The Politics of Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Rise of Solarpunk

Image credit: ecowatch.com/
Image credit: ecowatch.com/

A while back, I submitted an academic paper on the politics of science fiction and how Kim Stanley Robinson was using his knowledge of hard science to create science fiction stories that realize more utopian (or solarpunk) themed outcomes. I was able to pull a lot of wonderful insight from other writers across the genre and I thought, with a little tweaking here and there, it would make a pretty decent blog. And, so, here you have it – refreshed and legitimately “re-cycled.”


Today’s literary science fiction is eerily comparable to the current American political climate – drenched in a dystopian landscape full of dark futures and doomsday scenarios. While our culture is saturated with an apocalyptic fascination for ecological disasters, Kim Stanley Robinson is using his influence to help shape a major science fiction sub-genre. Solarpunk is considered one of the fastest growing sub-genres making headway in modern literature today.  It challenges the status quo and encourages mobilization toward environmental solutions and effective change.  Robinson uses a more innovation based, scientifically backed, utopian voice, which looks beyond the debate of climate science, to position solarpunk as literature’s parallel to a political revolution.

So, what exactly is solarpunk and how is it different? As I’ve stated in the past, possibly the prettiest definition I’ve stumbled across to date is this: Solarpunk identifies with a new ecologically positive, futuristic speculative movement that stresses a vision of a positive future with positive outcomes.  This is a future that sits beyond scarcity and need.  It is a visionary existence where hierarchy is shunned for a collective good.  It is a future where our species is reintroduced to the natural world, while technology is remanded to purposes which further humankind’s needs on a whole, while continuing to remain ecologically green.  Solarpunk breaks through the historical boundaries of science fiction and embraces the idea that “while the future might be an overwhelming prospect, it doesn’t have to be frightening, and it doesn’t have to hurt” (1).

Image credit: 123rf.com
Image credit: 123rf.com

To understand why solarpunk is gaining traction as a science fiction sub-genre, it is essential to recognize the historical influence politics and science fiction have had on each other, and why that influence is important. Looking back at the history of science fiction, it is not difficult to see patterns at work.  The partnership between the two subjects can be traced back almost 300 years to the publication of Gulliver’s Travels (2). Viewed as a story heavily infused with political satire and peppered with elements of fantasy, there are also many strong, emerging science fiction elements present, such as utopian and dystopian societies, and flying islands inhabited by scientists (3). This association continues in other important pieces of science fiction such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (4) and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (5).

In Frankenstein we are introduced to the pre-Victorian age’s view of the expanding scientific field.  Frankenstein is a story which highlights the repercussions of an unregulated, morally bankrupt scientist playing “God” (3). The daughter of two of England’s most well-known intellectual radicals, Ms. Shelley wrote Frankenstein in direct opposition to her parents’ utopian outlook on scientific and political matters.  By focusing on a more pessimistic and cautious view, she executes an alarming interpretation of how both ideologies could shape society’s future (6).

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne introduces science fiction to a strong use of Libertarian ideologies through his character, Captain Nemo.  Nemo is a brilliant researcher who was ostracized from civilization and harbors a deep distrust of the military industrial complex.  A strong desire to keep his ship, the Nautilus, from falling into the hands of a corrupt military drives Nemo to keep the ship secret from those he considers to be the self-appointed “elite.” These anti-establishment and anti-military leanings are highly prevalent in modern day science fiction (7).

Additionally, the last 120 years have produced many science fiction classics which have helped to influence science and push political scrutiny well past established comfort zones.  Some further examples include The Time Machine (8), A Brave New World (9), and 1984 (10).  These classics all center around how the roles of scientific, political, and societal views influence humanity’s actions and, in turn, affect the environment.

