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Cultural Elements in World-Building of Solarpunk Short Stories

Written by Katarzyna Lubawa.

Keywords: solarpunk, sci-fi, cyberpunk, quasi-utopian visions

Anticipating the development of our civilization has been a vital part of the fantastic for a long time. Imagining the future is one of the driving forces behind science fiction and its subgenres (such as cyberpunk or speculative fiction).

Solarpunk, which I introduced in my previous entry, is a relatively new subgenre that focuses on creating quasi-utopian visions of the future world. Its setting depicts a community and technology powered by renewable energy. It envisions a world focused on a high level of cultural awareness, gender equality, and self-expression. Among many changes regarding the current state of society, solarpunk postulates an artistic and aesthetic shift from what we recognize as mainstream Western culture to creations inspired by indigenous cultures of Africa and Asia (among many others).

The aim of this entry is to study the presence of those ideas in existing works and whether they remain in the sphere of theory or are executed by the writers. I am basing my analysis on two anthologies; Wings of Renewal. A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology and Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. They are considered the first officially published solarpunk media creations and as such are the best starting point for the exploration of this genre.

Representation in Solarpunk

Representation is a key term when defining the modern discourse on culture and media entertainment. It is linked both to the way we see the world and the value we assign to literature, movies or games. We learn about the world in a process that leads to construction of first, conceptual maps, and then a set of correspondences between them and a set of signs organized in a language. This process called representation lies in the heart of everything we know. It could be simply said that by means of representation we can decide what kind of world we live in. By presenting certain tropes or settings, it is possible to create images or associations that are later repeated in other works and then become the unspoken messages sent by fictional works.

The fantastic is not free from this as we can find notable shortcomings in those aspects. One of the relatively recent examples that comes to my mind is the reaction to Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. Miles Morales as a main character brought forward (not for the first time) the discussion about people of color and their right to be heroes of the fictional works. Similarly, remakes that cast women in roles previously played by men also cause high emotions among fans and general audience because they question the default male character when it comes to focus point of any kind of narration.

In this way, culture remains in close relationship to material conditions of society. It should not come as a surprise then that the shift in values we observe in recent days is reflected in fiction and art. Solarpunk in that sense is a child of our times not only because it was born and developed on the Internet. It caught interest of many because of the current situation and society’s needs. After all, as Andrew Dincher said in foreword to Sunvault. Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, solarpunk is

a new movement in SF that examines the possibility of a future in which currently emerging movements in society such as green movement, Black Lives Matter movement, and certain aspects of Occupy Wall Street coalesce to create more optimistic future in a more just world.

What started as a simple idea of a world in which humanity is able to save Earth, quickly became a lot more. As the opposite of cyberpunk, solarpunk allowed authors and creators to enforce their identity and become visible in a way none of the fantastic subgenres did before. Solarpunk narration is meant to portray characters from oppressed and marginalized groups living more inclusively than they are able to today. Body modification, gender and sexual discovery could be mentioned among the explored topics. Those are joined by dealing with conflicts from the remnants of the old system as well as new ones arising in a new model of society.

In the area of arts, solarpunk brings together a mixture of digital technology and traditional techniques such as anime, Art Nouveau, Afrofuturism, indigenous American designs and other aesthetic inspired by folklore of various cultures. This blend of styles, repurposed and reimagined to match the needs of a new movement in a symbolic way, represents the hybridity of global culture. What is important to note is that solarpunk is able to remain sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation, replacing the act of taking from subordinate cultures by dominant ones with partaking of cultures of equal standing. Connecting different groups is one of the core values of solarpunk and remains one of the most important elements of its theory. Furthermore, this explains why Asian and African aesthetic styles stand in the center of solarpunk art.

Cyberpunk Aesthetic

Before I explore this topic I need to mention cyberpunk first. As an established subgenre and subculture it is a good point of reference to solarpunk and where its visual inspirations originate from. A typical scenery for cyberpunk works of any media platform would be a metropolis similar to a labyrinth, filled with neon lights and billboards. The city space, especially in cyberpunk movies, as points Mazurkiewicz, is a tool used to portray this concrete jungle as an infernal space. Among examples he summons Blade Runner (1982), Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995). It is impossible not to connect those imaginary worlds with a real one. After all, art imitates life (or, one could say, art represents life), and the closest thing to the cyberpunk aesthetic could be found in Japanese aesthetic of the Tokyo metropolis. The inspiration was only strengthened by the Sprawl Trilogy written by William Gibson which is set in Chiba City. Seeing as Gibson’s novel initiated the creation of cyberpunk, it is only expected that his inspiration will be adapted by other authors.

