Religious Ideology and Solarpunk Science Fiction
Written by Rob Cameron
Illustration by Maxime Schilde
Published June 9, 2020
Octavia Butler, the Black science fiction author to whom all others were compared until the coming of N.K. Jemisin, published the novel Parable of the Sower in 1993, first of a trilogy. In her fictional near-future, Southern California will become but one of the newly red-lined regions earmarked for a corner pocket of Hell, because the end is nigh. I’m talking, dolphins Snapchatting us, “WE OUT! NO-THANKS-FOR-THE-MERCURY-MARINATED-FISH!”-type of climatic environmental and societal collapse. No kaiju necessary. We will die of consumption after a fifty-plus year bender, drunk on neoliberal, late-stage capitalist moonshine.
Fast forward to our present non-fiction. My day job is teaching elementary school. Yet despite the allure of two months of do-whatever-I-want-time, more and more I dread the coming of summer, because glaciers the size of islands are falling into the ocean. Is this the season when my Westworld kingdom is invaded by drought and famine? When Russia’s permafrost melts, releasing primeval microscopic disease-titans (they are real, 2017) to gobble me up in a surprise Greek tragedy? When the floodgates of my Amazon-fueled desires are permanently clogged by natural man-made disaster? Of course, Prime will continue to deliver, but the markup would be understandably obscene.
Will this be the season my melanin hard-fails me?
I joke because I’m afraid. Not only is this specific dystopia possible, Butler seems to have predicted it twenty-seven years ago. Parable of the Sower is set somewhere in the 2020s during a presidential election in which the candidate’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Oh yes, and California actually is burning right now. This is a horrible present. I ordered the exact opposite of this nightmare. I asked for solarpunk.
Solarpunk: The Genre of Solutions
Solarpunk is the environmentally conscious speculative arts movement that best navigates the terrors ahead. Detractors label it a kind of Pollyanna utopianism full of empty calories. It’s true that the Google replicator machine will serve up a visual feast of enforested skyscrapers and lush solar energy mushroom cities (possibly under the sea, possibly shared with amiable, buck-toothed invertebrates with ageless comedic timing). The solarpunk aesthetic will sometimes wear utopian clothing, but it’s nobody’s fault, really. Ursula K. Le Guin helped plant solarpunk seeds decades ago, in stories such as the 1972 novel The Dispossessed, her 1982 essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” and many other Daoist-inspired works. Thus, the movement was growing long before the term was coined in 2008. So after decades of imagineering and community building, there are bound to be layers and crumbly edges. And to be fair, it is impossible to dream of Hell and not pine for its opposite.
In truth, solarpunk is functional AF. The primary colors of its aura are red, orange, and yellow: Courageously compassionate, creatively scientific, and awakened interdependence. In many ways, it can be more rigorous than so-called “hard science fiction.” Don’t @ the messenger; I’m quoting Kim Stanley Robinson, author of New York 2140 among many other groundbreaking stories of eco-fiction. He takes issue with the viral over-affixation of “-punk” (Google punk genres and see how many you get). However, at Boskone 57, one of the largest science fiction conventions in the country, where he was guest of honor, Robinson described a genre full of futures to defy the Anthropocene. Stories where sacrifices are made, but in the end, we find ways to survive and become wise. I told him afterwards that it sounded like solarpunk, and he stage-whispered, “That’s because it is.”
If we focus primarily on the genre’s textual artifacts — including the discourses on the various social media platforms, but especially the genre fiction it produces — solarpunk’s better qualities become unimpeachable. I have read all the major solarpunk anthologies that have come out in the last five years. To quote Sarena Ulibarri, editor of Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers and newly out Solarpunk Winters, because she’s so damn quotable, “[Solarpunk] stories depict adaptation and compromise rather than destruction and conquest… empathy over greed.” They are an antidote for the toxin, yin to counteract the damage done by the big yang motorcycle trip, and I am a believer.
