Science fiction, being fiction, is often filled with outlandish ideas. From faster-than-light speed starships, human-like aliens, or handy laser pistols, sci-fi is full of the impossible, improbable, and the impractical. But let’s look at an idea that may actually be within the realm of what’s possible.
Renewable energy technology in on the rise to replace the fossil-fuel burning technologies of the last century, and this can create a world of green tech and solar panels, which fits nicely into the science fiction sub-genre of solar punk.
The Basic Premise: Solar punk is a sub-genre of science fiction that imagines a world where green technology and ecologically sustainable practices are ubiquitous.
Relations to Other Punks
One of the most iconic original progenitor sci-fi sub-genres is cyber punk. It set the precedent for several other sci-fi sub-genres that followed, by presenting a grittiness, aesthetic tone, and focus on the ubiquitous spread and impact of a particular branch of advancing technologies. In the case of cyber punk this was a combination of consumer electronics, cyborg body augmentation, and computers, and the anti-establishment punk culture that was gaining visibility at the time it emerged. Since then, the template of cyber punk has been applied to other speculative fiction settings that focus on one technology or another, steam punk being the next biggest punk sub-genre, focusing on steam-powered devices rather than cybernetics. Others followed: clock punk, diesel punk, atom punk, nano punk, and bio punk, among many branches of technology and their possible affects on the society they control. Each suggests a world ruled by a kind of technology, and each is gritty.
Solar punk, as one can guess from the name, suggests that its core technology is solar-based: solar panels, renewable energy sources, and recycled materials. Unlike cyber punk, however, solar punk is decidedly not pessimistic, mostly rejecting the inherent punk rejections of mainstream social values. The term cyber-prep is sometimes used to describe a cyber punk setting whose characters are members of the establishment many punk character fight against, and describes a world that is overall less gritty and low-life. Perhaps solar-prep could describe the solar punk mentality, which is ultimately optimistic.
It’s About Optimism
One of the main purposes of technologies is to increase the agency of its creators and users. Whether it’s individuals or societies, people have problems in reaching their wants and needs, and technology is a way to secure those wants and needs, usually with more sophistication and complexity but also with less effort and time on the end of the user. Furthermore, this utility does not need to come at the expense of the environment. Solar punk embraces this idea: “let’s use the technology we have and can develop”, solar punk says, “to make the world a place that’s better than it was”. Solar punk seeks to include everyone, from all backgrounds and in all forms, from the preppy elite to the downtrodden outcasts, from all skin colors and across the LGBTQ and ableness spectrums.
Just because it is optimistic, however, does not mean it is not pragmatic, nor blind to negativity. The future will have to deal with climate change, wide income disparities, and nationalistic clashes. But unlike other science fiction that despairs at these parts of life in the world, solar punk steps up to the challenge and shows a vision to the audience of what shape the future could take: if not sunny and verdant, then at least inclusive and progressive in addressing the problems humanity faces.
And visual aesthetics is a large part of the genre. Since it is relatively recent it benefits from the spread of mass-media websites, with inspired artists creating pictorial, architectural, and fashion designs that help create a cohesive visual language that makes it possible for someone to say, “this looks like it fits into solar punk”. This post, which might have started the genre, gives one a good idea of its foundations. A Google image search can also readily show you what I mean; however not everything in such concept art would be considered plausible in real life (such any flying cars or over-sized mega-structures you might see), so take such a sampling with a grain of salt regarding where it’s a future we could have.
Foreground Tech, Background Tech
One of the complications with solar punk, as with many kinds of science fiction that relies on certain kinds of technology, is the ways that you show the audience the things that are in the world. Consider: in a cyber punk world, a character may have cybernetic replacements implanted into their body. Showing that they have an unusual eye by displaying to the audience the mechanical pupil and iris is one way to communicate “cyborg”, as would showing an obvious mechanical arm. But if the character has a cybernetic heart (or other useful but internal organ) then that is not as easy to show, even if it is a more commonplace item in the setting. Solar punk faces a similar issue: having solar panels on every roof and wind turbines throughout the skyline can be one way to communicate eco-friendliness, but many other kinds of technologies are hidden. Suppose a car runs on grown biofuels rather than fossil fuels, or that the sidewalks are made from recycled plastics matter rather than concrete; other than having a character mention those facts, how can the audience know they exist?
For solar punk some foreground, or visible, technologies could include obvious photovoltatics like solar roadways, arcologies and local vertical farms, mass transit systems, urban planning of cities, and wind farms. Some background, or invisible, technologies could include artificial meat, alternative fuels (such as a hydrogen economy), the use of biodegradable materials (such as bio-plastics), and a smart electrical power grid. Much of the technologies of solar punk are systemic or behavioral, especially in infrastructure and material culture, which beyond shape and structure does not always obviously display its ecologically-minded nature, and is thus difficult for the audience to readily know that it fits or that it’s there.
The Good …
Naturally a future that is ecologically sustainable for indefinite periods of time is preferable to our current economy reliant on non-renewable resources that are finite and which damage the environment. Not enough positive things can be said about such a future: a transition off fossil fuels and into one powered by clean energy will not only help to mitigate the worsening haste of climate change, but provide for future generations to come.
Solar punk is about inclusiveness – as mentioned before, this is counter to the punk sub-genre core of rebel outcasts opposing a powerful technocratic plutocracy. In solar punk, everyone contributes, and while not Utopian it certainly brings us one step closer than the real world does, and at least two steps closer than nearly any other -punk genre one may care to name.
The Bad …
Although perhaps a pleasant place to live for many, solar punk, with its progressive adoption of new technologies and under-represented minority groups, may be off-putting to some conservatives. Many solar punk settings incorporate elements of Asian, Indian, and African cultures; to communities of ethnic groups who wish to preserve their culture against globalization, this premise could seem off-putting.
Solar punk worlds and stories could introduce technologies that are contentious: not only is there the known and substantial ecological footprint with the mass-production of solar panels, but there is also the sticky mess of geoeingeering. If we begin using emerging technologies with an awareness of how they impact the climate and biosphere, we may begin purposefully modifying those things to suit one set of needs or another. Who gets to decide which regions should get more rain or less? Which areas become cooler or warmer? And despite the best available data and best intentions, how damaging a mistake could it be when we get it wrong? These are issues society will have to address as the technical ability emerges.
In some solar punk there is also a return to artisan hand-crafts. In modern times this mode of manufacturing has been abandoned in favor of mass-production for a good reason: economies of scale drive down prices, making the hand-crafts economies perhaps unsustainable at city-wide scales (then again, I’m neither an entrepreneur nor an economist, so I may be wrong in this thinking).
… And The Weird
Solar punk, despite having an implied limitless supply of clean energy running things in the background, seems to focus on artistic aesthetics rather the practical. It looks pretty and may feel good, but there’s no guarantee that everything works well. What sort of a society could there be when ecology and visual arts are put front and center? Which other parts of life, in the limited attention span of the populace, gets swapped out and (largely) ignored, such as automation, advocating for privacy, or national defense? There’s nothing that excludes a solar punk society from tackling these issues too, but what if, in the pursuit of all things green, these or other values opposite to solar punk’s got left behind?
Solar punk is still a young genre at the time of writing. Beyond concept art and a few discussions (like this one) I haven’t found many recent interesting works of fiction that concretely belong in solar punk. But I would like to! Compared to the grit of other punk worlds from decades past, solar punk may give us a vision of this decade’s hope for the future – and, for a change, it might be one that’s a pleasure to live in.