It is easy these days to forget how diverse the imagery of civilization-wrecking catastrophe really is: to forget that it includes such things as the Mayan cities reclaimed by the jungle in the aftermath of that society’s downfall, or the Alpine villages destroyed by advancing glaciers in the “Little Ice Age.” The landscape-denuding effects of industrial civilization, the horrors of the Western Front, and especially the nuclear age have made us equate collapse with desolation; the last of these, perhaps helped in particular by the outback setting of the Mad Max movies, with their sun-scorched desolation.
Climate change has only reinforced that tendency. Inundated with report after report about the melting of the poles, the vanishing of the snowcaps, of a new hottest day, month, year on record seemingly every day, month, and year, we fear not the advance of jungles and glaciers, but their vanishing altogether, and perhaps especially, as Dahr Jamail put it, The End of Ice. All this has its shadow in the fact that for the most part, it is now the climate change deniers who speak of looming ice ages and present visions of wintry landscapes in a display of contempt with “Scientists don’t know anything! Black swans and unknown unknowns!” variety to which those defending the indefensible are so prone, from the reckless to criminal conduct of financiers casually tanking the world economy to fill their offshore bank accounts, to the initiation of catastrophic wars. (Thus does it go, for example, in Fox News commentator John Ringo’s middle finger to all to the left of his audience, The Last Centurion.) There have been exceptions, such as the widely seen Roland Emmerich film The Day After Tomorrow, where climate change is very definitely real and brings on the next ice age—but they are few and far between.
This made it a surprise when editor Sarena Ulibarri, whose anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers came out back in 2018, released a follow-up anthology, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters, envisioning winter in a greenhouse world. Looking at the new volume, I naturally thought of its predecessor, my response to which I must admit was not wholly unmixed. Solarpunk Summers offered some quite accomplished stories, but it seemed to me that they fell short of the solarpunk movement’s, and the anthology’s, raison d’être. The back cover of Ulibarri’s book spoke of “stories of adaptation, ingenuity and optimism for the future of our world and others,” “a breath of fresh air” for those “who are tired of dystopias and apocalypses.” Yet, time and again, what we got were visions of small-scale, rural communities leading austere, chastened existences post-catastrophe—the optimism limited to saying that, yes, the apocalypse is coming, and there is nothing we can do about it, but after billions of people die, those few who stick it out through the horror, into the harsh, reduced circumstances that follow, in which all the comforts, enrichments, and freedoms of urban Modernity are gone, and the beauties of our natural world savaged beyond recognition, will still live (poorer, nastier, more brutish, shorter lives, but still live), and in those moments when they are not struggling for bare physical survival will maybe even share a laugh or find love.
This sort of thing strikes me not as optimism but the deep despair of which there is far too much about, which is far too fashionable (Exhibit A: the notoriously misanthropic and Luddite Jonathan Franzen, far out of his depth, writing on the subject last year from the standpoint of that bleakness towards which a cultural snob so readily tends), and which seems to me to be making catastrophe more rather than less likely. (Climate defeatism leads to the same place as climate denialism, which is probably one reason why the consent manufacturers fling so much of it at us.) I might add—and I do not think this was entirely irrelevant—that the stories’ authors showed surprisingly little interest in the real-world science, technology, and politics of these matters, and did not offer very much about how we got from here to there, confining their attention to the “present” of their futures. There were exceptions (the most significant was Jaymee Goh’s “A Field of Sapphires and Sunshine”), but by and large the pattern prevailed, and apart from meaning the absence of much attempt to envision something other than the “easy” scenario of collapse, or simply take a more sophisticated approach to some of the relevant issues, and all that can bring to the discussion, it meant that for all the variety of protagonist, setting, and even subgenre (if largely light vignettes, there were other bits in there, ranging from murder mystery to outer space adventure), a tendency to a certain dramatic and aesthetic narrowness and sameness.
Still, the differing approach attracted my interest, as did Ulibarri’s remarks in her introduction to this volume, which stressed that her goal here is to present tales that “reject the inevitably of our doom” and let readers “find something in these worlds made of words that will bring … hope for the times yet to come.” And while I admit to wondering if she was not promising optimism too lightly (it would not have been the first time), she did pointedly note that community need not be small-scale and rural, and that the new collection would not be so “coy” in addressing how those worlds came to be what they are.
