Write the Future You Want to Live In
By Ana Sun
Take a moment: fast forward your imagination into the future, let’s say a hundred years from now, maybe two hundred. Now picture yourself in it. Who are you in that world? What would you be doing? What surrounds you— what sights, sounds?

I don’t find it easy to dream up a world beyond just an extension of our current reality— a world seemingly full of injustices, where our man-made climate emergency has likely set off a chain of irreparable disasters. And yet I very much want to believe that, as a species, we have the ingenuity and capability to turn things around and construct a better world. In fact, we already have so many potential solutions to decarbonize, to decouple ourselves from extractive practices upon our planet and the continual exploitation of fellow human beings. So, what are we up against? A lack of political will, a lack of imagination on how to shift away from the status quo.

A bit over a year ago, I had the chance to ask the author who coined the term cyberpunk, Bruce Bethke. I asked him: do we live in a cyberpunk world? “Absolutely”, he said without hesitation, and immediately added, “I wasn’t pessimistic enough.”

Does this mean that concocting dreams and writing stories of hope constitutes nothing but self-indulgent folly?

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve come across the oft-quoted anecdote on how the Star Trek communicator inspired the flip phone. This is usually preceded or followed by an assertion: because of this, speculative fiction has a place; we should keep writing it because it has a genuine impact on the world. Turns out the second claim has support of some scientific evidence, but there’s more to the story— I’ll come back to that.

Until recently, I merely thought of this as a myth, something belonging squarely in the correlation-not-causation bucket. Fiction? Influence the world? Hah. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.
But I can pinpoint the precise moment I changed my mind.

Speculative fiction’s handprint
The time: late 2020. The place: behind my computer monitor, in my cold, under-insulated home office with a drafty excuse for a window, not unlike many such energy-inefficient Victorian conversions in Britain. Temporarily untethered from the physical world by the pandemic, many events lowered or waived registration fees as they moved online. Still suffering from long Covid and with work contracts on hold, I took the chance to attend things that were off my normally well-beaten path.

The event in question: an academic conference on social robotics, a topic I knew next to nothing about. Listening to academics and engineers explain their work, I was surprised at how often fictional robots were referred to. Like, how fictional robots had been used as part of a study on human-robot interaction because it approximated a baseline on human expectations. Turns out Wall-E has a bit more influence than HAL 2000 on engineers working on our latest robots. Heartening to know that a little romantic, environmental-themed robot has a slight edge over a homicidal AI. It also seems positive or utopian fiction plays a part:
Our results also showed that sci-fi does not only have a relation with the development of technology but even more elaborate is its role as a medium of discourse, discussion, and communication. Researchers are most likely easily attracted to the utopian visions of sci-fi and the dystopian views are at times neglected, particularly when it comes to state-of-the-art research. In summary, science fiction has an important and significant relationship with the development of technology and one that we would expect to continue to evolve.
Later, I stumbled across an entire book dedicated to analysing interaction design from science fiction. 

Positive visions don’t just affect scientists, designers and engineers. A growing body of research shows how positive fictional role models have the capacity to empower and to change attitudes on how we might react to the climate emergency. This is especially true of stories that highlight solutions, according to one such ecopsychology study by Prof. Denise Baden:
Results indicated that for the vast majority, solution-focused stories were deemed to be most effective in motivating pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs). Role models were especially effective when they were relatable to and carrying out actions that the reader could easily imitate.
While we know systemic change is going to be necessary —individual actions count for only a small part— let’s not forget that if many individuals are mobilized, we become a collective. A community spurred to action, we have the power to drive change.

I’d implied earlier that the Star Trek communicator may not have been the only influence on the flip phone. In the first few minutes of a 2015 interview, Marty Cooper, credited for inventing the mobile or cell phone, cited that his inspiration was more likely to have been Dick Tracy’s wrist two-way radio conceived in the comic strip in 1946. Our smartwatches today possibly also descended from that legacy. So while it wasn’t the piece of fiction we’d come to believe, it was still fiction that inspired the modern portable phone. The development might have just taken a bit longer than we’d expected; real-world technology takes time— it isn’t quite magic.

