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Glass and Gardens coverGiven the theme of Sarena Ulibarri's Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers it seems that a bit of background is in order, specifically this whole matter of "solarpunk," and what it attempts to address. In brief, it is a matter of that greatest crisis of our time, the energy-climate crisis. Deep-rooted, colossal, and—in historical terms—rapidly and unswervingly progressing, the International Panel on Climate Change's latest report warns that its producing outright catastrophe may be less than a generation away. The margin for action to avert it may be half that, while still others call these dire estimates optimistic. Meanwhile, even as those who take the issue seriously are frightened to the point of continual panic, those who actually have by far the most power to redress the problem show virtually no interest in doing so, with meaningful action consistently failing to materialize; the business interests that fought against change for so long and so successfully show every intention of continuing to pollute as much as they can for as long as they can, while national governments show every intention of letting them get away with it.

In such circumstances, despair, useless as it may be, is hard to escape; hope is indispensable, but ever more difficult to come by. Where science fiction has confronted the problem, it has generally not escaped the tendency. Apocalypse, dystopia, and post-apocalyptic dystopia prevail in its treatments of the theme, as has been most obviously the case in the genre's biggest popular success of this century, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. However, this reaction has recently provoked a reaction of its own, one example of which is Ulibarri's anthology. The book's back cover, which reads like a manifesto, declares the titular “solarpunk” to be “a type of optimistic science fiction that imagines a future founded on renewable energies … stories of adaptation, ingenuity and optimism for the future of our world and others,” and “a breath of fresh air” for those “who are tired of dystopias and apocalypses.”

As might be expected given such a promise, the tales in Ulibarri's anthology do eschew the familiar apocalyptic and dystopian tropes, both the chaotic Mad Max scenarios and the totalitarian state-corporate kind. Only one story treats of a major, disaster movie-type crisis, Stefani Cox's “Fyrewall” (though in line with the volume's spirit worse does not come to worst). Instead, the plots tend toward small, personal stories of daily life—romances like Jerri Jerreat's “Camping With City Boy” and Charlotte M. Ray's “Under the Northern Lights,” or, surprisingly often, stories of festivals, like Jennifer Lee Rossman's “Riot of the Wind and Sun,” M. Lopes da Silva's “Cable Town,” and Helen Kenwright's “The Women of White Water.”

By and large these stories, in most cases quite technically accomplished (with Wendy Nikel's prose-poem “The Heavenly Dreams of Mechanical Trees” impressing me as the standout on a literary level), manage to charm and amuse as they clearly intend to do. One can see meaning in that, since in doing so they offer the expectation that we will still have a future about which it would still be possible to write small, personal stories about people finding love, or enjoying a public celebration—one which will not be nonstop horror.

Still, in their trying so hard to avoid dystopian and apocalyptic tropes, in focusing on the small, personal stories, it was easy to notice other absences—not least, in the collection’s attentiveness to the “big picture,” by which I refer to the state of the larger world, and the events that led up to it. This tended to be fuzzy, in most cases not overtly referenced at all, with such reference as is on offer tending to be scant and unspecific (only one story, Jaymee Goh's "A Field of Sapphires and Sunshine," making any attempt at offering a bit of future history). Additionally the stories’ backdrops tended to hew to certain patterns. While in some cases something like modern life seems to go on—most obviously in the Milanese-set “Midsummer Night's Heist” (co-authored by two writers’ collectives, Commando Jugendstil and Tales from the EV Studio), or Goh's “Field”—urban life is more often referenced than depicted: even in Jerreat's story, for example, the protagonists may be urbanites, but they are, after all, camping.

Where the anthology does not altogether elide urban life and other such conspicuous trappings of modernity—as in Cox's “Fyrewall” or Nikel's “"Heavenly Trees,” or Edward Emmonds' “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend’”—there is virtually no thought of grand projects for setting a horrifically damaged and disfigured world aright. No one looking here will find a single tale of, for example, engineers greening the Sahara, or building a Great Wall of Antarctica to keep its ice shelves from collapsing. Meanwhile, for all the stories in which the protagonists concern themselves with food production, often in innovative ways—from D. K. Mok's “The Spider and the Stars” to Gregory Scheckler's “Grow, Give, Repeat”—I caught no reference to the cellular agriculture that might put “clean meat” on the market this very year. Indeed, the most technologically minded story of all is the one least consistent with the book's theme and aspirations to avoid the apocalyptic, Blake Jessop's “New Siberia”—which is not set on Earth at all but on another planet which humanity is attempting to colonize, after it destroyed the planet on which it was born.

Altogether it may be said that these writers eschew extrapolation, dense worldbuilding, future history, and “hard science fiction” generally, painting their futures with broad brushstrokes. It may also be said that the resulting pictures time and again present the rural setting, the small-scale community in a world where there was no heading off the catastrophe, only living with it on such terms as we (the survivors?) could get—which are apt to be fairly austere, not least because human "ingenuity," whether social or technical, proved quite limited. Where political alternatives to what we have now are concerned, there is not much beyond the small-scale utopian commune or collective (as seen in Julia K. Patt's “Caught Root” and Holly Schofield's “The Call of the Wold”). Technology, too, tends to be not of the grandiose, "poetic" kind, but of the humble, DIY, “making do” variety which the conventional wisdom associates with "sustainability" (like the insect-based cuisine in Mok's story); and even the exceptions in this regard do not accomplish very much other than aiding “adaptation.” (Even the “weather generators” of Emmond's “Grover” are not cooling an overheated world, or diffusing its superstorms, but just redirecting them where they might do the least damage.)

