The Prehistory of Solarpunk: High Tech between Myths and Morality
in Arab and Muslim Environmental SF
Emad El-Din Aysha
I was born an Arab Muslim, but in the UK and grew up with a foreign education, and have worked in energy and sustainability journalism, so I’m a bit too hard sci-fi for my own good. I have penned a few environmentally-themed science fiction stories in my time, and even won the odd prize, but again I focus too much on technology and policy. Solving problems, that is, instead of avoiding those problems to begin with thanks to the right frame of mind. That’s what is distinctive about a lot of our science fiction, solarpunk or otherwise.
I learned this by happenstance after reading multiple works by an Iranian colleague, Iraj Fazel Bakhsheshi. (He translated them for me, being the thoroughly generous bloke that he is). His “The Beginning of Life” (2020) is about a nominally alien race trying to seed life on a planet, toying with its basic chemistry, and then monitoring the evolutionary process over eons with the help of a wormhole. Their ultimate mission is to create intelligent life on the planet after the dinosaur phase gives way to the mammalian phase. But they are not playing God. The scientists in question work for the galactic version of the United Nations and their mandate is to protect the planet itself from destruction by killer comets or supernovas. It is ironic that the fifth planet in the solar system blows up, wrecking their vessel and forcing them to crash land on this untouched Garden of Eden and become the human race. Another irony since the point of facilitating sentient life on a planet is again to safeguard it, but you feel this is an indictment of what shall come since human civilization is exhausting the planet’s resources and overheating its atmosphere.
In Iraj’s story “Yalda” (2018), an archeologist visits a deep, dark cave system that is kept warm by volcanic activity that humans took shelter in during the ice age when the heavens were black with dust. He decodes prehistoric inscriptions on the cave walls recounting the tale of one of these inhabitants who was taught by his elders that the demons of darkness were responsible for their miserable fate and only the angels of light could return the sun to its former glory. Nonetheless the young man in the inscriptions wants to help fight these demons. A woman joins him on his quest in a very Adam-and-Eve-type setup as they journey out into the wilderness. The sun finally explodes onto the scene and the young cave dweller realizes his grandfather’s tales were right all along. In the explanatory endnotes we are then told that Yalda Night is the Iranian winter solstice festival, with nuts and fruits and classical poetry recitations. It is also hinted at that the long night was actually the result of a nuclear winter, with ash reflecting the rays of the sun that we so direly need. Similar themes abound in “New Day” (2014) where an archeologist, with considerable glee, reads a science paper about how certain microorganisms (Foraminiferans) released carbon dioxide from the oceans into the atmosphere, resulting in the end of the Ice Age. He is happy because this matches a recent archeological discovery, an inscription on a stele he translated about the mythic hero Siavash riding his fiery chariot over the frozen surface of the blue earth and plunging into the depths of the ocean with his goddesses to break the cold once and for all. As a reward for this heroic death Persian King Jamshid commemorates this day through the Iranian New Year, Nawroz, a tale also recounted in The Shahnameh (Persian book of kings) and also the folktales of Hāji Firuz–mentioned explicitly by the young archeologist–again in the explanatory notes.
Cosmological history is understood in spiritual terms and so the environment is understood in moral terms. The implication is that past problems created by man were solved by nature for man’s benefit at the behest of a noble and merciful God, but that divine grace is never enough. The history books and the prehistoric record are there to guide man to avoid these problems to begin with. Connecting with nature, and the past, is always key. Not to mention connecting with each other. One of Iraj’s most famous works, the novella Humans and Skyscrapers (2005), is dystopian and not solarpunk but nonetheless brings these themes in through the backdoor. The story is nominally about megacities where even privileged middle class citizens are isolated from their families, have robot orderlies as friends (and informers), have to go to the central computer to get a life-mate to procreate, and where their meals are hand-delivered to them by the psychological health authority, chock-full of drugs to control your moods and free thoughts. The hero at first rebels and tries to escape only to be captured and promoted for his leadership skills. He has relatively more freedom and less chemical interference, and more authority over others; he screens and employs illegal migrant labour in an arrangement reminiscent of North/South relations. (We discover later that raw materials and cheap labour in exchange for industrial goods and bank loans is what keeps this future world economy running). But he also has access to social science, classic works of art and critically history books that help him become a free thinker, having learned how the skyscrapers came into being as an instrument to better control the workers and isolate them from each other. He then encounters his former love, the woman he was going to run away with; his memories flood back and he successfully escapes this time. It’s like Adam being booted out of Heaven, having to suffer the cold and grow old and hungry with his Eve in the wilderness. Nonetheless the freedom and his romantic bonds make it worth the sacrifice and he works tirelessly now to bring down the order of the megacities through the power of the pen.