Yet after reading and enjoying these stories, I noticed a pattern. The viewpoint characters of solarpunk stories roughly fall into categories with similar confluences; Joênia from Thomas Badlan’s “Orchidae” (in Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters, 2020) is one among many intrepid scientists you will find in the genre, racing the clock to preserve life or help us adapt. Young makers, like Del the biotech tinkerer in D.K. Mok’s “The Spider and the Stars,” and the community that comes together to ceremonially re-create the vanished Arctic in Andrew Dana Hudson’s “Black Ice City” (both in Solarpunk Summers, 2018), are also well represented in solarpunk.
There’s some spillover from the makers into the anarchists. In T.X. Waston’s “The Boston Hearth Project” (in Sunvault, a 2017 anthology edited by Wagner and Wieland), these are people who thrive on the leftmost bleeding edge of society, breaking rules that should never have been in order to shelter the homeless. But many solarpunk characters — and most salient to this conversation — are young people, often women of color, adjusting to the dangers of the new normal brought on by severe environmental changes and doing so in ways their elders did not have the foresight or perspective to do themselves. Daesha in “Fyrewall” by Stefani Cox (Solarpunk Summers) is one like this, gifted with responsibilities beyond her years when she must fix the wall protecting future Californians from raging wildfires. All these stories showcase new or repurposed material resources and technologies for increased sustainability.
Clearly these voices are necessary. But there’s something missing. The intersection with communities of faith is roped off.
Spirit in the Machine: The Missing Piece
The heroine of Butler’s Parable of the Sower is Lauren Oya Olamina. She will be little more than a child before inevitable mayhem and metastasized, commodified suffering rolls up on her family, murders everyone, and destroys what is left of her community. She will escape with her life, but orphaned and traumatized. What is she to do?
Step one: Become a self-made messiah.
Step two: Reengineer God.
Step three: Save humanity.
Step four: Bong hits.
Hers is an incredibly powerful story. She very much fits the mold of solarpunk heroines with one exception: She’s a faith leader. Why aren’t there more characters like her? Where are the griots and santeras? Where are the bodhisattvas and the saints? Those who speak the languages of heaven’s heart? Where are the Lauren Oya Olaminas?
Her absence, given what she might represent, is understandable. Ideology (the dogmatic kind) has often been the death of free thinkers and first adopters. It has produced conservative paradigms that sustained brutal hierarchies, birthed unforgettable monsters, and poured bleach on other people’s history. But too often to ignore, the opposite has also been the case. Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama comes to mind. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the nonviolent Civil Rights Era organizing group whose goal was to redeem “the soul of America,” was not an aberration of history. Martin Luther King may have been a GOAT (Greatest Of All Time, for those without access to Urban Dictionary), but if time’s memory was more robust, his would not be the only spirit we commune with on special occasions.
So, whether it has been a purposeful or subconscious omission, this issue must be addressed for solarpunk to move beyond artists, and progressive secularists. We need to mainstream the radical.
The Intersection is Under Construction
There are three tenets of solarpunk orthodoxy that are relevant here. The first is that solarpunk is an overtly inclusive space. If it could be a real boy, anti-racism would be in its DNA. Keep that in mind when I tell you that the US Census projects that by the year 2045, the majority of US population will be people of color (already the case for residents under age eighteen) and the majority of us profess some kind of faith (itinerant Seon Buddhist right here).
In 2008, when last Pew Research asked the question, 95% of those surveyed reported belief in a higher power of some kind. Even among scientists, the believers were in the majority. Both numbers go up if you include the rest of the world, particularly the black and brown parts. So, for solarpunk to be properly inclusive of us in possible futures, it would be a mistake to blackbox significant guiding tenets because of an aversion to the dominant ideologies and the much-discussed potential for evil in organized religion. Evil is everywhere. Search for kittens on your favorite browser and scroll down for about thirty seconds. There be evil.
There is no greater or more fundamental technology than culture. It, and the ark of ideologies that arise from it, are more than just peer pressure from dead people. Culture is software. And more often than not, that includes a spiritual platform.
