What is Solarpunk?

There’s a new genre in town.

Back in 2015 there were only four books on Amazon that popped up when you searched Solarpunk. (Now in 2019 there are 97 results). The first one published was 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. Though it came out years later Ann Margaret Lewis’ Warrior of Kizan is also an excellent addition to the emerging genre.

It’s still an emerging genre so a lot of the conventions have yet to be decided by so far bio-tech and environmental themes are common. But don’t think this a genre just for left-wingers. Only 1 out of these 3 books I’ve read so far could be classified as such. So far I’ve found most Solarpunk books do a good job at considering both the human & environmental cost of advancing technology.

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.

For example, in Donor, humanity is at harmony with the earth but at war with their moral natures. Human experimentation & genetic engineering are among the darker results. Becoming a kind of bio-engineered Vampire is even considered an environmentally friendly thing to do.

In Suncatcher– the world has survived massive flooding from rising sea levels and other environmental disasters but humanity has also risen to meet these challenges with new technologies and engineering feats. There is a really cool scene where you see Miami is a now a walled city surrounded by a low level salt water marsh. And solar-powered flying clipper ships have become a major source of travel that can bypass a lot of the ground destruction done to roads.

Warrior of Kizan has it’s Solarpunk elements on a different planet. There, a Sumerian-based Utopian culture has developed advanced bio-engineering along with mechanical engineering and the two technologies coexist in harmony.

This article was first published by Carbon Culture Review. You can find the full articles plus interviews with two solarpunk authors here:

Part 1 Interview with author Sheryl Kaleo: Solarpunk, a world in harmony with Nature but in Disharmony with Man. 

Part 2 Interview with author Alia Gee on Solarpunk & Environmental Disaster

Warrior of Kizan Fanart

I was a fan of Ann Margaret Lewis before I even knew who she was. My brother and I grew up reading her Star Wars The Essential Guide to Alien Species until all the pages fell out and had to be stacked back into the peeling cover. Then I found her Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Vatican Mysteries and The Watson Chronicles, which were a delight. But when I heard Lewis was coming out with her own original Space Opera I think my fan-geek squeals were heard around the world, not in the least because she also had some elements of Biopunk / Solarpunk in her worldbuilding. That book was Warrior of Kizan.

I was really taken with her world full of bio-engineered ships and a culture based on ancient Sumeria and I found myself doodling this lil portrait of one of the main characters. It’s set on one of the bio-ships and catches this moment where one of the main character’s, Dakhar, is contemplating the potential that he might be turning into a monster. This isn’t an exact scene from the book, more of a character sketch. For one thing, I think the armor they have on Dakhar’s planet is much more high-tech than the old world suit of armor I have him in here, but I’m tired of this trend of futuristic-warriors that are just wearing black padded leotards. (The Thor marvel movies for example aren’t my favorite but I have zero issues with the costuming.) Unfortunately I don’t think I captured the Sumerian influence very well but as a basic character sketch I suppose it will have to do.

I published a full review of Warrior of Kizan Here.

What do I mean by Solarpunk? Solarpunk is a subgenre of scifi that is VERY new. It only became a category on Amazon a few short years ago. If you want to find out about what Solarpunk is you can do so here.

Dakhar Talin, the Warrior of Kizan, aboard one of his planet’s space ships. (They grow their ships from plants on his planet.)

My Nerd Origin Story

I didn’t start out as a science fiction & fantasy fan. Up until the 10th grade my favorite genre had always been Historical Fiction. I think the nearest brush with speculative fiction I’d ever had was a 6th grade ambitious attempt to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I don’t remember if I finished it and to be honest I was much too young and inexperienced to really appreciate it at the time. Of fantasy I’d read hardly anything beyond the Narnia books. Thanks to a dyslexic mother  who’d taught me to read when I was five, I was already an obsessive reader but I wasn’t a self-aware reader. I enjoyed the stories but I never thought about what the words meant.

But in 10th grade I met Ms. Lockhart. Now I’ve had great teachers before and after her but for some reason or other I felt more comfortable talking with her than I had any other teacher since a very charismatic second grade young miss. I was already a suspicious and moody teenager prone to read the worst into someone’s words no matter their intentions but through some slow, possibly supernatural method Ms. Lockhart gained first my respect, then my trust and admiration– though I am uncertain she was ever really aware of it. In other Literature classes I’d always enjoyed reading the assignments but I found the class discussions boring and the conclusions obvious, but Ms Lockhart didn’t ask the obvious questions and I found myself thinking and debating about my beloved books in a manner quite different than I had ever done before.

