Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ulibarri ed., Solarpunk Winters (2020)

Sarena Ulibarri (ed.), Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters. World Weaver Press, 2020. Pp 316. ISBN 978-1-7322546-8-8. $15.95.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters is a follow-up to editor Sarena Ulibarri’s previous edited collection, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (2018). Solarpunk as a genre is meant to be an optimistic alternative to the frequent use of dystopia to describe the various possible futures of climate change; it posits viable scientific solutions to catastrophe, as well as a belief that human nature has at least as much if not more capacity for goodness and hope than for despair. These days, that’s a valuable quality all on its own. Solarpunk Winters consists of seventeen stories that revolve around cold environments, either natural or manmade. Indeed, global cooling is indeed a very real possibility in the wake of climate change, either due to the disruptions of the global jetstream (for evidence, see the recent polar vortexes that have afflicted countries in the northern hemisphere over the past several years) or as a by-product of geo-engineering. The stories all share some similarities: many refer to the events of the next few years as the turning-point, always denoted with a capital, as the Breakdown, the Reckoning, or the Change; most feature women protagonists as agents of change.

Solarpunk Winters has a number of strong, standout stories. Wendy Nikel’s “Wings of Glass” opens the collection, telling of a future about the contrast between those who choose to work together for the communal good, versus those who don’t. Interestingly, this isn’t the dire story one might expect; instead, the characters choose to respect one another’s life choices, barter for goods and tech as needed, and in general come to useful agreements on ways to proceed. Given current and ongoing events, the choice to tell a calm tale about reasonable people seems almost radical. “A Shawl for Janice” by Sandra Ulbrich Almazan is another gentle story, this one narrated by a transwoman who remembers the abuse her Great-Aunt Janice also suffered. Janice is bullied by her high school, disowned by her parents—and eventually becomes a pioneering bio-environmentalist whose work is foundational to saving the world. (Honestly, this story could have been a novel, and I would have loved it.)

“Oil and Ivory” by Jennifer Lee Rossman was my favorite out of the collection. It imagines a future not unlike our present, in which the balance of the planet is held between those wanting to expand fossil fuel mining and those doing everything they can to protect wildlife and natural ecosystems. Tension here comes from managing too much ice in Greenland, rather than a lack of it; whales and other arctic mammals can’t surface for oxygen when the ice becomes too heavy. The usual attempts to mitigate the problem become messier when there is a localized mining oil spill. The problem is solved creatively with the narwhal whales, who begin the story as would-be victims and end the story as saviors instead. The human heroes of this story are an indiginous Inuit polyamorous queer extended family unit of scientists who have to race against time to save the day, and do. This is another story that I wished was longer; I wanted to spend more time getting to know Meri and her family, as well as more about their daily reconciliation of traditional ways with new technologies.

Brian Burt’s “Snow Globe” is another story that puts indiginous characters at the center of the narrative. Its protagonist, Okwi Bearheart, is Ojibwe but works for the federal government as a park ranger, making her politically compromised in the eyes of some on the floating city-state that is the Lake Superior Archipelago of Nations. When the LSAN is attacked by pirates, she jumps into action to help, earning her a measurement of trust at last. Jerri Jerreat’s “Rules for a Civilization” also takes up the issue of trust, this time between a teacher and a problem student named Kavi. Much of this story will seem familiar, at least to educators: the problems of guiding students, many of them stubborn, in discussions and projects; how to best help a challenging student; how to manage class and community during a natural disaster and its aftermath. As perhaps can be expected, a dangerous hurricane changes the perspectives of the class, and the teacher as well. (As I write this, the university where I work is in the midst of moving students to online courses because of the covid-19 pandemic. Changing the perspectives of students and teachers in times of crisis is as much for the here and now as for the future.)

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters is another excellent addition to solarpunk literature. I have to imagine that future editors of science fiction “best of” collections will face a conundrum in trying to sum up our era with only a selection or two of short stories. The tales of this volume are individually very strong and also add together in a pleasing and meaningful way, which, too often, can prove difficult for thematic collections. The optimism and hope in each selection is also welcome to the reader, especially given the bleakness of most of our current events. In short, Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters is a lovely, rewarding read, and one that I think will be appreciated by many this spring season.

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