Image credit: oksigenlab.eu
Image credit: oksigenlab.eu

The argument for the importance of the influential role politics plays in science fiction can be found by taking a detailed look at the relevant demographics.  For example, a 2010 Harris poll found that more than 26% of Americans read science fiction compared to the 17% who read political pieces.  A large portion of science fiction readers tend to be younger, with 31% falling in the 18-33 age range; and research has shown that a person’s political outlook is more prone to persuasion when they are younger (11). Further, those who read science fiction are more likely to be professionals who have received a higher education (12). A study conducted at the 31st World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto found that 52.8% of convention goers had either received, or were in pursuit of, a 4-year degree, and 24.5% had attended graduate school (13).  This is important to note because those who have received a higher education tend to be more politically active (25).  Finally, there is historical data which shows science fiction influences our perception of what the future could hold in relation to political structures and economic trends (26). By pairing up the knowledge that science fiction has the ability to shape society’s perspective of what the future may look like, along with demographics that present those who read science fiction as young, impressionable, educated, and politically active, we begin to see how important political influence can be on the genre’s audience.

Nowhere is that influence more evident than in matters such as climate change.  The rise in the solarpunk sub-genre can be tied back to growing concerns surrounding the global climate crisis.  For example, the increasing awareness of the harmful effects humanity has on our ecosystem. More Americans today acknowledge global warming is happening than they did last year and, more importantly, they are acknowledging that mankind plays a role in that increase (14).  Even Pope Francis has gone on record stating, “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation…” (24)

Climate change is deeply embedded in science fiction and remains a highly charged and hotly contested topic in political discussions. This association between politics and science fiction has presented authors like Kim Stanley Robinson with a link in which to introduce their unique brand of positive visionary change to science fiction enthusiasts.  Tiring of the destructive and cataclysmic norms, those same enthusiasts had already begun calling for a change in dialog. RoAnna Sylva, author of Chameleon Moon (15) states: “The term “gritty” has become a selling point.  Science fiction is brimming with dark, grim, scary futures while our present is becoming increasingly frightening and dangerous – many people are yearning for more positive outcomes” (1).

By writing stories which embrace the idea that the future doesn’t have to be rife with dark and dismal dystopian landscapes, Robinson is creating those “positive outcomes.”  A rebel among his peers, he is well known for his work in “hard science fiction” – where he relies on a solid knowledge of recognized, natural laws (16).  Described as a “spiritual descendant” of Jules Verne, Robinson deals very little in the “fantasy” arm of the science fiction genre. His expertise in actual science and technology is vast and impressive, giving his work the impression that it was written for a future that is “the day after tomorrow” (17).

Image credit: Robin Wood
Image credit: Robin Wood

Dystopia is a staple in science fiction. Robinson has stated that “anyone can do dystopia” because it is a common theme that is threaded throughout our society.  However, he holds firm that utopias are much harder, and more important “because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better” (16).

Through environmentally charged works such as Three Californias (18), a trilogy which depicts three possible futures for California through the use of environmental and political approaches; the Mars Trilogy (19 where scientists establish agriculture and effectively change the atmosphere to make Mars hospitable to humans; and The Science in the Capital (20)series which tackles climate issues that are currently wreaking havoc on Earth, Robinson successfully showcases this more utopian direction.  Further, Robinson’s work is considered rich in human involvement, suggesting scientific solutions that are entirely possible, plausible, and attainable – if we wish to make the future better than the present world we live in.  This is the main tenant and qualifying ideology of the solarpunk movement.

Image  credit: Shutterstock
Image credit: Shutterstock

Robinson helps clear a path for discussion by avoiding the extremes of apocalyptic ruin and impossible perfection.  Instead, he opts to open up the conversations to possibilities.  These conversations are sparked when Robinson gives his readers a glimpse of future worlds completely dependent upon their action, or inaction, in the present. For example, his Three Californias trilogy (18) outlines three very different futures for Orange County, California, from a nuclear holocaust in The Wild Shore, to a capitalism-gone-mad, overdeveloped county that pushes one man out of apathy and excess and into epiphany in The Gold Coast, to a modern utopia consisting of healed ecosystems achieved through innovation in Pacific Edge. This series delves into the different types of future scenarios we may very well face as a species – each one completely within mankind’s ability to create now, and none of which fall outside the realm of plausible possibilities.

