Sarena Ulibarri, editor, author, ecologist and solarpunk promoter, talks to us about this emerging and “proactive” subgenre of science fiction and why we should pay more attention to it.
A spanish version of this interview appears on the new issue of our magazine.
MAMUT —Over the last few years there’s has been a lot of talk about and around solarpunk, with each voice trying to give their own definition to something which is not really formed yet. What is solarpunk to you?
SARENA ULIBARRI —Solarpunk is a method of imagining a better future, based around sustainable technologies and cooperative (rather than competitive) lifestyles. It’s “punk” because the mainstream narrative is that we’re headed toward disaster and dystopia; solarpunks refuse to accept that’s the only future available.
M. —Solarpunk seems to be shaped not only as a literary genre/subgenre, but also as a transmedial form of art: e.g. painting, clothes design, etc. in a sort of implementation of both science/technology and art. In your opinion what are the reasons behind the representational breadth of solarpunk? Could it constitute one of the possible answers to the two-culture problem?
S.U. —I think it’s fantastic that solarpunk is being interpreted and performed in so many different media. The visual aspects of solarpunk, such as the artwork and fashion, are a huge part of why it’s capturing people’s attention. Sometimes you just need that visual element in order to imagine something that’s so different from the Blade Runner-style futures we’ve been shown before and told to expect. If solarpunk can inspire people to seek out the science behind the science fiction, then it serves a much more profound purpose than just fictional escapism. (And I think fictional escapism is also a perfectly valid art form, by the way.)
M. —You declared that you’re not “fond of boxing the genre into binaries of utopian and dystopian […] because solarpunk is about people, it will never be perfect, there will always be conflict”. It’s a very interesting consideration as it tries to avoid solarpunk being considered (also) as a sort of platform for superficial environmentalism (risking to glide into the fanciful and uncritical fiction). Could you tell us if you, as a solarpunk author, draw from a specific definition or concrete school of environmental thought/criticism?
S.U. —I reject models of eco-capitalism that mean only the rich will have access to green spaces or healthy food or clean air. Environmentalism also intersects with disability in problematic ways, as the recent plastic straw debate brought to light, as well as with race and culture, as issues such as NoDAPL illustrate. Shelley Streeby’s critical book Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism really influenced how I viewed these intersectional issues. Environmentalism must be inclusive, and if solarpunk is to be truly optimistic, it must show futures where no one got left behind because of accessibility, race, or gender.
M. —Frequently, it is said that eco-fiction allows to raise awareness about our planet environmental issues. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which these problems are without risking to fall into superficial criticism. What issues do you think solarpunk is mostly concerned with, and/or what issues would you like solarpunk to be concerned with?
S.U. —Much of the solarpunk I’ve read doesn’t hit the big issues head on. Things like climate change, energy economics, and mass extinction are touched on, but they appear in the worldbuilding, often just part of the backstory and the setting, rather than the primary focus. I think that’s okay; it prevents the stories from being too didactic, or, as you said, falling into superficial criticism that ignores the true root of a problem (or worse, gets it wrong). Instead, the focus of much solarpunk seems to be achieving a balance of nature and technology. This common theme is why I put the story “Caught Root” by Julia K. Patt as the first story in my Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers anthology. In her very short story, Patt posits an attempt at diplomacy between a high-tech community and a nature-based one, and shows the distrust and precariousness inherent in that fragile balance of nature and technology. The story “Once Upon a Time in a World” by Antonio Luiz M. C. Costa in the Brazilian Solarpunk anthology [Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, editor’s note] also addresses this tenuous balance. It’s an alternate history in which renewable energy was adopted far earlier and climate change was avoided, but the descriptions of waterfalls turned into hydroelectric dams and pristine meadows transformed into solar fields show “a world much altered by the human hand,” where nature is tamed and exploited rather than respected. One of the most fascinating stories in the EcoPunk! anthology is “The Right Side of History” by Jane Rawson, in which humans attempt to bring balance back to nature by transferring themselves into animal bodies. The novel Implanted by Lauren C. Teffeau shows a world where nature essentially won the battle with technology, forcing humans to retreat into domed cities until the unstable climate settles enough that we can live outside again—inside the domed cities, nature is imitated and approximated, but technology reigns.
Although I love the more subtle approaches, I would actually like to see more solarpunk that tackles the bigger problems, and that presents thought experiments for how we might turn things around and work together to get to these brighter futures.
M. —As the “punk” in the composite word solarpunk implies, the genre should include some sort of socio-political subversive/critical commitment in the fiction, as any good science fiction should, and stimulate a new cognition for what’s around us, if we embrace Darko Suvin’s theory. If you are to evaluate the production of solarpunk up to now, do you think this criteria have been met?
