Thursday, January 18, 2024

Review: Solarpunk Creatures

This heartfelt and endearing collection of short stories focuses on the non-human perspectives of life in the near future and beyond — and what that means to our own species and our survival.

Before we get started, let's define solarpunk for folks who may not be familiar with the term. It's a literary/artistic movement concerned with the fate of humanity in the era after climate change and its effects. Solarpunk is a positive and hopeful approach to imagining the future (as opposed to the more common dystopian landscapes we've seen for decades). It's post-capitalist, post-colonial, and post-solipsistic. 

In other words, it's great. When climate change doomerism gets you down, it's always wonderful to pop open some solarpunk and ponder, for a moment, how life could actually change for the better. Less Mad Max, and more Willing-to-Start-a-Commune-and-Help-His-Neighbours Max. The villains aren't roaming and marauding bandits, but ecocide, misunderstandings, and a lack of resources. 

Solarpunk stories like the ones in this collection are also safe places for progressive concepts, since a post-industrial future presents new opportunities for how we structure things like language, gender, sexuality, and culture. We're treated to new sets of pronouns, new terms for humans (like sapies), and new ideas of personhood.

Enter the non-humans

Solarpunk Creatures is a refreshing take on this genre as it places at the helm of each story non-human perspectives — and the book spans a whole multitude of creatures (and even elements like water or ice) leading the way and trying to survive.  From sentient roombas and mythical loombeasts to robot dogs and singing octopuses, we're treated to a series of stories by different authors looking to give voices to the notoriously silent. 

Or silenced. Historically by humans.

Despite this, these aren't tales of revenge on our bipedal species. As the introduction states, "becoming good neighbors in multispecies communities means getting to know again who we live with, and how are destinies are entangled." And that's exactly what these stories set out to accomplish — and achieve. 

Standout stories

AI Dreams of Real Sheep — More at 8 by Commando Jugendstil and Tales from the EV Studio

This one really rocked my world. An AI decides it wants a body and inhabits the form of an old roomba. It escapes its office job and finds a friend in a maintenance worker who adds a speaker, a voicebox, and more to help it thrive in the real world. At the end of the day, the little roomba just wants to become a shepherd out in the wild, really nailing the Philip K. Dick reference in the title.

Rabbits, Rivers, and Prickly Pears by Justin Norton-Kertson 

Think of this as the opposite of Watership Down. You're viewing the world through the eyes of a rabbit that hitches a ride to the Grand Canyon and inadvertently fulfills an old-world prophecy.

Our Minds Share a City by Catherine Yeates

Slime molds are fascinating creatures, and in this tale we learn about their hive mind and how it can be used to help cure human loneliness. It's a far cry from the fearful assimilation of the Borg in Star Trek — instead, it shows the positive nature of multiple consciousnesses combined in a single organism. 

Solar Murder by A.E. Marling

Crows are a popular choice to imbue with personality, mainly because they're so damn smart. In this story, a poor solar farmer (almost a nod to the moisture farmers of Tatooine in Star Wars, methinks) wrangles with a crow that is continually dropping stones on their solar panels — and has to deal with the fallout when it comes to an end. 

Get out of your head (and into a robotic dog's or an inanimate comet near the Oort cloud)

It's not often you read fiction from the point of view of animals or trees,  and while it can take a minute to get used to — when it's done poorly, it comes off as cutesy and saccharine — it can truly open your eyes to new feelings and new ideas. 

I mean this honestly, as even I, a hardcore cat person, found myself moved nearly to tears by the story told from the vantage point of a former fighting dog that learns to love and be loved in a futuristic sanctuary for survivors. (See? It sounds too cartoony in print, but in the skilled hands of a writer who knows what they're doing, it just works.)

And while we may never get to fully understand non-human beings or create new languages with them, we can at least art to open our minds and help us empathize with the beings we share this world with.


The Math

Highlights: Indelible characters that make you consider non-human perspectives, fascinating artwork interspersed throughout, progressive elements you don't always see in science fiction, and above all, positivity. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, a NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She's been working on a draft of a novel called "I Love You More Than Salt: Tales from the Culinary Apocalypse" for two years, an exercise in solarpunk with lots of cheese.