Every fictional story, I’m convinced, has cosmic laws embedded within it. These determine what’s possible in the narrative world. In speculative fiction, the story’s metaphysical ground is often explicit. The Force in Star Wars is arguably the most famous example, a cosmic power that animates the fictional universe. But even in ostensibly realistic fiction, there are implicit laws, and these are often linked to genre. Consider two Shakespearian plays: both Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing feature heroines who fake their own deaths. The first play is a tragedy, so this stratagem leads to doom. The second is a comedy, so the same ploy leads to redemption. For Juliet and Hero, one could argue, genre is destiny. What kind of genre, then, is solarpunk? What possibilities does it allow?
In general, solarpunk imagines a future that is at least moving toward environmental justice, a future in which human technology finds harmony with the natural world. Consider the “Solarpunk Manifesto” that first appeared on the Regenerative Design website in 2020. It reads in part,
“Solarpunk can be utopian, just optimistic, or concerned with the struggles en route to a better world , but never dystopian. As our world roils with calamity, we need solutions, not only warnings.
Solutions to thrive without fossil fuels, to equitably manage real scarcity and share in abundance instead of supporting false scarcity and false abundance, to be kinder to each other and to the planet we share.”
As this passage makes clear, solarpunk arcs toward hope, not doom. For that reason, this genre is highly compatible with peace poetics.
What, you may be wondering, do I mean by “peace poetics”? Let’s start with the second word, “poetics.” It originally comes from the Greek work for making or crafting. Aristotle used this term for the craft of creative writing in his Poetics. Now, words have a tendency to slide around in meaning over the course of centuries, especially if they cross between languages. That’s why we also have the word “poetry” for a specific type of creative writing. But “poetics” can analyze any type of verbal or narrative art.
So how does peace come into this? I use the term “peace poetics” for exploring how to craft certain types of stories—namely, those that promote nonviolent conflict transformation and the possibility of peace. These aren’t passive stories. Rather, nonviolent civil resistance is a form of heroic action, an alternate to heroic violence. To tell a story featuring nonviolent heroism, though, a writer needs to know (1) how nonviolent campaigns function, and (2) how to shape compelling narratives that feature such campaigns. Also, different aspects of peace and conflict studies may serve the needs of different stories. (In The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding, Lisa Schirch provides an overview of this broad field.) For example, a story that focuses on conflict transformation might not feature civil resistance.
In fact, we can already find this range in the existing corpus of solarpunk stories. For this essay, I’ll focus on two examples, both from The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures. In this interdisciplinary project, speculative fiction writers teamed up with scientists and other scholars to imagine a range of future societies, all based on plausible solar power technologies. Fair warning: what follows is full of spoilers. Fortunately, the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University has made the entire collection available for free online. The first story, “For the Snake of Power” by Brenda Cooper, offers an example of civil resistance. The second, “Big Rural” by Cat Rambo, offers an example of conflict transformation. Both stories reflect SolarPunk Magazine’s utopia/dystopia qualification: “Not all solarpunk stories take place in idealistic utopias” but “solarpunk stories are decidedly not dystopias.” Together, these stories model diverse possibilities for peace poetics in the solarpunk genre.
In many ways, my arguments about peace poetics flow into an intensifying current in speculative fiction. It excites me that so many writers today are explicitly addressing this craft question: How do we write about peace and justice in fiction? To list just a few relevant articles from the last year: “The Fiction of Peace, the Fantasy of War” by C. L. Clark in Fantasy Magazine, “How science fiction can help us imagine a nonviolent future” (an interview with Joan Slonczewski) by Stephanie Van Hook in Waging Nonviolence, “Activist SFF Isn’t Just About Good Intentions” by Vida Cruz in the SFWA Bulletin, and even my “Nonviolence and the Hero’s Duel” in SFWA Blog. To this ongoing conversation, I’d like to add my thoughts on nonviolence, solarpunk, and the craft of fiction writing.
