Does Solarpunk Equal Utopian?

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The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951

I exchanged tweets last week about the cleanliness and political aspects of solarpunk. And I wanted to use this opportunity to add to the dialogue around solarpunk the genre.

By the way, if you haven’t read the working definition I use for my #solarpunk stories please read my interview by Alyssa Watson on @CarbonCultureR. Much of what I’m discussing here refers to my answers there.

Does Solarpunk have to be “squeaky clean?”

On April 6th, Stephan M@stephan4770 Apr 6 said “@SherylKaleo Thank you. I have high hopes for #solarpunk. Quick thot – If we make solarpunk too clean it will never take off.#contrastisking.”

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Nostromo, Alien 1979, Ridley Scott

The difference between solarpunk the genre and solarpunk the movement is an idealistic asthetic. Personally, I believe solarpunk the movement should strive for the best—our cultural goal should be to get to the point where we have bio-friently nanite technology and anti-microbial technology that works to keep our man-inhabited environments in tune with nature.

But to paraphrase Agent Smith in The Matrix—we humans tend to reject perfect human worlds as “too good to be true.” And I would add, especially in our literature and media. We want to immerse ourselves in the fantastic, yes. But first it has to be realistic. The gritty realism of dirty gears and erupting steam is what made the Millenium Falcon and the Nostromo real. Gone are the days of shiny, silver spacesuits as representing advanced technology. Superman in pretty blue and red spandex? Not so realistic. Superman in textured dark blue kevlar-looking fabric? That’s alien technology that makes sense.

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Superman Returns, 2006

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Man of Steel, 2013

But it’s not just that we know now that a honeycomb construct makes for greater tensile strength than a shiny, scratchable sheet of metal. I think what Stephan was also referring to is that every improvement we make has consequences, and those consequences always result in a mess. For example, our first forays into using silver as a self-cleaning surface has yielded destructive side-effects in our environment. Then there are the aspects of what makes us human. How many of us have seen a perfectly clean house and thought that looks nothing like my house. Do we want that perfectly-clean-space-age-glass-everywhere house? Sure. Do we know that the minute it’s ours we’re going to have books and dirty dishes in the sink? Absolutely.

DONOR Part 3: A Silver-Lined Grave -- Police Bot

Police Bot, Donor 2013, Sheryl Kaleo

In Donor, my heroine sees a baseball-sized cleaning bot zap a pigeon that has swooped down to eat a piece of bread in Rockefeller Center. She’s afraid of dropping anything for fear of losing her hand in the same way. And while the New York City of the future is super-clean of litter and fuel emissions, there’s still plenty of other types of pollutants.

Does Solarpunk have to refer to narcissim?

All day and tomorrow@Threadbare Apr 7 said “@SherylKaleo @stephan4770 If the obstacles to a sustainable world are cultural/political, might it yield different problems than narcissism?”

Wikipedia defines http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_neurosis as it was originally applied by Freud as “a range of disorders, including perversion, depression, and psychosis. In the 1920s, however, he came to single out “illnesses which are based on a conflict between the ego and superego.”

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Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man, 1993

When I first wrote my working definition and included the phrase “coupled with a radical change in the social order symptomatic of narcissistic neurosis”, I had in mind the thought that the classic conflict in my solarpunk worlds is man versus man and/or man versus self. Most especially where narcissism breeds this belief of “we know best” which is at the heart of most political systems. Then coupled with the psychotic break that occurs in our inability to come to terms with our human frailties. We humans have very high ideals—oftentimes subjective, opinionated, rigid ideals—and very deep flaws.

But here’s what I’m seeing, the problem with using a word that has it’s own strong meaning in combination with another word that is intended to give it a different nuanced definition, is that original word can overshadow the intent of the phrase. Such is the case with the word narcissism. Obviously a better phrase is needed than narcissistic neurosis. Which brings me back to my original phrase – man in harmony with his environment but in disharmony with himself. Perhaps the definition needs to stop there? Or perhaps stopping there is too ambiguous? Too soon to tell.

The wonderful thing about being at the forefront of a genre and having this dialogue is that there is plenty of room to shape and morph the definition. As such, I’m sure that my definition will evolve with feedback.

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Zardoz, 1974

Does Solarpunk preclude Dystopian societies?

All day and tomorrow@Threadbare Apr 7 also said, “@SherylKaleo @stephan4770 Thinking about Ursula K LeGuin’s ‘The Disposessed’ here…”

Although @Threadbare was speaking more to the issue of narcissim versus utopian constructs like the one in LeGuin’s novel, this question made me pause and consider…Does solarpunk automatically mean the society has to utopian? Or is there room for dystopian societies?

