No (bright) future for me: Solarpunk is not the new Cyberpunk

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Serial Experiments Lain (1999), Ryutaro Nakamura
Serial Experiments Lain (1999), Ryutaro Nakamura

Some days ago, the article Is Solarpunk the new Cyberpunk?, written by RoAnna Sylva, popped on my Facebook timeline. Now renamed as Solarpunk: We are golden, and our future is bright, the piece is supposed to be an introduction to the term and the concept of Solarpunk as a genre to overcome the grim ideas that have been surrounding science fiction recently. We all know that pessimism and nihilism are some of the tropes in cyberpunk, but is this really something bad at all?

First things first: RoAnna doesn’t seem to be proposing a replacement of one genre to another. She claims that “there’s nothing wrong with scary, dark, gritty stories” and that she actually loves and writes them, but “when visions of hopelessness and negativity make up the consistent, vast majority of what we’re shown over and over in books, TV, and movies, it can get a little tiring. And discouraging.” I couldn’t disagree with this, especially when it is about getting tired of such common places. But, in the end, and, at least in my opinion, the real problem is not the dark mood per say, but the fact that recent works have been telling the same story over and over, without adding anything new.

RoAnna knows this is an “actual selling point” and, with that being said, we can’t expect much more than shallow stories, mostly interested in proving one single point: machines and technology are bad, AIs are dangerous, we are all doomed and we need to destroy them before they destroy us. It has been like this with big franchises such as Terminator, Matrix and Mass Effect, but also with recent releases like Self/less, Elysium, Transcendence and so forth. However, you can still have the other way around, with more or less sugary plots about human-machine relationships, where robots are “more human than humans”, as seen in Wall-E, Aliens, Bicentennial Man, Chappie and Artificial Intelligence. And still, too often we find nothing but an echo of Brave New World’s approach to the noble savage, or then a simple and constant recycling of the hero’s journey — provided that it has hackers, drugs, gadgets and a protagonist that feels like an antihero.

This is one of the reasons why cyberpunk has weakened. Adding up to the fact that we are pretty much living in the imaginary future of the 1980’s, the genre has caught mainstream attention and became a pastiche in the hands of the entertainment market, with few exceptions that go beyond manicheism. Some recent releases and sequences, as Mr. Robot, Black Mirror, Ex Machina, Caprica, Ghost in the Shell and Deus Ex series, have been supporting deeper discussions about technology, even though they may have their issues. In the case of the latter one, I honestly hope that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided contribute with good points about the fear (or caution) of technology, which has been, essentially, a big theme in recent Blockbusters (Fast and Furious, Avengers, Call of Duty etc).

Now, before I jump right to the term “Solarpunk”, I would like to make a comment about something stated by RoAnna, regarding gritty stories: “They tend to be more than a little… exclusive, about whom they let survive.” She invites us to consider “who almost always dies first in apocalypse zombie movies” and where would be the disabled people in these fictions. Well, I cannot speak for the zombie genre, because I couldn’t care less about it, but in cyberpunk, we can find this theme being discussed from at least two points of view: either a biological (with genetic manipulation) or a technological one (with prosthetics).

As seen in Disability and Popular Culture (2014), by Katie Ellis, Nickianne Moody published in 1997 the article Untapped Potential: The Representation of Disability/Special Ability in the Cyberpunk Workforce. The piece discusses the representation of disability in cyberpunk as a literary movement and as a multimedia genre. “She [Nickianne] argues that disabled and impaired characters occupy a different position within the cyberpunk genre where they become a ‘visible and incidental part of the everyday cyberpunk world’ as opposed to a narrative or cinematic prosthesis designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience.”

In that sense, Katie claims that cyberpunk has put disability and impairment as something to be overcome by technology, being it via genetic manipulation (Gattaca and Serenity) or then via prosthetics (Repo Man, Deus Ex). However, she believes that, in any case, these people are still put as inferior, since they can only guarantee a better life condition if they have money or were projected to be born without any “flaws”. The researcher says that cyberpunk’s discussions are mostly surrounded by the concept of work, as it follows Finkelstein’s three stages of disability development: agrarian society, the industrial revolution and the information age.

