“Punk” has been around for a good few decades now, and it is easy to forget that it had its roots not just in music and art, but also in literature. As a movement is has diversified exponentially and it is now possible to follow not just the ubiquitous steampunk, but a whole range of different punk “brands”: atompunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, cyberpunk, and solarpunk are just a few that I could name. Despite the way these movements are creeping into the mainstream, however, they still have at their roots a serious philosophical engagement with mainstream culture which is particularly relevant to theoretical approaches such as literary studies, environmental studies, and new materialism. It is therefore surprising to find that relatively little attention has been devoted so far to these movements as literary trends. In this post I want to look at two, in particular, that are especially relevant to the YA dystopia and fantasy genres: steampunk and solarpunk. These two are particularly important not only because of their wide and pervasive popular following, but also because of the serious engagement with posthumanist themes that the best examples of these genres have contributed to YA literature. Both steampunk and solarpunk offer visions of a future which, instead of embracing the humanist impulse to discard the past and pursue what is new and better, celebrates the posthumanist reuse and reimagining of the past and present as the most sustainable option for the human race.
Steampunk Magazine, one of the few publications dedicated to steampunk culture, offers the following explanation of steampunk culture:
“Steampunk as a genre is descended from Cyberpunk, which questioned the scientific optimism prevalent in mainstream science fiction and instead offered a gritty, grimly realistic world in which corporations ruled the earth, empowered in many ways by the development of communications technology. Cyberpunk protagonists were hackers and subcultural street fighters who navigated endless metropolises and uncovered corporate conspiracies. Steampunk authors realized the same sorts of values could be used to re-imagine the Victorian era, with the empire serving a similar role as corporations” (“Frequently Asked Questions”).
Steampunk, therefore, can be understood as an attempt to critique the social and political developments in human/technology relationships that have manifested in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. More than mere nostalgia for a time that has passed, steampunk looks to the past for solutions to the problems of social, political, economic, and cultural problems of today, seeking representations of where and how things might have gone differently.
One of the few academic sources available to those who are interested in steampunk criticism is the open-source peer-reviewed journal, Neo-Victorian Studies, which launched in 2008 in order to explore “the contemporary fascination with re-imagining the nineteenth century and its varied literary, artistic, socio-political and historical contexts in both British and international frameworks” (“Aims and Scope”). According to Patrick Jagoda, writing in Volume 3 of the journal, steampunk is “characterized by alternative histories that frequently explore the rise of new technologies in Victorian England and throughout its global empire” (Jagoda 46). While much mainstream steampunk seems to be little more than a fanciful application of Victorian tropes (cogs and gears, parasols, brass, and corsets) to just about anything (Onion 155), Jagoda’s article, which explores the foundations and origins of the movement in literature, reveals a serious undercurrent to steampunk as a genre that “enables a complex examination of the historical evolution of power structures and control systems” (Jagoda 48) and suggests that “the extensible, recombinant, and subjective nature of historical data makes it susceptible to the construction of numerous pasts and futures” (Jagoda 62). This, as many proponents of the movement would explain, in where the “punk” aspect of steampunk comes into play: steampunk’s insistence on re-appropriating technology for the marginalized and the disadvantaged, as well as interrogating the role of technology in social formations of power, control, and progress, allows it to enter into discourses about materiality, temporality, and – crucially – humanism.