S.U. —The most “punk” solarpunk stories I’ve read so far are “The Boston Hearth Project” by T.X. Watson (in Sunvault), and “Midsummer Night’s Heist” by Commando Jugundstil (in Glass and Gardens). Watson’s story is about a group of activists taking over a big corporate building with the intention of turning it into a homeless shelter. “Midsummer Night’s Heist” is about a group of artists who set up a guerrilla art installation to block a fascist rally. Both stories show characters working together to make something right that the “system” is willing to let be wrong. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson has a punk undertone, with the characters attempting to break out of capitalism, but the ending is a bit more pro-establishment than I think a lot of solarpunks really wanted it to be. Walkaway by Cory Doctorow is much better on that count, though much of the true “punk” narrative in that book takes place on the periphery rather than in the primary story.
Many of the solarpunk stories I’ve read are subversive in more subtle ways. Honestly, it’s kind of an act of subversion to just show people of color, or characters who are queer or disabled, living a happy life in the future. That shouldn’t be a radical act, but in today’s political climate, it can be.
M. —In addition to this last question. Ever since cyberpunk, a whole constellation of derivatives arose, which is stimulating on the one side, but it might also be an example of a system that phagocytises everything and converts it into the usual stream of sterile market products. Do you think that the turbo capitalism era in which we are to live now may (or might) have smoothed the subversive charge out of solarpunk even before the genre is fully formed?
S.U. —I hope not, but maybe. This question brings to mind practices such as greenwashing and carbon offset credits, which have placated a good deal of environmental concern without actually accomplishing much. It’s harder for solarpunk to get people’s attention if they believe environmental problems are already being handled by the governments and big corporations who really just want us to look the other way.
Capitalism loves cyberpunk because it’s shiny and expensive and stratified, and our trajectory is already headed straight toward it. Solarpunk is in many ways a reaction against the turbo capitalism and exploitation of cyberpunk, but maybe in practice it will follow more in the footsteps of steampunk. While steampunk has its own issues with colonialism and elitism, it evolved alongside the Maker Movement, and values artisanship over mass-production. I expect solarpunk will follow a similar trajectory.
M.—Where, in your opinion, does solarpunk comes from? I mean, do you think it is a product of a particular context, a determined socio-historical-economic situation? Which one or ones? Why now?
S.U. —Despite the stranglehold oil companies still have on the world economy, sustainable options are gaining ground and becoming more visible. Extreme weather events and record temperatures are also getting people’s attention (especially since in the U.S., many people still don’t understand the difference between weather and climate). Some solarpunk stories are clearly responding to specific early 21st century events. New York 2140 was unmistakably written as a reaction to both the 2008 financial crisis and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “Fyrewall” by Stefani Cox in Glass and Gardens was written in response to the severe wildfires that plague California. My own story “Riding in Place” stemmed from news that the efficiency of solar technology was increasing while the price was decreasing, so I grappled with the issue of how to mine the materials for solar panels without replacing one type of environmental damage with another.
Stories of apocalypse and dystopia often stem from a dissatisfaction with so-called “real life.” You look around at your job, your house, your family, all those things you’re supposed to want, those things that are supposed to represent success, and think, “Is this really all there is?” In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Aunty Entity says of the apocalypse, “Do you know who I was? Nobody. Except on the day after, I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.” That’s the escapism of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories: the belief that when things go to hell, you’ll be able to rise to the occasion and really be somebody, not just another cog in the corporate wheel, not just another commuter yelling at the other cars in a traffic jam. But the impulse toward utopia, or toward any kind of optimistic science fiction, can stem from a similar type of dissatisfaction. You look around at the poverty, the violence, the injustices, at everyone who tells you that’s just how the world works, and think, “Is this really the best we can do? Is this really the only way to live?” In the U.S., many people are turned off of dystopian fiction right now because they feel we are living in a dystopia. The fictional depictions don’t offer anything more outrageous than what we see on the news and in our communities. Fiction allows for thought experiments, for “what ifs,” and that includes “what if the world was better?”
Sarena Ulibarri is Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, and she is also a fiction writer who has been published in Lightspeed, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Weirdbook, and elsewhere. Her solarpunk story “Riding in Place” appeared in the anthology Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures, and another, “Chrysalis in Sunlight,” will appear soon in the online magazine GigaNotoSaurus. She edited the anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, which features optimistic science fiction stories from 17 authors around the world. She lives in a solar-powered adobe house in New Mexico, and can be found online at SarenaUlibarri.com and on Twitter @SarenaUlibarri.