While these phases are important to cyberpunk because, as a genre, it is preoccupied with work, a popular cultural studies concerned with leisure is also prominent. Films belonging to this science fiction subgenre are set in a post-industrial future in which space-time relations have been altered and the dialectic between disability and impairment is resolved as long as people are working.

That is, as long we have money, we can pay to get our “problems” sorted: “A rethinking of disability in terms of social stigma rather than medical affliction reveals that disability will not be eradicated or cured in the future. Instead, the social weight of disability will continue to be applied to other groups and people through class inequalities.” So, if you consider Gattaca, you see the constant struggle of a God-Child (non-projected individual) to gain a better position in society through work, but also by deceiving the system by using the genetic code of a “projected” individual who has become disabled after an accident — and therefore useless enough to consider selling his genoma and taking the decision he does at the end of the movie.

Although this sounds harsh and horrible as a representation of disability in science fiction, the genre itself tends to change the definition of that as the average individual, with no enhancements or prosthetics, is already put as a disabled or impaired when compared to cyborgs or genetic modified individuals. From Gattaca’s manipulated humans to Elysium’s elite, cyberpunk has always been a genre where you will find stories about inequality, although you may get the punk of it when the lower classes find their way to fight for their space. There are actually few, but real examples of science fiction movies that feature disabled people as protagonists: in both Avatar (2009) and Source Code (2011), you have a former soldier, now disabled, that becomes a hero through virtual reality or the usage of surrogates. The same stays for the new Mad Max, with Imperator Furiosa.

In this sense, you can also recognize that prosthetics have been portrayed as fancy accessories in cyberpunk since the very beginning — even with Ratz, Neuromancer’s pink-armed barman. And, of course, many other books, movies, games, comics and illustrations are making their contribution by turning the concept of prosthetics a means of empowerment (althought some may not have asked for this).

So, with all that being said, would it be an exaggeration to say that cyberpunk may have served as an influence to scientific researches and the customization of prosthetics nowadays? You can take it from Viktoria Modesta to Alleles, or Nicolelis to patient T6 (or maybe even Canavero?), for example. In spite of technology being so often portrayed as an enemy and a danger in popular culture, the discussion around the concept of cyborg is heavily connected to disabilities and impairment, or even related to feminism.

Viktoria Modesta, Latvian-born English singer-songwriter and model
Viktoria Modesta, Latvian-born English singer-songwriter and model

Now, back to Solarpunk, I would like to quote some parts of RoAnna’s introduction to this new (or maybe not that much?) subgenre of science fiction. She suggests that is “a new rising speculative fiction genre and aesthetic” and that “it pretty much embodies 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.” By quoting Adam Flynn’s Solarpunk manifesto, the writer highlights the target of the genre as inspired by “ingenuity, generativity, independence and community.”

According to RoAnna, Solarpunk brings us an idea of a genre that could be, to some extent, the counterpart of Cyberpunk. In some keywords, Solarpunk is about light (daylight, sunlight, clean energy), nature meeting technology, beneficial and healing, hopefulness. And, still, the genre is able to encompass a punk side too — because “punk rockers can be nice” and “we don’t bite” (sic). If punk is all about being against the mainstream, which now is pessimism, rebellion would come with optimism and enthusiasm (check rock concerts, she says), but also with individuality (although Flynn’s manifesto does criticize individualism, probably in terms of egoism rather than identity).

But, personally, I’m not able to relate to such things. While I deeply love the naivety found in Miyazaki’s movies, one of the visual references pointed by RoAnna, I have them as my comfort zone in culture consumption rather than my real thing. They do not cause me catharsis, they do not fulfill me: they feel like a delicious piece of cake that will give me a sugar rush and that’s it. Are they less valuable for this reason? Of course not. They are simply not my thing.