In particular she began walking us through the development of literary movements; ancient myths & epic poetry, medieval chivalric ballads, the Romantic era, the Transcendental, etc. She helped us see how each movement fed into the next, how their art influenced the culture around it and formed the next succeeding movement. She showed us how the earliest writers of the Romantic era at first produced their art instinctively and later identified it’s differences from older styles and formed an established idea of stylistic expectations for their new genre, which the next generation in turn experimented with breaking. It was all absolutely fascinating.

The second thing that happened was I received a very strange Christmas gift. I received a battered copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It was from a step-relative who didn’t talk much to anyone. At first I thought the gift was some sort of passive aggressive snub, like he’d been pressured to give me something at the last minute and pulled an old copy off the shelf. But the man wasn’t by nature passive aggressive. In fact he remains the most painfully shy man I have ever met in my life. I think in the decade that I knew him I heard him speak only about five sentences. (Of course it might also be because he married one of the most talkative people I’ve ever met so it’s not like he had much opportunity to talk in the first place.)  Even when I later told him I’d read the book the result wasn’t a newfound common interest upon which we could build a friendship. In fact when I told him that I had fallen head over heals for the story he only blushed a brilliant coral crimson that started at the tip of his knobbly nose and bloomed across  his predominant cheekbones. Then he retreated to the other part of the house to refill his glass of sweet tea.

But I didn’t need a guide after that. Having tasted this strange new world or imagination I decided that one science fiction book wasn’t enough. After all, perhaps I only liked Ray Bradbury’s style rather than the genre? So to test myself I pulled down the book my Uncle had given my brother that same Christmas; the novelization of Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks.

YES- You read that correctly. Something good came out of the existence of Star Wars Episode 1.

See it’s not that my parents hadn’t tried. They’d done their best to raise me right. When I was six years old they took me to a fancy theater screening of the original series. When the alien in the bar got his hand cut off I got up and walked out of the theater. When they talked me into going to see The Empire Strikes Back a little while later it was even worse! This time Luke got his hand cut off! I think I was more horrified by that than anything that Darth-guy was saying. Needless to say my personal tolerance for gore and body horror has gotten better but is still VERY low. (It wasn’t until a college escapade with H.P. Lovecraft that I began to fall in love with horror but even now I like the psychological creepy-crawly stuff. I can’t do torture or rape scenes).

Now before you go judging me on that understand that Brooks actually does a pretty solid job at the novelization and fixes a lot of the problems present in the movie. Also keep in mind that until this point I was only vaguely aware of Star Wars. I quickly corrected that later and my parents still have several shelves worth of my Star Wars book collections in their bookcase.

Photo Credit:
Photo by Rick Han from Pexels

Only two books in and I knew that this wasn’t going to just be a literary crush I’d indulge in over the summer. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair.

I started asking myself the questions that Ms. Lockhart had taught me to ask. Where did this strange genre come from? How did it form it’s identity? What influences caused it? We were still in the midst of studying literature from the 1800’s so I assumed we’d keep moving forward in history and eventually get to it. I was very interested in hearing what my teacher would have to say on it but didn’t know if I could wait that long. So I asked her one day when we would start studying this strange new genre of science fiction.

We weren’t going to apparently. The answer stunned me. Why would a person be sent to school if we were expected to skip over a major movement in history? Also a lot of the questions about a literary movement’s origin were difficult to know with certainty simply because the movements we studied were developed so long ago. Surely we’d learn some valuable insights about all of literature by studying the development of something so recent?!

Added to all this was a streak of American pride. I’d read about how from my nation’s onset there had been a quiet obsession among American writers to produce something to set them apart from the long European tradition. And this, science fiction seemed to be the answer. When I searched for classic Science Fiction literature most of the authors I found listed were American ones, with the occasional Russian.

So I decided then that if school were not going to educate me I’d teach myself. I looked up a list of classic authors and determined to read a little bit by every single one of them. So I read through some of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert and of course as much of Ray Bradbury as I could get my hands on.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to get a grasp on the answers to my questions and found others with the same strange interest. In fact if you’re interested in origin and development of the scifi genre identity I recommend The James Gunn Center for Science Fiction.  They get into these things much deeper than I ever could.

But in the spirit of that inquiry I do think that I will write some articles tracing some of the more recent sub-movements of science fiction that catch my eye, Cyberpunk and it’s strange little sister Solarpunk to name two. Perhaps I’ll even get around to dissected the strange rules of the Scifi Mystery sub-genre.

