Caroline M Yoachim – A Rabbit Egg For Flora
Adam Berman – Egg Tooth
Philip K Dick – The Preserving Machine
In an early Philip K Dick fairy-tale, an eccentric scientist invents a machine for turning musical pieces into animals. It works quite well, at least when the animals are kept inside, as pets. The animals can be easily converted back into recognizable entries of the classical canon. Yet the point of the project is preservation for the ages, across scores of generations, and when released into the nearby forest, the animals change. Some are eaten. Some turn wild. When the pipe-organ-like machine is used to convert them back, the result is strange, disturbing, sounds, barely classifiable as music at all.
A Rabbit Egg For Flora, by Caroline Yoachim, feels like it is set in one of these PKD worlds, while telling a story that the great man seemingly never could. In The Preserving Machine, for example, the vivid clunking fact of the machine breaks down for the characters, while reality of the world grows for the reader. Character reality frays and reader reality intensifies. Rabbit Egg is not about fraying, but repair. A single parent and her daughter play a game, discovering artificial eggs. It’s Pokémon, but for nanotechnological wonders which restore ecosystems.
“What do you think it will be?”
I laugh. “I don’t think our local ecosystem can support a predator that big.”
The dark-haired boy snorts. “The sea-life expansion got pushed back three months because ocean acidity is still too high.”
Behind the children’s game, this is a world of catastrophic loss. It is perhaps decades or centuries in the future: probably billions of people died as supporting natural systems collapsed around them, before everything finally bottomed out. It is perhaps a few decades on from the dayglo dystopia of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where, unlike Blade Runner, Deckard had an obsessive hobby of trying to find pet animals, and where even dogs and cats are so rare they are fabulously expensive. Rabbit Egg, daringly, takes this place as the setting for a charming childhood romance. It’s in a solarpunk collection, and this is the solarpunk gambit, really: envisioning repair instead of doom. Eventually, in Androids, Deckard finds a frog, which he doesn’t recognize is actually a mechanical simulacra. He is always a childlike assassin. You can imagine him enjoying searching for eggs.
Egg Tooth, by Adam Berman, is an uneasy, meticulously crafted, story that doesn’t show its cards early. It could be set in a more orderly, Australian, corner of that same collapsing world, albeit without any androids. If the voice of Rabbit Egg is Anne of Green Gables, the voice of Egg Tooth is clearly Kafka. This is not the cartoon avatar of bureaucratic frustration found in popular culture. (Is it a red tape? Is it a show trial? No – it’s Kafkaman!) This is the baffled observer-protagonist of The Castle or the A Country Doctor, intensely moved, evicted from his own head.
Between the apartments were skyscrapers in varying styles and states of decay. Whereas the oldest buildings tended to be the most complete, more recent projects appeared unfinished, with large black tarps covering jagged upper floors. The older buildings paid their penance in other ways, being covered in higher concentrations of graffiti and torn nylon banner advertisements.
I am cagey about sharing the details of Egg Tooth, lest I inadvertently pick apart its fine weave. There are plenty of stories about the future being horrible, and they generally don’t interest me. What makes Egg Tooth compelling, and a little sickening, is the implication that among the collapse, this society is a relative success: a place of orderly utilitarian kindness among more general chaos, with famine and death just off-screen.
Both of these stories appear in collections of solarpunk science fiction, though Egg Tooth is by far the glummest boat in the sunny tech nouveau solarpunk regatta. Despite the revolutionary names of solarpunk, or even Extinction Rebellion, green politics is often forced to be conservative, or even reactionary – stop doing this, stop killing that, restore what was good and beautiful and pure. Flora wants rabbits back; in Egg Tooth the platypus may just be saved. Indeed, we need to stop and restore! But this is also why, politically, it’s so easy to slip from green to ecoreactionary; to the idealization of past social and technical forms. (And from there, ecofash is but a short goosestep away.)
Solarpunk is a countermovement of repair. It does not idealize feudal peasant tech and social mores, but puts the technology of the sun in its name. If we need romanticism, well, this is a far better romance. I hope Flora gets her rabbit egg, given she lives in North America, where it is not a pest. But the clever nanites that build the rabbits are also little conservatives, rebuilding what once was. Though both of the stories I’ve talked about here are great, and take risks in their own ways, most solarpunk plays it safe. Solarpunk is usually solarcozy. Quite a lot of it is secretly Egg Tooth wearing sunglasses – the literature of the precautionary principle and managed decline.
Most solarpunk I’ve seen – and much of these two collections – is good at the local, the relational, and the romantic – the Mrs Brown stories of the Turkey City Lexicon. This is a strength where science fiction traditionally had a weakness. It is good to have stories like this. The two stories I’ve named don’t span all of the weird creatures of the subgenre. But I wonder, based on what we’ve seen so far, whether this cozy vision can encompass the radically changed, and the truly planetary.
There are two and a half stories I imagine could only be written if solarpunk writers stopped playing it safe. The half is Fully Automated Planetary Solarpunk, a setting with Green Stack crisis management and universal basic services, which writers like Kim Stanley Robinson have at least had a crack at. The second is a Neo-Edwardian High Tory Solarpunk, with Art Nouveau aesthetics, solar industrialists, plucky aristocratic Indian adventuresses, and imperial confidence in multi-generational stewardship. I have to admit I name this one partly for the joy of the cognitive-political dissonance it implies in a community which can be painfully earnest at times. But beyond that, stories which deal with the age of Dadabhai Naoroji and the first National Parks also ask what it means to wield and abuse power across global networks, to preserve ecosystems, and to valorize traditional and indigenous continuity. The third, often quite incompatibly with the other two, would be a xenofeminist solarpunk, a solarpunk of unprecedented scale, cunning, and vision, a tech-subverting, wilderness-unleashing liberatory force, that like punk, would celebrate the strange, wild things that hatch from future eggs.