Without narratives or provocations to play out what our world could look like, we’d remain trapped within the confines of corporate imagination— or lack thereof. We are already stuck on recycling ideas because new ideas are unknown territories much less monetizable than nostalgia. The decision whether a certain technology lives, dies, or thrives rests on capitalistic agents out to make a buck, or several million in the markets— regardless of clear benefits to humans and our planet, and historically, in spite of threats to human safety. Hello and goodbye, repairable electronics. Social media? See aforementioned comment on safety. Within a decade of its invention, privately-owned social media has begun resembling a dystopian experiment.

But from the precursor of social media and the communities behind early personal-blogging platforms, Wikipedia emerged, as did Creative Commons, a legal framework to explicitly enable the sharing of intellectual property so that creators can choose to allow derivatives of their works, enabling collective creativity to blossom. Concepts like Patreon, Kickstarter, all percolated from “crowdsourcing”, harnessing the power behind communities to support independent art and projects for which there might be little or no top-down funding— projects that might have otherwise never seen the light of day.
Solarpunk as counterculture zeitgeist
In 2018, when I stumbled upon the Mastodon community sunbeam.city, I recognized a composite of concepts: grassroot movements openly sharing knowledge, open governance, the championing of the commons, the strife for inclusivity and civil rights— a timely collision of 1960s counterculture with social technology. Only this time, the backdrop is a major shift in discourse on how we might deal with —or live with— the climate emergency, finally in the same breath as its relationship to inequalities and social injustices surfaced by colonization, unfettered capitalism and neoliberal ideals.

Since its first known description in 2008, a lot has been written and studied about solarpunk as a literary, artistic and activist movement. One of the speediest ways to grasp solarpunk principles is through a collectively authored manifesto housed at Regenerative Design. The Wikipedia entry on solarpunk also happens to be a good place to begin. The free encyclopaedia itself embodies solarpunk values as a volunteer-run, non-profit organisation, running on open-source software dedicated to documenting society’s best version of truth through open collaboration. It’s not without its faults, but it has become a largely resilient ecosystem that enables readjustments of long-standing biases.

If you’re reading this in your web browser, it’s thanks to technology built on open standards, developed by many hands who also fought against corporate attempts to dominate the market. At least two-thirds of the World Wide Web runs on open-source web servers, so there’s also a high chance you have loaded a page today that depended on the effort of hundreds, if not thousands of people. 

Solarpunk is already here and has been for a long time— it just had different names. 

Old hands in the solarpunk community such as Jay Springett called solarpunk a "memetic engine" and Phoebe Wagner, a co-editor of one of the first solarpunk anthologies Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, described how there’s a trend towards letting people define what solarpunk means to them. In other words, solarpunk has become a loosely defined “container” of principles that everyone would have the freedom to interpret for themselves. This makes a certain sense: solarpunk stories present a positive progression of the now into the future, and a future that includes all of us on this planet requires nuanced and diverse narratives. In practice, how solarpunk principles influence your locale may be different from mine.

Quite often I find myself having to qualify it to friends and peers in the science-fiction and fantasy writing community: it’s not just about gardening stories, sunshine and rainbows. At its core, solarpunk is political discourse: the acknowledgement that humans are part of this ecosystem we call Earth. My personal working definition is that solarpunk narratives show a potentially viable future where the decentralization of power —literally, and metaphorically— allows us to be accountable for how we live in harmony with those around us, humans or otherwise.

Again, many of these underlying ideas within literature considered “solarpunk” are not new. Core readings include Ursula K. Leguin’s 1974 novel “The Dispossessed”, Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia”, or Murray Bookchin’s numerous treatises. Apart from the books read by Goodreads Solarpunk group, various people in the community have compiled collective reading lists.

Francesco Verso, award-winning author and editor of Future Fiction, described to me two kinds of solarpunk stories he has read: (1) stories by the more privileged, who can “optimistically imagine hopeful narratives that include cultivating past values of purity and innocence”, where they’ve survived a catastrophe or an apocalypse so they must rebuild a new civilization; (2) stories by the non-privileged who “cannot look at the past without being horrified, and thus must turn to the future to build their identity and space of existence”— where the catastrophe is happening now and they must fight to overcome it, to get away from the experience of daily apocalypses. And by that, he means things as basic as human rights, education and healthcare.