Claudie Arseneault, author of Wings of Revival: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology, gives us the second tenet: “[Solarpunk should work] from existing technologies, from things we already know are possible.” This is key. There is no greater or more fundamental technology than culture. It, and the ark of ideologies that arise from it, are more than just peer pressure from dead people. Culture is software. And more often than not, that includes a spiritual platform.
Now, a deep dive into the Pokémon competitions between philosophies of ideology and the contradictory (evolving) statements of the philosophers who throw them is not necessary here. It is enough to know that they exist, and that I choose you, J.M. Balkin! J.M. Balkin is the founder and director of Yale's Information Society Project, as well as director of the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Knight Law and Media Program. His theory of cultural software takes an “ambivalent stance” on ideology, rather than a pejorative one, and recognizes its equal capacity to lead to freedom as well as bondage. But it is more than a tool. It is the tool. Even material technologies can be considered extensions of the computer/software. You + your Android Galaxy smartphone = Cyborg.
The metaphor of computer and software is not meant to emphasize any kind of Cartesian separation between body and spirit. Instead, it speaks to their interdependence and intersubjectivity, the networked nature of community, of us. Like software and hardware, One is nothing without the Other. We are not Vulcans. It is only through the manifold aspects of the computer software interface — the connected narratives, symbols, metaphors, categories, and systems of conceptual associations we live by and that live in us — that we can temporally arrest and process existence, which is large beyond complete description, constantly in flux, and inherently unknowable: In essence, divine. The software that is culture is the only way to express our humanness, fulfill our psychological and physical needs, and connect with others.
While walking through a forest, a disciple asked the Buddha if he had taught all there was to know about the universe. Gautama responded after picking up a handful of leaves: The amount he had taught, in relation to the knowledge in the universe, was comparable to the number of leaves in his hand in relation to the forest. I teach only this: What is necessary for the relieving of suffering. Now lift this spaceship with your mind, you will, while I dry hump your back. There’s some extra XP in it for you.
Conceptualize ideology as cultural software, processing your fist full of code. Doing so takes into account our internal drives as well as external forces produced by, and impacting, the individual. We change by adapting to new software and rearranging that which we are currently running. We co-create the circuit board maze, and the maze can lead to understanding. Understanding can equate to degrees of freedom and power. But the relevant question, then, is always power for whom? The answer brings us to the roots of Afrofuturist narratives.
African Diasporic Lenses: A Case Study of Ideology Remixed for Survival
One might get the impression that for many of the characters in solarpunk stories, this has been their first run in with man-made, life obliterating disaster. Not so with Afrofuturists.
Here’s a working definition for Afrofuturists: We are Black creatives who render our own science futures and past, because white people did not, and draw from our own critical pedagogy. As Alondra Nelson, founder of the first Afrofuturist internet community, has said, “The distillation of African diasporic experience [is] rooted in the past, but not weighed down by it.” Therefore, we are quite familiar with the boom and bust cycle of calamity, existing simultaneously in various dimensions of dystopia. The concept of the usable past is the third relevant tenet of solarpunk, and a touchstone between it and works that classify as Afrofuturist.
Our cultural memory is what energizes resilience under stress, and it’s often coded into religion. In retrospect, Octavia Butler’s seeming prescience isn’t so much the work of an oracle but an astute reading of history — she was cribbing from Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid in 1980 after he ran with the slogan "Let's make America great again." History doesn’t exactly rhyme, but somebody’s spitting bars on the remix. (The Washington Post reports that the current president of America trademarked the phrase in 2012. When told in 2015 that Reagan had used it before, Trump said, “But he didn’t trademark it.”)
A similar reading of our past will recognize an almost self-organizing and abundantly generative process in the Americas. It’s hidden in plain sight in conjure, an African-American folk magic and spiritual practice. According to Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, by Yvonne P. Chireau, in Antebellum South Carolina, a conjure practitioner was declared by other slaves to be his own master, because “he knew things both seen and unseen.” Chireau notes that Henry Hammond, a loud proponent of slavery and a plantation owner, attempted to punish his slaves for acts of rebellion and vandalism. But the slaves’ belief in their protection via conjure was too strong: They continued to rebel despite his punishments. “They had adopted a conceptual framework to which Hammond had no access.”