 

Structure & Plot Tools for Story Telling

At a panel I gave on Plot and Structure I mentioned a number of resources I have found useful for quick plotting and general writer’s-block-busting.

For convenience here is the definitive list of links. I will try to update it as I find new ones.

  1. 7 Point Plot Structure by Dan Wells– Great for Hacking your brain, this structure is best plotted out NOT in chronological order. It’s great especially for pantsers because it lets you get down the basics without ruining a lot of details. I also find it works as a macro series plotter down to a micro scene plotter.
  2. Anatomy of a Story by John Truby–  Probably the most exaustive resource for delving into story structure and theory. I find it useful to read and refer back to but too detailed to go through all 22 steps. Still having it’s lessons in the back of my head helps.
  3. Take off Your Pants – Outline Your Books for Faster Better Writing by Libbie Hawker – This takes the high brow ideas of Anatomy and makes them concise and actionable. She also has some of the best advice on pacing I have seen yet. So if you want to write a book that reader’s can’t put down pick this one up.
  4. M.I.C.E. Quotient by Orson Scott Card – this is great for right at the beginning of a story creation. It helps you figure out your nature opening and beginning scenes and what sort of reader expectations you will have to fulfill. This delves into story type that goes beyond genre. You can read it in Card’s own words from his book or listen to Writing Excuses’s explanation of it.
  5. Writing Excuses Podcast– this short podcast has become part of my writing routine in helping me get into the right head space before I hit the keys.
  6. Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series – It’s a bit long but has some solid gems in there. If you want to make excellent plot twists, this is the master to learn from.
  7. Hague’s 6 Stages – great for coming up with my character arc and connecting internal actions and external ones. It’s also one of the few structures I have seen that break the 3 act structure and rethink it.

Sassy Dragons & Old Icons

Fanart inspired by the Dragon Eye P.I. series by Karina Fabian.

I have begun reading some stories set in the fantasy/ humor genre about a sassy dragon named Vern who gets pulled into our world from Fairie world and has to get a job as a Private Investigator because the government won’t let him hole up in a nice cave in a state park somewhere. (After all, he’s an invasive species.) It’s been a fun read and reminds me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s style of writing. I can very well see Vern and Nanny Ogg teaming up and going on adventures together.

A big pet peeve of Vern’s is how everyone thinks that being a dragon is synonymous with being an evil demon. There are hints that he did have a run-in with St. George but Vern continually swears he was innocent and St. George was being an annoying paladin about everything.  Given Vern’s ego, I’m sure there is more to the story. Regardless it’s been an amusing read and inspired me to make this fanart based on a medieval icon. Is that sacrilegious of me?

I don’t know. But if you like comedy fantasy like Terry Pratchett or just need some sassy dragons in your life I’d pop over here and give the DragonEye P.I. a look-see. (please disregard the bad covers a lot of the books have. The quality of the jokes is not reflected in the covers.)

Vines of Mars Deleted Scene: The Lost Prologue

What follows is a deleted scene from my upcoming book, The Vines of Mars.
John Crowley, author and creative writing teacher at Yale University, begged me not to delete this prologue, but I was still a very novice writer then, and as I edited and refined the story I realized that I would have to delete this section. Most of the information wasn’t relevant and my point of view character wasn’t Evana but her son, Tomas, who inherits his mother’s mistakes and is left to deal with the consequences. But out of gratitude to John Crowley, I leave this prologue here for your enjoyment.

