Beyond the green smart cities, solarpunk can also be dark

Lidia Zuin
7 min readMay 6, 2021

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published in Portuguese on Tab UOL.

For the past months I have been dedicated to reading more about the science fiction subgenre Solarpunk. Here in Brazil, back in 2013, we already had the publication of one of the first anthologies of the genre, “Solarpunk — Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável” (Solarpunk — Ecological and fantastic stories of a sustainable world, anthology also available in English by World Weaver Press). This summarizes much about what the subgenre proposes: histories of a future more ecological, sustainable and optimist.

The suffix “punk” added to subgenres such as cyberpunk, steampunk or dieselpunk for a long time have acquired a negative connotation due to the cyberpunk, which was originally characterized by protest and pessimism in a similar way to the associated subculture. But with the development of other subgenres of the “punk” family, it grows clearer that we don’t necessarily need to adopt this grim and pessimistic viewpoint about the future.

As I mentioned before, increasingly more people are asking for more optimistic stories which not necessarily need to be utopias, especially because they are just the “other side of the coin” of dystopias, but at least that these narratives become a bit more reasonable, that they could serve us as inspiration for an optimism that we are currently lacking.

Released in April by World Weaver Press, the anthology Multispecies Cities includes 24 short stories of authors that tell tales of an ecologic future, mostly situated in regions such as Asia and the Pacific Ocean, so you will likely read narratives from the Philippines, Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan, but also Hawaii and… Mars (!). At a first glance, solarpunk may look like a more aesthetic movement rather than a subgenre with a strong bibliography. But this is similar to what happens to more recent subgenres such as sertãopunk and amazofuturismo, which are still being developed as literary movements after gathering fans for their images. And in the case of the visual arts connected to solarpunk, the subgenre is often represented as a shinier future, a future that, by the way, may look like mock-ups of projects for smart cities and future gentrification.

But in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

In “Mariposa Awakening,” for instance, scientists are able to communicate with marine animals which help them to monitor storms and floods in the Philippine coast. In “A Rabbit Egg for Flora,” Earth is repopulated by animals that are “born” out of eggs distributed in the cities. On the other hand, stories like “By the Light of the Stars” and “Old Man’s Sea” are short, but comforting narratives. Even if we face a future that succeeds an ecological catastrophe, we realize that humans were still able to revert or to find a way to survive and to reconnect to nature and other beings — especially marine ones.

I was eager to find ways to explore solarpunk without necessarily falling prey of a formula for optimistic fables or a post-apocalyptic sermon about what comes after a climatic catastrophe — something that I discussed on a text published years ago, when a writer suggested that solarpunk would be the new cyberpunk. One of the criticisms made by science fiction fans about solarpunk is that the genre tells stories of what happens after the crisis, but not how it was solved. In Multispecies cities, there are a couple of short stories that present technological solutions to avoid floods in coastal cities or how some cities could become “garden cities,” and Mars could become a new human habitat characterized by housing and farming domes.

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.” It was interesting to see that the book Radical Botany proposes precisely that: histories in which humans are turned into plants, where they are consumed by vegetables, or that they ultimately decide to become trees in protest to the society. This put me right back to that scene in Annihilation in which Tessa Thompson’s character decides to surrender to the “shimmer” and become part of the ecosystem.

Botanist’s t-shirt for the album “The Reconciliation of Nature and Man”

On the other hand, the band Botanist takes a huge part in my pondering about new paths for solarpunk. The one-man project is audacious: it’s a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars, but rather a medieval instrument called dulcimer which gives the right tone to the lyrics that are often scientific descriptions of vegetable species. And the band’s visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers.

Well, this was my “darkest” inspiration for solarpunk, although I wanted to mix it up with the post-human aesthetic and concept that Björk adopted in her recent albums, at least since “Biophilia”. In her latest performances, the Icelandic singer began to experiment with outfits, performances and videos in which her body is transformed into virtual creatures which, despite of that, follow the same laws of nature — something like what the fashion designer Iris Van Herpen proposes, and, by the way, she is responsible for several of Björk’s outfits. For those who could visit the exhibition Björk Digital, it was possible to experience her music videos in virtual reality, through which we immerge into her metamorphosis and transcendence after the end of a relationship.

In Multispecies Cities, I learned that solarpunk doesn’t need to be a science fiction subgenre that imagines a future that looks like folders distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it could be a genre that poses the opportunity to criticize, resist, and address metaphors about other philosophical topics that are not necessarily related to concrete issues coming from climate change or the side effects of late capitalism. This is why it is important to remember that back in 2000, the writer Bruce Sterling (one of the creators of cyberpunk) was already suggesting a new science fiction subgenre that would be concerned with nature and climate — Sterling, by the way, has written books such as “Heavy Weather,” in which he addresses such issues.

The Viridian Design manifesto presents us an aesthetic movement focused on the concept of a “shiny green environmentalism” that is directly connected to the name of the collective — viridian is a kind of fluorescent shade of green, with a more artificial aspect, and this is why it connects to themes such as innovation through design and technology, in a counterpoint to a “leaf green” traditionally used by classic environmentalism.

While recovering topics such as environmental design, technoprogressism and global citizenship, the concept was proposed by Sterling back in 1998, though the manifesto was published only two years later. Alex Steffen, Jamais Cascio and Jon Lebkowsky are some of the writers that joined Sterling in this project concentrated on the blog Worldchanging, same name given to the anthology of short stories that represented the Viridian Design movement. However, in 2008, Sterling “ended” the movement after realizing that there was already an emerging culture asking for this “shiny green” environmentalism, that is, a more technological perspective towards environmentalism, as we have seen in the recent works of activists such as James Lovelock.

Scene from the movie “Antichrist”, by Lars Von Trier, in which a fox says “chaos reigns”

Despite the fact that the genre is still being developed, Solarpunk has a lot to resources to take inspiration from, being cli-fis (climate fictions) or in the way that writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany addressed aliens and the metamorphosis between humans and nature to discuss themes such as gender, race and politics. Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.