Interview Part 2: Alia Gee on the New Sub-Genre Solarpunk

Interview with Alia Gee, author of SuncatcherWho came up with the term solarpunk? How did that word get coined and chosen instead of something else?

That would be my brilliant husband, Owen Evans. I was gnashing my teeth somewhere near the end of 2009, beginning of 2010, because I just couldn’t call it “steampunk” in all authorial honesty. He said, “You’re right… it’s more… solar-punk than steampunk.” We sort of looked into each other’s eyes and got goofy grins, because that word was so perfect for what I had made. Since then, I’ve just used the word as if I knew what it meant, and it’s evocative enough that no one has asked me for a definition… until now.

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

I already have! My short story Buffalo Gals, about women working the solar fields of the Kansas desert, has been kindly but firmly rejected by all the best sf magazines. I’ve got a handful of short stories set in the Suncatcher universe, and I’m about 10k into Suncatcher’s sequel, Windjammer, but the pace is glacial. I make George R.R. Martin look speedy. I’ve toyed with the idea of self-publishing the short stories, but I think I need to find a good editor before I inflict my words on the masses. (If any good editors are reading this, I need you! Preferably attached to a reputable publisher with generous advances and royalties. …A girl can dream.)

If not what sort of solarpunk stories or solarpunk art do you hope to see from others?

Um, if anyone wants to make me a cover for Windjammer, I’d love to see that!

What appealed to me about the term and culture around “steampunk,” was the hands on approach, the appreciation of beauty and cleverness, and the accessibility of it. I think the Victorian era was exciting because a person could putter in their garage and create (or discover) something new and relevant to larger society without having to have a clean room or access to high grade plutonium.

So what I wanted for Suncatcher, were ways and means to democratize discovery and creation that would still impact and improve life as we know it. If others are inspired by that vision, then I hope they’ll explore how to decentralize power without cutting off heads. That’s what I’m working on with my stories, anyway. How can the little guy—while working with other little guys—create a better future for the rest of the little guys-with solar power, of course, because it’s obviously better.

You said in an interview with author Michael Formachelli that you were prompted to write Suncatcher because you wanted to read a third wave feminist steampunk adventure without whitewashing history. What was your strategy for achieving that?

(For the record, I talked a little bit about why I do it on my blog) I think the first rule I made was, no generic white people. That is, everyone has a back story. (I found Justine Larbalestier’s blog, both inspiring and informative on this whole “how does a white girl write other ethnicities respectfully” thing. Pretty sure I cribbed that rule directly from her, too. Steal from the best, people, steal from the best.) I mean, walking down the city street I present as generic white girl. But being half Polish informs what foods I like (though who doesn’t like pirogies?), and I grew up bumping around Pennsylvania so I need wild green spaces near me or I lose myself a little. (That’s the excuse I use for the state of my backyard, anyway.) Once you know a little bit about a character, they can’t be generic… and they can start surprising the author and the reader.

The second rule (and I apologize for not remembering who I stole this from, but it might have been N. K. Jemisin and her blog, … And if it wasn’t, I got other good things from her, so props to her) was, if there was someone from a particular/identified ethnicity, make sure there was a second person from the same ethnicity somewhere in the story. That way, no one character has to carry all the weight of cultural expectation, they aren’t tokenized, and I’m less likely to completely screw up. I was really keen to minimize screwing up.

Does your story touch upon evolving racial and multi-racial identities?

I certainly hope it does. Pari and Radicand’s father is Welsh, their mother is Pakistani, and they’ve got a Jewish ancestor… so yes, multi-ethnicity is a basic part of their identities. This wasn’t a huge stretch for me, frankly, because we live in one of the melting pottiest parts of the melting pottiest city on earth. My kids’ nursery schools were a middle class United Nations. It seemed natural to extrapolate from there.

I think it’s painfully clear when an author puts politics before plot. What I hoped to do was normalize diversity such that it wasn’t worth commenting on, it was just there and integral to the characters and therefore their every action came from this place where they were comfortable with their whole selves… whether or not others were was not their problem or responsibility.

You also said that you were inspired by a lot of the political conflicts going on at the time: the Occupy Wall street Movement and the Katrina tragedy. How does this inform the villains in Suncatcher? Are there other examples you would point aspiring solarpunk writers to as being good examples of solarpunk-style villains, conflicts, or heroes?

