by Ariel Kroon
What do cyber-proles, multi-species relations, and energy abundance have in common?
Some of you may be familiar with the name Andrew Dana Hudson, since his 2015 essay “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk,” is still recommended to the solarpunk-curious as a must-read, as it helped define and grow the subgenre.
He is both a writer of speculative fiction and an academic researcher in sustainability—as well as a futurist on top of it all. His stories have appeared in Slate Future Tense, Lightspeed Magazine, Vice Terraform, MIT Technology Review, Grist, and many more. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the BSFA, and translated into Italian. In 2016 his story “Sunshine State” won the first Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest, and in 2017 he was runner up in the Kaleidoscope Writing The Future Contest. He is a member of the cursed 2020 class of the Clarion Workshop.
Andrew has a master’s degree in sustainability from Arizona State University, where he is an Imaginary College Fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination. He has previously worked in journalism, political consulting, and healthcare innovation. He also teaches yoga and serves as editor-in-chief of Holum Press, which publishes Oasis, a Phoenix-based journal of anticapitalist thought.
His first book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures is out April 2022 from Fordham University Press. We sat down with Andrew to chat about his forthcoming novel, solarpunk futures and writing.
SM: Can you tell us how you got into solarpunk originally?
ADH: Like a lot of people, I got into it by reading about the concept and feeling it light up a huge swath of speculative possibility in my brain. In 2015, I stumbled upon Adam Flynn’s “Notes Towards a Manifesto,” and it really hit home as describing something I had wanted but hadn’t quite known how to ask for. It turned out I knew Adam—he was roommates with a good friend of mine—and so I reached out and struck up a conversation. I wrote my own essay, “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk,” that tried to put forth some advice for the slightly-younger-than-me Tumblr users I saw playing with the genre. Then Adam and I decided to put our money where our mouth was and write some actual solarpunk fiction for Arizona State University’s first climate fiction contest. Amazingly, our story “Sunshine State” won the contest. It was the first piece of fiction I’d written in years, but beginner’s luck is a hell of a drug. I decided to keep pursuing this line of thinking and creativity, going to grad school at ASU and making speculative fiction my career. Seven years later I’m now in too deep to stop!
Really, like a lot of science fiction, the book is more about the present than the future, trying to capture the many facets of our climate politics.
SM: Your writing, especially nonfiction, has been pretty influential for the genre, but we want to know what prompted you to write a solarpunk novel, now?
ADH: This book started off as my master’s thesis, so in a way it’s been in the works since 2017. Since I had a university at my disposal, I wanted to write some rigorous climate fiction based on actual scholarly models. Problem was, I’m not actually that interested in the scientific minutiae of greenhouse gasses and radiative forcing and so on. I’m interested in politics and culture. So the models I found most interesting were the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (the SSPs) that the IPCC was using to think through the entanglements between economics, demographics, emissions, and so on. I decided to write a book that tried to talk about the future of climate politics through the lens of these five scenarios, some of which are more hopeful than others.
There is a very optimistic sustainable scenario, full of community and open-hearted kindness and capitalist power fading to a bad memory. But there’s also a scenario of overclocked consumerism, another of neo-feudal inequality, and a third of persistent military conflict and global breakdown. And a middle-of-the-road scenario in which, like today, we slowly make some progress but never, ever enough.
So in many ways the result, Our Shared Storm, isn’t that solarpunk at all. It focuses on the culture of the UN climate negotiations—aka The COP—and so most of the main characters aren’t punks at all, but rather technocrats striding the halls of power. But though they aren’t in center frame, I think it’s possible to see that solarpunks are working in the background of each of these scenarios, even the darkest ones.
Really, like a lot of science fiction, the book is more about the present than the future, trying to capture the many facets of our climate politics. The COP is a place of diplomatic palm-greasing and shoulder-rubbing and flirtation, the way I depict it in the opening story. But it also is a trade fair, and a place for hashing out disputes amongst our ruling class, and an already-failed endeavor, dutifully recording our descent into the hothouse. And it’s a marshalling of incredible imagination, full of efforts to radically rethink human life for the better. All of these at the same time, vying to define our future.
That, I think, is what drew me to this project and kept me at it long enough to see it published: the desire to try to wrestle the hugeness of the problem, called sometimes “everything change” or the polycrisis, without reducing it to one singular cataclysm, the way dystopian and apocalyptic science fiction sometimes does. In that way I think the novel is very solarpunk indeed.
