How to Build a Solarpunk City by Lauren C. Teffeau

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

Lauren was born and raised on the East Coast, educated in the South, employed in the Midwest, and now lives and dreams in the Southwest. When she was younger, she poked around in the back of wardrobes, tried to walk through mirrors, and always kept an eye out for secret passages, fairy rings, and messages from aliens. She was disappointed. Now, she writes to cope with her ordinary existence. Her novel Implanted (2018, Angry Robot) was shortlisted for the 2019 Compton Crook award for best first SF/F/H novel. Her short fiction can be found a variety of professional and semi-pro speculative fiction magazines and anthologies.


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]

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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