The beaten and bloodied sole survivor traversing a field of dust is replaced by a smiling monk riding down a forested path. This calmer scene is the vision of the future that Becky Chambers presents in her novella A Psalm for the Wild Built and its sequel A Prayer for the Crown Shy which follow Dex, a tea monk traveling the land providing comfort through conversation, and Mosscap a robot who has emerged from the wild forests to inquire as to what it is that humans need. Coming off her popular WayFarers series, these two small stories are perhaps the most widely encountered introduction to the emerging genre of solarpunk. While A Psalm for the Wild Built is a beautiful expression of solarpunk aesthetics, the invitation to action may be less clearly heard, but through the short video essays of Andrewism, we are all invited to build a solarpunk future together.
Andrewism describes the solarpunk aesthetic as a celebration of “what we should hope for rather than what we should avoid”, an interpretation that is played out by Chamber’s decision not to depict or even explain the implied collapse that predates the world Dex moves through. They encounter remnants of old industry and stay in homes created out of the reclaimed objects of a past society but only through the lens of a possible reconstruction. In light of the increasing prevalence of both climate doomerism on the one hand and climate denial on the other, this focus on hope and the world that comes after seems like it might inspire more concrete action – or at the very least stave off despair.
A key part of the world that both Becky Chambers and Andrewism seem to be reaching for is an experience of fluidity, where the restrictions of contemporary life are replaced by an ability to radically shift ones circumstances when a previous way of being no longer provides fulfillment. Andrewism talks about this with the vocabulary of leftist politics, pushing for a world that is anti capitalist and post work, where the accumulation of wealth is set aside for labour that instead considers a sustainable and connected way of meeting needs and creating meaning. And in the narrative of A Psalm for the Wild Built we see Dex overcome hurdles that in the real world would simply to too tall to pass over. They feel trapped in their work as an academic but rather than this serving as a starting point for a whole novel’s worth of scraping in order to make a career and life change possible, the transition to traveling tea monk is simply and supported. Without explicitly diving into a discussion of labour, careers, and the restrictions of capitalism, Chambers is able to show us that her world is one where work is fulfilling and the people one works with have principles that are fundamentally aligned with the pursuit of well being. This isn’t freedom in the sense of rights or the absence of authoritarian laws which make up many of the discussions of freedom that permeate the contemporary world outside of the novella. Instead both Andrewism and Chambers paint a picture of freedom in the sense of fluidity and the ability to pursue one’s own sense of the good life in ways that support the community and are not built upon the idea that some people are excluded from a particular segment or experience of life (note: for a more theoretical real world discussion of interpretations of freedom check out Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom).
The city and logistics of life: Ultimately, solarpunk is a practice of world building whether that is in a fictional story or in the ways that people living their regular life make connections and pursue a future. As discussed above, the aesthetics of life are not easily separated from the way in which that life is lived. In the world of solarpunk, the ways in which cities and communal living are imagined are key to the visual impact of the world as well as underlying the fundamentally more sustainable way of living. Rather than camping in Walmart parking lots like the van-life influencers of today’s internet, Dex peddles their bicycle powered tiny home through forests, plains, and small settlements where power is taken from wind, solar, or water and life is scaled in a way that does not demand environmental destruction. Chambers constructs an image of tree houses and house boats that work with rather than against the natural environment. These are the speculative or fantastical spaces that we associate with the kind of fiction that Chambers writes but they are also the kinds of lifestyle changes that are required for the kind of joyful future that solarpunk hopes for. Rather than meandering into these communities the way that Dex is able to, Andrewism guides his viewers towards the kinds of practice that could help build them, through community owned and operated sustainable energy and the cultivation practices of permaculture. Where A Psalm for the Wildbuilt builds a solarpunk world that inspires hope, and awe at a world that might be possible, there is also a need for solarpunk content that helps guide its viewers, readers, watchers, or listeners towards world building action in their own life. This possibility of individual action towards the creation of solarpunk futures is what sets the world building of this genre apart from more traditional fantasy settings – the world of solarpunk is possible and is the kind of future we should pursue.
What I think Chamber’s book is so effective in inspiring is the feeling of hope that is core to solarpunk, imparting the reader with a story that is invitingly happy but might also cultivate a feeling of longing for the world that might be but isn’t yet. Moving through the aesthetics of solarpunk encourages us to not only appreciate the world building of creative minds but to pursue the emergence of those possible futures out of our contemporary moment. Becky Chambers solarpunk fiction does seem to lean more heavily on the aesthetics of the genre rather than the concrete action that Andrewism encourages and creates through his work but the novellas are the kind of accessible starting point that movements need to reach an audience who may not yet be thinking about radical rethinking. I would like to think that I am slowly attempting to build a practice of hope and action in my own life through gardening and community building projects in my offline life but I also know that the creative labour of artists, writers, and essayists to create solarpunk’s outward facing aesthetics of hope is what helps me maintain motivation in a world that seems to be a constant source of drag. Keep an eye on this space, for a continuing series on solarpunk aesthetics and my personal practice, but also please pursue your own experimentation in pursuit of joy and hope.
If you enjoyed this post or have ideas you would like to share please feel free to leave a comment and if you really enjoyed this post please consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee here. If you found the ideas in this post interesting you may enjoy some of my other writing about how fantasy worlds can teach us about living well with the natural world including a post about concepts of sufficiency in David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds which can be found here.
I also really encourage you to check out the books and videos that are discussed in this post you can find the goodreads page for Becky Chambers Tea Monk series here, and Andrewism’s playlist about solarpunk here.