Solarpunk is a Hothouse Tomato
by Michael J. DeLuca
The past—the reader’s and the writer’s individual past, in all its wondrous variety—informs the future. Context informs the future.
Solarpunk is a beautiful idea that’s been flourishing under glass. But to keep growing the way it has been and live up to its promise of remaking this shitty world in its own image, this genre is going to have to revolutionize itself.
We, the writers, poets, artists, editors, activists, and performers who constitute solarpunk’s motivating force, need collectively to do more than merely convert light into energy like solar panels. Complex web of interconnected polycultures though we may be, we’re at risk of becoming as pot-bound and tortured as this extended metaphor I’ll ask your indulgence in only a little further.
We need to expand our root system and set seed, to develop the capacity to
spread to and thrive in soils (read: minds and cultures) radically different than this
engineered (white, Western) substrate in which we germinated. In so doing, we may
transform those environments, reversing the desertification process in the ecosystem
of the mind that has been wrought by capitalism and colonialism. To do that, we’ve got
Reading for Reckoning over the past six years, and beyond that as broadly as I can in an attempt to stretch my mind around the existential challenges of our species’ more than 45,000-year narrative (to pin that beginning to the oldest known cave art), has led me to a certain set of expectations. I’m not happy about it. We’re all so different. These problems—climate collapse, mass extinction, the pandemic—involve all of us, in all our complexity. Every living thing. Expectations, from my perspective, signal stagnation. When I started on this journey, a lot of my own expectations came from capitalism and colonialism, the white male default. I’m still breaking some of them down. It’s hard; I get inured to them and they become invisible. It happens to us all. We can’t let it. Not anymore.
I’ve come to expect—to dread, I’m sorry to say—that every new solarpunk story I
encounter will amount to a tour of science fictional ideas hung on a character and a
narrative premise which exist solely as a framework through which to deliver those
We need those ideas. Optimistic, hopeful, and revolutionary ideas about governance, society, community and family, old and new, and future uses of technology all attempting to push an Overton window of the soul toward a post-capitalist, post-extractive, post-collapse vision of the future. How are we going to get there without them? But I’m afraid these ideas are being rendered useless to all the people who will be responsible for creating that future because we’re not getting caught up in them. Because so many of these ideas are impracticable right now, it’s all the more necessary that solarpunk stories make us believe in and care about the fate of at least one character whom those ideas are impacting. How else are we supposed to care deeply enough to reshape reality to accommodate them?
I’m afraid of solarpunk as a movement stalling out for forgetting this or ignoring it.
I want the ideas of solarpunk to be for everyone, but I feel like for that to happen, the
ideas in solarpunk stories need to be about people, not the other way around.
Classic golden and silver age science fiction was far too often a tour of an idea
hung on a character. But it was also not infrequently a study of a deeply compelling
character stemming from a set of ideas. The latter stories are the ones that have stuck
with me and affected my worldview and my decisions; stories such as Ray Bradbury’s
“All Summer in a Day,” Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” and Philip K. Dick’s Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The idea of robot animals to replace no-longer-extant nonhuman life in our human psyche is…silly. Dick is a silly writer. He was also
deeply damaged, traumatized, afraid, and neurodivergent. He was a product of a
dystopian world who rendered dystopian worlds, but it’s not the worlds that make his
work riveting, it’s their effect on the people in them, human and otherwise.
One of my many entrance points to climate writing was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from
the Goon Squad. Written in 2010, before the pop-cultural rise of solarpunk as a genre
and more or less outside of the context of science fiction, Goon Squad is a series of
connected stories featuring myriad deeply nuanced characters progressing, through
hardship, pain, existential confusion, and mortality, into a future in which New York
City is besieged by rising seas. Before I read it, I had not seen, yet desperately needed
to see, someone addressing the emotions rather than just the ideas of climate change.
The way Egan tells these stories made me feel that the ultimate consequences they
were depicting were real. Goon Squad wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the idea of
a city-encompassing seawall—but it was the first time I believed it. That, in turn,
contributed to a state of mind that led me to start a journal of environmental justice
What kinds of ideas does the framework of science fiction introduce to solarpunk
and what inputs produced that framework? Yes, indeed, the answers are more of
those invisible, white male imperialist defaults we’re all trying so hard to break down.
