The Godfather of Solarpunk interviewed: Adam Flynn

Adam Flynn wrote “Solarpunk: Notes towards a manifesto” three years ago. How far we have come! The article became a rallying cry for Solarpunksters everywhere, and Adam has been an important hub in the movement ever since (I’m not sure how he will like being called the “Godfather of Solarpunk” – but the title seems to suit him just fine in terms of symbolism!). Also check out his recent article “On the Need for New Futures”.

I am privileged to share this content and send out a huge thanks to Abraham Martinez, the supremely generous editor of the digital weekly sci fi, horror and fantasy magazine “El Ojo de Uk”, and supplier of this excellent interview with Adam from last year.
It was published in Spanish in El Ojo de Uk earlier this year.
Enjoy the read!
1) Two years ago you wrote the notes towards a Solarpunk Manifesto, as part of Project Hieroglyph. In 2 years, How much has the world changed towards this new approach called “solarpunk“?

I don’t know if the world as a whole has changed because of solarpunk. But I’m happy to see that others have picked up the torch. There have been a number of anthologies on the subject (Wings of Renewal, Sunvault, etc.) and a broader move towards climate fiction. Of course, it’s hard to stay ahead of news headlines, which tend to be moving faster than a lot of the current imagination.

I never expected that people I’ve never met would be debating ideas I thought it would be fun to help popularize, but they’re out there, in a somewhat surprising array: disability activists, political theorists, and teenage cartoonists. But it’s definitely more “real” than it was two years ago. It’s starting to be a term one can throw around, though I’m sure it means different things to different people.

One exciting development, personally speaking, was that “Sunshine State,” a story I co-wrote with Andrew Dana Hudson, won the climate fiction contest run by Arizona State University and will be published in their forthcoming anthology Everything Change. It was a blind process, so the story had to stand up to multiple rounds of judges, with final selections by Kim Stanley Robinson himself. So having the author of the Mars trilogy call our piece “a true pleasure to read” is both gratifying and still kind of hard to believe.

2) You are an artist. Readers and authors usually understand the scientific and technologic part of Sciencie Fiction. How can philosophy and arts be part of Solarpunk SciFi?

Forgive me if I get philosophical here, but I can sketch out an answer. Here’s the short version:

  • an unbalanced focus on science and technology leads to a view of everything in the world as something to be worked on, extracted, or twisted towards one’s goals. (We can call this “instrumentalism” or “enframing.”)
  • This instrumentalized view of the world, when not contained by a strong belief system or ethical groundwork, tends to create monstrosities: Frankenstein, Mountaintop-removal mining, ethnic cleansing.
    • Frequently, this is expressed as unintended consequences (effects we did not expect), but also important are unacknowledged consequences (effects we would rather not admit are true.)
  • Since the 1960s, we have learned the limits of pure instrumentalism. The cultural response has produced works like “Small is Beautiful,” and popularized Slow Food.
    • But “sustainable, organic” creations too often become consumer objects for the rich. We have not developed a suitable replacement that works for a world of 9 billion people.
  • The coming of climate change means that people in a position to change things can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of the system we live in.
  • It is the work of philosophy and the arts to develop a new groundwork for living together peacefully on a smaller, hotter, more volatile world.
Federico Campagna has called for “the creation of a new architecture of values, stretching from the gates of Being to the core of ethical choices.” In that sense, the megaproject of this century is not a space elevator or a moonshot. The megaproject is fundamentally about humans. It’s figuring out how to scale up our collective empathy and perception-of-humanity, so that entire nations do not rush to fearful stereotypes about migrants. It’s about retraining people in basic skills of civics and how to come together as a community. It’s about building new, smarter, more equitable cities when the seas rise. It’s about building a sense of a larger entity beyond the self, and erasing this perception of the world around us as something separate from us that’s there for us to exploit. Not that this is anything radically new, more that it’s newly urgent.

Finally, we can ask if the term “science fiction” is a little too Modernist these days. (Not ‘modern’ meaning here and now, but captial-M “Modernist,” meaning a style of instrumentalist thinking focused on bringing nature and society into ‘rational’ order. Modernists believed that science would spill open all the secrets of life, and that it could then be easily engineered into drastically better forms.) Maybe we need to think in terms of Visionary Fiction, or Speculative Fiction. When protestors wave a banner reading “another world is possible,” they’re talking about possible futures, but it’s not necessarily one driven by technological innovation.

