Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From Steampunk to Solarpunk

For awhile now, I've had the thought that an economy based on renewable energy might return to using sailing ships as working cargo ships.

Apparently some other people had the same thought, and those people have actual engineering skills, access to capital, and a desire to work really hard for money. The ship pictured here is the Beluga Skysail, a hybrid cargo ship which uses sail power to supplement the ship's engines. According to the press release from SkySails GmbH, the German corporation which makes the sail system, they expect ships using their system to achieve fuel savings of between 10%-35%, "depending on the route and weather conditions." The Beluga Skysail made its maiden voyage in March, making a two-month trip from Germany to Venezuela, the United States, and Norway, and achieving 20% fuel savings over the course of the trip.

So, in honor of the Beluga Skysail's maiden voyage, I'm going to suggest a new literary genre: solarpunk.

I think the best way to explain solarpunk is by contrasting it to the science fiction and fantasy genre called steampunk, from which the idea of solarpunk derives. Steampunk stories describe alternative futures or worlds in which steam technology (and Victorian technologies in general) were not pushed aside by oil-based technologies. For example, in many steampunk stories, mechanical devices have not been replaced by electrical ones, since without oil the world never developed the capacity to generate the massive amounts of electricity that we take for granted. Given that premise, a lot of the fun of steampunk comes from technological conflations between the modern era and the Victorian era, like computers that are not based on electronics but on continued development of Charles Babbage's mechanical Difference Engine. More fun comes from injecting modern, cynical attitudes towards government, capitalism, and traditional morality into neo-Victorian worlds that still, superficially, respect all of those institutions, along with the Crown and the importance of good-breeding.

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. That is why the Beluga Skysail is the official, honorary cargo ship of solarpunk.

Obviously, a major difference between solarpunk and steampunk is that solarpunk writings, and solarpunk technologies, need not be imaginary, and I some hope of eventually living in a solarpunk world. And a potential similarity between the genres is that both can share a cynical, film noirish sense of politics. I personally find it extremely unlikely that a transition to renewable energy can be accomplished without some serious political fights between the good citizens of the world and the corrupt forces who will inevitably attempt to sabotage the transition for their own personal gain. The current political efforts to subsidize the production of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels is only the latest example of corruption that needs to be stopped.

Finally, no literary genre is complete without an actual work of literature. For this role I nominate Norman Spinrad's Songs From the Stars. This is, admittedly, a very minor work of science fiction but is built around the idea of a technologically-sophisticated society which restricts itself to four, renewable forms of energy: muscle, sun, wind, and water. I read this book over 25 years ago, and while the story is very forgettable, I have never escaped the vision of personal flying machines that cobbled their lift and energy requirements together from a combination of helium-filled glider wings, wind power, and a prop driven by good old bicycle pedals, chains, and gears. You can't get a whole lot more solarpunk than that.

Thanks goes to JohnnyRook on Daily Kos for turning me on to the Beluga Skysail.

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