All of this made the stories less diverse than they might have been—and, I suspect, less diverse than they were intended to be, given the broad range of settings and cultures depicted. (In just the Earth-bound stories, we venture from Kansas to Svalbard, from Milan to Malaysia.) More importantly, however, I found myself wondering just how optimistic these stories really were. The tendency to fuzziness left me wondering if the authors did not find it impossible to be optimistic in the face of the hard facts. Even while painting with those broader strokes, the stories in this “breath of fresh air” for those “tired of dystopias and apocalypses” consistently present scenarios in which humanity wrecks the Earth and has to passively accept the result, or worlds where people murder each other over coffee rations, or in which the very last tree has died, or what remains of the species is forced to forsake its home world altogether in search of a new home in another star system. It seems painfully clear reading these tales that, where the issue is clearly addressed in these stories, the apocalypse did arrive with full force, such that their optimism looks more like “climate defeatism.” The story that most clearly breaks with this pattern (in its preserving modern life, and its explaining how we got from here to there), Jaymee Goh's “Field,” equates “nuclear wars” and “food scarcity” with “zombie invasions”—fears that never came to pass in a timeline where the apocalypse never happened, avoided by the vague yet obviously gradual supplanting of fossil fuels by solar as the new basis for an energy mix that permits the species still to travel the world on luxurious airships … and in the process, gives the impression of hand-waving.

All of this had me thinking about the problem with optimism itself—with how the term all too often means a refusal to face problematic facts, a complacent assumption that things will work out, a Panglossian insistence on putting a happy face on the horrific. These are traits of both climate defeatism and climate change denial, that active dismissal of the real problem with which the former shares so much beneath the surface. Both discourage and undermine the posing of hard social, economic, and political questions—and seek to forestall the criticism, alternatives, and protests to which they must lead. As the long history of debate about the subject demonstrates, opponents of change fluidly switch back and forth from “No, climate change isn't happening” to admitting that “It is happening, but there's nothing we can do about it”—and back again.

In contrast with the oil company-funded spokespersons pretending to be scientists, and the bought politicians, I do not think those involved with this anthology aspired to these effects. Yet, what they deliver does not seem so very different in approach: this anthology does not look our problem in the face and muster solutions; instead, after our failing to do so, and suffering what seems likely to be the greatest catastrophe in human history, those who come through the catastrophe are depicted as still being able to laugh and love—for a while, anyway. Few of us would call a story that treated, for example, nuclear war in such a manner "optimistic," and I think that we should feel the same way about the similar treatment of climate change. The result of all this is that, in the end, this book, in spite of the technical strengths and the charms of many of the stories it tells, does not realize its worthy, stated ambition as fully as it might.

It is easy to see a reflection of something far larger in that, namely the package of ideas almost anyone in the mainstream brings to such challenges as this particular topic.

For the last generation or more mainstream thought has been a slave to “end-of-history” neoliberalism/neoconservatism and ahistorically-minded postmodernism (the latter arguably the fashionable, pseudo-radical face of the former), which have crippled the ability to imagine anything but the world continuing more or less exactly as it is, or there being nothing of modernity left at all. At every turn, this has encouraged the pessimistic, ironic, misanthropic Luddism that is infinitely safer politically, and much more fashionable and commercial (and also rather less work) than a properly informed, rigorously worked out, critical social vision. Genuine optimism in the face of our current problems—or, still better than optimism, hope—will mean moving past such safe and comfortable prejudices to really see our world for what it is, and what its possibilities really are.



Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, while reviewing and writing about science fiction. His published works include Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry, a history of science fiction focusing on the genre's most recent decades, and the novel The Shadows of Olympus. You can find him online at his blog, Raritania, and email him here.
3 comments on “Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers edited by Sarena Ulibarri”

Thanks for this thoughtful piece - hitting the right spot between optimism and realism is the issue.

Very thoughtful piece yes. So what you meant to say but didn't say is that stories are not solarpunk but cli-fi, right? See my site at cli-fi.net for more insight. Your review was spot on .

Thanks for your kind comments, Miriam and Danny!
Danny: I wasn't familiar with the cli-fi web site before, and only now just started exploring it, but I can certainly say it's packed with links to worthwhile items, enough for that alone to make it worth a look.
As to the categorization of the anthology's stories-I should also add that while I have offered a specific idea of what I would accept as really optimistic (admittedly tough to meet), I would not claim that any story that didn't meet that standard was necessarily not solarpunk. In fact, I would say that some of the stories in Glass and Gardens (like Goh's "Field") can be safely called that, even as others seem harder to classify that way (like Jessop's "New Siberia").

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