Interview Part 1: Sheryl Kaleo on the New Sub-Genre Solarpunk

Alia Gee on the New Sub-Genre SolarpunkThere’s a new genre in town.

Solarpunk got its start on Tumblr with this post by Miss Olivia Louise:

Solarpunk – a plausible near-future sci-fi genre, which I like to imagine as based on updated Art Nouveau, Victorian, and Edwardian aesthetics, combined with a green and renewable energy movement to create a world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies, to dress makers and jewelers, and everyone in between. A balance of sustainable energy-powered tech, environmental cities, and wicked cool aesthetics.

So far there are four books on Amazon that are labeled Solarpunk. The first one published is Solarpunk, a collection of short stories from a Brazilian literary journal. (Unfortunately the book is in Portuguese with no translation available.) The other three are Donor by Sheryl Kaleo, Suncatcher by Alia Gee, and Viral Airwaves by Claudie Arseneault. Both books’ settings involve near future worlds dominated by eco-friendly technology.

In Sheryl Kaleo’s book Donor, the solarpunk world is “perfect” as technology and nature are finally in balance with one another. There is an amusing moment when the main character, Shreya, freaks out at the sight of a cell phone covered in that hazardous plastic material. In a trans-humanist push to improve humanity scientists create bio-engineered vampires, or “Leechers” so called for the special South American leech whose genes are integrated with volunteering humans. Cyborization also allow human to surpass their physical limitations as long as the special serum used to keep their bodies from rejecting implants doesn’t go sour and fry their brain into a zombie. In a world full of bio-engineered super humans the main character finds herself on the run to keep her own body from being farmed for its resources.


Interview with Sheryl Kaleo, author of Donor

Sheryl Kaleo-DonorDid you hear of the genre concept elsewhere or did you come up with the label on your own?

I came up with the concept and label on my own. But once I had it, I knew I wouldn’t be the only one. Solarpunk is a natural reaction for those of us who refuse to believe the world’s going to burn up in flames.

For me, the concept became real in 2003. While grieving the loss of a family member, I wrote Time Walkers, a novel about a teen girl who tries unsuccessfully to break into the motorcycle racing circuit and then time-travels to a perfect future where all is not what it seems. The novel went on to final and win in a few contests. That year, an editor asked why I wrote about the future when everyone else was writing historical time-travels. He liked my answer about a seemingly perfect world, and that’s when I knew I was onto something. The label Solarpunk came a few years later.

What, in your opinion, is Solarpunk?

Last year another Solarpunk enthusiast mentioned the phrase positive futurism. Love it. As a lifestyle movement, a philosophical ideology, and an artistic vision, it’s very inspiring. But as a sci-fi writer, that definition wouldn’t have worked for me.

When I do my world building, I have to ask—why this time? Why this culture? Why this world? Just like my characters, the worlds I build must have both virtues and flaws, which in turn create conflict for my protagonist. Otherwise, I’m just making more work for myself. (Ever try imagining a world without petroleum?) To get an idea of where to start, I looked to other genres and used the Wikipedia text on cyberpunk as a model to write a working definition of Solarpunk:

Solarpunk is a postmodern and science fiction genre focused on mankind in harmony with his environment but in disharmony with himself. It features advanced science, such as renewable energy and bio-friendly technology, coupled with a breakdown or radical change in the social order symptomatic of narcissistic neurosis.

In other words, the world is finally perfect, but doesn’t that bring our flaws as a species to full burn?

In short, Perfect world, Imperfect people.

Next, I needed a time line to define all of the various technologies: Solarpunk begins post-now in a world that uses renewable, bio-friendly energy resources and building materials—a world capable of, but weighing the ethics of, genetic and bio-enhancing technology. The time line spans from the use of solar energy to ambient energy, and may include teleportation as well as anti-gravity devices. The time line also spans from a fusion of the new and old (bio-friendly and historic architecture side-by-side) to cities in the sky where the earth below has been restored to its natural, pristine state and global pastoralography is a viable science. The time line ends pre-space exploration.

Solarpunk may or may not be post-apocalyptic, but I prefer the idea of building upon today’s cultures and politics and forecasting the possible future repercussions.

How do Donor’s world and villains tie into your ideas of Solarpunk?

In Donor, the world is at the beginning of my Solarpunk time-line. Venice is up in the sky, safe from flooding, but we’re still mostly earthbound with a mix of hovering and land-based vehicles. Most of the world’s ills have been tamed. There’s no pollution, hunger, war, disease—the world is perfect. What’s left to obsess about? Immortality and super-human abilities. In this perfect world, we’re so at odds with our own humanity we don’t want to be human. So we create monsters of ourselves, reflecting our own ugly underbellies, i.e. our neuroses. In Donor I’m exploring the question, what does it mean to be human?

Do you think you will write more stories that fit your definition of Solarpunk?