Solarpunk and Peace Education
Before digging into the stories themselves, we need to start with some peace studies concepts. In The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding, Lisa Schirch outlined four cornerstones of her topic: (1) waging conflict nonviolently, (2) reducing direct violence, (3) transforming relationships, and (4) building capacity (25-27). The first and third are lenses that I’ll apply to Cooper and Rambo’s stories further on, although using the alternate terminology of “nonviolent civil resistance” and “conflict transformation.” Of the last cornerstone, “building capacity,” Schirch wrote:
“Societies reflect a culture of peace and justice when they address the needs and rights of all people and are fully capable of expressing conflict through democratic processes. Rather than seeing culture as static, building the capacity for justpeace requires people to know how to take responsibility for shaping their culture and all of their society’s architecture, including structures, institutions, policies, and organizations that support it” (56).
One way to build a society’s capacity for peace is through education. According to Schirch, “Peace education explores the causes of conflict and conditions of peace.” She also advocated educating people about human rights and environmental issues in order to promote peacebuilding. Schirch further noted the practical skills that can be learned through conflict transformation training. Finally, she highlighted how “peace media” can “provide objective information about violent conflicts … and increase awareness about peaceful alternatives” (57-58).
Fictional stories can contribute to peacebuilding in a way that resonates with peace education, but there are important differences. Yes, there’s such a thing as instructional fiction. For example, the popular Magic School Bus series, first created by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen in the 1980s, uses fictional stories to educate children about science. Certainly, someone could create a similar series for peace education. Most fiction, though, doesn’t try to teach an explicit curriculum. The first priority isn’t the lesson, but rather the story.
How might non-instructional fiction help build a society’s capacity for peace? Fiction, I believe, affects our matrix of imagination. That is, the stories we consume help shape the worlds we can imagine. If fictional stories are dominated by violent heroism, it becomes harder to conceive of nonviolent alternatives. If fictional worlds worlds are filled with tragedy, it becomes harder to embrace hope. Stories of nonviolent heroism and conflict transformation, on the other hand, lay a narrative foundation for peace education. Fiction can contribute to peacebuilding by making peace imaginable.
In an article for The International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace, Juan David Reina-Rozo made a similar argument specifically about solarpunk when he wrote, “Imagination, then, is a mechanism through which we can transform our collective future using speculation” (53). In this case, though he was not speaking about peacebuilding, but rather the genre’s decolonial possibilities. Similarly, Isaijah Johnson argued in his article for The Journal of Sustainability Education, “Solarpunk fiction can be considered pedagogical: through depiction and sparking the imagination, the knowledge, skills, and creativity necessary for producing an ecological future make their way into the hearts and minds of readers.” Although my present essay fills a gap by focusing on peacebuilding skills, I certainly recognize the deep importance of environmental justice issues. In fact, peacebuilding and environmental justice are often integrated in solarpunk worlds. That is certainly the case for Cooper and Rambo’s stories.
Civil Resistance in “For the Snake of Power”
Brenda Cooper’s “For the Snake of Power” begins as an amateur detective story. The protagonist, Rosa, is a power company employee in a future version of Phoenix, Arizona. A massive dust storm has damaged the “snake,” an enormous solar array that provides the city with power. The resulting brownouts leave poorer residents without A/C during triple-digit heat. In some cases, this proves deadly. But more power is missing than the damage can explain, so Rosa goes digging for answers. With the help of the AI program HANNA, she finds them. The governor has agreed to sell off 20 percent of their power out of state, and that contract takes priority over local needs. No contingency has been made for emergencies. Both Rosa’s supervisor and her best friend Callie insist that nothing can be done. The problem is way above their paygrade.
Cooper could have stopped there with a hopeless, Chinatown-style ending. (“Forget it, Jake. It’s the Association of Solar Power.”) That’s not what solarpunk is about, though. Instead, Cooper pivoted from the detective story to a related genre—the caper story. This fits with one of my core ideas about peace poetics: caper stories offer a structural model for portraying civil resistance campaigns in fiction.