RoAnna says that dark stories may be attractive because they are supposedly not for kids (and I would say Clive Barker’s Abarat series could make a great exception), not your parents’ sci-fi: “This stuff is real. It’s to be taken seriously.” Funny thing is that cyberpunk was indeed based on this premise, as a response to the old fogey mood found in early hard science fiction — which was basically the main definition of SF by that time. In 1982, Bruce Sterling published the fanzine Cheap Truth, where he used to write in partnership with Lewis Shiner, as they used the pseudonyms Vincent Omniaveritas and Sue Denim, respectively.

As described by Rob Latham in SF Controversies from the New Wave to Cyberpunk, the zine demanded that the genre “reform itself, re-think itself, and re-establish itself as a moving cultural force instead of a backwater anachronism”. For instance, both writers said that Asimov’s best sellers at that time were “the decaying flesh of ideas, plots, and characters dead thirty years now” and that Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future utopias were “overwrought, reactionary, and anti-visionary”, full of a cloying “moist-eyed urgency”.

Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1998), Shinya Tsukamoto
Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1998), Shinya Tsukamoto

In the 5th issue of Cheap Truth, under the name of Sue Denim, Shiner wrote the article “Mom said it was okay” to make a comment about the works published and awarded by Nebula at that time: “This year’s Nebula Ballot looked like a list of stuff that Mom and Dad said it was okay to read.” With an amazing derogatory tone, Shiner lists some books and makes fun of their themes and approaches as something that parents would approve, for they were too polite, too correct, too fake and too boring.

Mom and Dad really liked Connie Willis’ “Firewatch” last year; it’s about this student that gets all self-righteous and rebellious and everything, but it turned out Father knows best after all. This year Mom and Dad really like STARTIDE RISING by David Brin and Greg Benford’s AGAINST INFINITY. STARTIDE RISING especially; I mean, this is the kind of writing that Mom and Dad grew up on, full of “Golly’s” and blushes and grins. And aren’t those dolphins cute? They talk in poetry that sounds like it came right out of READER’S DIGEST. They’d rather hear that somebody “muttered an oath” or came out with some made-up word like “Ifni!” than be told that they really said “shit” or “shove it up your ass, motherfucker.”
No sex, of course, or maybe just a noise in the night in somebody else’s tent. And it has a nice moral, too — something Mom and Dad have always known, though it hasn’t always seemed that way these last couple of decades — that WE are better than THEY are, and that’s enough to pull us out of any trouble, particularly when THEY are slimy alien scum. (…)
Mom and Dad are looking forward to the 1984 Nebulas, because they’re sure that nice Mr. Robinson is going to be up for their favorite book so far this year, THE WILD SHORE. They like to see the OLD stories, and what could be more comfortable and familiar than living on the farm after they drop the Big One? Nope, nothing scary here. The hero tried to tell Mom and Dad that he’s not a virgin, but they know better. He never seems that interested in sex anyway.
Mostly they like the ending, where Henry discovers that he is a *WRITER*. It seems to agonize him terribly to write, but he is just so wonderfully sensitive. And Mom and Dad love the moral of the book, which is just like that Judy Garland movie: “There’s no place like home.
Maybe the people who vote for the Nebulas are still afraid of their Moms and Dads; maybe they’re not Moms and Dads themselves. That would explain why they don’t vote for books with real ideas and real sex and real language in them.

I would say cyberpunk is less about forcing a dark atmosphere to look serious rather than an attempt to highlight the dark and crude spots of our existence as a means to raise discussion. In my opinion, dystopias were never meant to follow the common sense of what is to be pessimistic and nihilistic. The latter is popularly understood and associated to anomie, which is a general mood of despair in which an individual is not able to see any point in existing, after realizing that there are no necessary norms, rules or laws. But this is only what is called a “passive nihilism”.