Sunshine and rainbows? It depends on who you ask. 
Writing hope does not dismiss despair
Some time ago, in the middle of a casual discussion at a convention, I found myself describing how challenging it is for the people of my hometown in Asia to arrive at solarpunk futures. We still aspire to progress as defined for us by the Global North because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Our post-colonial past made it ripe for corruption at the highest level of government. Our stories tend to be horror or petty dramas. We spend most of our time re-treading the past, trying to rediscover who we were, reinventing who we thought we might have been. 

Choosing to write from a place of hope doesn’t mean that it’s a dismissal of the challenging realities we face. As I write, over 7.2 million people in my adopted country are struggling with essentials like food or adequate clothing, and over 3 million households cannot afford to heat their homes. Yes, I currently live in the United Kingdom— technically, the Global North. We are witnessing decades of failed government policies based on neoliberal doctrine, and we’re finding out the hard way how trickle down economics don’t work. But in the hour of need, communities look after each other: all across the UK, local councils, libraries, museums and community halls have created warm refuges for those who struggle. Not so long ago, like many other places around the world, we witnessed neighbours self-organize into mutual aid groups during Covid-19.

Contrary to popular belief, according to Prof. Penny Spikins, there exists compelling evidence that the species from which we originated were kind and compassionate, all the way back to the Stone Age. In his book “Humankind”, Rutger Bregman offers more recent examples, along with several explanations of why our compassionate nature can be corrupted by those in power. But one of his most compelling deep dives is the story of Kitty Genovese, whose brutal murder gave rise to the “bystander effect” because the press perpetuated the story that thirty-eight witnesses did nothing to help her. We learn how that single instance of unchallenged journalistic spin on human indifference (because, hey, stories of humans mistreating each other sell well) went on to bias the social narrative for five decades.

But you might be pleased to know: the bystander effect has finally been resoundingly disproved. The current statistics show that if you got into trouble, in 90% of the cases, someone would go out of their way to help you. It only took us fifty years to set the story straight, that we are not naturally horrible to each other—quite the opposite. 

The sad fact: our brains are attracted to threats and fears, and it’s precisely this weakness that’s exploited by politicians, some of the press, and— well, anyone else who benefits from mutual distrust. Stories are like “flight simulators for the brain” and if we’re not careful, we could train ourselves into less than desirable narratives. Marissa Lingen’s excellent article “Beware the Lifeboat” has never been so spot on:
When we look into the faces of climate refugees, how we react will depend greatly on what responses to lifeboat problem stories we’ve internalized.
In fiction, we ought to be vigilant that it’s not “cold equations” alone —as made famous by Tom Godwin’s classic short story— that are responsible for tales of suffering; we as storytellers are the ones who create and post-rationalize those circumstances for which innocents could be mistreated, or worse, murdered.

Don’t get me wrong; dystopia has its place. We need stories that remind us of how we got here so we retain the memory of our past mistakes and hardships; we need stories that examine the darker sides of our psyches. But fear comes easier than courage, hope takes emotional work. Without the will to drive narrative change and create visions for a better world, more people will continue to suffer, and we will continue to incorrectly justify that it’s merely human nature. I cannot see how that is in any way desirable for a future I want to live in.
A liveable future as a genre
When someone asks me about writing solarpunk— my first advice is to read what’s already out there.

On a panel for Spectrum Writers London in 2021, Fabio Fernandez, who translated the first solarpunk anthology, described some stories he’d encountered as science fantasy which abides by Clarke’s law (where “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), some about smart solutions for everyday problems in the far future, or stories that are more immediate.

At the same event, Sarena Ullibari, who edited and published the canonical “Glass and Gardens” summer and winter anthologies, described how solarpunk stories could be a “genre” or a “mode”— the latter being stories which use solarpunk as a lens but may not show specific solutions. For example, you might have a romance or hard-boiled detective fiction in a solarpunk setting. Some solarpunk stories may address a problem and present a solution, but others show how people live in a future where a particular problem has been solved, and hand-wave over the details of how we got there. As editor-in-chief of World Weaver Press, as well as someone who read for Imagine 2200, she had a list of common issues she’s seen with solarpunk stories. I scribbled extensive notes.