While I do plan on writing in other genres, I enjoy writing Solarpunk because it reflects my ideologies—my hopes (what the world could be like if only we’d…) and my fears (what could become of our problems if we don’t…). I have a number of books in the works. I’ve already plotted the sequel to Donor called Victim. I’m working on a book called The Glass Chamber that has cities in the sky and deals with turning the elderly into commodities by pseudo-euthanizing them. But the next one I hope to come out with is called Solarpunk because it fits my definition more tightly than Donor, albeit at the beginning of the time-line. In Solarpunk, they’ve completely embraced bio-friendly resources and global pastoralography is a way of life.

Have you found other outside stories or artwork that fits your definition of Solarpunk?

There have always been sci-fi stories that focused on perfect societies, although not necessarily perfect worlds. And just as with my definition of Solarpunk, there’s always a flaw to the perfection. One example is the movie Zardoz, 1974. Sean Connery plays a barbarian who’s closer to being human than the humans who have achieved a higher civilization. Their perfect society was in danger of dying out from ennui.

However, two examples that influenced my perception of the genre include Demolition Man, 1993 (fantastic world building and speculative fiction) and The Jetsons, 1962-1988 (cities in the sky, every need satisfied with a push of a button). Perfect futures? Check. Neuroses? In Demolition Man, the society has been predicated on a germaphobe’s ideals. In The Jetsons, poor George is a human cog. His facile life makes him feel both entitled and inadequate.

As far as the art…I like the bio-tech buildings I’ve seen online. I’d also like to see variations with a mix of old architecture and bio-tech cities in the sky. On Donor’s title page, my drawing has a gravity-defying building behind a Rockefeller Center where holograms of twentieth century icons come to life.

What sort of Solarpunk stories or Solarpunk art do you hope to see from others?

Solarpunk music. The best I can imagine would be something earthy and symphonic with nature sounds incorporated and just a touch of techno.

Clothing. Unless the society includes humans gliding from building to spiraling building, I wouldn’t expect anything too voluminous. For citizens living in the sky, a gust of wind could make billowing clothes deadly. Also, just because a society is advanced doesn’t mean they’ll eschew certain aesthetics. Jeans will always be classic, even if made from a different material. I’d like to see other writers’ definitions of Solarpunk, or even to see them interpreting or expanding mine. A novel or series I’d like to read is one that tackles our transition away from a petroleum-based economy. I imagine there would be political intrigue, espionage, and definitely explosions. That would be a cool book.

Donor’s main heroine, Shreya identifies as mixed, or multiracial, and while trying to find safety, she runs into other characters who identify as mixed, either mixed human races or mixed human and other creatures. Do you think that the exploration of a mixed identity is something inherent in the genre of Solarpunk or just inherent in your story?

The issue is specific to Donor. One facet of the story question what does it mean to be human has to be identity, of which race is a huge part. Also, our need to define race defines us.

Have you glanced at the other two books on Amazon labeled Solarpunk? How do you think they fit or don’t fit your definition of the term?

I haven’t read anyone else’s work yet, although I’ve peeked at the Tumblr group. For now, I’m limiting my exposure to outside influences. It’s like a puzzle for me. I don’t want to see how someone else solved it until I’ve figured it out myself. That’s part of the fun. As far as who fits or who doesn’t fit my definition…what works for me might not work for others. What matters is what inspires us.

The vampires (or Leechers as they’re called) and Cyborgs are both developed through a combination of genetic alteration and engineering. Do you think genetic alteration of people is a theme that ties in with Solarpunk, is explored in a unique way through solarpunk or is it just a feature of near-future scifi?

If the science were only an exploration on enhancing mankind through bio/genetic technology, that sounds more like cyberpunk to me. But bio/gen manipulation as a result of a neurosis or as a result of being in a too-perfect world and needing more—that says Solarpunk to me. It could also work as being inevitable because of who we are— humans can’t help but tamper.

The slavery that Shreya is running from in Donor is very unique. Her body, her blood, holds the secrets that could solve so many of her world’s problems. Her mother warns her that if this is found out by anyone her body will be farmed for its blood and resources. Is this dark look into bioengineering, bioethics and the medical sciences a part of your concept for Solarpunk or is it more tied up with the book’s depictions of human trafficking, slavery and Underground Railroad imagery?

Human trafficking, slavery, the need for an underground railroad in different parts of the world, whether it’s from Columbian drug lords or China’s intellectual oppression or the Middle East’s oppression of women…all of it is inhumane, isn’t it? The way we would treat someone like Shreya would make monsters of us. As a writer, I thought of actually taking her there, but I also wanted to keep this book YA safe. However, in the sequels to Donor, this issue of humanity and humane acts and how our actions define us is explored further.

What do you hope to see for the future of the genre?

I’d especially like to see the genre gain a cultural foothold because art, especially science fiction literature, pushes us culturally and scientifically. That means more writers, more artists, and more innovators need to consider Solarpunk a viable genre.

Right now, post-apocalyptic thinking seems to have become the de rigueur mindset—nuclear war is inevitable, we’re going to run out of resources, we’re killing all life on earth. It’s as though we can’t see past our own terrible end. That’s where science fiction excels—anything we see or read becomes real and therefore possible, even the fantastic. And that’s where Solarpunk can help. We can convert to clean power. We can rely on clean resources. We can do this…and then once we do (at least in my definition) we’ll have the real problem at hand—fixing us.

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