How does a caper story work? First, you come up with a scheme, usually a heist or a con. You assemble a colorful cast of characters, each with unique skills. Then you put the scheme into action and see if they pull it off. (These stories also feature growth arcs, complications, etc., but those elements aren’t unique to the genre.) In a story featuring nonviolent heroism, a civil resistance campaign can serve as the scheme. That’s why caper stories offer a model for narrative structure.
Indeed, this is exactly what we see in “For the Snake of Power.” Rosa tells Inez, a friend from her old neighborhood, what’s going on. Inez convinces Rosa to turn whistleblower and connects her with underground media contacts. Local activists use this coverage as a springboard to call for mass protests. These spread throughout the city, even to better off neighborhoods, with residents demanding the governor’s resignation. This draws the attention of the major news channels.
Although Rosa is the point-of-view character, she isn’t actually the lead organizer for this civil resistance campaign. Rather, Inez and her contacts quickly organize things once they discover that Rosa is willing to turn whistleblower. For that reason, much of the planning happens behind the scenes. Nonetheless, the basic elements of a caper story are there: coming up with a scheme, assembling a diverse cast of characters with unique skills, putting the scheme into action.
The story even has a surprise twist at the end, a common feature of caper stories. Rosa’s friend Callie shows up at the protest. She reveals that, with the help of the AI HANNA, she has shut down the transmission line sending power out of state. Rather than admit that their AI went rogue, the governor must save face by claiming to have made the decision herself, thus ending the brownouts. Although their actions cost both Rosa and Callie their jobs, the civil resistance efforts prove effective. Cooper’s Phoenix may not be a utopia, but it isn’t a dystopia either. Like the solarpunk genre as a whole, the story insists on the credibility of hope.
In real life, it’s important to acknowledge, campaigns like this one don’t accomplish their goals in a single day. Rather, the road to victory takes months or even years. As George Lakey put it in How We Win: A Guide to Direct Action Campaigning, “The trouble is, when I look back on the one-off protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed the policy we were protesting” (4). However, this sort of narrative condensation is a common literary device. Take the movie Love, Actually, wherein characters learn new languages, learn new instruments, and fall deeply in love in under a month. These are real life activities, but presented on an abridged timeline. The same is true for the events in “For the Snake of Power.” Although the timeline is very condensed, the elements of civil resistance are believable.
Conflict Transformation in “Big Rural”
Cat Rambo’s “Big Rural” also begins with a mystery. The protagonist, Trish Soledad, returns to Tierra del Ray, her hometown in rural Arizona. Like Rosa from “For the Snake of Power,” Trish works for a power company that is unpopular with local residents. Sol Dominion has planted a massive solar farm on the outskirts of town and intends to roll out an even larger phase two. The plant, though, has suffered serious vandalism, and the culprits haven’t been caught. If the problem continues, it could jeopardize the project. Trish’s future with Sol Dominion depends on her ability to stop the vandalism.
Neither local law enforcement nor the solar farm security guards show much interest in helping Trish solve the mystery. Nonetheless, she eventually realizes that her high school boyfriend, Jeff, is the ringleader of the vandals. But Trish also realizes that Sol Dominion hasn’t taken local concerns into account. The solar farm itself is considered an eyesore that ruins the view from their favorite bluff. Why would they want to see it expanded? The shift to solar power coincided with the shut down of the local coal plant, one of the small town’s largest employers. Finally, Sol Dominion’s acquisition of water rights threatens to crowd out agriculture.
At the end of the story, Trish and Jeff meet atop the bluff. He knows that she’s figured things out and waits for the metaphorical hammer to drop. Instead, Trish surprises him. She’s cashed in all her favors at Sol Dominion to arrange a change in the phase two design. “Ever heard of agro-voltaics?” she asks Jeff, “Imagine crops growing between the panels, sheltered from some of the heat.” (119). Now the space will be dual purpose, benefitting both the power company and the community. Rather than a black hole, the view from the bluff will look down on a giant garden.