As interpreted by Heidegger, Nietzsche’s concept of nihilism is more about the deconstruction of values and valuation of things as one of the processes behind the will to power — that is, the main driving force in humans (achievement, ambition etc). Curiously enough, this concept was first proposed by Arthur Schopenhauer, a well-known pessimistic philosopher who gave this idea a particular emphasis in his studies and that was a big influence to the German thinker.

Thus nihilism, according to Nietzsche in Will to Power, would be that “the highest values devalue themselves”, so that it is the mistrust and the denial of higher values and a depreciation of the platonic intents found in culture, especially in Christianity. In fact, Nietzsche has even called it a “Platonism for the people”, because Christianity creates values and beliefs that supposedly do not exist over the void that is existence — and this is why God is dead, because everything is fake, a construction that is valued and given a meaning that does not intrinsically exist.

On the other hand, you still have what Nietzsche called “active nihilism”, as well described in The Antimodernist:

As a direct consequence of nihilism, man is forced to see reality for what it is: a random, irrational, and chaotic existence in which our role is infinitesimal. Nihilism, in this capacity, serves to break down all the illusions, myths, and all other social, cultural constructions that have hitherto given us a false sense of security and hope.
In its active form, nihilism is likened to a hammer — used not only to chisel away all artificial meaning, but to smash them. Active nihilism paves the way for the creation of new values, the overcoming of the self by taking a new relation to oneself as an autonomous creator. In effect, this is the transformation of living as the “one-self,” into “my-self.” Thus, the end result of nihilism in its active form is nothing short of paving the way for the grounds to becoming my own self.

Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell by Mamoru Oshii
Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell by Mamoru Oshii

So, would it be pushing too hard to say that this active nihilism is some kind of “existential hacking”? To avoid extending this text even more, I will remind you that this was already theme of another text published here, where I wrote about virtual reality and the hacker archetype. Ideally, a good cyberpunk would consider the crudeness and the void of the world a starter point for the will to power, that is, subversion and reaction. Cyberpunk is about survival, finding strength and opportunity in adversity, recreating and rewriting (inner and outer) history: hacking. It is about finding beauty in ugliness: not in a Bonsai tree inside a chrome vase, but perhaps in the body and the mind of a cyborg. And, more than nothing, this is about taste, mindset and point of view, not quality or utility.

Finally, this essay, that ended up being a response to RoAnna’s article, begs the answer to the question: Is Solarpunk the new Cyberpunk? Definitely not. It could be just one more Randompunk to be added to the list of Buzzfeed-ish posts or it could become a real thing too, like it has become a collection of short stories in Brazil. For now, I can only say: No, thanks. As much as one does not need to suppress the other in order to exist, I say we, cyberpunk fans, are not tired of pessimism and nihilism, we are just tired of the same old and bad stories. Namely the bullshit.

8 Responses to “No (bright) future for me: Solarpunk is not the new Cyberpunk”

  1. Perhaps a lot of cyberpunk does suggest that “…machines and technology are bad, AIs are dangerous, we are all doomed and we need to destroy them before they destroy us…”, but not all of them, I don’t think. In my own cyberpunk novel bad things happen, of course, and I can imagine that some readers might come away with the perception that technology and AIs are bad, but that wasn’t my own idea while writing it. I personally wish I could live through the times when flesh and digital technology can merge together and give us a sense of immortality. Such futures can certainly be used for wrong, but I still dream of them. My work in progress will even edge a bit toward the Utopian, though I still consider it to be at least partially cyberpunk.

  2. I haven’t read anything that could qualify as Solarpunk, but if anything, it sounds like recycling the SF reaction against cyberpunk in the late 80s. For instance, many critics disparaged cyberpunk’s pretensions to hard science fiction, others dismissed it by claiming that much was already familiar in cyberpunk fiction. Some went as far to denigrate the subgenre by renaming it as the “neuromantics.” Writers like Swanwick, Kessel, Willis, Murphy, Kelly, Robinson identified themselves as torchbearers of the tradition of humanist science fiction, and offered themselves as the alternative to cyberpunk.

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