The first time I ever heard the term solarpunk was in the call for submissions for the Wings of Renewal "solarpunk dragons" anthology. I've already blogged about how solarpunk gave a name to something I was already deeply craving in my science fiction, and the darker the world gets, the brighter I want my fiction to be—both what I write and what I read. I tried my hand at a solarpunk dragon story for this anthology, but the Wings of Renewal editors politely (and rightfully) declined it. I bought the anthology when it was first released, but it's taken me a while to actually read it, for various (not very good) reasons.
As I read, I found that I had MANY OPINIONS, both about the stories themselves and about how solarpunk is and is not developing as a genre and a movement. And what is a blog except a perfect place to bark my opinions into the wind?
It's a long book (22 stories and 500+ pages), so I'll be spreading my reviews out over three blog posts—one per week is the plan. These are solely my opinions, and I have nothing at stake here except a general interest in helping make solarpunk a thing. (You can see what I'm doing on that front here and here.) I'd also like to note that editor Claudie Arseneault is donating proceeds from sales of Wings of Renewal to NoDAPL, so that's as good a reason as any to pick up a copy.
Ready? Okay, here we go.
Summer Project by C.B. Carr
Usually an anthology starts with the strongest story, and that's definitely not the case here. The writing is competent, but lackluster, full of beginner crutches and weak constructions. I had about a thousand questions about the worldbuilding, though much of it intrigued me as well. I assume the editors chose this one to open the book because it best fit their vision of what solarpunk should be. The conflict of this story revolves around a girl trying to 3D print a prosthetic leg for a dragon while poachers pursue. It's inclusive and optimistic in all the best ways, with interesting and colorful sustainable tech ranging from stained glass solar panels to algae-powered ships to electric bikes. If this story were illustrated or made into a graphic novel, it would look just like one of those awesome solarpunk Pinterest boards.
In the Hearts of Dragons by Stephanie Wagner
A group of travelers fly in an interstellar "dragonship," a sentient creature that functions through a mind-meld with the pilot—until [slight spoiler] the pilot has an aneurysm and the life support systems start to shut down. Except for the green, nature-centric imagery of the dragonship's interior, this is pretty much a straightforward science fiction story. That's not to take anything away from it—it's a wonderful story, with strong writing and likeable, sympathetic characters. The solarpunk setting gives it a unique feel that sets it apart from other space travel adventures, and the hopeful, happy ending feels just right.
The Shape of the Sun by Marianne L.D. Drolet
This one starts out darker than the others. A supervolcano has erupted, the sun is blocked by clouds and debris, and the fumes are slowly killing people. Dragons have mysteriously arrived, circling the poisoned skies. Though it begins dark, it takes a beautiful, optimistic turn near the end. This has what I think will become a quintessential solarpunk theme: perseverance in the face of extreme environmental conditions. "The Shape of the Sun" is one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
Petrichor by Megan Reynolds
This is a lovely story, but I can't see it as solarpunk. It's an agrarian fantasy with fairy tale underpinnings, and though it's all about gardening and caring for the earth and dealing with drought, those things aren't uncommon in this type of fantasy. I think it's important for solarpunk to develop as a science fiction genre—to showcase sustainable technology we already have, to speculate about green tech we could have, and to imagine the new social norms and conflicts that arise because of it. If solarpunk goes the way of steampunk and gets too tangled up with magic and the fantastic, it ceases to be a future we can actually strive for. That's not what's happening in this story, though: it's just a full-fledged fantasy, and as fantasy, it's pretty good, and definitely refreshing in its portrayal of queer and non-binary characters. A girl steals a flower from a witch's garden and has to go work for her to appease the theft, but quickly realizes she's not the villain the townspeople make her out to be. While the writing is generally strong, the tone is a bit uneven, and at times the language felt too contemporary for the setting.
I propose that rather than solarpunk, "Petrichor" is an example of noblebright, a fantasy movement formed as a reaction against the grimdark fantasy that's so pervasive in the genre these days.
Glow by Caitlin Nicoll
I had trouble figuring out when and where this story took place. It starts off feeling like traditional fantasy, then later scenes have more contemporary technology, but with something of a 19th century safari feel. Finally, I decided it must just be a secondary world fantasy based loosely on the Amazon, with dragons and a little bit of technology. The lack of worldbuilding really pulled me out, though, and the solarpunk aspects felt tacked on. We have boats that run on solar power (except the scene is at night?) and "solar lamps" (what do they look like? how are they any different than battery powered lamps?). If you were to edit out those references, the story wouldn't be substantially different. Also, throughout many of these stories, I'm noticing a trend in solarpunk names: character names like Bright, Sol, Marisol, etc. This is cute, but could get cliché real quick.
Lost and Found by Brenda J. Pierson
On the planet of New Persia, humans have developed a symbiotic civilization with elemental dragons. When one of the irrigation dragons goes missing, our narrator ventures into the jungle to find it. The personal conflict (his wife wants kids but he's not ready) coupled with the high stakes of losing the dragon (their town will dry up without enough dragons) worked together to create a highly satisfying story. The Arabic-style world was interesting and refreshing, and though the green tech aspects were light, they were definitely sprinkled in. The humans' relationship with the various dragons offers a good metaphor for sustainable energy. A wonderful story.
The Stained Glass Dragon by Jeanne LG
A neuroatypical artist who makes dragon automata struggles to level up his dragons to win a contest at an upcoming festival. The imagery of the stained glass dragons is beautiful, but is the presence of stained glass and the mention of vaguely-defined "gardens" enough to make it solarpunk? I'd have loved to see and understand more about the world this story takes place in. The stakes of the conflict were also poorly defined, and information known to the characters was withheld from the reader until the end—a personal pet peeve of mine. If the characters all know something, it's not a "twist" or a "reveal." If the only reason the reader has to keep reading is to get to this withheld information, then it's a Band-Aid covering the fact that the conflict and stakes of the story aren't strong enough on their own.
Solarium by Kimberly Kay and A.N. Gephart
The future empire of Solarium overlays modern New York, and now that the pollution has cleared, dragon nature spirits have returned to balance the ecosystems over which they preside. Our protagonist is a Dawnlight Knight, charged with tracking down the Prince's missing dragon. Our antagonist is capturing and genetically engineering the dragons because she believes it's dangerous and unsustainable to be so dependent on them. She's a great villain because she truly believes what she's doing is right, and this argument over independent sustainability vs. symbiotic dependence makes a fantastic solarpunk conflict. Personally, I think the editors should have put this story first. It's the most fully realized and fleshed out of any of the stories so far. I would absolutely love to read a full YA novel set in this world.
Note: It has come to my attention that this story is not included in the re-issued edition of Wings of Renewal. I am reading a first edition, published by Incandescent Phoenix Books. The new edition republished by Claudie Arseneault contains fewer stories than the original.
Check back next week for part two of my Wings of Renewal solarpunk book review!