The Men Who Sold The Moon

radicalism, complacency, and solarpunk

“I suppose, then, that the bottom line of what I've rambled on about here, ties the stories in with what I felt in Rio (and with "waves," of all kinds): the stories that are merely stories—what Vonnegut calls foma, harmless untruths—are for entertainment. The others are to tell you that as night approaches we are all aliens, down here on this alien Earth. To tell you that not Christ nor man nor governments of men will save you. To tell you that writers about tomorrow must stop living in yesterday and work from their hearts and their guts and their courage to tell us about tomorrow, before all the tomorrows are stolen away from us[...]”

The Cold War for Our Hot Future

In my essay, “Science Fiction as a Tool”, I mentioned that the fight for the sort of future we imagine for ourselves is one of the most important fights of our lives. Our “future imaginaries”, the way we envision and dream about the future, are productive sites for control by the cultural hegemony; if we stray too far into imagining weird and radical futures, we might imagine one where the hegemony is different than what it is today (or, perhaps most dangerously, one where there is no hegemony at all). Therefore, controlling the sort of stories we tell about who we might become, and how we might get there, is a very effective way for power to act the way that power usually wants to act: subtly. If power (understood here as anything exerting control over how we behave and the limits of our thought) can spend less energy accomplishing the same goal, it will invariably pursue that path. Telling us tame stories, creating boring, repetitive futures under the guise of innovation, and limiting our capacity to fundamentally retell the story of our society is much cheaper than censoring books, outlawing stories, or threatening us at gunpoint to “stop thinking about utopias, damn it!” It’s done quietly and subversively, very rarely exposing the machinations and techniques of power.

The thing is, the ability to create radically different future imaginaries is becoming more and more crucial to our survival. It’s pretty safe to say that the public debate over whether climate change is actually happening, or whether it is anthropogenic, has been settled. Even the staunchest opponents of the theory of climate change have buckled in the face of overwhelming evidence and, more pertinently because climate change deniers rarely have any sort of relationship with evidence, with changing public opinion and the tantalizing opportunity for “green profits”. However, those who would celebrate this triumph (and it is a triumph; there would be no chance for us to adapt or soften climate change without this victory), are now faced with an even greater challenge: now that we agree that climate change is happening, what ought we do about it?

When we factor in power’s desire to control future imaginaries in order to maintain its existence in those futures, we can easily suss out which type of answer to climate change power prefers. Generally, the people in power prefer two types of answers to this question: a Utopian answer and an Adaptive answer. The Utopian answer, wherein futures are imagined as perfect, harmonic societies where climate change has been solved and balance reached, is preferred because it is the most impractical. It leads to flights of fancy which are often disconnected from actual solutions in the here and now or, more importantly for power, actual changes to the current system and way of doing things. The Adaptive answer, which focuses on assuming that climate change is “locked in” and nothing can be done to mitigate it, is preferred because it moves the focus away from how things might be made better and instead centers on the question of how to survive what is already seen as coming. This is bitter irony because, in practice, power is what will bring about the type of future which the Adaptive answer reacts to and will deny any possibility of the future imagined in the Utopian answer from ever occurring; and yet, it uses both in wily ways, the first to distract us and keep us imagining futures which don’t practically threaten power’s structures and the second to tell us that it will be OK, that we will work things out, that whatever may come, we will find ways to survive. These answers are put in place instead of other answers which might include radically changing our ways of life now.

Now, I need to take a pause and make something absolutely clear: neither the Utopian or the Adaptive types of futures are inherently conservative (in the sense that they help solidify and essentialize, or conserve, power). There are plenty of actually radical Utopian future imaginaries, that challenge our assumption about who gets to enjoy utopia, how utopias are built, and what it means for a society to be Utopian. Likewise, there are many Adaptive futures which are radical because the adaptations which they imagine are all about adjusting the nascent power structures in our society: who we help when we adapt, how we can help them further, and what needs to change in order for adaptation to be possible and effective. At the same time, any other type of future (radical ones included) can be co-opted by power. It’s just that the Utopian and the Adaptive modes are easier for power to co-opt because of the reasons mentioned above, namely utopia’s lack of practicality and adaptation’s lack of a demand for radical change. Therefore, it’s just more often the case that power uses these imaginaries to its benefit.

OK! We have successfully reached a working definition of the different types of future imaginaries. So what? What’s our point? Now that we understand which sort of futures power would rather have us imagine, we should ask ourselves how they craft these future imaginaries and, even more importantly, how they spread them, how they proliferate them through culture. This is, once again, something which I outlined in my essay “Science Fiction as a Tool” but let us, briefly, reiterate the main point: because power wants us to build these safe future imaginaries, it uses (that is, creates, encourages, signal boosts, and magnifies) a certain sort of science fiction. It does so because science fiction is one of the main tools we have of creating future imaginaries. This sort of science fiction, which I have dubbed “suburban science fiction” in the aforementioned article, appears radical; just like the Utopian type of futures, it appears to imagine different societies which are radically different from ours. But once we investigate it and ask what it really challenges, we find that many of the ideas presented as part of its imagined future are surface level: sure, some things might be different but power structures are the same and the main suppositions which serve power in the present (Individualism, Kantian morality, Meritocracy, Liberalism) are all maintained wholesale. Therefore, this sort of science fiction remains appealing to those who seek exciting future imaginaries while “importing” existing power structures and the assumptions which underpin them without effectively challenging current conditions, in essence “replicating” them and naturalizing them into the future.