I actually wrote the first two drafts before Occupy Wall Street was a glint in Adbuster’s eye. I was more freaked out by Lehman Brothers’ collapse and the fact that no one was dealing with the economic disaster that it foreshadowed. Katrina and swine flu combined to force me to create a world where all the terrible things I feared happened, but my grandchildren still had a chance at happiness, or else I don’t think I would have been able to function in society anymore.

The villains in Suncatcher are smart, loyal and creative. They misplace their loyalty, however, and do not value the things that I think people in a healthy culture should value. …I think a creator’s villains tell you more about the creator than the genre.

Radicand and Pari Jones are both highly educated women who suddenly find they enjoy the blue collar work of running a solar harvesting ship a lot more than their collegiate lives. Do you think this is a theme that others stories will touch upon as they contemplate seriously addressing global warming and economic inequality?

I think that balance is important—I would say that Pari and Radicand enjoy work, whether it’s physical or mental. They both have kept their esoteric work while also doing the day to day work necessary to keep a flock of airships defying gravity.

I think that economic inequality gets justified by placing a higher intrinsic value on some people’s leisure, health, and labor over others. I think we will need to take a hard look at the systems in place and radically alter them if not outright subvert and destroy them, if we want to survive climate change.

I hope others will come up with good answers to the question of how, whether it’s through fiction or graduate student research. I think it will take a group effort to come up with enough smart solutions to get us through.

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?

THERE ARE OTHER BOOKS THAT ARE LABELED SOLARPUNK??? THIS IS SO COOL!…hm. I have no idea.

The aether in Suncatcher is very similar to internet cloud spaces in cyberpunk novels. But instead of being gritty and digit filled your hackers use colorful fantasy like interfaces to translate their actions. How does the aether in your novel tie into the problems associated with global warming, eco friendly living, and small businesses instead of corporations?

During the quarantine on the Pacific Northwest, some business transactions and cultural events moved to the aether rather than meat space—which would save on gas. But who has access to the aether, and how that connection is mediated by class and power, is something I’ve explored a little bit in my short stories. Larger corporations, with their financial and programming power, can create a more homogenized and controlled user experience, smaller businesses have to rely more on the customer/client’s vision and hope for the best.

I would add that the aether came from a conversation I had with a friend who was really keen to teach kids mathematics through dance. From that came the idea of the aether— so while it certainly has similarities with cyberpunk, I was interested in a more kinesthetically (is that a word?) interactive experience with computers/technology. They are both ways to interact with computers and virtual reality, but I wanted a more whole-body experience.Cyberpunk seemed to be a turning inward, when it became obvious leaving Earth wasn’t as easy as the Golden Age of SF writers hoped. I wanted to pull people out of their heads a little bit, because I feel like the division between mind and body isn’t particularly healthy. :}

Also, Lois McMaster Bujold, a SF author I adore, once said that Romances are fantasies of love, Mysteries are fantasies of Justice, and SF/Fantasy are fantasies of power.

I wanted to play in a space where power was literal (solar!) and also imaginative and creative… so for me solarpunk is a conscious nod to that.

How does the aether add to the problems and solutions the world of Suncatcher is facing?

Like the internet, it can be isolating— but also communities form within it that would not be possible otherwise. For instance—and this isn’t something I was able to squeeze into Suncatcher but I thought it was a neat thing—people under quarantine could not go on hajj/pilgrimages to Mecca. So I imagined that pious Muslims would congregate in the aether around a symbolic Mecca and perform sacred rites as well as they could in that context.

A problem (that I’m hoping to explore in Windjammer ) is what happens when virtual identities get lost, stolen or strayed. Kind of like when someone steals your wallet, ipod, and grandmother’s wedding ring all in go… while wearing your underwear. It might also involve dancing elephants… It’s an awkward metaphor, still working on it…

One of the characters, Charlie, is a genetically altered human. You touch upon the moral crime of this and the social problems it causes for Charlie. Do you think genetic alteration of people and/ or the environment is a theme that ties in with solarpunk or just near-future scifi?

Heinlein was writing about it 50 years ago, so I wouldn’t pretend it’s special to solarpunk. But I think it’s very likely part of our near future, so it’s better to start thinking about the problems and pitfalls before we actually have to face them in real time.

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