On the Origins of Solarpunk

Guest post by Andrew Dincher

As a genre, science fiction (SF) has a vague and contentious history. Some would argue that the genre began with the utopian narratives of Early Modern Europe such as Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, while others argue that it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. On the other hand, some would argue that SF was a unique creation of the late 19th century, beginning with the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, then skyrocketing (pun intended) to popularity in the 1930’s with the creation of magazines like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Astounding Science Fiction.

Regardless, SF has a unique ability to speculate on the future of human, and in some cases other than human, existence. Though it would be a mistake to say that all SF examines the negative outcome of human civilization in dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives, many of the most widely read SF stories highlight the struggles of humanity in an already apocalyptic or dystopian world.

In steps solarpunk, a new movement in SF that examines the possibility of a future in which currently emerging movements in society and culture such as the green movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and certain aspects of Occupy Wall Street coalesce to create a more optimistic future in a more just world. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, however: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Like Newton, the solarpunk movement stands on the shoulders of giants: giants of science fiction.

By its very nature, SF pushes the boundaries of the imagination; speculating on the future, altered pasts, and wildly discordant presents. Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, an era commonly referred to as the “golden age” of science fiction, SF writers speculated on possible worlds and, in a more general sense, adhered to plausible hard SF stories. Authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Alfred Bester all wrote hard SF with an emphasis on the possibilities of the future. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, however, SF began focusing more on the soft sciences with a movement now known as the “new wave.”

Authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree, Jr., and Joanna Russ (just to mention a few) were some of the forerunners of the new wave. They wrote stories that focused more on the human condition in technologically advanced worlds, and focused less on science and technology. This is not to say that authors such as Heinlein and Clarke didn’t also discuss the human condition, and that authors such as Delany and Russ didn’t think about technology. But rather there was a shift in the overall tone of SF moving towards the social sciences.

Several pivotal SF novels, however, focused heavily on ecological and environmental themes. Frank Herbert’s Dune, a transitory novel that fits somewhere between the new wave and the golden age, explored the idea of a galactic struggle for “Spice,” a substance that expands consciousness allowing for precognition and faster than light travel. Dune also dealt with the ecology of an entirely desert planet and the struggles of human civilization to survive and adapt in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Similarly, other SF authors have dealt with ecological and environmental issues in their fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin, a new wave writer, deals with environmental and ecological topics in several of her works. “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” for instance, is a short story that discusses the possibility of an alien planet covered with vegetation that is, in and of itself, a single thinking, living, sentient being. Kim Stanley Robinson, who is currently writing environmental SF, in his novel 2312, sets up a dilemma in which humanity is able to terraform other planets such as Mars and Venus, but is yet unable to heal the wounds done to Earth through climate change. All of the ice on Earth has melted and New York—a still functional city—has been flooded, making it a “Super Venice.”

These authors also tend to deal with social issues involving the environment. 2312 follows many of the conventions that will be used by solarpunk authors by dealing with environmental justice and imagining a solar system in which humanity has found a way to be responsible with its environment. It could almost be considered a solarpunk novel, but since it pre-dates solarpunk, its place in the canon is unclear. Regardless, 2312 is a perfect example of what solarpunk embodies.

Out of these various incarnations and phases of evolutionary twistings and turnings, solarpunk has emerged. As a genre, it sits atop the shoulders of past science fiction visionaries. No one can know exactly what this new genre is destined for, but its origins are clear.


Andrew grew up in central Pennsylvania. He attended Lycoming College where he double majored in English Lit and History. There, he met his wife and love of his life, Phoebe Wagner. He graduated in the spring of 2015. He has worked as a historical researcher, gardener, and arborist. He is soon to be an Iowa Master Gardener, and plans on getting a Master’s degree in American Studies. He is an avid reader and has studied science fiction literature. Both Andrew and Phoebe hope to one day start an organic farm in central Pennsylvania and to write many novels. He can be found on twitter: @adincher775

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