In “Science Fiction as a Tool", I focused on the exploration of space as my example for this sort of safe, timid, and non-threatening science fiction. While I will also mention space exploration in this essay, my main goal will be to explore how the rich and the powerful see themselves as part of their own science fiction stories, especially in the context of climate change and what might be done to adapt to it or “stop” it as a prerequisite to a Utopian future society. We’ll first dig deeper into analysis of this sort of suburban science fiction, exploring a bit more in-depth the tropes and the themes which make it so appealing to the powerful. Secondly, we will look at how the rich self-insert themselves into these stories, applying them to their own lives and using them in the conceptualization, and communication, of their public image. And then, lastly, we will use Solarpunk as a case study for how science fiction can create new future imaginaries, both radical and conservative, in the face of climate change.

Make the Age Golden Again

When looking back at science fiction, there’s a sort of overreaction in many social circles which we’ll call, for lack of a better word, “woke”. That overreaction is a classic “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, looking at the entirety of science fiction (and fantasy, a genre that’s more often the target of such an overreaction) as inherently reactionary and regressive. While that overreaction is just that, an exaggeration of certain elements within the genre, we would do well to consider the fact that in order for something to be exaggerated, it needs to exist in the first place. Indeed, when we survey the roots of science fiction, we find that this perspective is, at least, somewhat true. As Frank Herbert tells us, “A beginning is a very delicate time” and the beginning of science fiction is not very diverse or progressive, to say the least. At best, much of those roots are centrist liberal, conservative or, too often, outright fascist and racist.

Of course it would be easy to point to the more egregious examples here. Robert Heinlein was a war hawk and an objectivist, and his works are so misogynistic that it overshadowed much of his better books. John W. Campbell once said that “the much-maligned 'peculiar institution' of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the blacks brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa”. Other authors suspected him of racist views and his views on US imperialism (positive) and more were no secret. Jack Vance used rape as a plot point way too often for it to be a critique or anything but fetishism. The list goes on. But, as I said, this is all easy. What’s harder is confronting the liberalism and centrism of even the more “enlightened” characters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. What’s more, the literature itself hardly provides more refuge for those who would like to ignore the conservatism, liberalism, and centrism of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. If we look at the actual books, big and small, these milquetoast at best and heinous works at worst come screaming from out of the pages

Isaac Asimov is a prime example, both because of his popularity and because of the propensity of science fiction enthusiasts to cite him when looking for examples of more progressive authors. Indeed, there is much to be lauded when looking at the politics of Asimov; he was a feminist at a time when this was still unpopular, supported gay rights, opposed the Vietnam war, and was in general an active voice in progressive circles. However, he also supported population control from a Malthusian perspective (that is, not generally leftist and progressive ideas of birth control as a vessel for women’s liberation and agency but rather as a scientism-infected desire akin to eugenics) and was incredibly critical of “radicals”. In short, he was a capital-D Democrat and nothing more. The examples of this centrism, in Asimov and other writers, abound.

When turning to the actual literature that these authors provided, the worst is, again, easy and boring; if you want to read about militarism in Heinlein’s work, you can find countless articles online on the topic, as well as on the fascism of Campbell and the many, many awful passages of Vance’s career. But consider the supposedly more progressive works of authors like Simak, Asimov, Pohl Anderson, Blish, or Roddenberry. Most, if not all, of their ideas and values are realized through individualist, liberal lenses. They are mostly concerned with heroes who uphold values such as compassion, honor, duty, and virtue. They very rarely, if ever, engage with meaningful, systematic criticisms of society. Indeed, they are perfect examples of “suburban science fiction”, importing much of the underlying, and thus powerful, presuppositions of our own society into the future. Their heroes are almost invariably male, white, abled, and dripping with machismo and “charisma”. Solutions to problems revolve around rationalism and scientism at best and downright calls for technocracy at worst. The idea of the supremacy of science, without engaging in its colonial roots, without engaging with ideas and problems like eugenics, without any meaningful critiques of its role in serving capitalism, is one of the main motivating powers of much of the careers cited above.

We can keep going; very few authors escape the criticism above, with examples of authors in the Golden Age who tackled systematic ideas quite rare. You can start to see where I’m going with this. This is what I’d like you to imagine the next time you read some “nerd” outlet going on about how Bezos likes Star Trek or Musk grew up on Star Wars. Of course they did! Because they are privileged, white, upper-class men whose entire family’s raison d’etre is served, imagined, and supported by the sort of cultural scaffolds that the Golden Age of science fiction was built around and for. You’ll notice that it’s almost always works from that era being cited by these billionaires (and while Star Trek and Star Wars were made nominally after the Golden Age of science fiction, they are still very much of its space opera creed and style). And, of course, it’s not just billionaires citing them; the amount of “anarcho-capitalists” who cite those same works as inspiration is uncountable. It’s always those kinds of works and not Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick (and if PKD is mentioned, it’s almost always stuff like Do Androids or one of the more “action” packed books), Octavia Butler or any number of more subversive, interesting, non-hegemony serving authors being cited. The powerful understand, whether consciously or on a more basic level of “like recognizes like”, what science fiction serves their interests and “meshes” with their cultural perceptions of how society should be ordered.