“The second team found the astronauts’ skeletons wrapped in a coniferous cocoon of vines, their blood now feeding the flowers that bloomed around them in great cascading walls of greenery. The alien vines were what filled the air with oxygen, and warmed the atmosphere, that later her compatriots would bolster and augment as needed, directing the burgeoning environment into a second cocoon for humanity. But first, the vine sent out feelers like great intelligent Venus fly-traps, chasing the second astronauts back into their shell.
Life began on Mars the way life always begins; in a holy darkness, between communities of small hopeful stars. It formed, grew, and had it’s being long before the rest of humanity perked up from their stubbornly practical tempered wine glasses. We knew it would happen eventually; we had taken the precautions that we had the time and resources for. But like all life, it took everyone by surprise. Before the people in stiffly air-conditioned cotton collars admitted that it came for our blood, we only knew of it as a curiously large comet. It appeared out of the icy Oort cloud and winked saucy greetings at the naïve robots mining our asteroid fields. When a few lonely scientists spelled out the message on their calculators the world braced for death, and in the last minute throws of labor wrought out life. We deflected it. The moon-sized comet and its playful cloud of asteroids streaked across Bangkok’s night sky to crash instead into the face of Mars and spread its wet fingers across the expanse of two dead oceans. She watched the drama unfold in the fierce winter of break rooms, and through the screen of her media, feeling one in terror with the rest of her helpless race. She had not known they would come for her then, but first, they came for the world.
Humans in white and silver tubes, landing like locusts on the green summer dirt. Out of the flood of water that came with the comet, a thousand vines had split from the skin of the planet in the largest and most impossible desert bloom humankind had ever seen. She’d watched her family sit, stunned, around the hallowed glow of their screen, the light of a new heaven dazzling their imaginations. The reanimation of the planet’s magnetic field had been enough of an astrological anomaly– scientists were stalwart in the discipline of never using that tainted word: ‘miracle’. But it had been an invisible miracle for scientists, for the high minds that escaped the mundane and cracked open beer cans in NASA break rooms where she worked. When her toddlers rolled on the floor before the TV and laughed at the green light reflecting off each other’s faces, she knew she would leave them soon. But then the film stuttered, the voices muffled, and the signal dropped. Mars was silent and so was the first team, and she gained a little time while they searched. But even after they found blossoms burgeoning out of sockets and stomach, the second team never fully recovered the lost astronauts’ bodies.
Evaña watched from her TV screen as humanity struck back at life’s inconvenience. They brought their own plants and chose their own rivers, and burned away a wide circle of refuge. Vine-ash and rock made soil. Soil and seeded bacteria made arable land. Gas carried from the smoggiest cities of the world spread itself thin and humans walked the Mars with wonderment and copious amounts of sunscreen. And then they came to her, as she’d guessed they would eventually, and they asked her for a tree.
The officer they’d sent to convince her had peach fuzz on his upper lip. He’d talked about the future, about what an honor it was to be offered the job. To give the boy credit, he had been a wonderful poet, full of ideas and metaphors that hid behind his smile like cats. He’d called her “The Mother of Mars”, “the new ‘Demeter,'” and looked confused when she’d told him that she was already a mother. Didn’t she know how important this was? Didn’t she know this was the only salvation of man? It didn’t matter, what wars were won or lost. Life would cycle on, but in an endless, purposeless, and ultimately frail circumference if it never left that of Earth’s.
‘Frail’ was certainly an appropriate adjective. For seven days earth had lived in a state of frailty, chaos, and panic, when word of the impending comet had leaked out, but Evaña and her fellow scientists had lived in that state for three months, ever since the mining companies had reported seeing a comet the size of the Caribbean Sea hurtle past their mines toward earth, dragging along a cloud of asteroids in its gravity.
“Perhaps we had been too numbed by our success,” Evaña would think. Back in the early 21st century, it would’ve taken seven years. Now it would take no less than three years to garner enough international cooperation to throw an asteroid or a comet off course. But after their first reports they knew, for all the progress, they had much less than three years. Every day was spent waiting for the trajectory reports; every evening spent coming home, running through the door to clutch her oblivious children, to kiss her ignorant but worried husband. Eventually, the story got out. The first journalist refused to publish it once he had the truth, but the second wasn’t so clear-minded.
At first, there had been an upswing in looting and armed robberies but the robbers found the shop owners abnormally compliant. The damage to the world economy hadn’t been because of violence but because of extreme ambivalence. What was money worth when it would all burn the day after tomorrow? For seven days humanity left its work. Grocers left their doors open and unguarded, liquor sellers shared a bottle with their customers, and a group of artistically repressed stockholders made a series of papier-mâché sculptures out of their lose cash and records. After the comet had been thrown off course through a last-ditch engineering experiment, those same stockholders were-almost simultaneously- fired from their jobs, and then offered millions for their sculptures. The comet and asteroids landed instead on their red neighbor. But now it was obvious to every government official and corporate investor that humanity needed to get off this rock and on toward safer, newer ones. And wasn’t it obvious to her too? The young man’s eyes looked scandalized at her hint of disagreement, and she wanted to take all the bitter sarcasm inside her and throw it back into his stupid face.
“What was it like to come home every day and know that your children would never grow up?” she wanted to ask him. “That they would never fall in love or get married, or never learn how to fly in the hang-glider that her daughter had requested for her birthday? She’d wanted to ask the puffed-up-suit all of this, to crumple his nose and shave that stupid peach fuzz of his lip. She knew it was pointless though because after all, there was only one answer she could give.
She had known it then but still tried arguing with him. They wanted her to join the other scientists designing plants and animals that would thrive in a Martian environment and then transition over to attempting to re-engineer the vine to control its growing speed and patterns. But wasn’t there someone else who could fulfill the position? No of course not. In the field of Bioengineering only Evaña Villalobos and her teacher, crumbling Dr. Uchendu had been successful at actual creation. Most of the work in the reconstruction of the rainforest was done by other scientists who could recreate extinct plants fairly well but only she and Dr. Uchendu had been able to create entirely new life forms that fit the missing niches in the environment. “Of course she would have assistants,” he’d insisted. When the sage abuelo of modern science says that you’re the only one he would trust, the only one with the resolve and commitment to stare down the universe in the face, she can’t have expected to get off the hook so easily. At this Evaña tried cursing the white-haired Igbo, tried pretending she did not trust his judgment; would not follow him into that jungle.
Besides, it was only three years of training, said the peach fuzz above the mouth. But Evaña hadn’t cared about training. She was an academic, she’d been in school most of her life. It’d taken a few more minutes of strained conversation before he’d seen her twisting the ring on her finger. Then he told her that if her husband and children went into space training now they’d be able to join her after a separation of no less than three years. Evaña lost her nerve then. Tomȃs would be ten and Maria would be thirteen, a teenager. They would be seven and ten when she left. She would miss too much. But Evaña had already lived with the comet for three of the most painfully slow months of her life. After three months of study, she knew better than this young suit, who’d known of the comet a total of seven days. She knew her answer, the only answer she could give. She would not see her children in their childhood, but she would see them grow up. She would see them fall in love, and become whatever it was that they wanted to become. Her family, and a million families after them; all under the shade of the trees she’d genetically engineered, eating the crops she’d built in the basement of her iron-shod Martian home, eating and growing and marrying and birthing, and dying on two circumferences; twice the chance for life in relatively barren universe.”