The movement has, furthermore, strong ties to environmentalist concerns. As another contributor to Neo-Victorian Studies writes, an important facet of steampunk culture outside of literature is the belief of steampunk artists in “their ability to shape a better future through the recycling of the past” (Forlini 75), shaped by an “aesthetic of recycling and re-using” (Forlini 76). As Forlini explains, steampunk’s “insistence on an increased mindfulness toward things and our relationships to them is particularly significant and timely, as it fosters increased sensitivity toward our endangered material environment” (Forlini 80). Although Forlini criticizes some aspects of steampunk culture as being susceptible to reification of the assumption of a clear human/technology binary divide, and of the illusion of human control and mastery of technology, she nevertheless sees the movement as a valuable incentive to “learn to see our fundamentally posthuman condition, our profound embeddedness in what the science and technology studies tradition refers to as socio-technical networks of humans and nonhumans” (Forlini 91). In other words, the way that steampunk celebrates the intimate and personal relationship between humans and machines encourages a re-evaluation of the human relationship to the material environment. In terms of YA fantasy and dystopia, therefore, steampunk allows readers to explore alternative realities in which humanist ideas have been deconstructed along specific lines: humanist binaries such as human/nonhuman, past/future, nature/culture, self/other are disturbed by the melding of human and machine, and by the re-appropriation of past practices and technologies. Significantly, the movement encourages not only the exploration of these alternatives vicariously through fiction, but also through real-life cultural practices such as fashion, music, and art. For young people who experience steampunk, humanism is shown to be only one perspective on the world, with posthumanism often celebrated as a more viable option.
Solarpunk shared its roots and ideology with steampunk, but takes a different approach to exploring the human relationship with the material world. Even less serious critical exploration of solarpunk exists than of steampunk, however one proponent of the movement describes the relationship between steampunk and solarpunk as follows: “Solarpunk also conflates modern technology with older technology, but with a vital difference. In the case of steampunk, the focus on Victorian technology serves as a guideline for imagining an alternative world. In the case of solarpunk, the interest in older technologies is driven by modern world economics: if oil isn’t a cheap source of energy anymore, then we sometimes do best to revive older technologies that are based on other sources of energy, such as solar power and wind power” (“From Steampunk to Solarpunk”). Another explanation, offered by the fan site Solarpunk Anarchist, similarly explains that “While steampunk imagines a past that might have been, based on Victorian-age technology, solarpunk imagines a future that could be, based on current-age technology” (Owens). Solarpunk, therefore, replaces the technologies of the past (such as steam power) used to reimagine the human/nonhuman relationship in steampunk with the technologies of the present, such as solar power, which might be used differently to fashion an alternative present or future.
Adam Flynn, writing as part of the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination Hieroglyph Project, offers what is currently the closest to an academic explanation of the movement:
“Solarpunk is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us right now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us – i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually. Our future must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20th century “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism). Our futurism is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community” (Flynn).
Solarpunk, therefore, presents a vision of an alternative reality in which the marginalized alternative technologies already available to the human race, such as solar- and wind-powered renewable energy, vertical gardens, organic farming, and so on, are mainstream and pervasive. Solarpunk proponents imagine a world in which, similarly to steampunk, individuals are able to interact personally with technology to find solutions which work for themselves and their communities, rather than for the interests of multinational corporations and exploitative capitalist organizations.
As many of those who write about solarpunk explain, this is a vision which is eutopic rather than utopic – it imagines a significantly better existence for humanity (and for nonhumans) without the drive for perfection and end-of-time impossibility implied by traditional visions of Utopia. The implications for environmental studies are clear: solarpunk encourages individuals and communities to take charge of the future through a re-appropriation of technology and a rejection of any technology which is environmentally or socially exploitative. Whilst the environmental relevance of such a stance is clear, however, it’s application in literature is less so, and although there are writers consciously producing work that falls under the solarpunk banner within the wider genre of science fiction, there is as yet very little mainstream solarpunk fiction or criticism. Nevertheless, a brief examination of three canonical YA dystopias reveals that the steampunk/solarpunk approach is both prevalent and relevant.
How Does It Apply to YA Literature?
This section is going to be brief – not least because I will be exploring these themes more fully in publications over the next few years. A few comments, however, should serve to illustrate how both steampunk and solarpunk – often working together – can serve to open up debate about posthumanist themes in YA fantasy and dystopia.
Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most iconic YA dystopias of the 2000s. Set in a future incarnation of the United States, it envisages a world in which technology is not only much more highly advanced than in the present day, but also much vastly less equal in its distribution and accessibility: while the wealth citizens of the Capitol enjoy technologies such as advanced biotechnological medicines, virtual reality entertainment, and fast, clean transport, the impoverished citizens of the Districts lack economic access to even primitive technologies: Katniss, the heroine of the story, and her family lack access to basic technologies such as electric lighting and hot water. This projected future, therefore, represents the type of technological cyberpunk dystopia against which the solarpunk movement is reacting. The barest hint of a solution, however, emerges at the end of the series, which sees the war-torn and traumatized Katniss and Peeta returned to their district, which is slowly rebuilding itself in the aftermath of the revolution. Here we see neither the hyper-technological and strictly controlled environments of the Capitol’s or District 13’s versions of utopia, nor the downtrodden earthiness of the oppressed districts. Instead we see a community rebuilding itself along more sustainable lines, and critical to that process of rebuilding is a sense of local community, decentralized technology, and partnership with nature. In the last chapter of Mockingjay, for example, Katniss tells us that she hunts, Peeta bakes, and Haymitch raises geese (452). The final vision of District 12 is one of communal sustainable recovery: “A few hundred others return because, whatever has happened, this is our home. With the mines closed, they plow the ashes into the earth and plant food. Machines from the Capitol break ground for a new factory where we will make medicines. Although no one seeds it, the Meadow turns green again” (452). Significant in this vision is the fact that, although the Capitol retains some power (it has possession, for example, of the technology needed for construction), there is impetus within this community to create a new, local, sustainable community, directly associated with the creation of green spaces. It is not a vision of a perfect solution, but instead a blueprint for how something better might be built upon the ruins of the old world order. Although the trilogy as a whole, therefore, remains threateningly cyberpunk in its dystopian vision of the future, it also, for a brief moment, offers a glimpse at an even more distant future in which the ideas of solarpunk seem to hint at a better way forward.
When it comes to steampunk in YA literature, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb series are perhaps the best-known examples. The novels are set in the far distant future, after most of humanity and the geographical landscape as we know it have been decimated by a series of technological catastrophes wrought by “the ancients”. Although many fragments of ancient technologies remain, such a Seedys (CD’s), Hobbes Caps (hub caps), stalker brains, and the frightening orbital weapon ODIN, these technologies are opaque to the humans who now populate the earth: the understanding of how they operate has been lost, and these people rely on much more primitive technologies. In Fever Crumb, for example, electrical light for a stage production is created using jars of water and a length of copper wire; to those who watch the show, it is considered magical and even sinful. Throughout Mortal Engines, humans travel on huge cities propelled across the earth by traction engines, each of which is fed by primitive furnaces, while the skies are filled with airships which function much like the Zepplins and Dirigibles of the early twentieth century. In this evocation of the future as reliant on the less-complicated – and less dangerous – technologies of the past, Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb are typical of the steampunk aesthetic. However, as both series explore in detail, the constant drive for further progress, resulting from the continuing influence of capitalist belief systems (such as “Municiple Darwinism”), makes even this steampunk future untenable. In its place, Reeve offers two different visionary possibilities: that of Shan Guo and of New London. Shan Guo, the seat of the Anti-Traction League, although temporarily decimated by the extremist Green Storm Movement (espousing a radical deep-ecology ethos), nevertheless is restored by the end of the Mortal Engines trilogy to what it seems in the first book: set in the beautiful but harsh landscape of the Asian mainland, Shan Guo is a community based on decentralized power (one of the ideals unseated by the rise of the Green Storm), sustainable technology (such as the hand-operated taxi-balloons that serve as elevators in Batmunkh Gompa), and a sense of community (such as that which supports Sathya’s existence as a recluse in a Zhan Shan hermitage). Although Reeve leaves open the existence and continuation of the traction cities at the end of A Darkling Plain, it seems clear from the closing chapters, in which the stalker Grike (Shrike in UK editions) awakens to find a world where such ecologically-destructive technologies have been forgotten, that Shan Guo will be the real future of humanity. At the same time, Reeve also closes A Darkling Plain with the image of New London, where destructive technologies have been replaced with sustainable, clean technologies, enabling New London to flat harmlessly above the earth and thereby alleviating the conflict between the tractionists and anti-tractionists. New London seems to exemplify solarpunk ideals such as open-source technology, clean power, and sustainable practices; it retains the steampunk independence and spirit of enquiry of the old traction-based London, but abandons the flawed capitalist ideologies on which it was based. By portraying this ideal as the natural successor to the steampunk ideal that came before, Reeve invites readers to imagine the possibilities inherent not in new technologies, but in new approaches and attitudes to technology.