Going back to Asimov will help us explain exactly why these are the works always being cited and all we have to do is choose one of his most popular book series, Foundation. Recently adapted to TV by Amazon (wow, what a coincidence!), Foundation is fundamentally a narrative which serves the ultra-rich “geniuses” extremely well. Hell, its leading figure is a “too cool for school” mathematician whose formulas and calculations run counter to every single political institution and power broker he encounters. And, of course, in the story, he’s proven right; they ignore him at their own peril and, when they do, they plunge humanity into a dark age with only the bright light of the individual hero, the brain-genius who’s not only wicked smart but also rebellious and independent, is left. This is a crucial point. Many people have high opinions of themselves; such a protagonist, a “simply” incredibly bright individual can and does appeal to hundreds of millions of people. But that specific concoction? That of a genius deemed as delusional? The prophet who refuses to bow down to norms and instead dares to dream?

You can see how that proposition might be uniquely appealing to the likes of Bezos or Musk, certain of their genius but widely reviled and perceived as buffoons by more “traditional” sources of power and culture. In fact, my questions above might as well come from one of their social PR campaigns; it’s how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by their fans. And science fiction enables this perception! The whole idea of a benevolent, ultra-rich, benign and contemporarily maligned genius around which so many of the ultra-rich construct their own myth comes to us straight from science fiction. In fact, this essay is named for one such story: Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon. In it, a protagonist who feels like a prototype for Musk/Bezos (because he is), defies the laws of common sense to brilliantly “buy the moon” and, through arcane financial and legislative clauses, own the entire Earth as a result. But not really, right? Wink wink. It was only for an hour. He was actually an idiot, right? Wink wink. During that hour, he redrafts some laws, moves money around and becomes, you guessed it, the richest man alive. And his riches pave the way for things like automated sidewalks, nuclear piles, clean space travel, and, finally, the stars.

To you and me, this is simply fiction, an exercise in cleverness. But to uniquely positioned men (and women), empowered by their class and all the power which it gives them, this is not merely a flight of fancy. It is, instead, one of the foundations of a messiah complex in which all of their horrible actions are excused. This is something which I find myself disagreeing with a lot of people on; Bezos or Musk or Branson or whoever are not sociopaths. They know how much pain they are causing when union-busting or driving their workers into the dirt or destroying any chance for meaningful solutions to climate change. They simply think it’s all justified because, in the end, history will vindicate them in exactly the same way as it vindicates the heroes of the books and stories they, and all of us, grew up on. We’ll see, don’t worry. We’ll see how it all fits together, all those gambles, all those flights of fancy will one day coalesce into reality. In a way, they are an example of how much of the science fiction community views itself: today, we are fools. Tomorrow, you will realize we were prophets. Musk is an especially pertinent example of this, as he spouts his end goal of “keeping the light of human consciousness alive in the universe” whenever any criticism is made of him.

The worst thing is that these stories allow the ultra-rich to masquerade their depravity as heroism. It’s not just that they associate with these heroes; it’s that they think they are anti heroes, misunderstood messiahs who must work against the grain. The stories and their heroes become self-reinforcing: the more people criticize you, the more you are being misunderstood, the more you will one day show them all and save everyone.

As Michael Moorcock said: "Traditional SF is hero fiction on a huge scale, but it is only when it poses as a fiction of ideas that it becomes completely pernicious. At its most spectacular it gives us Charlie Manson and Scientology (invented by the SF writer Ron Hubbard as an authoritarian system to rival the Pope's). To enjoy it is one thing. To claim it as 'radical' is quite another. It is rather unimaginative; it is usually badly written; its characters are ciphers; its propaganda is simple-minded and conservative – good old-fashioned opium which might be specifically designed for dealing with the potential revolutionary." The problem is not just that much of science fiction is reactionary and conservative, as we have briefly explored, but that science fiction, just like Jobs or Cook, masquerades as being a savior, a revolutionary, an innovator, and a radical. This makes it the ultimate cultural weapon against real revolution because it not only opposes change from the outside, it infiltrates it and poses as change, used to de-fang it and keep it safe.

Of course, and hopefully needless to say if you’ve read my other essays or the intro to this post, not all science fiction is like this. It can be radical, it can be revolutionary. People very much like to point out authors like the aforementioned PKD, or Arthur C. Clarke (who once said “the goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That's why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system”, even though the politics in his books and personal life are suspect) or indeed Le Guin and others as evidence of the good of science fiction. And I agree; I love science fiction and I love it as a radical tool, but I think we need to reckon with the fact that the foundations of the genre are built more on individualism, militarism, misogyny, and conservatism than on anything else. And that, even if you disagree with the previous statement, the most prominent figures who cite science fiction today use it to justify their own “robber baron” like appearances and behavior and sugar-coat them into gallant saviors of the human race.

Starship Troopers

OK, so we now understand the relationship between the rich and powerful and the Golden Age of science fiction. We understand the way their personal image resonates with that of the heroes described in those books. But so what? Well, this understanding first allows us to better place their actions, investments, and plans for the future in their context. While we could focus on the way science fiction informs the personal behavior of the rich and powerful using this new context and understanding, I think what’s more interesting is to try to come to terms with the sort of policy and planning for the future that this context dictates. Remember, science fiction is important for us not only for its cultural or aesthetic value, which is what we enjoy when we actually consume it, but also its power as a field of future imaginaries, templates not just for specific futures but for how to think about any future. The question about the type of science fiction lauded by the elites becomes two-fold: first, what sort of futures do the elites imagine and, secondly and perhaps more importantly, what are the tools and actions they see as getting us to that future?

