What Do We Mean By ‘Solarpunk and Anti-Dystopianism’?

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We’re mashing up some interests for our April open call for short fiction, and are finding the intersection of ecology and anti-authoritarianism to be fresh, fertile — and, while not necessarily utopian, nonetheless full of hope for a better world.

Let’s open this salvo with a look at “solarpunk,” a rather vivacious contemporary speculative-fiction subgenre that I will attempt to define as essentially optimistic and extremely vernacular. By this I mean that it is popular and public: It’s not sacred literary canon. Lots of people are doing it, and they’re doing it their way.

There isn’t really any authorial or publishing power that enforces solarpunk’s styles and tropes on behalf of a targeted market segment. It’s simply a vehicle for imagining better futures, centered around ecological themes in speculative fiction.

Solarpunk is also refreshing because it engages with the anti-authoritarianism of its suffix more generously and, dare I say it, more effectively, than its hyphenated literary forebears.

By this reading, the original “-punk” subgenre of speculative fiction (cyber) may have been stylistically rebellious — wildly imaginative, edgy about boundaries, aggressively glamorous — but not necessarily any more anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment than the socially and politically transgressive works that speculative literature has been producing since at least the New Wave of the 1960s (and, frankly, much earlier).

At its best, cyberpunk was more than just a look — but as trends swell and ebb, literary revolution can become literary fashion, at which point it risks losing its relevance and becoming just a pose.

Looks are fine, but the substance counts.

And so I’m also unsure that subsequent spec-lit punk permutations achieved much more than a look, a setting, a trope.

Is “steampunk” more than Victorian drag and funky goggles? Is “biopunk” anything other than grimdark/dystopian medical horror juiced up with some sci-fi trappings?

And so on for any new -punk subgenre. If all it means is an edgy attitude and a little subcultural style, I dunno.

Solarpunk, on the other hand, with its generalized interest in better futures, is actually anti-authoritarian, is actually anti-establishment, because it deliberately confronts the climate-catastrophism and surging illiberalism of humanity’s present and foreseeable future.

That’s the official, authoritative future of so much of our actual politics and global economy. It’s the Establishment. It’s the war in Ukraine, spreading beyond its borders. It’s the politics of strongmen, with their cynical othering and scapegoating as a means of consolidating power. It’s rapacious capitalism, devouring natural resources and shitting out heat death and diarrhetic poverty.

It’s grimdark. It’s dystopian. It fucking sells. It sells airtime, it sells newspapers, it sells books, it buys votes, it issues fat paychecks to all the sicko demagogues, pundits and “influencers” who are so deepy invested in the propagation of fear and hatred.

In an earlier essay we quoted Alexandra Rowland, who noted that “the opposite of grimdark is hopepunk”; and in those six words she gave the -punk suffix something way more substantive than style to stand on. Finally, spec-lit punk is actually opposed to something, and more than that, it has purpose, intention, and energy.

Solarpunk, like the more broad-based hopepunk, has that purpose, intention and energy. It feels incredibly fresh and opportune for writers and readers alike. It may or may not have a style and aesthetic, and that’s just fine.

This makes, I think, solarpunk more akin to an ethos than a style, and one that reaches for utopianism, or is at least anti-dystopian.

Utopianism is tricky terrain for a number of reasons: It literally means “nowhere,” and utopian ideas and visions are therefore easily dismissed as impractical and unachievable.

And in practice, those visions of perfect societies have not always worked out so well: Hitler’s Third Reich was utopian, as was Pol Pot’s Year Zero.

Yet we still need better stories to tell, because the Establishment narrative of humanity’s future is, right now, deeply invested in the grimdark and the dystopian.

According to the official transcript, that future’s gonna be climate-changed and ecologically devastated, hollowed out by rampant consumer-capitalism, divided and conquered by identity politics and culture wars, in the doomscrolling sway of illiberal demagogues who bring big audience numbers to profiteering mass media, with nationalism firing up military fervor, race-warrior militias closing ranks at the fringes, and oligarchs feeding at the trough.

Solarpunk, or whatever you want to call it, has an anti-dystopian streak to it that is decidedly anti-establishment, and altogether punk at its most real and relevant.

However you do it, we want to read it.

[Fabulist Magazine submissions for short fiction are open through April 8.]

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