Just because the world is clean and mankind is in harmony with his environment, does that preclude a utopian society? In the examples in the interview, Zardoz, 1974 could definitely be taken for a utopian society. But then again, the government in Demolition Man, 1993 is totalitarian and dystopian.

I guess to answer @Threadbare, I would say that solarpunk to me is man in harmony with nature and the environment, but in disharmony with himself. Whether this disharmony creates conflict in the form of man-versus-man as is the case with political systems, or man-versus-self as is the case with our inability to accept the consequences of being human, this phrase leaves room for both.

Last week I posed the question “#Solarpunk what would you do with www.solarpunk.COM and www.solarpunk.ORG? To vote/signup visit www.sherylkaleo.com/solarpunk/. If you haven’t voted on solarpunk.org and solarpunk.com, please go

Donor Shreya's Chronicles Book 1

DONOR (Shreya’s Chronicles Book 1) 2013 by Sheryl Kaleo

In 2013, I self-published my novel Donor on Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon Author page, and All Romance eBooks.Donor is about a sixteen-year-old girl who discovers that everything she ever knew about her life is a lie. Donor chronicles Shreya’s journey from an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl living in upstate Louisiana to a fugitive on the run from the law, the unlawful, and those beyond any natural laws known to Humankind. For a peek at the series back cover click blurb.

What’s your working definition of Solarpunk?

4 responses to “Does Solarpunk Equal Utopian?

  1. Stephan Malone

    I think that the critical element that will make or break Solarpunk as an emerging genre and/or “the movement” as you call it is as follows. A solarpunk world has to be, for whatever form it manifests, a world that the reader palpably misses when they stop reading the story. While this may be true for almost any fictional environment it is especially true for a fledgling, unproven category.

    Personally I am afraid of the “Disneyfication” of Solarpunk because if that happens, it will never go anywhere. But why? Solarpunk will lose the alluring -punk and simply be something else altogether, maybe “solar utopia” which would be shiny and sparkly and altogether boring to read. Humans are flawed creatures generally striving for perfection. Even the ones who do not fantasize about such things.

    Solarpunk has to be a world that the reader wishes actually existed, right now.
    Solarpunk is populated by flawed humans who learned a lesson in energy gluttony and reformed into a superior (but not perfect) world.
    Solarpunk does not have to be DIsneyworld squeaky clean to work.
    Solarpunk works best, I believe, with hand crafted do-it-yourself ideas and repurposed fabrication, but with a higher aesthetic than junkyard welding.
    No one person or small group can define any genre. It should evolve on it’s own inertia,or die.
    Solarpunk has to be addictive and make the reader wish they could know more about it on their own power, otherwise it will never last.
    You can find lots of small examples of Solarpunk, often in nooks and crannies where you least expect them. For example, I found examples of possible Solarpunk material on Bent Rider Forums where long distance recumbent riders use folding solar panels to charge their lights, radios, bike computers and phones across great distances. http://www.bentrideronline.com/messageboard/index.php
    Solarpunk is not about plants and trees growing on roofs. Visually they look wonderful but from an architectural standpoint this is not a truly sustainable solution. Soil is heavy. And plants are natural building breaker-downers. Not only that, it’s more eco-punk than anything.
    Solarpunk is an attitude but is not well defined yet. Personally I believe that solarpunk should not be preachy, but on the other side can supply ecologic life lessons through quiet example. Like the Amish. Everyone wants to know more about the Amish and how they survive on no electricity or gasoline or oil (which they do) but the Amish do not actively seek out the tourists. Did you ever wonder about that? I have. If the Amish can attract millions of tourists to Lancaster and Holmes counties every year on an advertising budget of zero dollars, then we, the writers can do the same. But we have to be intelligent and prudent.
    For my personal world-building – I envision lots or natural stone and dusty old wood for floors (everything doesn’t have to be like DIsney!,) a post-oil Art Nouveau with modernist abstract inlays but keeping the feminine lines intact. Repurposed devices and materials that are not clunky but make the reader go “that’s cool!” Future devices that are based loosely on technology available today but with stronger functionality. Leather, cloth, bicycles, I think that recumbent “bent” trikes/velomobiles are far too overlooked as a tool for writers and probably have a place in Solarpunk worlds.
    As a final note, I still have no idea what the difference between a nook and a cranny is, so I guess I will Google that now, brb.