Beginning with the second question, since we’ve already spent some time on the first in previous parts of this essay, we can point to several salient types of solutions that the Golden Age of science fiction encourages. The first, and easiest one to identify, to the extent that we’ve already discussed it here, is scientism. It’s easy to understand why scientism, that is, excessive belief in the ability of “hard” branches of science like physics, computer science, or biology to solve all of humanity’s problems, would characterize Golden Age science fiction. After all, the entire period during which these books were written was drowning in scientism, an age of a sort of liberal, Utopian materialism which promised to solve every single problem with something cooked up in a lab or developed by General Motors. This was a society that was cowering from the threat of atomic war on the one hand and completely intoxicated by the innovations of science and industry on the other, grappled in the middle of science’s power to destroy the world and enrich their lives at the same time.

This is exactly the atmosphere and worldview that our cultural hegemony would like the majority of people to believe in, even today. Understanding why is simple - it’s the same reason the post-WWII hegemony wanted people to believe in it, namely that it’s a neat alternative to any sort of actual solution. Climate change is destroying humanity’s habitat? We’ll solve carbon capture technology soon enough. People across the globe are starving? We’ll genetically engineer super easy to grow and maintain grain. Cities are congested and over-centralized? We’ll develop just-in-time transportation methods. While the above solutions I mentioned aren’t bad in and of themselves, thinking of them as silver bullets which will solve the actual problems they are meant to simply mitigate is exactly scientism. And it’s exactly both how the cultural hegemony of today thinks (citing Elon Musk or Bill Gates here is borderline boring, since they are the poster boys for this type of thinking) and how Golden Age science fiction would think of a problem.

A good science fiction example here is the food replicator from Star Trek. This machine is able to synthesize any sort of food or beverage from pure energy (insert techno-babble about exactly how here). This technology is cited several times, when discussing the past of the timelines in which the shows take place, as one of the major things which solved poverty and hunger in the centuries before the Federation and Starfleet came to life. But that’s such a backwards and shallow way to look at the actual problem of food scarcity. It has almost become a cliche to say “the problem is not that we don’t have enough food, it’s that it’s not evenly distributed” but it’s a cliche because it’s true. And I’m not talking about the only-slightly less shallow “we throw so much food away”, which is technically true but not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that food, and drink (and, maybe soon, air) are commodified to begin with. Star Trek does nothing to address this question beyond the scientism inflected solution: once the technology creates enough abundance for everyone, the profit motive magically falls away and all is now well, disregarding the vast numbers of powerful and rich people who have a vested interest in making sure nothing of the sort happens or the infrastructural gaps which we still haven’t begun to resolve between the so-called “developed” and “developing” worlds.

We are also, of course, sold this baseless, fantastical silver bullet outside of Star Trek. The tech nerds spent a decade bullshitting us with their expensive and useless 3D printers, and every now and then another "pizza vending machine" will rise and silently fall. The most successful implementation of the "food replicator" fantasy is Amazon drones (both robot and human) who deliver silently to us whatever knickknack we click on in a browser, or Uber Eats delivery workers when we choose "contactless delivery" in the app. In the end, the fantasy wasn't about eliminating scarcity, it was about (we the wealthy) naming any food we can think of and getting it very fast. There’s no actual solution to distribution systems, to the ownership over the means of production, or to actual hunger. There is only a smaller space between our desires and their fulfillment.

Which, not surprisingly at all, brings us back to the first question we posed before: what sort of future does the hegemony imagine when they imagine it through the lens of the ultra-specific type of science fiction which they like to consume and cite? This future, as we’ve begun to cover above, is not fundamentally different from our present; it simply has more things. Even one of the “good guys” of the Golden Age of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, imagines a future that is fundamentally the same (or, in some ways, even backwards since Asimov imagines a sort of “scientific feudalism” where people owe allegiance to an aristocracy of knowledge) except for what we are able to do with science. In Foundation, it’s unclear what, if at all, the civilizations described by Asimov have to do with our Earth. Are we their precursors? How much time in the future are we talking about here? What is the “providence” of humanity, from where we are to where the characters in the book are? And yet, even though the intellectual chain of ideas is hazy at best, humanity is still organized in empires, trade conglomerates, kingdoms, and representational democracies. The wildest innovation which Asimov was able to conceive of was a political system arranged around science which is, of course, the exact society Asimov was already living in. This is not allegory either because it contains no sting of criticism; it is, mostly, wholeheartedly accepted and encouraged, simply reinforcing the elements already holding power in Asimov’s society and asking for them to be unleashed even further.

Going back to Star Trek, the point remains true; even though much of Star Trek’s plot happens in the 23rd Century, and the society which it presents us is supposedly Utopian and advanced, the improvements to the lives of people are mostly material. Starfleet is a colonial, military, and highly hierarchical system which holds an almost omnipotent sway over the resource allocation and division of labor of humans. Worse, they hoist that political and social structure on other races, as long as those are deemed “advanced” enough to deserve their “aid”, where advancement is, of course, measured in technological terms. Some hand waving towards a government of the Federation is done throughout the many, many seasons of the show but they are mostly inconsequential in the face of the sheer power of gratitude, cultural capital, and goodwill which the vast majority of the human population holds towards Starfleet (by the by, even this token government is never elected; we don’t even hear a reference to an election, anywhere). Sounds familiar? I think it’s safe to say that Elon Musk would love to be a Captain Kirk, a brave and daring explorer who shoots, seduces, and saves his way across the galaxy only to return home to massive popular applause and even worship, bypassing those “normies” who work for the government.

