What Sets Solarpunk Apart? Alternative vs Possible Futures

Various literary punk genres share much in common. That’s probably to be expected from a laundry list of genres that purposefully share the same suffix in their titles. That suffix also gives us a fairly transparent insight into some of those shared traits.

The rebellious anti-authoritarianism associated with punk culture is likely the first thing that jumps into most minds. Indeed, it’s probably the single most prevalent thread of commonality running throughout genres like steampunk, cyberpunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, and solarpunk to name just a few. Another shared trait is the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings so common, if not essential to punk literature.

Apocalyptic settings, however, are also a point at which solarpunk—a new kid on the block among punks—diverges from its predecessors. It’s not that solarpunk stories lack apocalyptic components. They are, in fact, quite often set in post-apocalyptic futures. However, apocalypse is the starting point for solarpunk futures, not the endpoint. This difference will be addressed further in later articles. For now, it’s enough to recognize that solarpunk is much more concerned with solutions and moving from apocalypse toward utopia, whereas other punk genres are happy to live and remain in dystopian worlds.

The place of divergence I want to focus on in this article lies in the type of futures the assorted punk genres imagine. I’m not talking about the dystopia-utopia dichotomy mentioned briefly above, or the associated optimism-pessimism spectrum. Rather, I’m referring to the difference between alternative futures on the one hand, and possible futures on the other.

Many of the most popular punk genres deal in alternative futures. These are futures that exist because something in the past is tweaked, added, removed, done differently, which causes our past to develop differently from the history we know. Steampunk is a good example to start with, both for the clarity of the example itself and because it’s one of the more well-known and mainstream punk aesthetics.

Steampunk stories take place in alternative worlds that begin by looking back to a time before electricity, principally the Victorian era, and then proceed to imagine futures where electricity never developed. As a result, technologies based on steam power and mechanization that were prevalent in the decades preceding electrification continued to advance, and a futuristic Victorian aesthetic based on mechtech suc as clock gears developed. 

Similarly, dieselpunk looks back to the time of the early-mid twentieth century, and in particular takes the aesthetics and political conflicts of WWI, WWII, and the interwar period as its launching pad. The genre then uses technology of that era to imagine an alternative future to the one that developed, the one in which we live today. 

Cyberpunk—the most well-known punk genre along with steampunk—and similar genres such as nanopunk and biopunk don’t look back quite as far into the past. They look to the near-past and even the present for their technological and aesthetic inspiration in creating dystopian futures for rebels to resist against.  

Solarpunk, on the other hand, is different. Rather than looking to the past and reimaging history into alternative futures, solarpunk looks directly into the future in search of something brighter. Solarpunk stories don’t imagine worlds based on what things might have been like—or what they might be like in the future—if X, Y, or Z had been done differently in the past. Instead, solarpunk accepts that we live in a dystopia already, and imagines how to get out of it based on current, real, and imagined, future possibilities. In this way, solarpunk deals in possible futures, not alternative futures.

Solarpunk starts right here and now, in the present day real world. It looks into the future and recognizes that without an abrupt change of course, the tomorrow we face is so bleak that if we’re to have any future worth imagining or fighting for, then it has to be a better, more hopeful and optimistic future. Solarpunks acknowledge and take as a given that together, we have the collective power to defeat global fossil fuel empires, corrupt governments, and steer the world onto a different path. We insist that we can solve, or at least creatively and productively adapt to climate change. Solarpunks realize that the future we create together can’t just be about fighting to tear down the corrupt and negative. It must be a future that builds toward something positive, and that fosters harmony rather than conflict between technology, humanity, and nature.

Possible futures are endless. Let’s demand utopia now, and build a solarpunk future together.


Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.

Published by Solarpunk Magazine

Creating a new and better world through speculative literature.

One thought on “What Sets Solarpunk Apart? Alternative vs Possible Futures

Leave a Reply to Bob Freeman Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: