Dystopia is the order of the day, but it doesn’t have to be. There was a time when the science fiction genre was often used to envision utopias, to imagine the world as it could be one day. From the classic 50s vision of rocket ships, robot maids, and ray guns, to the yet earlier visions of crystal spire cities inhabited by peaceful people in togas, sci-fi writers told of a brilliant, beautiful future where anything was possible, and everyone could be happy. But, times changed, and with them, so did fiction, especially science fiction.
The Dystopian novel began to take root with Brave New World, rebutting H.G. Well’s utopian vision in Men Like Gods; 1984 warning of the future where surveillance and censorship have been turned towards totalitarian use; and Fahrenheit 451 portending a world of widespread apathy and censorship headed for nuclear war. This trend only continued with the rise of the Cyberpunk genre in the 70s and 80s, with writers like Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson portending worlds overrun by corporate overreach, drug culture, and other numerous societal and technological ills that began to flourish in their day. This trend has even struck a resounding chord with the younger, modern generations, with dystopian literature like The Hunger Games holding down lasting and prominent places in the public consciousness.
This trend hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. Succeeding generations of these utopian science fiction writers have borne witness to several downsides to technological and scientific progress. Environmental destruction, the widespread loss of privacy, constant distraction and social isolation, and the continued growth of unchecked corporate and governmental powers are just a few of the numerous issues that have been increasingly hard for people to ignore, especially with the widespread access to information the internet has provided. Coupled with widespread disappointment as the dates used in sci-fi came and went with nary a space colony or a flying car to be seen, and the once-prominent optimism in our culture’s vision of the future has almost completely been lost. With this widespread culture of despair, and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, the future, for most, looks hopeless.
But what if it weren’t? That's the question at the center of the new, emerging genre and movement of solarpunk. What if humanity isn’t doomed to destroy itself? What if progress and humanity aren’t mutually exclusive? What if the future could be great if we work together to build it? However, the first question this description probably begs is “what is solarpunk?” That question has yet to be fully answered, as the movement is still in its infancy, and it’s yet to have a breakout work to define it. However, artists and authors are already working together to bring it into full force, and at its core is a single purpose: to bring people hope.
Solarpunk envisions a world where technology has become clean and sustainable, where society meets the needs of both progress and individual freedom, and where the world has enough room for anyone and everyone. It generally rejects trends of globalization and corporate growth in favor of small, self-sufficient settlements where small communities thrive together. Even these, however, are more guidelines or suggestions than rules. All solarpunk needs are a vision of a future with all of the benefits of technological progress and none of the drawbacks. Dystopias are well and good, and warnings serve their purpose, but they’re not what our culture needs right now. People need hope, now more than ever, and in popular culture of pessimism, solarpunk promises just that.