But we haven’t even begun to touch on the most egregious sin of these types of works, of most of Golden Age science fiction, and that is the sin of “the blank slate”, “the empty continent”, the wide expanse of empty space. Just like the actual colonialists, that is Europeans who “discovered” the “new world”, the intrepid explorers and innovators in these science fiction stories see the universe as an empty place, a wax plate simply waiting for the imprint of their magnificent and advanced intellect. Star Trek is an easy example in this regard; the show oozes the superiority that Starfleet sees in itself and even when it tries to undermine and tackle it (with episodes centered around The Prime Directive and its dilemmas), it fails to critique it in any interesting or meaningful ways. But Star Trek is far from the only one; we could cite Out of the Silent Planet by C.S Lewis or Jem by Frederik Pohl as more obscure examples. That latter one is an excellent book but an especially egregious example of this sin. In the book, humanity discovers a planet that is fit for colonization. In an attempt at critique, Pohl shows the different “blocks” of the world (arranged around the resources they control, like Fuel or Food, and let’s not dive into the bigotry of where these blocks lie on the world map in this essay) racing for colonization with little regard for human life or for careful exploration of the planet. But, slight spoilers, the colonization of the world is eventually completed, with humanity erasing several indigenous species of flora and fauna.

And this is presented as a good ending! An ending about how humanity can come together to break free of our bigotry. And sure, the alteration of the planet and destruction of other life is portrayed as worrying but ultimately, what is important is the unity and perseverance of the human elements of the story. Sounds familiar? These are exactly the sort of liberal ideas that have gotten us to the current state of the world. This is exactly the narrative of the more brazen and less subtle of the ruling elite’s messages; sure, we are doing some bad things now and we make mistakes and these mistakes have horrible ramifications because we are incredibly powerful. But isn’t a little trial and error necessary for the betterment of humanity? Won’t all the horrible costs of the production of our experiments be worth it in the end when we go to space, that blank, massive place where we can finally write all of our grandiose destinies on the stars?

This is, also, why science fiction works aimed at satire usually end up missing the point. What these sort of works try to do is to agree with the reader about the details of the future being imagined (yes, humanity does travel between the stars in impressive spaceships; yes, technology does substantially enhance what humans can do, and so on) but tries to draw their attention to the cost of these realities. What exactly is the price for interstellar travel? What kind of power structures are shored up and enshrined to produce the technologies imagined? How do these ways of life and innovations impact individuals and their state of mind? The best example of such satire, and the spectacular failure of such satire, is Warhammer 40K. The setting, spanning multiple tabletop games, books, video games, and even movies (though all of them fan made, for now) imagines a dark, twisted, and intergalactic version of the Christian Roman empire spanning the entire galaxy with advanced interstellar engines and futuristic weapons. But this empire is also a horrible, corrupt, and brutal system, purging billions of people in service to its stratified, out-dated, and fanatic ideological system. The satire is saying “yes, in this setting humanity has conquered the stars but at what cost?”

The problem is that the people who are supposed to be the audience for this satire are already saddled with the idea that the cost, any cost, is worth it. Through a lot of the rest of the science fiction which surrounds not just 40K but also the rest of satirical sci-if works, the message is that humanity’s survival and ascendancy is worth every single sacrifice you can think of as long as the people who choose those sacrifices are worthy. That’s why the Space Marines, the elite fighting force of Mankind in the 40K setting, are obviously meant to be a satire of the Übermensch, of any sort of glorification of the soldier or the fascist conception of the noble warrior. They are brutal, twisted, fanatical, and inhuman, willing to destroy entire worlds to get their way. But because they are noble, better, stronger, a vast portion of the Warhammer fan base idolizes them. There is no cost that the consumers of the setting think is too high because if the Space Marines, by definition “uplifted” from the rest of humanity, deem that sacrifice as worthy, then it is. This completely robs the power of the satire as it tries to point those sacrifices as meaningless because the more it aggrandizes those sacrifices to try and make them horrible, the more the actions of the designated heroes of the story are perceived as justified.

Before we move on to the last part of this essay, I would like to pause here and mention that, contrary to how it might be read above, my point is not to blame science fiction. I think that no work of science fiction is as bad as the reading by our not-so-benevolent overlords-to-be would have us believe is the truth. Foundation, Star Trek, Dune, and even Heinlein, have way more subtleties in their work than Musk or Bezos would ever admit. Simply put, it’s often the fact that the rich and powerful are simply really, really bad at reading. This is especially true for Dune, a fantastic and complicated (detractors might say “convoluted” instead and I don’t disagree) work of science fiction which contains within it a host of readings and criticisms of how power behaves. But much of these criticisms lie beneath the surface, not in the actual actions of the characters but in the other, potential actions they might have taken, had they only been better people and leaders. Paul Atreides is the obvious example (as he leads a religious organization into a Jihad in the hopes of controlling the future instead of coming to terms with the limits of power to plan everything) but others abound, including basically every single other main character in the book(s). They are all bound by their limitations, viewing their course of action as inevitable, as the only choice possible when, in fact, they are simply blind to other answers because they lie outside of the frameworks under which they imagine the future.

The ultra-rich, naturally, cannot understand this message because they are the ones being depicted in the book. Of course they can’t see that the future is complex and is a mix of our imagination of it and material reality because that’s exactly the kind of thinking which threatens their ongoing grasp on power the most, as we’ve been arguing from the very start of this essay. Therefore, coming full circle, the futures imagined by the powerful must be naturalized, “obvious”, the only possible outcome, essential, inevitable, and so on, just like is criticized in Dune (making their love of the book, and their references to it, especially funny). In the last part of this essay, we’ll look at one example of how this perception has impacted, and continues to impact, one of the youngest sub-genres of science fiction: the much cited, but very rarely understood, solarpunk.

