How to Build a Solarpunk City

by Lauren C. Teffeau, plus an interview with Julie Carrick Dalton about her new book Waiting For the Night Song

The climate crisis is upon us, and while meaningful action may be hampered by our politics and short-term mindsets prioritizing profit, our imaginations remain unfettered to envision a brighter future. A future that hasn’t been polluted by our overreliance on fossil fuels or soiled by plastic waste or sullied by habitat loss and the inevitable extinctions that follow. A future where humanity has found a way to integrate society with the natural world to the benefit of all. A future I desperately want to see, even if we only accomplish a fraction of that in my lifetime.

I know I’m not the only one impatient to see change on this front. The rise of solarpunk in speculative fiction is testament to that—a body of literature imagining radical futures ranging from solar-powered utopias to gritty works in progress striving for a better tomorrow. Implanted, my 2018 debut novel with Angry Robot, is the latter, set in a solarpunk domed city where technological advancements fuels rehabilitation efforts to restore the natural world ravaged by climate change.

When I first started writing the book, I didn’t realize I’d be creating one of the more ambitious worlds I’d ever attempted. I was simply writing a story about a young woman on the run from her employer after a job gone wrong. I only knew I wanted it set in a high-tech city full of spatial and social constraints. Over time, that slowly coalesced into the city of New Worth, where people enjoy all the connectivity they can get as consolation for being trapped under glass.

You’ve surely read books where the setting becomes a character in its own right, but it’s not necessarily something writers can plan for—you can only hope it comes across to readers as strongly as you feel it. But the solarpunk-meets-Blade Runner aesthetic stuck, becoming inextricably linked to my story, characters, and the city that embodies them all. And I managed it without a contractor’s license or a degree in architecture or city planning, though I suppose that can’t hurt.

The following books helped me bring my storyworld to life and can inspire you to dream up your own city, or perhaps simply envision a brighter timeline, focusing on both the high-concept and the nitty-gritty as well as the people who will be inheriting our future.

Mark Kushner’s The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings

Think of this book as architectural #INSPO for just about any bleeding edge technology out there and how it can be incorporated into the materials, space planning, and design of real life edifices already being built today. While you might find yourself wanting a bit more detail from some of the building profiles, the pictures make up for any lack of text by demonstrating what’s achievable when funding and ideals intersect. When writing, I tend to focus on what’s possible, not necessarily practical or even probable (it’s more fun that way), in the hopes that science and demand will take care of the rest over time. Why not expect anything less from our future?

David Bergman’s Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Let your imagination take wing, but spare a thought for sustainable design. We’re going to have to pay the piper at some point for humanity’s impact on the Earth’s climate and resources, so be sure to factor that into your version of the future. Bergman outlines the environmental and energy-conscious considerations in planning and design we should all be thinking about, from our own homes to the administrative buildings erected by our local officials. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” What are the priorities for your future city? So much can be telegraphed by not only the form but the function of the buildings we choose to surround ourselves with. Make yours work harder for a better future.

Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City

Even with cutting edge science and sustainability in mind, we will always be wrestling with infrastructure of some kind. Ascher’s The Works and companion volume The Heights go into great visual detail about all the individual elements and systems in place that make cities and skyscrapers function. While New York City is emphasized, those basics undergird just about everything everywhere, and such fundamentals change very slowly over time. Unless your future city is brand-new, you’ll have to think about how the old infrastructure can be incorporated or improved upon by the next phase of development. Twist the foundations to your advantage or use them as obstacles for your characters, but whatever you do, don’t overlook their potential.

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Everything

I’m not sure who gifted me a copy of Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections when I was a child, but it provided me with hours—and I do mean hours—of contemplative entertainment as I pored over the inner workings of cruise ships, skyscrapers, and castles. I remember that last one most vividly, particularly the nobleman taking a dump in the garderobe and the serf hard at work in the latrine below. Besides the obvious amusement that provided at the time, it’s still a nice reminder of not only the essential infrastructure your city needs to account for, but also the different jobs people have. Who shovels the shit and why? Now apply this to just about every other facet of your city. 

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Everything is similar, sort of a How Things Work with a mind to the spatial requirements manufacturing different objects requires—a must when designing a physically-constrained city. Biesty’s work may be billed as children’s books, but to me, they are essential reading for fully understanding differences in scale and scope, depth and breadth, in a unique and undeniably visual way.

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Who will live in your city? Where do they live? Where do they work? More importantly, how do they communicate? How do they think? I was introduced to Turkle’s work in graduate school, and she writes about how connectivity has affected interpersonal behavior and communication in an accessible way, drawing on decades of her own research. I believe it is impossible to think about the future without factoring in how the internet has fundamentally changed our interactions, interests, and engagement with the larger world. And all those things will be reflected in both the private and public spaces of your cityscape. Even if you are assuming the communication technology will be different or something happens where it’s no longer possible in quite the same way, we must acknowledge the changes that it has made on us in so short a time, changes that will track through the generations to come and bubble up in unexpected ways.

A previous version of this post appeared at SFFWorld. You can find out more about Implanted here.

LAUREN C. TEFFEAU is a speculative fiction author based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her short fiction can be found in a variety of professional and semi-pro magazines and anthologies. Her novel Implanted (Angry Robot, 2018) mashing up cyberpunk, solarpunk, adventure, and romance was shortlisted for the 2019 Compton Crook award for best first SF/F/H novel.  Implanted was also listed by Grist.org as one of seven sci-fi stories imagining a better world, and Teffeau was named as one of six feminist SFF authors exploring the climate crisis by SyFy.com. Please visit www.laurencteffeau.com to learn more.