3) In the solarpunk images there is a constant reference of Edwardian and Art Noveau aesthetics. Is this a “logical step” since the previews SciFi current (steampunk) is Victorian or is there another reason?

I think it may have started as a happy accident, but there are good reasons one can look at Art Nouveau (and related movements, like the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris) as deeply congruent with solarpunk. Those movements wanted to bring beauty to common objects (like the Paris Metro signs), to investigate organic forms in what we might call early biomimicry. They wanted to connect people with the materiality of making, of pride in craft, in an era when mass production was sweeping everything.

It’s also worth noting that greenhouses, atriums, and arcades were a big part of architecture during the Edwardian/Belle Epoque years. There was a lot of exploration into passive solar architecture cut short by the advent of WWI.

4) For many people, it is hard to believe there is better tomorrow. How can SciFi authors and artist can change the “distopic future” vision of their own art after the “Matrix” and “Blade Runner” influence?

It’s easy to think about “optimistic vs pessimistic” or “hope vs despair,” or “utopia vs dystopia,” and draw battle lines. But maybe a better question is, “does it inspire action?”
There’s plenty of back-patting self-congratulatory optimism you see at conferences of the global elite, that mostly allows them to keep up a status quo that’s melting antarctica. There’s also a lot of grim-dark futures that end up in the realm of what I call “teenage goth navel-gazing.” They give the reader an exciting swim in darkness, and then let them go back to their everyday without any sort of urgency or imperative to keep this from happening. Basically, is it escapism? Is it catharsis? Or does it get your ass out of your easy chair?
Dr. Strangelove is productively dark, as is the Handmaid’s Tale1984 drew a picture of a world that it’s very easy to point to, and say “not that.” I’m not saying that we don’t need dark futures, it’s just that we’re in something of a surplus of them now, and that most of them aren’t productive. If you feel called to write stories of things getting worse, ask inside yourself, what’s the belief motivating that?
That said, it *is* hard to believe that everything in society is heading towards a happy tomorrow. I saw this spelled out by Pope Francis, of all people:
There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness. 
(from Laudato Si)
Bruce Sterling has a good riff in “Shaping Things” about how the future will be one part unthinkable and one part unimaginable. And I think that’s probably right. There are going to be surprising breakthroughs, there are going to be catastrophic collapses. (Things can always get worse.) But, assuming we don’t kill ourselves off entirely (a big if, and part of why the fight matters), an ending of one thing is always the beginning of something else. Venice was founded by refugees.
My friend Jon takes issue with a lot of these visions of despair, because he sees an underlying racial element to them: dystopia has already been here, just unevenly distributed. Many authors have noted that Native Americans live in a partly post-apocalyptic world, and African-Americans lived through widespread alien abduction. In his words, “White people think the world is ending, but what if it’s only beginning?”

5) Do you think we need “the big solarpunk movie” to seed the idea on people’s imagination?

Movies cost a lot of money, particularly big sci-fi epics. In order to get that money, one usually has to operate along very standard lines, to avoid financial risk. This results in plots like “A lone hero solves problems by punching people, and wins the love interest at the end.”  With the exception of the Ghostbusters reboot and a number of indie films, it’s hard to find examples that break from the tropes.
If you watch the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, you can contemplate the potential of a big audiovisual spectacle to capture public imagination, but also see the forces arrayed against the creation of truly new visions.
To its credit, i think solarpunk‘s appropriate-technology angle and focus on long-term sustainable design means that there’s a lot of room for lower-budget independent solarpunk films. Who knows! Joseph Gordon-Levitt learned about solarpunk on a podcast in July, maybe he’ll throw his weight behind a good project.
Jodorowsky ended up telling many of his stories in comic books. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I suspect that we’re a lot more likely to see solarpunk narratives told in comic books first. In fact, Freakangels by Warren Ellis comes very close, even though it was written before the term was popularized.
Check out Abraham’s first interview with Gerson Lodi Ribeiro, the Brazilian sci fi writer and editor who curated the very first Solarpunk anthology in 2012, setting in motion the birth and development of this beautiful genre.

1 thought on “The Godfather of Solarpunk interviewed: Adam Flynn

  1. I don’t think naming any one person as the herald of solarpunk is conducive to the movement. You should definitely check with him about this.

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