The City and The City

So far, this article was fairly theoretical, analyzing intents and meanings. Where it wasn’t, where it was focused on actually existing works of literature and art, it mainly addressed the past, works which have been published and which, arguably, saw their heyday of popularity decades ago. And that’s understandable; after all, the ruling elite tend to be adults and, as such, their perceptions of the future and how to imagine it were forged a while ago, when they were kids. However, I would like to close this article off by looking at a more recent example of the phenomenon we described above: solarpunk. Defining what solarpunk is already exposes part of the problem, and part of the reading, which I suggest here. I don’t think I have ever encountered a genre of art, be it literature, music, painting, or otherwise, that contains so little as solarpunk. It is, somehow, a genre which seems to revolve around vibes. It usually presents a relatively bright future, contrasted with cyberpunk’s grim darkness, centered around climate solutions. But not just any climate solutions: specifically decentralized, non-human centered, “organic” climate solutions. Instead of massive geo-engineering or sprawling cities under the ocean, solarpunk is often populated with hacked together, grassroot, scrappy structures, covered in wires and flora in equal measure. That’s where the _solar _in solarpunk comes from; it’s an indication of the genre’s bright aesthetic but also the reliance of its future on accessible, “networked” sources of power. And the punk part comes from a mix of inheritance from the legendary cyberpunk and the focus this nascent sub-genre shares with its predecessor on individualism, rebellion, and grassroot movements.

That last adjective I use to describe the sub-genre’s solarity (if you’ll allow me the term), “networked”, is interesting. Think about a solar panel field, a wind turbine assembly, or a river running through a hydro-power plant (although there’s a lot of debate on how green water-based energy production really is), all of which skew harder towards solarpunk than any other science fiction sub-genre. What do all of these images have in common? First, they are “closer” to nature; they seem to interact with natural forces in a much closer way than, say, fossil fuel extraction or fracking. They feel more peaceful because it feels like nature flowing through something: light through the air, wind through the turbine, water through the dam. Solarpunk uses these calmer, more idyllic associations and feeds them into the more open, sun-lit, and expansive set-pieces of its art (by the way, I don’t want to break any copyright here so if you’re looking for visual examples, simply Google “solarpunk”). Secondly, all of these images of “power grids” have an interesting rhizomatic structure to them. Think about it: the fossil fuel industry is as arborescent as it gets! It’s associated with monolithic chimneys, vast behemoths of industrial production, and soaring oil-rigs. Whereas a desert covered with solar panels feels like a multitude; a uniform multitude to be sure just like the rhizome also relies on (here comes the Deleuze pun) difference and repetition. Each panel is unique but it is also identical to the rest; it is repeated but it is its own object. It is a part of the assemblage. And, like the social relations which Deleuze and Guattari describe, the individual parts of the assemblage work together to create power.

Another very interesting assemblage that solarpunk seems fixated on is the city. Many of its images are either completely focused on the city or feature the city in its background. These cities are, naturally, wildly imaginative, offering up a vision quite unlike the cities we know. Solarpunk cities tend to be, like the rest of solarpunk’s aesthetic, more messy, decentralized, and “chaotically functional”, by which I mean that they eschew the sleek aesthetics of streamlined futures which dominate other segments of the future-as-imagined-by-corporations but retain the ability to provide critical services to their denizens. That last point is especially important; solarpunk is not a vision of the collapse. It is inherently a vision of how to survive that collapse by relying on local, decentralized, and therefore flexible and innovative solutions to the problems of climate change. If globalization (a stand-in term for the myriad complexities of trans-oceanic and trans-continental transportation of goods, trade, and the movement of capital) is at the core of the forces which are driving climate change, and it is, then imagining such localized alternatives is necessary for any sort of future-building that includes mitigating, or outright halting, climate change. By offering us a stage to imagine how these local solutions might work and even flourish, solarpunk can offer us an important avenue into more radical, equitable, and sustainable future imaginaries. Solarpunk tries to fight against the inevitable realism of the global order of things (aka late stage capitalism) by showing that localities can be both self-dependent and interconnected, giving up little in the form of flourishing and luxury but re-promising a sustainable future.

However, the problem is that most of solarpunk doesn’t ask how these local solutions might work but rather what they might look like. While there are works of solarpunk which engage seriously with these ideas (see here for a list of solarpunk works I recommend), most of the solarpunk which reaches the eyes of the general public (AKA “goes viral”), is completely devoid of any serious interactions with the ramifications of the technologies, societies, and economies that are imagined as part of the aesthetic. The most infamous example is the Chobani “Eat today, feed tomorrow” ad that was posted to YouTube on March 1st, 2021. The ad is only 30 seconds long and you can find it here so I won’t go too in-depth in describing it. However, there are a few points that are important to focus on. First, and the most obvious one, is the bounty of produce that is on display during the ad. Chobani (or whoever designed, wrote, and animated this commercial for them as I doubt the executive suite of this corporation has one imaginative neuron among them) is cleverly adhering to the first principle of solarpunk - this future is bright. It’s not just bright in the “simple” sense of the color palette and the story being told. It is also bright because it is desirable - tables are stacked with food, fridges and pantries are overflowing with goods, and every living thing is growing and prospering. The only dead thing is “Grandma”, appearing after her death in the form of a letter which reads “This place is yours now. It’s a handful, but look after it, and it’ll feed you forever”.

Forever. It will feed you forever. This is solarpunk par excellence and one of the major problems with the sub-genre: it very rarely contends with the limited nature of its imagined futures. Not to say that solarpunk futures are somehow more or less limited than other imagined futures but that all futures, by definition of how time and reality works, are limited; everything will one day break. But solarpunk, as perfectly typified here by Chobani’s vision of it, seems to stretch on into the future, always bright, always prospering, always captured in a perfect homeostasis that is contrasted strongly with our current, imbalanced, limited, dying situation. Solarpunk has achieved balance and that balance is forever. This limitation of solarpunk is extremely problematic because it offers a chiliastic, Millenarian vision of its future. We’ve all (I hope) read Those Who Walk Away From Omelas and, therefore, a deep explanation of why that’s a problem is redundant. Suffice it to say that any form of political and economical organization that wants you to believe that it will always be around is hiding something, usually the underpinning suffering on which it is based. As I pointed out in the opening passages of this essay, power always seeks to obfuscate the machinations by which it seeks to reinforce itself. Portraying itself as endless and, more importantly, as effortless is power’s greatest desire because it completely obscures the prices, compromises, and violence inherent to maintaining any system of power. Solarpunk, by not contending with the material and political limitations and challenges it might one day face and simply “skipping” all the hard work in building it, does the same thing. Most of solarpunk presupposes that the solar society has been established and will last forever, which opens it up to focusing on cool robots, tables overflowing with produce, and character design.

Which is the second thing you should notice about Chobani’s ad - there is almost no infrastructure depicted in it. Beyond a few handwave gestures towards wind turbines, there are no power lines, no factories, no transit hubs, no warehouses, nothing which explains how the bounty presented in the ad is actually manufactured. We might be able to explain the produce at least within the internal logic of the ad, since we see the protagonist of the ad grow it locally, but what about the many robots, intricate machines (like the fruit-picking octopus thing), and structures that we see in the ad? If you look at the city in the background of the ad, you’ll notice it seems to have purely residential or, at best, service-economy buildings. There isn’t an airport, a highway, or a power station. Of course, we could easily say that these are “outside of the shot” but that solves exactly nothing because our entire point is that the actual infrastructure needed to bring about this future, the actual infrastructure which also raises all of the problems of how to sustain post climate change futures, is missing from Chobani’s vision and, indeed, from most of popular solarpunk. This, by extension means that labor itself, alongside all of the problems that come with the organization of labor, are also hidden. Put otherwise, who builds the robots, the tables, the fruit-picking octopus thing, under which conditions, and using which resources? How are these resources extracted? By which political structures and regimes are these material realities managed?

Of course we don’t expect Chobani to answer all of these questions; Chobani is a multinational corporation with a $10 billion market valuation (at least before it pulled its IPO back in 2022). It’s also a company which has come under flak for relying on the labor of immigrants and refugees, to which it responded with various tactics of worker concessions but not, let’s say, with calling for a socialist revolution and immediately becoming worker owned (much like it chose hide working conditions and context in its ad, Chobani actually used these concessions to hide the material conditions of the people they employee and shift the discourse towards how benign they are). However, what we would expect is for solarpunk itself to handle these questions (or, rather, we want to demand it do so). After all, Chobani didn’t invent the solarpunk aesthetic ex-nihilo; it instead, and by “it” here we mean some people on the company’s marketing team, chose solarpunk from a myriad of culturally relevant and available aesthetics. As we said in the opening passages of this essay, what we’re interested here is in exploring why they chose solarpunk out of other, readily available cultural aesthetics, and, more broadly, why future imaginaries become so easily adoptable, and corruptible, by actors like Chobani.

Following our exploration of both solarpunk and the Chobani ad, we can now say that our answer is: because solarpunk and many other popular future imaginaries like it don’t grapple with the material realities of the futures which they imagine. Our answer then is a Marxist one (surprise!): what defines the politics of anything, be it a corporate ad, a solarpunk story, or science fiction story, is the way in which it understands, orders, and imagines social relations. These relations, in turn, determine the organization and course of development of the forces of production which either improve or impoverish material conditions for the various classes of people living in these imaginary societies. Solarpunk, in most cases and, most importantly, in the ones which echo the most in the public sphere, fails to address these questions in a complete manner, leaving much “out of the shot”. Thus, it is essentially a political clean slate for any political movement, a palatable tabula rasa for anyone to use when they attempt to convince us that their version of the future is the best one, be they liberal futures or futures organized around even darker shades of political regimes. In fact, while the Chobai example is egregious enough, much worse examples of the utilization of solarpunk exist. Solarpunk is already being used today to excuse some of the worst labor exploitative and climate disastrous projects on the planet. The best example of that is NEOM, the massive industrial zone/research center/city founded, funded, and organized by the Saudi state.

NEOM is nothing more than what is probably the biggest and richest ongoing scam on the planet. At its core, NEOM is a special economic zone (please read this book to better understand how important this is) which will allow the Saudi government to massively break labor laws, climate change treaties, and a myriad of other basic decencies, to launder their money on a massive scale. Part city which will never be fully built or used (known as THE LINE, a 34 square kilometers structure that will supposedly house nine million people, no I am not making this up), part science, industry and development center (Oxagon, a floating industrial complex, which will be/already is up and running and will undoubtedly be used to further fuel capital’s techno-messianism, and part luxury island and skiing resorts for the ultra-rich ensnared in the web of Saudi Arabia’s vast petroleum web, NEOM is a monolithic experiment in the power of the future imaginary. Not much of it exists; in fact, it’s impossible to actually say what does or does not exist. But what is certain is that the Saudi government is funneling immense amounts of funds and manpower to the region, using the project(s) as an excuse to launder said money (allegedly, the paranoid voice in my head forces me to add) and to dominate local populations. 20,000 people are estimated to be forcefully relocated, three men have already been sentenced to death for resisting said relocations, and one man has been extra-judicially killed by security forces.