She suggests that authors:

be aware of specific local impacts— understand climate change is different from other 20th century disasters (it won’t be like a nuclear war)
resist “blank slate stories” that focuses on rebuilding a future after a massive die-off (apocalypse) from pandemic, war, from ecological collapse
imagine a trajectory forward from our present situation where most people and life forms survive
refrain from making up random or impractical technology— look at architectural, material sciences: “what’s niche which could be mainstream, what’s conceptual now but could be reality soon”
resist aesthetics that “looks” solarpunk, but in reality would have a high negative environmental impact because of the potential for greenwashing
let go of the “utopic”— better futures do not mean perfect futures
construct story conflicts that do not necessarily mean planetary life/death; quiet, small-scale or low personal stakes have a place in solarpunk stories.

While solarpunk encompasses a broad range, some core principles are handy to keep in mind. My favourite list of guidelines come from a podcast, a collaboration between James Tomasino and Paweł Ngei:
1. Community as Protagonist (No “Chosen One”)
2. Infrastructure is Sexy (No simple solution)
3. Human/Environmental Context (Not Man vs Nature)

We could go a little further by honouring a variety of storytelling traditions. Vida Cruz, who won an Ignyte award for her non-fiction article “We are the Mountain: A Look at the Inactive Protagonist” has excellent guidance on ways to decolonize your fiction. We can imagine addressing the myriad of challenges as we transition in stages towards a better world.

But where to begin? Phoebe Wagner has spoken on several occasions how she looks to her immediate environment or community for inspiration. What issues do your communities face? What would a positive change look like?

Personally, I examined the fault lines in my own communities — such as having lore pitted against empirical science— which became the basis of the conflict in “Dandelion Brew”. My story “La bibilothèque d’objets quotidiens” which closed the first volume of The Librarian anthology takes inspiration from a real-life library of things right in my town mashed up with a favourite Dr. Who episode. “The Scent of Green”, in an upcoming anthology Fight for the Future: Cyberpunk and Solarpunk Tales by Android Press, explores the challenges of knowledge sharing if communities were autonomous, self-reliant but fragmented— ideas I borrowed from past experience in grassroots activism. Lately I’ve been challenging myself; every time I see a negative headline, I think: how can we turn this around?

Today, our economy is largely late-stage capitalist, especially in the Global North. Developing countries are forced to fall in line to pull their population out of post-colonial poverty, incurring massive carbon footprint driven by consumerist demands of the developed world, at the same time having better, energy-efficient technology priced out of reach. Corporations have a lot of power and are seldom held accountable for their actions— or their accounting. Wealthy countries ship their plastic waste to developing countries in Asia that have no capacity or technology to deal with it. We can’t really know how much biodiversity we will lose because we don’t actually have a clear idea of how many species exist. Estimates of yearly extinctions range between low estimates of two-hundred and two-thousand, to upper estimates between ten thousand and a hundred thousand species. Per year. You read that right.

Yet at COP27 in November 2022, despite finally agreeing on a loss and damage fund to help poorer countries affected by climate disasters, we couldn’t agree on phasing down all fossil fuels. Most financial service institutions that have pledged to reach net zero are still investing heavily in fossil fuels.

Choosing hope is a difficult path, but no superhero is going to dash in to save us. If we want a better world, we’re going to have to make it ourselves. There’s no shortage of problems to set our imaginations alight: how might a more egalitarian economy come to pass, and what struggles would we have to overcome to get there? What would society look like, if citizens ran their own power grids? What cuisines could we rediscover, if we honour sustainable food-growing practices and have more diverse crops?

While activists fight tirelessly to expose malpractices and shift the Overton window, policymakers push for concrete changes, engineers and designers develop feasible technology, we need narratives to show us that a better world is possible, and how we might get there. More than ever, we have a responsibility to forge new dreams, so that our grandchildren —and their grandchildren— can look forward to a world worth living in.
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Write the Future You Want to Live In © 2023 Ana Sun