Solarpunk Your Fantasy
Guest blog by Brandon Crilly
Solarpunk is still a fringe genre, with a body of work that will hopefully get unpacked in depth when I’m older and grayer. It gained traction in Brazil, then North America and Europe, championed by authors and activists in videos like this one. It’s even evolved into offshoots like sertãopunk, a newer subgenre I learned about from Charlie Jane Anders. Seeing it gain popularity (and getting to write in it myself) has been a blast, and part of my focus lately has been spent wondering: can solarpunk fantasy be a thing?
Broadly defined, solarpunk focuses on sustainability and environmentalism, but with notes of decolonization, anti-capitalism, and more. It’s often categorized with hopepunk, but the difference between the two is solarpunk’s intent. Hope and optimism for the future are shown through challenging the status quo, presenting a future where technology or society saves the planet instead of destroying it. Sound a little too rosy? I’d argue it feels that way because we’ve been inundated with grimdark, post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction (and reality, sometimes). But solarpunk isn’t utopian. Humans are still flawed, so conflict is still going to happen, which makes storytelling and worldbuilding in this genre that much more challenging and fun.
Hope + Conflict
Unsurprisingly, most solarpunk lands under science fiction (especially hard SF). Lots of futurism there, sometimes as a direct challenge to grimdark. Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach fits this aesthetic. Even though it’s not explicitly marketed as solarpunk, it presents a world on a steady path of environmental renewal, but with a catch: her protagonist’s long-term restoration work is getting ignored in favor of prospects from time travel. From that, we get our conflict. Becky Chambers’ forthcoming novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built (July 2021), meanwhile, has “solarpunk” right in the marketing copy. In this case, a self-aware robot is on a mission to find out what humans need, but in a world where everyone’s needs appear to be met. What’s the robot to do, if it can’t leave without an answer?
A lot of solarpunk tends to be character-focused, but the conflict still comes from the world. My short story “Pop and the CFT” from Sunvault falls into that category, focusing on the effect of a carbon footprint tax on someone’s estate. How might their family respond to that? Other major solarpunk anthologies follow the same pattern, with stories presenting fixes to real-world crises, but also the complications caused by the fact that humans are … well, human.
Partly because it’s still fringe, solarpunk hasn’t filtered much into fantasy yet, at least in North America. One notable exception is the anthology Wings of Renewal, with the sort of pairing I hadn’t realized I needed: solarpunk and dragons. As editors Claudie Arsenault and Brenda J. Pierson state, dragons “aren’t just a part of nature, they are the embodiment of it,” so naturally they fit a solarpunk aesthetic. Which means solarpunk fantasy is clearly doable, if you step outside the box a bit.
Solarpunk Your Fantasy
If you like the sound of solarpunk (or hopeful fiction in general), here are some ideas to put it in your fantasy.
Let’s examine A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Taking that skeleton and making it more explicitly fantasy wouldn’t involve much. Set it somewhere other than Earth, to start. Add non-humans, or something magical or supernatural to the world (maybe both) and we have science fantasy. Make the robot a clockwork construct, and guess what? Second-world fantasy, with solarpunk aesthetic. (Don’t just carbon copy Becky’s book, though.)
That aesthetic is the key. Your world doesn’t need to be full of tech to embody things like environmental protection or equitable social structure. Solarpunk is about society, too. Instead of clearing an old growth forest to build a town, what if people built around that forest and left it alone? Experiments with urban agriculture today could totally fit in second-world fantasy. Maybe the gods encourage communion with nature instead of supremacy – or even better, we decide that without being told. Instead of placing the person practicing “nature magic” or the community of druids on the fringe, maybe their ideology is the dominant one.
When a fantasy world advances technologically, it tends to mirror our world. Industrialization is seen as inevitable (Joe Abercrombie’s First Law world is a recent example) but it doesn’t need to be. Your world could center on renewables, and not simply a fantasy analog to dilithium. Maybe the air currents are particularly strong, making wind power easier and more ideal. Or the surface is spiderwebbed with fissures used for geothermal power. If you’re thinking “when they find coal or oil, they’ll use it,” make it that fossil fuels don’t exist. Or to be truly solarpunk: have people try them, realize they’re horrible and leave them in the ground.
The challenge, obviously, is that fantasy worldbuilding is based on a lot of tradition. But we’ve been breaking traditions all over the place in SFF. The fact that there’s been more push to see solarpunk in science fiction just means there’s a bunch of new ground to carve in fantasy. Give it a try, and you might end up with something particularly fresh and cool, that also makes people think.
More About Solarpunk:
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon Crilly (he/him) has been previously published by Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, PULP Literature, and other markets. He reviews fiction for BlackGate.com, serves as a Programming Lead for Can*Con in Ottawa and cohosts the podcast Broadcasts from the Wasteland, described as “eavesdropping on a bunch of writers at the hotel bar.” You can find Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.