OK, but how is this relevant to us? Because, as you might already have surmised from some of my descriptions of NEOM in the previous sentence, the entire project is coached in science fiction and, specifically, solarpunk aesthetics and terms. All you have to do to see this is go here and check out the second video in the carousel promoting THE LINE. A woman leaves the dreary world of the modern city, filled with cars, grayscale, choking with pollution. She runs towards a giant liquid NEOM logo (yeah) and is then transported to what THE LINE will look like. Bicycles run through a well-watered, verdant park, which seems to stretch the entire city. All the spaces are public, people flourishing in the areas reclaimed from cars (THE LINE will supposedly be completely car free). The structure itself soars into the air, supposedly to counteract the problem of sprawl and be less of a burden to the ecosystem around it, trees and walkable bridges criss-crossing its interior. People sleep, live, and eat alongside nature; their apartment are all gardened, the cafes are covered with flowering shrubs. Everywhere children (multi-racial and multicultural) learn, grow, and prosper while waterfalls play around them. There are no janitors, no cars, no airports (one is planned to be built as part of the project, far from the city of course), no infrastructure of any kind. Everything is smooth, beautiful, streamlined, and green. This is, of course, a load of bullshit. It’s just like the Chobani ad except a million times worse since the capacity of the Saudi government for cruelty and exploitation is fueled by a capitalist machine infinitely more powerful than Chobani. Here’s just a taste: NEOM project CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr has said, on record, "I drive everybody like a slave, when they drop down dead, I celebrate. That’s how I do my projects". THE LINE management has also officially announced that all the wonderful services promised in the city, and shown in the video above, will all cost data; you’ll pay for water, waste management, transportation and (interestingly enough) security, with access to your data.

The really insidious thing about this is that, if you ignore the fact that the project will never happen and who the people who are running it really are, NEOM seems like the bold, people focused project we need. NEOM plays on the actual, existing, and very urgent need for new visions and ideas for what a citizen focused, climate positive, modern city might look like. It’s even worse because of the other projects that exist in this space, namely almost nothing. NEOM, like the Chobani ad does with the fear of caring for ourselves and our families in the future, slides into the very real gap that has been created between our needs and what the people who are supposed to govern us actually plan to do. Solarpunk in general feasts on that gap, taking attention and thought away from actual policy and economic action and using them to fulfill our basest desires for safety, no matter how imagined and far-fetched. That warm feeling you get when you read a solarpunk story or look at a solarpunk piece of art is exactly the kind of hope which Spinoza wrote about; it is not a call to action but rather an emotion we feel when we dwell on something good which might come to pass in the future. In the spaces created by the lack of actual mobilization solarpunk, and its commercial uses, satisfy and quiet our fears by giving us the other side of the same coin: hope.

What Ought To Be Done

Alright, it’s time to wrap up this essay. You don’t need me to explain further why NEOM uses solarpunk; it’s just like in the case of Chobani. The current state of the sub-genre is so vapid and devoid of actual analyses that it serves as a convenient vessel to generate support for companies, projects, and futures by capturing our imaginations. But here’s the last point I’d like to make: the reason this even works to begin with is that there’s something inherently resonant about solarpunk. If solarpunk did not speak to some real hope or fear within us, it wouldn’t have the ability to capture our imagination and thus would have died early on in its life, not to mention had the power to become such a potent tool in the hands of corporations and government entities. If solarpunk is to be used as an aesthetic tool it has to have aesthetic impact and in order to do that, there has to be something resonant and impactful about it. The sad fact is that most of us are starving for new futures. We have been impoverished by the capitalist realist system we live in, all alternatives deleted by the gray jackboot of consumerist imagination smashing into our faces over and over again. Anything, anything at all, which offers us a glimpse of something else, is met with true and earnest hunger and elation. It’s easy for us to scoff at solarpunk and the people who enjoy it and clamor for more of it but the reality is that there’s a reason they do that. There’s a true and deep desire among most people, as climate change materializes in the Western world, finally, for a path forward, for visions, no matter how limited, of what the future might be instead of what it currently looks like it will be.

That desire has always existed; it’s the reason why science fiction became popular in the first place, as people were clawing out of the dreary disaster of the World Wards. But, here at the end of the essay, I have some good news: that desire is both a prerequisite and the main fuel of the revolution. Revolutions, however small or mighty, are fundamentally powered by the desire of people to improve their material conditions. Where these desires are down-trodden or painted as impossible, is where the current state of things flourishes. In challenging these ideas, in giving validation, space, language, and color to these desires and the future imaginaries which they create is where science fiction’s radical potential lies. The answer then is not to scoff at solarpunk and move on. The answer is to make our own solarpunk, or any other genre, to make science fiction in general which truly challenges the current order of things by grappling with the assumptions and supposed “unchallengeable truths” of the current state of things. The point of great, radical science fiction has never been what the current state of solarpunk imagines it to be, the liberal conception of “hope for a better future”. The point of great, radical science fiction was always the present, was always the vociferous repudiation of what the powers that be would like us to take for granted, the suffering and immiseration that they would like to tell us is inevitable. Great, radical science fiction looks these assumptions straight in the eye and asks “what if it were otherwise?” As we race closer and closer towards climate catastrophe, solarpunk can serve both sides. Currently, it is well in the grip of those that would use it to sell us greener futures even as our present burns. We have the potential, and duty, to wrench it back from them and use it to tell truly radical stories about belonging, local knowledge, and economical alternatives that hold the power within them to set us free.

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