This solution illustrates one of the key ideas in conflict transformation theory, the distinction between interests and positions (popularized in Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton’s Getting to Yes). Basically, a “position” is whatever the parties on each side of a conflict are demanding. The position of the power company is that phase two needs to proceed without interference. The position of the vandals is that this expansion must be stopped. An “interest” is whatever needs or wants the parties are trying to accomplish through their positions. By looking a level deeper, Trish finds an alternative that addresses everyone’s needs.
Indeed, pushing through this alternative is Trish’s key heroic act in “Big Rural.” The closest thing to civil resistance in the story is Jeff’s vandalism campaign. (There’s disagreement within the field of peace and conflict studies as to whether vandalism counts as nonviolence.) Trish never diverts from her purpose of stopping this vandalism, but she finds a way to transform the conflict, to move past winners and losers.
Like “For the Snake of Power,” “Big Rural” relies on an abridged timeline. In real life, it would probably take a lot more effort to convince a company like Sol Dominion to change their design plans. The same is true for convincing the vandals to stand down. The power company and the local community might go through several rounds of negotiations before arriving at the agro-voltaics plan. With that said, the solution itself is realistic, and it reflects a key concept in conflict transformation theory. Through narrative condensation, Rambo has gotten the essentials across in a compelling short story.
The exploration above hardly exhausts the links between peace poetics and solarpunk. In particular, I’ve prioritized heroic action over worldbuilding. The former, however, depends on the latter. An action can only happen in a world in which that action is possible. For this reason, let’s briefly consider crucial elements of solarpunk worldbuilding in these two tales from Weight of Light.
Both stories imagine plausible advancements in solar technology, but they don’t stop there. Both also pay attention to the aesthetic form these technologies take. The “snake” in Cooper’s story is an architectural marvel, bordering on public sculpture. When working properly, its form and function alike contribute to the well-being of Phoenix residents. In Rambo’s story, the solar farm is ultimately redesigned to satisfy both the practical and visual needs of local residents. Rather than techno-dystopias, these are worlds where leadership must consider the holistic impacts of technology, although it takes pushback from ordinary citizens to insure this consideration.
Furthermore, both stories imagine social structures wherein such pushback can prove effective. Neither story depicts a utopia, of course. In both, powerful corporate or governmental institutions threaten to trample those on the margins. But unlike Orwell’s 1984—which predated Star Trek’s Borg in portraying resistance as futile—these solarpunk societies have space for advocacy, negotiation, and effective resistance. Such narrative worlds allow for nonviolent heroic action.
Upon reflection, I must acknowledge that this essay is really a blend of literary criticism and poetics. That is, I’ve spent as much time analytically reading two solarpunk stories (criticism) as I’ve spent exploring how to write in this genre (poetics). Nonetheless, I hope that you take at least two insights away from my analysis of “For the Snake of Power” and “Big Rural”: (1) compelling alternatives to violence are possible in fiction, and (2) solarpunk is a genre where those alternatives can thrive.
By reading these stories carefully with an eye toward narrative craft, other writers can pick up ideas for attempting similar effects in their own work. To be clear, I’m not claiming that Cooper and Rambo thought about their work using the same terms I’ve used. Reading the second half of “For the Snake of Power” as a caper story helps us figure out how to replicate a form of action, whether or not Cooper conceived it that way. Similarly, I don’t know if Cat Rambo deliberately drew on conflict transformation theory in “Big Rural,” but that field helps us understand why the story’s resolution works.
Beyond craft specifics, for civil resistance or conflict transformation to work in fiction, writers must believe that these methods can succeed. That is, writers must craft worlds that allow nonviolent heroism to triumph. Certainly, Cooper and Rambo have done this. If these two stories are any indication, there’s a bright future for peace poetics within solarpunk worlds.