For one final vision of a steampunk/solarpunk alternative reality, one can turn to Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. In this trilogy, we see not the future but a series of alternative presents resulting for the co-existence of multiple worlds. While at least one of the worlds which features prominently in the series is the present-day, recognizably “real” twenty-first century, another – the world in which Lyra, the protagonist, lives – is a vision of what the present-day would look like if the sleek technologies of our world had been prevented, by strict religious intervention, from developing at all. In Lyra’s world technology does exist, but is less pervasive than in our world. The scholars in Lyra’s Jordan College, for example, prefer to use naptha (gas) lighting in place of the newer and still not quite accepted anbaric (electric) lighting, the Gyptians travel by boats heated by old-fashioned stoves, and air-travel is, once again, undertaken in Zeppelin-like airships. In this alternative reality we see very little of the gritty, hands-on approach to technology that characterizes true steampunk, but we do see an aesthetic approach which questions the inevitability and viability of the accepted vision of technological progress as driven by liberal humanism and free-market capitalism. Even more significantly, the final book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, offers both a critique of current technological practices and a vision of a solarpunk alternative in the portrayal of the Mulefa society. The Mulefa are an intelligent and civilized non-anthropoid society: they live in herds, look like deer or antelope, and in place of hands they have prehensile trunks. Their society is based on a deep and spiritual connection to the land, and particularly to the seed-pod trees they depend upon for their key technology – the wheels on which they travel. The result of this relationship to the land is technology that is sustainable and community-based, and a society that relies on mutual support, localism, and democracy in place of technological progress, economic growth, and capitalist competition. Particularly in his use of the ex-nun scientist Mary as a focalizing perspective, Pullman like Reeve suggests that it is not new technology that will make a viable future, but instead a new approach to technology and progress. The series has recently resumed with a new trilogy entitled The Book of Dust, of which Part 1, La Belle Sauvage, was published in November; it remains to be seen to what extent the new series will continue to pursue these themes.
As this brief exploration suggests, there is a great deal that both steampunk and solarpunk philosophies can offer to environmental studies approaches to YA literature, particularly in terms of how alternative futures are portrayed. Significantly for the dystopian genre, these approaches offer a note of positivism which might serve to address the accusations of unmitigated, unnecessary, and unhelpful bleakness.
Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Scholastic 2010.
Flynn, Adam. “Solarpunk: Notes Toward A Manifesto.” Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination, 4 September, 2014, http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/2014/09/solarpunk-notes-toward-a-manifesto/.
Forlini, Stefania. “Technology and Morality: The Stuff of Steampunk.” Neo-Victorian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2010, pp. 72-98.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” Steampunk Magazine, http://www.steampunkmagazine.com/faq/. Accessed 5 December 2017.
“From Steampunk to Solarpunk.” Republic of the Bees, https://republicofthebees.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/from-steampunk-to-solarpunk/. Accessed 5 December 2017.
Jagoda, Patrick. “Clacking Control Societies: Steampunk, History, and the Difference Engine of Escape.” Neo-Victorian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2010, pp. 46-71.
Onion, Rebecca. “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice.” Neo-Victorian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 138-163.
Owens, Connor. “What is Solarpunk?” Solarpunk Anarchist, 27 May, 2016, https://solarpunkanarchists.com/2016/05/27/what-is-solarpunk/.
Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. Scholastic, 2000.
Reeve, Philip. Fever Crumb. Scholastic, 2011.
Reeve, Philip. Mortal Engines. Scholastic, 2001.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.