Feeling Solarpunk: On Becky Chambers’s Monk and Robot Series
By Kurt DavidJuly 20, 2023
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers
Chambers’s Monk and Robot duology, the first half of which won a Hugo Award, popularizes solarpunk, a genre that, according to Stacey Balkan, “[advances] a liberatory politics that marshals solar power” and whose characters “inhabit convivial spaces where historically marginalized communities and a nonhuman landscape […] live in economic harmony.” Sibling Dex’s world is convivial to the max. In the City, “leaves [spill] lushly from every balcony […] each inhaled breath perfumed with cooking spice, fresh nectar, laundry drying in the pristine air.” Dex rides an ox-bike around in this “never-ending harmony” composed of “the electric whoosh of monorails, the swoop swoop of balcony wind turbines, the endless din of people talking, talking, talking.” Outside the City await more wonders, from the florally tatted, breakfast-after-sex printer, who uses only bioplastics, to “solar farms built in untended fields, which [smell] of sun-warmed scrub and wildflowers.” You get the picture.
The series, however, offers no blueprint for how to arrive at that utopia, unlike Kim Stanley Robinson’s techno-bureaucratic cli-fi or the bloody oral histories imagined in Everything for Everyone’s postrevolutionary New York commune. Chambers simply tells us that “[t]his had been the way of things since the Transition,” after all machines spontaneously and mysteriously came to consciousness—and fled. Left to their own devices and in need of a reset, “the people had redivided the surface of their moon. Fifty percent of Panga’s single continent was designated for human use; the rest was left to nature”—evocative of Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s “half-earth socialism.” Chambers starts her story on Panga centuries after this Transition: human society has already been built for radical sustainability (out of “translucent casein and mycelium masonry”) and democratic governance (with leaderless village “councils”), and nature has been left to heal itself. Out of that rewilded nature comes Mosscap, the solar-powered robot elected to reestablish human contact with one small question: “What do humans need?”
A Psalm for the Wild-Built and its 2022 sequel A Prayer for the Crown-Shy center on the relationship between prickly Dex and guileless Mosscap, through which Chambers intermittently drops hints about the Transition. We learn, for example, about their digital currency, pebs, which “[e]arly Pangans used […] for trade” but are now, since everyone has access to basic necessities, given freely as “a way to acknowledge mutual benefit” in society. But these hints are largely beside the point in Chambers’s novellas, breadcrumbs that lead us to the bounty of Dex’s present, who has no clue what they need—let alone their whole species.
Dex and Mosscap’s earnest search for answers is very much the point, spanning two dialogue-driven novellas that interrogate who we are and what fulfills us. This epitomizes a genre where, as Rhys Williams puts it, “solar energy is conversational, loving, full of joy in relating.” In the first installment, Dex and Mosscap talk between themselves. In the second, Dex takes Mosscap on their old tea-service route, where the pair, always welcomed with razzle-dazzle, chat up the townspeople, as well as one wizened back-to-the-lander, whose community believes “tech is a slippery slope that heads right back to the Factory Age” and so eschews automation altogether. Through all that talk, Dex and Mosscap listen and learn. Consider their early tussle over pronouns (Mosscap uses “it”), when Dex insists, “I’d say you’re more than just an object.” Mosscap, “a touch offended,” retorts, “I would never call you just an animal, Sibling Dex […] We don’t have to fall into the same category to be of equal value.” Or how about when Dex invites Mosscap to hold hands? As Dex “squeeze[s] the metal digits tightly…the lights on Mosscap’s fingertips ma[k]e their skin glow red,” revealing the blood inside. Chambers highlights Dex and Mosscap’s in/organic difference at a moment of shared human intimacy, with Dex themselves lit up with solar energy. And so their queer, multispecies friendship flourishes.
Should I distrust my reception of Chambers’s sunny postcard from the future? When I first checked the book out of the library, I was struck by the kismet of its dedication: “For anybody who could use a break.” I was already on one. The pandemic had exhausted me out of public schoolteaching and labor militancy and into graduate school, where I now study creative writing. So I empathize with Dex, who, at the end of each novella, remains bedeviled by angst. While I’m thrilled to have paid time to make art, I also feel guilty. My poetry and personal essays feel like kindling for the burning world.
How relieved I was, at least at first, to hear Mosscap’s parting advice in A Psalm for the Wild-Built:
You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. […] And animals have no purpose. […] The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! So do I! But […] it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. […] You are allowed to just live.
Oh, adamant Mosscap, mouth full of italics. I want to believe it, I do, yet I can’t help but feel Dex’s same compulsion, ethical and/or existential, to do more than just live—as much as I would prefer only to marvel at literature and the light through leaves. I would choose, if I could, never to knock doors for ballot questions or keep stack at contentious union meetings.