According to Mazurkiewicz, cyberpunk texts consist a blend of styles and elements excerpted from many other representations of reality. They are being shifted into new configurations in which the reflection on humanity and present day is replaced with play on tropes and cultural elements bereft of their original meaning and context. It could be said that solarpunk is similar in this aspect. It is also based on many different styles and inspiration sources coming together. In cyberpunk, sharp lines and dark colors paired with neon illuminations are associated with moral ambiguity of the city and the people living in it. In solarpunk, the presence of nature, the bright colors, the architecture based on curved and plant-like constructions furthers the atmosphere of utopia and peace. Moreover, the difference between cyberpunks’s and solarpunk’s usage of aesthetical inspiration lies in reasons of the authors. Cyberpunk creators use Japanese aesthetic in purely aesthetic sense, while for solarpunk it could be interpreted as a visible sign of what is and how the new society works. This brings forward probably the most important point of world-building in solarpunk, which is identity.

Identity in Solarpunk Works

Identity, closely related to representation, functions on two levels in solarpunk. First is the authors’ identity and the second is the characters’ identity. Solarpunk is a safe space for currently marginalized – by mainstream culture and media – groups to be vocal about their idea of the future. Those groups include people of color, as well as gender and sexual identities other than heterosexual. It is important to mention that creators of many nationalities participated in writing both solarpunk anthologies mentioned in this entry. However, it is interesting to note that they rarely incorporate their ancestry into their stories. Only a few take inspirations from specific cultures and make it clearly known (Iona Sharma’s Eight Cities, Yilun Fan’s Speechless Love). While non-heteronormative identities are present in solarpunk texts, the lack of representation in races could be explained by the intention strongly vocalized by one of the biggest solarpunk advocates on the Internet. Twitter account Solarpunk Anarchist in one of their tweets pointed out that the aim of solarpunk is a society of one race in a sense that miscegenation led to a situation in which it is impossible to categorize people according to current racial categories. In light of that it could be said that the blend of diverse styles and artistic inspirations would be a natural product in such a society where boundaries between different nations and cultures are blurred.

Furthermore, solarpunk is an articulation of positive future and similarly to cyberpunk it assigns a big role to the setting of a story. Many works cannot be connected with a specific time or place, giving off a feeling of disconnection with the world as we know it in present day. An important role in solarpunk is held by a confrontation with remnants of the old system, often shown in mentions of the time “before” (“wars and pollution of old age” – C.B. Carr’s Summer Project, “stories of a time when the earth was dying” – Gemini Pond’s Fighting Fire with Fire, “before the age of greenhouses” – Carolin Bigalski’s The Dragon of Kou). The change for the better demands a high price, often paid by the planet itself. Some of the stories are set not on Earth but other planets which humanity was forced to move to, or on various space vehicles (Santiago Belluco’s The Death of Pax, Tyler Young’s Last Chance, Yilun Fan’s Speechless Love).

In conclusion, solarpunk media as a space based on diversity and equality became a reflection of the cultural shift happening currently in society on a global scale. Similarly to cyberpunk it blends various styles and aesthetical inspirations on a visual level, however, for different reasons. Solarpunk world-building is used to portray a society where cultures and races are so closely intertwined together to the point that it is impossible to divide them according to currently applied categories. This scenery is usually accompanied by narratives separated from specific time and place portraying the world as a nameless entity disconnected from the reality we know.

/Katarzyna Lubawa.

To learn more about the researcher, please click here.


Works Cited

Stuart Hall, The Work of Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, Thousand Oaks 1997, p 19.

Andrew Dincher, “Foreword: On the Origins of Solarpunk,” Sunvault. Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, ed. Phoebe Wagner, Brontë Christopher Wieland, USA 2017, p. 7.

Adam Mazurkiewicz, Z problematyki cyberpunku. Literatura – sztuka – kultura, Łódź 2014, p. 269-270.

Short stories form Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation (ed. Phoebe Wagner, Brontë Christopher Wieland, USA 2017):

Iona Sharma, Eight Cities, p. 49-53.

Yilun Fan, Speechless Love, trans. S. Qiouyi Lu, p. 26-31.

Santiago Belluco, The Death of Pax, p. 71-83.

Tyler Young, Last Chance, p. 91-102.

Short stories from Wings of Renewal. A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology (ed. Claudie Arseneault, Brenda J. Pierson, USA 2015):

C.B. Carr, Summer Project, p. 1-19.

Gemini Pond, Fighting Fire with Fire, p. 133-141.

Carolin Bigalski, The Dragon of Kou, p. 143-155.

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