Solarpunk and Solving “Real World” Problems

On Monday, Dr. McCoy split us into groups and asked my group to research “solarpunk.” We learned that solarpunk inspires Jemisin’s world, Syl Anagist, in The Stone Sky. I had never heard of solarpunk, but I found learning about it fascinating, and it inspired me to think about concepts in Jemisin’s trilogy that I had not yet considered. Solarpunk is an idea discussed on many sites such as Tumblr, in which one blogger pictured 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… a balance of sustainable energy-powered tech, environmental cities, and wicked cool aesthetics.” The idea developed into a movement focused on sustainable cities with different systems of energy delivery, and imagining a future much different from typical apocalyptic cli-fi novels, in which the future is only imagined as bleak, and the Earth seen as being in a slow decline that will eventually result in disaster. Jennifer Hamilton, a professor at the University of Sydney explains of solarpunk: “Solarpunks argue that the problem with imagining such a dark future (or no future, for that matter) is that, while failure may be cathartic, it thwarts the possibility of thinking about alternatives.”

I think this point is interesting because so far, I have appreciated that Jemisin’s trilogy accepts that if a world is oppressive and built on inherently bad morals, it can rightfully be torn apart, and ended. This is different from how in a lot of science fiction, the apocalypse is seen as something that must be prevented at all costs. Our in-class research got me thinking about the concept of solarpunk as a response to the bleak future presented by climate fiction, and how some believe a focus on the apocalypse in science fiction prevents people from thinking of solutions to climate change that can help us in the future. I think this point has some value, as constantly painting the future of the world as doomed and headed for a disastrous end could certainly inhibit people from considering how to actually help save the world. Because of this, I wonder if some people would find Jemisin’s series to be problematic because even a society that originally appears to provide some hope of an alternative way of living—Castrima in The Obelisk Gate—is destroyed. However, I think that when writers present issues through literature—even ones that seemingly have no solution—they still get readers thinking about important problems, which naturally leads to a search for solutions. So while Jemisin does not provide actual solutions to climate crisis, the destruction of worlds (the Stillness and Syl Anagist) in her trilogy leads readers to ponder why the apocalyptic events occur, and no doubt forces them to think about real world issues and solutions to those problems in their own lives.

In addition to getting readers thinking about climate change, Jemisin details worlds of oppression, enslavement, and genocide that perpetuate the Stillness and Syl Anagist in The Stone Sky, and make readers consider the consequences of allowing such horrible systems to endure. I think that the fact that those who destroy the worlds in Jemisin’s trilogy are not seen as villains, and oppressive worlds are seen as deserving of an end, is valuable in terms of encouraging change, even if it does not pose specific “solutions” to real world problems. While Alabaster destroys the Stillness at the end of The Fifth Season, he is not considered a villain. And when Hoa explains how he destroys the world at the beginning of The Stone Sky, he justifies his decision: “Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place” (Jemisin 7). Although he causes so much death and destruction, he explains how when the earth shatters, it may be a disaster to many lives, but that those who are enslaved “would see the world burn before enduring one moment longer in ‘their place’” (Jemisin 7). In other words, when people are enslaved, the world should “burn” before they have to endure more time as oppressed peoples. Although I think I have a lot more to learn about the world of Syl Anagist that Jemisin introduces in The Stone Sky, it is clear from early on in the book that in Syl Anagist exists a group of enslaved people who seem to have been engineered or changed in some way from their original human forms. They have very little freedom and are treated as property. Hoa narrates, “We are the deficient ones, after all, stripped of much that would’ve made us human” (Jemisin 44). He continues to explain that he and the other people created like him “will understand that people cannot be possessions. And because we are both and this should not be, a new concept will take shape within us, though we have never heard the word for it because the conductors are forbidden to even mention it in our presence. Revolution” (Jemisin 50). It seems that when Hoa “opened the Gate, and flung away the Moon, and smiled as [he] did it,” this was a result of the treatment of him and his people as “possessions,” and a need for “revolution” (Jemisin 7). In Jemisin’s trilogy, worlds that oppress and enslave people are demolished through rebellion. I think this is enough to get anyone thinking about the impact of subjugation on Earth today, and about how society can change unjust systems. Thinking about solarpunk and the possibilities it has for making people discover solutions to real world problems like climate change caused me to contemplate the ways in which Jemisin uses her writing to get people thinking about issues in today’s world, as people on Earth struggle with climate crisis and oppression.

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