Solarpunk or environmental sci-fi in the Arab world is not nearly as subtle and mythological as this but it bears comparison nonetheless. “A Slice of Heaven” by Algerian author Zayan Guedim1 has a scientist-entrepreneur, an Algerian-American named Ali, using a solar array to create or dissipate storms and guarantee temperate weather. But, wouldn’t you know it, the story begins with talk of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and is a love story, of sorts, as Ali courts an enigmatic girl named Luna, and thanks his adoptive American mother for opening up a world of opportunity for him. Ali wants to reverse the course of history to Adam’s first fall to earth, the tropical paradise it once was. Another Algerian writer, Faycel Lahmeur, has a YA novel – In the Forgotten Dimension – where humans have colonized and terraformed numerous planets even beyond our solar system. Nonetheless the hero insists on journeying back to his hometown in the Algerian hills, recollecting the green paradise that it was. Having used a black hole to get back to Earth he finds that too much time has gone by and his native village in Algeria is noisy, cramped and polluted and not that different from the AI-controlled world he was escaping. Fortunately he learnt Sufism in his youth in that village and can give the pursuing authorities the slip after taming his over-scientized mind and releasing his long dormant spiritual powers.
This coupling of the environment and the life of the soul are evident also in numerous stories in the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction’s latest anthology, The Economists (2020). One story, by Mahmoud Abdel Rahim, is about a future dystopian world following a corona-like pandemic and a nuclear war, forcing the population into isolated pockets sheltered from radiation by force-fields while the remaining inhabitants have to live in isolation from each other to avoid infection. In a very moving scene the hero can’t even kiss the hologram of his mother – kissing her hand out of respect – because he runs out of virtual credits for the virtual call. He finally braves it out in the wilderness with his soon-to-be wife, sick of the loneliness and fear and unreality of it all.
Another story, which won a prize from the ESSF, wasn’t about economics at all but an android wondering if he has a soul – “A Problem of Faith” by Abdulhakeem Amer Tweel. It’s set in a mosque full of holographic projections of gardens and forests. Another story by the same author was about a businessman busy harvesting minerals and hydrogen from the planets and moons of the solar system; he falls in love with an employee who turns out to be the offspring of a love that never turned into marriage by their respective ancestors. He has an opportunity to help her – she lost her legs in a tragic accident – and so feels as if fate has compensated him, something that far outweighs the wealth he’s accrued from his prospering business.
Arabs as a rule are big on the environment since we’re surrounded by deserts and nature to us means living things. Our visions of utopia are populated with gardens and vines and fruits and vegetables and Egyptian sci-fi is certainly concerned with turning the deserts green, even if they don’t necessarily explain how this is to be done. (I’m the lowly desert development guy, with one of my stories also winning a prize, but not quite as high up as Mr. Abdulhakeem’s). I can’t speak for Iranian sci-fi but I’m sure that the environment is very high on their agenda too, evidenced by Zoha Kazemi’s novel Rain Born (2020) which has been successfully translated to English. Rain Born is a post-apocalyptic story of global warming leading to mass floods, forcing humanity to brave the waves with a tyrannical post-apoc Saviour religion developing too. (Nature has a few surprises in store for mankind as well since babies are occasionally born that are adapted to the sea, and snatched away by dolphins to be suckled and raised far away from the corrupting influence of man. All thanks to evolution).
Also realize that much Arabic sci-fi is also borderline fantasy and most of our authors write fantasy and horror as well, so themes and motifs overlap all the time. Jad Youssef Doumani from Lebanon is the epitome of this, with many stories populated by genies and black magic, along with his cyberpunk, solarpunk and steampunk fictions. He also has forests and pine trees and Lebanese salads in his stories to create a distinctively “Lebanese solarpunk aesthetic”, as he puts it, while romance and companionship are evident too.2 In his soon-to-be published “Solarpunks: Viva La Revolucion!”3 he actually has the young rebelling against this near-perfect world of plentiful clean energy, wondering about what they can despoil in a world where there is no money or concept of private property.
Jad instinctively understands that enacting the right policies and technologies is never enough. Would solar power really solve the problem of our hankering for mischief? Even if we lived in a perfect world, would it remain so in our restless hands? Perhaps it would at that, provided we find fulfillment in each other – family bonds and romantic attachments – and read (and excavate) history and live in and celebrate nature’s bounty.
That’s a recipe for a sustainable future and I believe one among several distinctive contributions we can make as Arabs and Muslims to solarpunk, our own subgenre within a burgeoning subgenre.
1In The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, Vol. 2 (Altair Australia Pty Ltd, 2017), pp. 259-277.
2Quoted in “Folklore Online: Lebanese SFF is still very much a Work-in-Progress, explains punkmaster writer-editor J.D. Harlock”, The Levant, 31 October 2022, https://www.academia.edu/94253806/Folklore_Online_Lebanese_SFF_is_still_very_much_a_Work_in_Progress_explains_punkmaster_writer_editor.
3Coming July 2023 in Android Press’s Fighting For The Future: Cyberpunk and Solarpunk Tales.
Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher (former professor), journalist (including energy and sustainability), translator and author. Born in the UK he currently resides in Cairo, Egypt and is a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union. He has one Arabic sci-fi anthology to his name and one non-fiction book, Arab and Muslim Science Fiction: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2022). He has dedicated his time to science fiction since 2015 and has published environmentally-themed stories in Gaia Awakens: A Climate Crisis Anthology, Malarkey Books, The Worlds Within and The Economists (an ESSF anthology).