In his Mars Trilogy (19), Robinson brings his knowledge of hard science to the mix by introducing readers to a future project of making Mars livable for humankind, a possibility currently under debate in present-day scientific communities.  One of the primary themes of the story resides in the struggle with how we approach this process – should humanity change a planet’s ecosystem to support life, or should we keep the planet pristine and instead change human actions to avert an environmental situation’s ability to evolve in the first place? In this series, Robinson uses not only science and technology, but he also dives into other significant areas of influence such as politics, economics, business, and social trends. He brings with him an in-depth understanding of why society behaves as it does, and explores the possibilities and problems associated with social behavior in terms of scientific advance (17).

Image credit: eppgroup.eu
Image credit: eppgroup.eu

Robinson also employs the use of current situations to create a realistic picture of the environmental perils facing society. The Science in the Capital (20) trilogy relies on a type of ecological realism which helps illustrate a climate disaster currently in full swing – rising rivers, tents in trees, and sleeping bags arranged for increasingly colder winters (21).  Here, Robinson illustrates that there isn’t a catastrophic event looming on the horizon – it is, in fact, occurring now.  He successfully introduces the “social life” of eco-activism at a point where humanity actively engages with the idea of environmental advocacy across “personal, national, and global” levels (22).  This series touches on more positive outcomes by showcasing what humanity is capable of accomplishing when we shake off our tendency to lean towards apathy and denial. Robinson achieves this by showing society that, when we refuse to continue a culture of handling issues through hindsight and employ our knowledge and ingenuity to avert looming disasters, we are truly capable of achieving a brighter future.

Image Credit: solarpunkwitch.tumblr.com
Image Credit: solarpunkwitch.tumblr.com

Robinson’s utopian slant may put him at odds with the current dystopian saturation in science fiction, but it also presents him with a clear channel in which to broadcast more positive solutions to rapidly elevating climate situations (16).  Joining him in that approach are other influential science fiction authors such as Terry Bisson, whose work combines both humor and environmental action, and Ursula K. Le Guin whose work is a study in environmental utopias (1).  This collective voice is beginning to resonate with other writers who are, as RoAnna Sylva stated, “yearning for more positive outcomes.” (1)

In contrast, many popular works of science fiction focus on future scenarios that occur after disaster has descended, by using dystopian settings brought about by corrupt governments who come into power due to devastating climate change.  For example, in Suzanne Collins’ highly successful Hunger Games (23) series the climate issue is mentioned only briefly and then disappears. However, it is the catalyst for the oppressive regime coming into power and then stifling the free will of the people – a story line with strong Libertarian leanings. That oppressive regime and out-of-control government then becomes the central theme, while climate change becomes a background issue to the politics. Robinson does not use this approach in his work. He keeps issues in the forefront and presents the opportunity for humanity to intercede and change the future for the better.

Science Fiction can be viewed as a form of future-scenarios modeling; by keeping current issues in the spotlight the solarpunk movement suggests actual, measurable, and necessary change in our societies and our political establishments.  The movement helps to validate the idea that the closer to the present the science fiction elements remain, the clearer the thinking will be about what actions need to be taken to avoid ecological disasters. Robinson has said, “When we see the full range of potentials by reading a lot of science fiction, we can figure out better what we should be trying for as a society now. Thus I think all science fiction has a utopian underpinning, in that it’s a tool of human thought for deciding on current actions to make a better world for our descendants.”  This idea is spreading among influential science fiction enthusiasts like Adam Flynn, who perfectly sums up the solarpunk sub-genre:

Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually…it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community…Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears. (27)

A bold new idea is springing up from the seeds of solarpunk; one that wraps around a growing desire to envision a more positive, realistic future. This idea doesn’t shrink from the challenges it faces, but helps point us in different directions of exploration.  And, through this exploration, perhaps our species can find a way to utilize the tools we already possess, and the knowledge we already have access to, in order to realize a brighter, more sustainable civilization for our descendants (28).

