For this post, I had planned to talk about solar punk, an emerging sub-genre of science fiction focused on worlds that use green technology. To educate myself, I picked up one of its earliest exemplars, the Brazilian anthology Solar Punk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (2012, English translation 2018). Yet in this volume, which advertises itself as “envision[ing] hopeful futures and alternate histories,” I found utopian desires thwarted. As a result, this is a more downbeat feature than I had intended but one with a positive call to action.
The stories in this volume do engage with alternative technologies, some in very creative ways, and some depict worlds that have solved or avoided some of our current socio-ecological problems. I loved the stories that gave a strong voice to indigenous traditions. But of nine stories, only one, Roberta Spindler’s “Sun in the Heart,” seems to me to depict a social order that is not significantly unhealthy, and several stories are frankly dystopian. The societies presented are mostly mired in the typical problems: war, violence, overpopulation, resource scarcity, and politicking. The social stance is perhaps best summed up by the title of the first story, Carlos Orsi’s “Soylent Green Is People!”
Now, as I’ve said, this is an early solar punk volume. As I continue to research solar punk, I have high hopes I will find a more utopian bent. Nonetheless, this collection fits uncomfortably into the general state of worldbuilding in genre fiction today, which is to say, the nature of our ability to imagine the future.
In InterestingLiterature.com’s list of top 10 utopian novels, the most recent is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974): in other words, it’s 44 years old. On a Goodreads list of Utopian/Dystopian literature, eight of the first ten works are unambiguously dystopian. We have no trouble imagining our current world spiraling down into horror, but we have great deal of trouble imagining—even fantasizing—ways out.
This has real world implications. The writing for the socialist magazine, Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster recently argued that geoengineering will not effectively address climate change because the discourse surrounding it remains embedded in the same profit- and growth-oriented ideology that created climate change in the first place. He argues convincingly that to address the climate emergency, we must very rapidly and radically reorganize society, including such massive ideological changes as stopping growth and converting large-scale agribusiness into small-scale sustainable farms. Fair points, but this kind of change can’t happen if we can’t collectively imagine such changes. If our default thought processes are dystopian, our world will be too.
So where’s the positive spin? We have to imagine it. We must. I want to invite all of you, whether you are a writer, artist, sci-fi fan or not, to imagine the world you want to see, to think seriously about not how it could but how it would work. Believe that some version of that vision is possible. Do not abandon hope, but share your vision and live toward it.
As for me—in the spirit of practicing what I preach—my vision includes Foster’s moratorium on growth; a great pulling back to a slower, gentler global economy, including universal, non-coercive family planning services that include the ecological impacts of human population; and a strong, concerted effort to re-empower indigenous peoples as leaders in their own lands. How about you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.