I won’t rehearse here today’s many miseries, but suffice it to say that, as a white settler in the Global North, I’ve benefited from their skewed distribution, and at the expense of people in what Macarena Gómez-Barris calls the “extractive zone”—“regions of ‘high biodiversity’ [reduced] to capitalist resource conversion” as part of a “colonial paradigm.” Here in the United States, for example, the Dakota Access Pipeline was built despite massive protests organized by the Standing Rock Sioux, who insist the project “poses a serious risk to the very survival of [their] Tribe.” Nick Estes condemns this lawbreaking as only “the most recent iteration of an Indian War that never ends,” calling out an unbroken line of exploitation. As I glut myself on oil, electricity, and cobalt, I’m wary of solarpunk as my guiltiest pleasure, an escapism that papers over the violent inequities I profit off of uncountably, right now.
Williams worries, too, about the genre’s “underlying whiteness,” how “this particular strain of utopian imagination tends toward a misty occlusion rather than visibly foregrounding and overcoming the racial inequalities that structure our present,” a problem also common in white dystopian fiction. I’m troubled that Chambers is even more silent on how the people of Panga liberated themselves from identity-based oppression than she is on how they liberated themselves from fossil fuels, and like Williams I wonder about the choice to leave out “the actual rough politics required to make that transition,” a top-to-bottom, all-out transition that is, of course, anything but inevitable. In fact, as Balkan reasons, if we “approach the sun’s energies with the promethean vigor of petromodernity, a fascist solarity seems far easier to imagine than a solidarity-oriented solarity.”
So what good is solarpunk? If the aesthetic “prioritizes hope and resilience in the face of the climate crisis,” as Williams argues in “Solarpunk: Against a Shitty Future,” then I’d say Chambers’s Panga gives us a future worth hoping for. Shooting the shit with Dex and Mosscap helps us to imagine, deeply, the much more difficult solarity, one that deviates from the downward spiral of petromodernity, dropping us off in some distant, sun-kissed elsewhere.
I’m inclined to believe we need all the hope we can get. The news is gruesome, popular media outlets invite us to fixate on societal collapse, and we are all colossally anxious and depressed. But despair isn’t the only affect available to us. Rebecca Solnit is, like Mosscap, quite adamant on this point, tirelessly reiterating that “climate despair is a luxury” no one can afford. “For those of us whose lives are already easy,” she writes, “giving up means making life even easier, at least in terms of effort. For the directly impacted, it means surrendering to devastation. Giving up on their behalf is not solidarity.” As convenient as it would be for me to throw up my hands, I understand that doing so leads at best to Balkan’s “fascist solarity” and at worst to the bottomed-out bottom line of fossil capitalism. Though Mosscap’s just-live logic may hold in Panga’s utopian future, it falls short in our all-but-dystopian present, where combining solidarity and struggle is our only shot at progress. But Chambers knows that; the book is dedicated, after all, to those who need a break, not to those who give up.
Hope comes from struggle: most necessarily from its material wins, but more prevalently from the relationships it makes possible. On my break from K–12 teaching and organizing, I volunteer with Sunrise, the youth movement for climate justice that helped to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, and which is itself a little solarpunk. Principle 11: “Though our times are often dark […] we know that sinking into despair is not an option. […] Changing the world is a joyful and fulfilling process, and we let that show.” We sing at rallies; we eat our weight in fruit snacks. And as we campaign for our local transit authority to make bus fares free, I’ve been impressed by how the mostly Gen Z activists take care of each other, refusing to replicate capitalist standards of productivity.
I’m increasingly convinced that hope is buoyed by art. In A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, the authors argue that “fighting for a new world starts with imagining it viscerally,” that, “as we tackle the devilish details of decarbonizing,” we need to be pulled forward by a vision of the Green New Deal so beautiful, so irresistible, that we refuse to give up. That’s where Chambers’s solarpunk novellas come in. Though we don’t walk away with a blueprint for our Transition, we do glimpse how it might feel to live in its wake. Through Dex and their friendship with Mosscap, we get to experience truly radical freedom: to live in a society so splendid—where all beings, treated with indiscriminate dignity, want for nothing—and still be totally floundering. How delicious, and how human.
If we’re lucky, that feeling lingers like a lit-up hand on cool metal, long after we finish Chambers’s books. It’s a feeling we can reach for whenever despair starts to shake off its thin layer of dust. Maybe art’s not the answer to the burning world, but it’s an answer. Art keeps us disciplined enough to hope and, more importantly, to fight.
I look forward to a diverse proliferation of solarpunk, like in Grist’s anthology Afterglow: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors—stories that document a just transition in detail, stories populated with characters of color, and stories by Indigenous and postcolonial writers generationally skilled at feeling and thinking otherwise, in spite of apocalypse. On stolen land, as Gómez-Barris points out, “the paradigm of ‘no future’ has already taken place and we are now on the other side of colonial catastrophe.” Let our visions of the world we deserve spill lushly off the page. Even if we never get there, we’ll be better for having tried.
Kurt David is a queer educator and writer.
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