Review | Solarpunk – An Exposition

When I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312 last autumn, I wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it. It was obviously science fiction – with some elements of space opera – but there was something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that separated it from a lot of other sci-fi. It was only a few weeks ago that I finally grasped the missing piece of the puzzle: optimism.

Having just finished a book of short stories and poems called Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation, I now have a term which fits 2312 rather nicely: solarpunk. In fact, in a foreword to Sunvault on the origins of solarpunk, Andrew Dincher claims that 2312 “follows many of the conventions that will be used by solarpunk authors by dealing with environmental justice and imagining a solar system in which humanity has found a way to be responsible with its environment.”

2312 is a very good read, but it meanders quite a lot. The plot is almost subsidiary to simple exhibition, as if to say: look what we could achieve if we put our minds to it, and those achievements are impressive. Cities on Saturn’s moons, hollowed out asteroids that serve as habitats and off-world nature preserves, a city on gigantic tracks on Mercury that keeps forever just ahead of the infernally dangerous dawn. Some of the most impressive parts of the novel are the interludes between chapters, crafted like future history or science book snippets, that colour in the narrative’s vivid world. The plot is merely a vehicle for all of this, and the characters are barely relatable, let alone likeable.

For all its flaws, 2312 is still a very good book, if for nothing more than its refreshingly optimistic vision of the future. Which brings us onto the Sunvault collection.

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Far from a mere inversion of science fiction’s firmly established dystopian subgenre, solarpunk is more nuanced than simply eliminating the dys and replacing it with a u. In fact, most of the stories in the collection occur after one global catastrophe or another; the victories tend to be little while the apocalypses are still large. Such is the trajectory into which the modern world is locked it’s easier, even in fiction, to let it crumble and start over again rather than trying to fix its many existing problems. If this doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about how the future will look, as we’re currently ploughing towards it, then nothing will.

The opening story is called “The Boston Hearth Project” by T.X. Watson and sets the tone perfectly for the stories to come. It’s written in the guise of a job application answering the question, “When have you worked well as part of a team?” The narrator describes his role with a team of eco-hacktivists that takes control of a faceless corporation’s “fifteen-story Art Deco revival temple with a custom-engineered closed ecosystem” in Boston. Their goal is to turn it over indefinitely to the city’s homeless so that they can survive the harsh winters.

The narrator acts as a kind of remote videogame player, guiding his fellow eco-hacktivist as she breaks into the heavily secured building thanks to her gymnastics and parkour prowess, and takes control of its nerve centre. It’s a brilliant, thrilling read, involving budding technologies like augmented reality and tiny surveillance drones. It reads like a cross between Mission Impossible and Metal Gear Solid, which is so good a thing it made me exceptionally happy.

It was nice to see the hi-tech spy trope used in the service of environmental activism, rather the usual James Bond nonsense we’re used to. This is a bold story precisely because it hits on the uses to which these kinds of technologies can be put if turned on their impersonal corporate creators and painted a shade of green: “The building was our weapon as well as our hostage. We let riot cops crowd into the first doorways and set the heat to 115.”

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After a two-month siege, with the group’s PR team working tirelessly to make negotiations viable, the building is formally recognised as “The Boston Hearth Homeless Shelter”, with the result “a 92 percent drop in deaths by exposure in Boston this winter.” Encouragingly, in this not-too-distant future, “New York and Portland have both turned over building projects to activists for fear of facing another hostile takeover.”

This is one instance where I would absolutely love to see life imitating art. The story serves as such a wonderful start to the collection because it showcases the kind of radical positive change that’s possible right now. Most of the rest of the stories, in contrast, take place “After the Goldrush”, as Neil Young put it, which is incidentally a perfect musical accompaniment to Sunvault.

There’s not a bad short story or poem between the book’s two covers; editors Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Christopher Wieland certainly did an excellent job in selection and arrangement. That isn’t to say, however, that some aren’t better than others; there are a few absolute gems in Sunvault. “The Death of Pax” by Santiago Belluco is an ethereal, imaginative tale about a human who enters a symbiotic relationship with an alien being the size of a continent. “Last Chance” by Tyler Young follows a teacher in an underground facility where children are led to believe that the world above them has been destroyed, only to learn when they turn 16 that it hasn’t. “The Reset” by Jaymee Goh uses a 30-year leap back in time to forewarn humanity of the error of its ways, with a host of attendant side-effects.

The last story in Sunvault is a masterpiece of the craft, regardless of genre. “A Catalogue of Sunlight at the End of the World” by A.C. Wise can perfectly be summed up by a Neil Young lyric: “Flying mother nature silver seed to a new home in the sun.” About halfway through reading the collection I happened to be listening to After the Goldrush, and was struck by how seamlessly book and album fit together. I cannot recommend the pairing highly enough.

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The narrator of “A Catalogue of Sunlight at the End of the World” is a widower who’s chosen to remain on a dying earth, while his children and grandchildren take off on a mass exodus to the stars. He speaks to his late wife throughout: “I’ll choose the time and place of my death, when I’m ready, and I want it to be here on Earth with you.”

The widower is recording his memories of sunlight from various times and places on earth for his descendants, before humanity leaves forever, “A little something to take with them into the cold and the dark.” At the time of the exodus, Svalbard, June 21st 2232, “There isn’t a cloud in the sky to cut it, no breeze to stir it off our skins.” The area around the Svalbard Seed Vault is one of the few habitable places left on the planet.

This is a deftly emotional, exceptionally well written story that serves as a poignant counterbalance to the opening one. “The Boston Hearth Project” shows us what we can do in the here and now, and “A Catalogue of Sunlight at the End of the World” shows us what may have to happen if we don’t do enough in time. I tip my hat to the editors on their choice of these opening and finishing stories; I can’t imagine a better selection.

Solarpunk as a subgenre is exciting and still in its infancy but looks genuinely promising if these authors are anything to go by. Their stories, while they do contain their share of disasters, are about as far as you can get in style and substance from the likes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which can only be a good thing, in my estimation. If you have any interest at all in science fiction or environmentalism – hell, even if you don’t – do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Sunvault and check out the budding solarpunk communities online.


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