…now that we’re here, most of us don’t get to be cyberpunks, like cool hackers or badass mercs. Most of us are cyber-proles, living under the bootheel of the platforms, the algos, the plutocrats.
SM: We’re curious to know, what does a solarpunk future look like, to you?
ADH: I usually try to avoid using the phrase “solarpunk future.” It feels imprecise, since to me “-punk” implies a focus on the margins or the counterculture. If that vision defines the future—wins cultural or political hegemony—it stops being marginal. In other words, if everyone is a punk then no one is. It’s a bit of a pedantic distinction, since obviously we can look at cyberpunk and say “wow, metaverse, techno-megacorps, surveillance/police state, environmental ruin…we’re really living in the cyberpunk future, aren’t we?” The problem is: now that we’re here, most of us don’t get to be cyberpunks, like cool hackers or badass mercs. Most of us are cyber-proles, living under the bootheel of the platforms, the algos, the plutocrats. That’s kind of what happens when you build the future to create the counterculture, instead of building the counterculture to create the future.
All of which is to say that, for me, “solarpunk future” =/= “ideal sustainable utopia.” For me a solarpunk future is one in which the climate crisis is escalating, institutions are failing, late capitalism is getting even more precarious and putrid, and while technologies of sustainability might be becoming ubiquitous, we haven’t yet managed to fully phase out the toxic old for the green new. It’s a future (slash present!!) in which we need a movement of solarpunks to shove us onto a better path; to demand a more radical/holistic/just transition; to push the technocultural envelope on renewable energy via ingenuity and play; to give us alternative models of governance/family/school/work/care; and to generally use imagination and hope to resist and beat back the rising tides of denial, delay, despair and profiteering. What that movement looks like, what the punks are up to in this future-present that would be cool and useful—that’s what I’m interested in.
Solarpunk also seems to me a bridge toward a future of energy abundance.
The solarpunk path definitely isn’t the quickest or most painless way through the civilizational bottleneck we’re in. That would probably be something like a global Green New Deal—a majoritarian turn toward swift decarbonization via massive public spending, undertaken by a mobilized working class. I think that would look somewhat different than solarpunk’s plucky counterculture. Unfortunately for all of us, the GND path is looking less likely than one of protracted cultural struggle in which the imagination is a major battlefield and solarpunks are necessary to prefiguratively prove that a better, greener world is possible.
What does the other side of that look like? For one, it’s probably a future with a lot of people adjusting the rhythms and incentives of solar power. Maybe we have great batteries and big energy storage projects, or maybe we learn to use energy a bit differently depending on the times of day and the weather patterns, living high-tech when it’s sunny and lo-tek when it’s not. Do we sleep more soundly in that scenario? Could we embrace getting kicked off our screens and devices when the sun goes down? Maybe our economic and social structures could take on greater seasonality, like our ancient ancestors probably had.
Solarpunk also seems to me a bridge toward a future of energy abundance. It’s funny, given how much solarpunk is (wonderfully) influenced by crusty degrowthers and permacultural downshifters, but it’s possible that if we keep building renewables the way we’re projected to over the next decade or so, we might end up with access to way more energy than human beings have ever had to work with (at least during the day). What do we do with that? Those electrons have to go somewhere. Well, we’ll need a lot of energy to remove a Lake Michigan’s worth of carbon out of the atmosphere, in order to stabilize the climate and roll back ocean acidification. Call that Big Chemistry. But probably there’s room for Big Computation and Big Culture as well. If solar energy becomes cheaper than free, how does that broaden our artistic ambitions? And what does that sometimes-post-scarcity mindset mean for how we treat each other?
All these are live questions I see solarpunk being able to explore. I’m resisting talking about one single “solarpunk future” because none of it will be “evenly distributed,” even if we succeed.
SM: Do you have any favorite themes you find yourself returning to over and over in your writing?
ADH: I think a few of my preoccupations come through in the answers above: politics, counterculture, class struggle, the choices we make regarding our technological culture, what it’s like to be a “cyberprole.” I also have several stories preoccupied by multispecies relations and politics, particularly involving elephants, and that’s a theme I intend to return to in a semi-planned novel project.
Readers can get a copy of Andrew Dana Hudson’s new novel Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures from most book retailers, as well as through the publisher’s site and on Amazon. He would love it if folks who are library power users would have their local library branch order a copy so that lots of people can check it out.
Ariel Kroon (she/her) is a settler-Canadian academic, who lives and works on the Haldimand Tract, the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Neutral peoples. She is a nonfiction co-editor at Solarpunk Magazine, and blogs occasionally at arielkroon.wordpress.com.