Kim Stanley Robinson is using his experience and expertise to shape solarpunk into a literary equivalent of genetic evolution.  Solarpunk has diverged away from standard science fiction’s use of end-times stories with no-hope scenarios – stories that rely largely on technological advancements, and are the result of government failures that are heavily rooted in politics. By placing the weight of ingenuity and responsibility to create a better future squarely back on the shoulders of humanity, it challenges the brightest minds to think differently about what the future should, or could, look like.  This is accomplished by removing the reach of science fiction’s historically political influence and replacing it with a different outcome – an outcome which can only be achieved through a combination of critical thinking and a synergistic cooperation of humanity.  By embracing this vital and influential evolution in the science fiction genre, Kim Stanley Robinson is helping to position the solarpunk movement as one with the potential to change the literary landscape, political landscape and – most importantly – the shared landscape of our future.

Sources:

  1. http://www.scifiideas.com/writing-2/solarpunk-we-are-golden-and-our-future-is-bright/
  2. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/829/829-h/829-h.htm
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zp7dwmn
  4. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84
  5. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2488
  6. http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/sterren.html
  7. https://www.inverse.com/article/6413-finding-nemo-20-000-leagues-under-the-sea-as-unintentional-underdog-political-masterpiece
  8. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35
  9. Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1st Harper Perennial Modern Classics ed. New York;London; Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
  10. Orwell, George. 1984. Boston, MA, USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 March 2016.
  11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/04/29/the-politics-of-science-fiction/
  12. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/1163049?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  13. http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/13/berger13.htm
  14. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/The_Francis_Effect.pdf
  15. Sylva, RoAnna. Chameleon Moon. First ed. Spokane: Zharmae, 2014. Print.
  16. https://newrepublic.com/article/123217/new-utopians 
  17. http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4690/Robinson-Kim-Stanley.html
  18. Robinson, Kim. Three Californias (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, Pacific Edge). 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1984-1990. Print.
  19. Robinson, Kim S. Mars Trilogy. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1992-1996. Print.
  20. Robinson, Kim S. Science in the Capital Series. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 2004-2007. Print.
  21. http://www.theblackstonereview.com/articles/utopia-here-kim-stanley-robinsons-aurora
  22. http://sites.uci.edu/transscripts/files/2014/10/2013_03_03.pdf
  23. Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.
  24. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/23/pope-francis-climate-change-white-house-speech
  25. http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/04/25/civic-engagement-in-the-digital-age/
  26. http://lfs.org/newsletter/029/04/Somin.shtml
  27. http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/2014/09/solarpunk-notes-toward-a-manifesto/
  28. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/in-300-years-kim-stanley-robinsons-science-fiction-may-not-be-fiction/274392/

 

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8 thoughts on “The Politics of Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Rise of Solarpunk

    1. B.A. Mahrab

      There are so many incredible books that could have been mentioned, including Lessing’s series and, truth be told, I didn’t dive in as deep as I would have liked, or could have gone, with this one.

      Perhaps I’ll just have to make it into a series of posts. I know Shikasta could carry an entire blog all on its own.

      Thank you so much for the comment, Ben!

      Like

  1. Pingback: Close Every Tab from the Semester or Die Trying Links | Gerry Canavan

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Science Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Rise of Solarpunk | environmental critique

  3. B.A. Mahrab

    So, if all you get out of this piece is blah, blah, blah “religion” blah blah blah “progressive” without seeing the connections between politics and science fiction and the historical leanings vs. new ideas that are emerging (which is, you know – the point), then I feel kind of bad for you.

    Oh, and the “guy” (actually it’s girl, which makes me question how much actual thought you gave to your diatribe) has read quite a bit of science fiction – but my take doesn’t mesh with yours – so in your view, it’s crap. Fair enough.

    “If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.”
    —THOMAS MERTON, “NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION”

    ************************
    ETA: Oh dear, it appears I’ve struck a bone of contention with the very, very “smart” critic! Apparently Mr. Carlton has a deep-seeded dislike of Mr. Robinson – he even goes on diatribes to discredit and critique books he’s – admittedly – never read (http://file770.com/?tag=j-c-carlton). Well, I, for one, am HONORED to have earned the same kind of rigid, unbending ire as Mr. Robinson.

    Like

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