With this in mind I took up my copy—and have to admit that, reading straight through, the first few stories were discouraging in this respect, seeming to offer simply more of the same as the last volume. Wendy Nikel’s “Wings of Glass,” Holly Schofield’s “Halps’ Promise,” and Sandra Ulbrich Almazan’s “A Shawl for Janice” have their good points. (Nikel’s “Wings,” in particular, if less technically impressive than her contribution to the previous anthology, “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees,” still has some striking images—while raising that too easily slighted question, what about those for whom “community” has failed?) Still, they remain stories of the sort of post-apocalyptic existence all too familiar from Solarpunk Summers. (“Imagine … hiking for pleasure, rather than for forage or for meat. It boggles the mind, how people used to live,” Nikel’s narrator tells us. Some optimism, that.) Steve Toase’s “The Fugue of Winter,” where music is little more than a memory, is not all that different in this respect, even if it ends on a relatively hopeful note. Sarah Van Goethem’s “The Healing” imagines an exotic super-Modernity of cities of two million, and hyperloops, but even at first glance it appears strange, remote, as far on the other side of a Dark Age as the modern world is from the Romans—and that is indeed what proves to be the case. (Goethem tells us twenty-first-century people that our “window of opportunity” for really avoiding the worst was the 1980s, and while humanity “narrowly avoided annihilation by one degree,” collapse came, vast numbers of lives were lost, and all that time and change later, we are still dealing with the “earth warming,” as on a more modest scale the narrator faces the comparable demise of her own living city.) If put more gently, in line with their particular settings (an artists’ commune, a schoolroom), there seems something of this too in Heather Kitzman’s “The Roots of Everything,” and Jerri Jerreat’s “Rules for a Civilization” (where it is casually mentioned that the islands of the Caribbean have largely vanished, and the American South has been largely depopulated, as a teacher and her class in a Toronto skyscraper buckle down for the onslaught of a hurricane). Commando Jugendstil and Tales from the EV Studio’s “VIAM INVENIEMUS AUT FACIEMUS” (the title is written in all caps) is less bleak, but similarly stresses locality and “making do.”
All the same, progressing further into the volume I increasingly found that alongside these stories of hard civilizational crashes and dark ages (however sanitized, silver-lined, or prettified), there were other tales going different routes. With “Oil and Ivory,” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, we get some real engagement with the science and the politics. We see climate change presented not as some one-time event removed from our observation and consideration by its discrete placement in a past to which the characters refer only in shorthand, but as a process rooted in actual social forces and social conflicts—while in the protagonist’s fight to save a pod of narwhals, a reminder of that bigger natural world affected by all these developments. (We also get an all-too-rare rejoinder to the claims of self-satisfied simpletons that because there is snow on the ground somewhere in the world, ice in a particular patch of the sea, climate change must not be real.)
The fight in “Oil and Ivory” may be local, but not every one of these stories confines successful community to the village, its technology to DIY “repurposing,” or its time horizon to the present. In stories like Lex T. Lindsay’s “The Things That Make It Worth It” and Andrew Dana Hudson’s “Black Ice City,” there are visions of what was absent in the previous anthology, humans endeavoring and even managing, as Richard Nixon put it, the restoration of “nature to its natural state”—with Hudson’s story imagining disagreement about what, precisely, that state might actually be. (Here, solarpunk winters happen because people fought, successfully, to bring winter back to the world.) Thomas Badlam’s “Orchidaceae,” while depicting a collapse of the jet stream and subsequent ice age that seem fairly implausible and remote from most worries about what climate change will mean, similarly depicts its characters endeavoring to not just rescue civilization, but preserve the world’s biodiversity in a genuinely global effort. In a more modest way there is something of this spirit in Shel Graves’s “Set the Ice Free,” which, in contrast with the prior volume’s story of humans departed from a ravaged Earth forced to seek a new home (Blake Jessop’s “New Siberia”), an alien visits the people who stayed behind as others sought a new home and wound up saving their world. There is something of this, too, in Tessa Fisher’s “Recovering the Lost Art of Cuddling,” and R. Jean Mathieu’s “Glâcehouse.” And if relegating at least any overt treatment of the matter further into the background, I think the same can be said for the two floating city stories, Brian Burt’s “Snow Globe” and Catherine F. King’s “To the Contrary, Yes.”
Of course, the movement in this direction has its limitations. Compared with the stories of Ms. and Mr. Fix-It solving local problems (as in the pieces by Nikel or Schofield), there is little dramatization of the challenges being tackled when they happen to be the global ones. Indeed, the tendency to avoid depicting “the change” directly seems to apply with special force when the “repair” of the ecosystem is part of the story, suggestive of the difficulty of picturing such a thing actually happening (Lindsay’s story, in fact, centering on a centennial commemoration of those efforts), while there is only here and there a hint of the technical effort or political struggle leading to the result. In fact, given the light tone of most of the stories, which even more than in the earlier volume tend heavily to the charming vignette (no one murders anyone over coffee rations this time around), they can seem more like wishful thinking than a piece of worked-out speculative writing, or simply tacked on to other scenarios. (Reading, for instance, King’s breezy tale of a good time aboard a floating city, even encountering the reference it makes to the flooding of Los Angeles, I wondered how much real consideration of the issue went into the conception of Ys, and how much was just a chance to tell a pleasant tale against a Gernsbackian super-science backdrop.)
Still, if most of the treatments do not go very deeply into the issue, it seems only fair to remember that they are fiction first and foremost rather than forecasts or futurological scenarios, and that these are short stories rather than full-length novels with the scope for worldbuilding that a longer form affords. Especially considering how writers have long treated this matter, that so many in this group are presenting the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale—seems a step in the right direction from the standpoint of solarpunk’s ideals as laid out in the introduction: optimism, hope, and the rejection of “the inevitability of our doom.”