  2. Stephan,

    You said…“A solarpunk world has to be, for whatever form it manifests, a world that the reader palpably misses when they stop reading the story. While this may be true for almost any fictional environment it is especially true for a fledgling, unproven category.”

    Really like this and this: “Solarpunk has to be addictive and make the reader wish they could know more about it on their own power, otherwise it will never last.“

    I think we’re well on our way there with the concept of a clean energy world and a future where we don’t die out as a species. Who doesn’t want that here and now? But as writers we have to make it seem real enough to believe it’s possible–real enough to step right into and breathe it in.

    “Personally I am afraid of the “Disneyfication” of Solarpunk because if that happens, it will never go anywhere.”

    On the one hand, I love the grittiness of Firefly. But Star Trek with it’s squeaky clean appearance is still a big hit with this fan. So there is room for both. But I agree, there is something about the “punk” part of solarpunk that begs to be honored. But perhaps the punk part can be honored with attitude. The success of Star Trek might be attributed to the fact that Kirk has always evoked the messy emotions of humanity. It makes sense that the latest reboot started off with him all bloody and bruised from a fistfight.

    “No one person or small group can define any genre. It should evolve on it’s own inertia, or die.”

    I think of it not so much as one person or group defining a genre as many voices building from that first small group. I also think of it as writers influencing each other like Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley that one summer when they each planned to pen a ghost story. Already from your response here, I’ve chuckled at your sensibility regarding plants being destructive, mused at the ecological life lessons of the Amish, and imagined the feel of solar-warmed stone floors in the dead of winter. Trikes are used in a few places in steampunk, but I could well imagine soaring on one in a wind-powered world.

    So I’m grateful to hear the many voices and ready for the influence on my work. Much like the fact that based on @Threadbare’s feedback, I’m thinking of revamping my working definition for very selfish reasons…how will it affect my stories. But that may be because I’m ready to expand–I’ve published one story, am close to finishing another, and have begun work on a third. I’m ready for that third book to have grown different from the first two.

    Thank you for this well thought-out response!

    “As a final note, I still have no idea what the difference between a nook and a cranny is, so I guess I will Google that now, brb.”

    You never came back so I had to go look it up, dammit!

  3. Stephan Malone

    /quote/
    But Star Trek with it’s squeaky clean appearance is still a big hit with this fan. So there is room for both. But I agree, there is something about the “punk” part of solarpunk that begs to be honored.
    /quote/

    Well you know Sheryl, I’m not sure how big of a Star Trek fan you are, and I understand what you are saying but I can say with considerable confidence that the writers who made Star Trek what it was, Gene Roddenberry, DC Fontana, Rick Berman and even JJ Abrams all understood the “hook” of the great Enterprise, and it was this.

    Consider any given episode of Star Trek whether it was the original Cage pilot all the way up to Into Darkness. Within every episode we find the squeaky clean Enterprise, even a brand new ship in a few scripts, and sooner or later “something” (I hate using such a lame word but I’m really tired) happens and the beautiful and shiny, perfectly humming Enterprise is in distress. The poor craft has been shot at, lasered, torpedoed, surrounded by an alien energy net (Tholian Web,) attacked by invisible Klingons and Romulans (mult episodes,) taken over by evil AIs (Borg anyone?) abandoned, scrapped, crashed into a planet, flown into a star and even overrun by Tribbles and salt-sucking aliens. She has been flown apart, blown up, crushed, impaled by other ships and rendered completely inert many, many times. And even when the Enterprise wasn’t directly under attack then Scotty and Sulu were flying her to pieces trying to rescue someone or escape a planet-swallowing machine of Doom or even a singularity.

    So, what happens is that the “shiny” aspect of Star Trek is often referenced without further introspection. The pristine nature of the craft is a good starting point, a beginning, an inertial point of reference for the viewer (or reader) and from there the REAL story begins. If Star Trek were, say, forty-six minutes of the Enterprise flying around at warp six while Uhura polished her go-go boots and Bones was cursing at the food replicator, then chances were that Lucille Ball never would have picked up the pilot and Star Trek would have died back in 1964.

    But it didn’t. It didn’t die because all the creative talent behind the franchise understand two very important things. One – try not to use the word very like I just did in the last sentence and Two – Contrast. Is. King.

  4. Also, as in ST and in other successful sci-fi franchises, contrast is used with attention to detail and symbolic intent. Everything has layers of meaning from the red-blue bruises on Kirk’s face to the on-the-nose white of the storm troopers in Star Wars to the blue police call box in Doctor Who. But I would argue that if Contrast is King, then Conflict is the Galactic Overlord.

    Gotta love the genius that was Lucille Ball.

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