Science fiction has for too long drawn its ideas from STEM fields historically
dominated by and catering to white men in the global North and filtered them
through a publishing field historically dominated by and catering to white men in the
global North. What even counts as a technological solution in science fiction is
determined by those inputs. When we enter into a science fiction story coming from
anywhere on the fringes of or outside that tradition—even when it’s only as far away
as mainstream lit, as with Goon Squad—we need to be aware of the expectations we’re
carrying into the story and adapt them accordingly. Radically. The Nigerian writers
we’ve published at Reckoning don’t see the world like anyone raised in the American
science fiction tradition. Neither do the Indian writers, the Filipinx writers, or the
Indigenous writers. The past—the reader’s and the writer’s individual past, in all its
wondrous variety—informs the future. Context informs the future.
The best solarpunk stories acknowledge this and act on it, giving us concepts we
haven’t seen and ideas we’ve never engaged with through a human emotional lens
different from our own. The people who decide what solarpunk stories we get to read
—namely, the editors and publishers (myself included) who have the resources to
make us aware of stories and to get them into our hands—need to acknowledge this
more often and more aggressively. Using the power that we’ve managed to achieve
both despite and because of the existing framework, we could radically remake the
aesthetic by which the future is conceived and consumed.
I had a thoughtful conversation about all this with Tory Stephens, the organizer of the Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest. [Editor’s note: check out Stephens’ essay in Issue #2 of Solarpunk Magazine.] He reminds me why community is so essential to this work. As members of a community, we challenge each other and shore up each other’s weaknesses. Inspired by that conversation, I’ve been making my way through the anthology of stories resulting from the first year of the contest, while also tearing through the final month’s worth of submissions to Reckoning 6. I’m delighted at how many of the stories I’m seeing in both places exhibit evidence of a process away from a science fiction of rockets and laser guns in the hands of white men with a vision for the galaxy, and towards everything, everything else.
Abigail Larkin’s “A Seance in the Anthropocene” in Imagine 2200 provides one
waypoint along this path where we need so many more. Reading this story, which is
told from the perspective of an abundantly invested-in and educated young Cherokee
woman, we get to tour a future history in which humanity has transitioned away from
extractive technology toward restorative climate justice. This young woman is trying
to understand the horrors of the past—a process we’re all familiar with, projected
forward. She’s a character we can’t help rooting for. And the ideas come fast and
heavy—enough, I think, to provide something for fans of golden-age science fiction
and their descendants to latch onto. But we’re also given a distinct, individual, non-European, non-Campbellian, eminently human perspective through which to
interpret and feel the ideas presented. That’s something everyone can latch onto.
Where the story falls short for me is in not carrying the synthesis of these ideas
forward into a renewed sense of purpose for the main character. She walks away from
her séance with a new understanding of the past and a way to live with that
understanding in the present, but not a clear mandate for making her present
The work is never over. Progress doesn’t flip a switch from dystopia to utopia and
then stop. Not ever. Our children’s children’s children will be fighting some version of
these battles in some massively changed version of this world. I’d love it if everyone
following along with solarpunk’s grand utopian imagining of climate futures would
take that to heart and act, think, read, and write accordingly.
To remake our future and our society, it’s not enough to remake technological and
political ideation. We can’t just throw new cool ideas at everyone and hope some of it
sticks. We need characters we can believe in and root for the same way we need each
other. The way we read and consume stories and ideas needs to transform.
Please, fellow solarpunks: interrogate your assumptions. Break patterns. Pay attention not just to ideas but to people. In your stories and visions of the future, give us someone to care about. Think about who the us is you’re telling, buying, or publishing the story for, and let that us encompass everyone different from you. If you don’t—if we all don’t do better—I’m afraid all our world-changing, impracticable ideas will remain just that, and worse, they’ll end up helping to perpetuate the power structures that up until now have made science fiction, and this world, what it is.
Grist‘s contest for this year is open until May 5. Reckoning is always open to
submissions. Solarpunk Magazine is just getting started. The future is wide open.
Michael J. DeLuca (he/him) lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats, and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Mythic Delirium, and lots of other places. His novella, Night Roll, was a finalist for the Crawford award in 2020.