New Release

Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton was published this month by Forge. I talk to the author of the adult contemporary novel about her new release, and her motivations for writing about climate change.

Tell us about your new book.

Cadie Kessler, a forestry researcher, is in the middle of trying to head off a potential wildfire when she gets a panicked message from her long-estranged childhood friend, Daniela, after a body is discovered in the woods where they played as kids. Cadie rushes home, where she and Daniela must acknowledge the traumatic childhood secret that drove them apart decades earlier. As Cadie and Daniela confront their past, they come face to face with truths about themselves they don’t want to see, and Cadie must decide what she’s willing to risk to protect the people and the forest she loves. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is a portrait of friendship, secrets, and betrayal, a love song to the natural world, a call to fight for what we believe in, and a reminder that the truth will always rise.

How does climate change play into the plot?

A slow uptick in local temperatures creates conditions that attract a bark beetle to the woods of New Hampshire. Cadie, a forestry researcher, is trying to prove the beetle has arrived in New England, although models indicate it should not be there. The same conditions that appeal to the beetles are driving out native species, including a tiny song bird (from the title) that Cadie remembers from her youth. The federal government has restricted federal lands – including the forest where Cadie suspects the beetles are – from environmental research. She must decide if it’s worth risking her career and possibly jail time to defy the restrictions and collect samples to prove she is right. When Cadie advises fire crews to clear fire breaks in the town where she grew up, a long-buried body is unearthed and Cadie must confront the traumatic secret she has been hiding since she was eleven. As the drought worsens, crops fail, and the beetles settle in, wildfire looms over the small agricultural community and Cadie must decide how far she’s willing to go to do the right thing.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

Eight years ago, I bought a piece of land and started a small farm in rural New Hampshire. I didn’t have a background in agricultural so the learning curve has been steep! I enrolled in the New Entry Sustainable Agriculture program at Tufts University and did a lot of reading about farming in my area. I learned that the growing season in my region has expanded by twenty-two days in the past century because of a slow, steady increase in the average summer temperature. It made me wonder about all the slow-burning, quiet effects. I researched the invasive species and endangered species affecting my area and tried to imagine how the absence of a tiny song bird and the presence of an invasive beetle could impact the personal lives of residents, as well as the broader community and the world.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

American War by Omar El Akkad

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?

Fiction can convey truth in ways that charts, graphs, and scientific research often can’t. Inhabiting characters in fiction is an act of empathy which opens us up to new ways of considering the world. When it comes to climate change, too many people think about it as a looming crisis, but for many regions of the world that crisis has already arrived. I chose to focus on a small, insular community in New England we might not consider as on the front lines of the climate crisis. I wanted to tease out the small impacts we are already noticing and connect them to other parts of the world. For example, the endangered song bird in my book is dying off, in part, because its winter habitat in the Caribbean is being destroyed by deforestation and hurricanes. The bird is returning to New England in smaller numbers every year, which, in quiet ways, alters the ecosystem of the forest in New Hampshire. Everything is connected. It’s already happening, and we can’t think of it as a looming crisis any more.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“All the other creatures had fled. The mice, spiders, crickets, squirrels. The silence they left behind hurt. The owl sat on a charred branch. Its home had been in these woods. Its mottled brown and amber stood out in stark contrast to the black and gray backdrop. Exposed without camouflage, the great bird blinked at Cadie and pulled its square head lower into its shoulders. Its whole body shuddered, as if shaking off a bad memory.

The owl launched itself into the air. Time to start over.”

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I hope readers might see the small changes in their own region and consider how they tie into the global crisis. Climate change doesn’t happen in silos. We can’t think about it as something happening to other people. We all know that the people affected first and worst are most often marginalized, poor, indigenous, black, and brown communities. If readers feel like they are not being affected personally by climate change yet, I hope my book will prompt them to recognize their privilege and consider their own connections to and responsibility for populations already living the crisis.

You can find out more about Waiting for the Night Song here.

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG (Tor/Forge, Jan 2021) and a second novel, THE LASTEEKEEPER (2022), both hinge on contemporary climate-related issues. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and The Chicago Review of Books. A Tin House alum, 2021 Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference Fellow, and graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, Julie holds a master’s in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. She blogs for DeadDarlings and The Writer Unboxed, where she often writes about climate fiction. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on the topic of Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis at universities, high schools, bookstores, and writers conferences. Mom to four kids and two dogs, Julie also owns and operates an organic farm in rural New Hampshire, the backdrop for her novel.


Climate Change in the News

Bank lending to plastics industry faces scrutiny as pollution concerns mount [Reuters]

How Brexit deal could force UK and EU to stick to tougher climate targets [Independent]

Exxon Mobil Is Twisting Itself in Knots to Justify Pumping Even More Oil [New Republic]

Many Scientists Now Say Global Warming Could Stop Relatively Quickly After Emissions Go to Zero [Inside Climate News]

Terror, hope, anger, kindness: the complexity of life as we face the new normal by League member James Bradley [The Guardian]

Nearly $640 billion coal investments undercut by cheap renewables: research [Reuters]

The Case for Climate Rage [Popula]