but economists bicker over the price. Nuclear weapons — while reduced significantly in number — still exist in stockpiles large enough to reduce the crust of our Mother Earth to so much heated, radioactive, slag. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, featuring some of the brightest minds our species has to offer, has placed us only two minutes away from “Midnight” on their global “Doomsday Clock,” a visual metaphor for how likely a civilization-ending catastrophe currently is.

Given this, looking ahead might be difficult. What is there to look forward to? Well, that’s the question which the science fiction movement called Solarpunk is trying to ask.

Perhaps this is why so much science fiction these days is mired in doomsday scenarios. The cultural zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) is one of deep unsettlement; deep fear. And that makes sense. The last two generations grew up within a changing global landscape. Wars grew in size and destruction, the power of our weapons dramatically increased; economic and humanitarian injustices perpetrated in the name of every “-ism” under the sun, from Marxism to Capitalism, have caused mass hierarchical stagnation and stratification. The rich get richer while the poor become powerless. Through the decades where the hysteria of the Cold War loomed over the planet, the risk of atomic war very intimate and very real, every citizen of the planet (including most of our parents) lived within a shadow of imminent destruction and catastrophe (as your parents or grandparents about “duck and cover” sometime). My generation, and those younger than me, have inherited this generational fear, even as we have acquired new ones all our own.

Given all this, looking ahead might be difficult. What is there to look forward to?

Well, that’s the question which the science fiction movement called Solarpunk is trying to ask. While much of the mainstream science fiction revels in increasing gloom (the new Star Trek was literally, as well as figuratively, overwhelmed with darkness), Solarpunk tries to imagine brighter futures — ones where the major problems of the world today have been solved through wonderful social shifts, moral growth, and technological empowerment — or the paths to get to a brighter future.

Some Solarpunk stories deal with characters in modern times who are trying to fight back against the “powers that be” primarily the corporate ones (capitalism is generally not the hero in Solarpunk tales). These Solarpunk protagonists hack power grids to provide free energy to the poor, build intersectional unions to defend against the agents of the matrix, and lead the way into space for the betterment of all peoples — not the stockholders. Other stories are set farther ahead at a time where the modern world issues are gone; cities have gone “green,” and feature skyscrapers covered in oxygen-producing moss, bio-luminescent trees light the streets where electric vehicles slip silently by; massive bio-domes in orbit provide the departure point for vast flotillas of exploration and scientific craft to the inner and outer Solar System; political decisions are no longer based around power or profit, but what is genuinely good for the world.

I am fascinated with these stories for multitudinous reasons, chief of which is that it’s good to see a vision of the future where humanity has managed to work out some of its kinks. But another thing interests me, too. These stories force us to consider a greater variety of problems. The same old “apocalypse has come” tale is getting old and overused — the dystopian precipice, upon our modern age currently balances, is real enough, and we will either face the challenges we are presented with or we won’t; we will either make the world better or we’ll die in the attempt.

Critics of these stories ask the question “how can you create a story like that? There would be no sense of urgency!” I see this as a sign of a poor imagination. Just because you can only imagine stories where the drama hangs on current-world dynamics, that does not preclude the possibility that such stories exist. Worse, is when such critics assume that stories which try to deal in an optimistic view of the future must be somehow inferior to those which take a dark, tragic, and highly-dramatized perspective of events to come.

Being optimistic about the future is not a weakness.

For one thing, the stories we write about the future don’t need to be utopian, either, they can just be positive in the sense that the struggles of the current world are gone — the will always be new dramas unfolding in the human continuum. But, we need to envision futures where greed and mindless consumerism are not the norm. Where, through education, philosophical shifts, and advanced renewable technology, humanity (as a whole) lives in relative harmony with one another and the environment.

There are limitless options for storytelling, if you set your mind to it. Just because we’re focusing on a positive future doesn’t mean that drama can’t exist, or that conflict is completely eliminated from the narrative. It just means you, the writer, must work harder to puzzle out how to build tension within your story or uncover the source of the drama the protagonist must encounter.

But what does happen next, if we do manage to bring about a true golden age for humanity? People are complex and, no matter the technological and civic advancements we make, there will still be the sheer overwhelming state of simply being alive to contend with. So, in a bright Solarpunk future, we are forced to begin looking at the possibilities in a new way. As a storyteller and science fiction writer, I find this irresistible; as a hopeful futurist and utopian dreamer, I look to these stories as an example of the limitless optimism of my fellow human beings. I read these stories, look to the future, and think “Yes, we can make it. Yes, we can change our ways. Yes, we can at least envision possibilities more varied than our own destruction.” And, if we can envision them through our wonderful imaginations, perhaps they can one day become realized fact.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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