New Artwork from the Vines of Mars Part II

In truth, this is the first drawing I made for this book, but as it more clearly indicates the nature of the first chapter I thought it prudent to release after.

The sky gave me some trouble because at first, my research indicated that my Martian sunset should be in hues of lime green and turquoise but after a conversation with another sci-fi writer, Allen Shoff, I was assured that once my Martian planet had a relatively-self-sustaining atmosphere the sky would take on a more familiar hue.

The dust storm on the left also gave me trouble and I don’t think I’ll ever be quite happy with it. Perhaps I should travel to a desert location and experience one in person before I could ever be completely satisfied with it.

The trees are deliberately inaccurate. My story opens in Autumn so the whole world is cast in golds and oranges. Symbolically such a choice made sense to me for the story but in visual art, it did not offer enough contrast.

The title is a joke on an oft-quoted adage from writing classes; “There are only two types of stories, A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Walks Into Town.” The Vines of Mars definitely falls into the latter category, though I hope it may be as original in the telling as it is typical of a beginning.

First Artwork from The Vines of Mars

This one comes from a short image at the start of my book. My main character, Tomas was born on Earth but spent his childhood on Mars. He has a childhood memory of finding this helmet and skull buried in the sand. As a young boy, the find was a precious romantic treasure but it hints at the planet’s long difficult past.

Below I’ve included an excerpt explaining a little of that past.

Martian Buried Treasure

“Above them, he could hear the wind howling through the tree limbs. “It’s autumn,” he reminded himself, so there was still a chance. It was the summer, not the autumn storms that were the worst. Autumn storms only lasted a few hours. Sometimes summer storms lasted for as long as a week. The amber curtain covered the whole planet in sand clouds and dust devils that rose into the sky like long twisted skyscrapers. Afterwards, everyone would come up out of their basements with brooms and shovels. The town would dig out their plants and homes again like nothing happened. Rarely, did anyone get stranded outside unawares anymore. If they did finding the body was likely to be gruesome. Once, when he was younger, he and his friend Amun had been digging a ditch for some fort or other, and come across a lost skull, picked clean by the wind. It wore a miner’s helmet, of the kind people used to wear back before the vines kick-started the atmosphere, back when this planet was just dust and silicon-diggers. The last storm victims had been Professor Whitehead, a teacher of his. A few weeks later an older kid in school, Langston Freeman, and his sister Maria disappeared on the same day. They’d never found Maria’s body but Langston’s mother was the unfortunate one to stumble across her son’s body first. Adele and the boys might complain about all the weighted clothing Tomás made them wear but he wasn’t about to back down. He wasn’t about to find them spread out over two square meters just because Martian gravity wouldn’t let them develop a proper bone-density. And, of course, there were more dangers on Mars than just the storms. Anything might happen to a person if they strayed outside the colony borders.”