In The Experiential Caribbean, by Pablo Gomez, we find, “Black Caribbean knowledge producers embraced the crisis of cultural uprooting… of the seventeenth century to create new forms of knowledge making that reasserted the power of the human experience to make truthful claims about nature.” They were, “active receptors, shapers, and most importantly, acculturating agents,” creating new ideological algorithms.
If you know where to look, history is rife with examples of people of color reframing imposed ideologies, rewiring them into complexes of Western religious symbols, artifacts of the estranged past, and new Indigenous knowledge. The upgraded software runs multiple tasks: Asserting power. Creating moral authority for rebellion. Telling stories of better futures, an end to suffering. Assembling critical mass for viral movements to reprogram hierarchies: Revolution. This sounds awfully necessary if we’re to survive what comes next.
If you know where to look, history is rife with examples of people of color reframing imposed ideologies, rewiring them into complexes of Western religious symbols, artifacts of the estranged past, and new Indigenous knowledge. The upgraded software runs multiple tasks: Asserting power. Creating moral authority for rebellion. Telling stories of better futures, an end to suffering.
Solarpunk is about “collaboration with,” rather than “competition over.” However, history shows us that often, before one can collaborate, one must take power to create knowledge. Over the course of writing Parable of the Sower, Butler struggled with the idea of power-seeking as the quest. It was antithetical to her at first (as she reiterated over multiple interviews in Conversations with Octavia Butler, an anthology edited by Conseula Francis, 2010). But she came to realize that it was a tool necessary to survive and build something new. Solarpunk would do well to incorporate this lesson.
Radicalizing the Mainstream
I don’t want to ruin the end of Parable of the Sower for you. But I will leave you with these founding axioms written by Lauren Oya Olamina in her Book of Life:
All that you touch, you Change.
All that you Change, Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God Is Change.
Octavia Butler’s novel is indeed a kind of parable, a creation tale of a new cult ideology that supports science. Solarpunk has, by accident of adaptation, evolved into a community with synonymous language to the Book of Life and syncretic, or amalgamating, instincts. So although Octavia Butler didn’t consider herself an Afrofuturist, and Olamina’s goal was to take humanity to other planets rather than try and save this one, there are lessons here that solarpunk can easily repurpose. Which is kind of its thing.
Imagining ways to create new from old, inducing change and being changed, interacting more mindfully with the environment and other people — this is the solarpunk mission. But to transform others, it would help if solarpunk becomes more open to self-transformation from unexpected places like spiritual traditions, which it has traditionally rejected.
Said transformation is not so hard as it may seem. It may have already begun on the crumbly edges. There are already faith leaders reinterpreting their religious traditions to prioritize community building around sustainability. On the website for Carbon Coast, a solarpunk project by Connor Carbon, I caught wind of a pastor giving a “solarpunk sermon.” Gaia philosophy is making a comeback. There’s even a budding religious community, Terasem Faith, inspired by the Earthseed cult in Parable of the Sower. This is proof positive of faith as a function and science becoming gospel.
Change needs to happen before Olamina’s timeline completely merges with our own. People are less likely to take risks on new ideas when hope is precarious. Anything new may be automatically categorized as dangerous and invasive. But if it’s coming from within their own narrative, a solarpunk rewiring would not be so scary. Indeed, it might be a revelation of the Promised Land.
Rob Cameron, author, is a writer, linguist, pie addict, and public school teacher in Brooklyn. When not finishing rewrites for his very patient agent, Barry Goldblatt, he is the lead organizer for the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers, a guest host and curator for the New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series, and managing editor of the Kaleidocast.nyc, a speculative fiction story podcast.
This piece was edited by Lydia Laurenson and lightly fact-checked by the NewMo editorial team.
Correction: The printed version of this article in Issue One stated that "the majority of US citizens are people of color." In fact, the majority of US citizens are not POC, but are projected to be POC by 2045. We have corrected the sentence in the web version and we regret the error.
There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.