Science fiction, the genre of ideas, is invigorated by solarpunk, where in the philosophy of the savaged past is interrogated by that of a possibly resilient future, in order to seed a restorative present. Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, is one of the latest and arguably one of the best artifacts of this interrogation. The stories are wonderful.
I have quoted Serena Ulibarri here, there, and everywhere. We have never met, though we have spoken on more than one occasion, a symptom of the digital age. She has got a damn good eye for stories. Solarpunk Winters is just as good if not better than its sister anthology, Solarpunk Summers. There is a dark or tragic energy to many of them. “The Fugue of Winter,” by Steve Toase jumped out at me for this, as did “Black Ice City,” by Andrew Dana Hudson, though to a lesser extent. All the stories, while quite good on their own, are ordered for maximum, lasting impact. You can almost imagine some of them sharing the same world, separated by time and space, but not vision.
Sarina Ulibarri collected stories of communities rebuilding around the various kinds of fallout from the same inescapable disaster of climate change (Heather Kitzman’s “The Root of Everything, is particularly personal. The technology in this story is backdrop to the human challenges that don’t go away just because we had to relearn how to survive the long winters). They are inescapable because solarpunk does not do time travel stories; there are no do-overs. It’s the world that you get and you don’t get upset. Okay, you can get upset, but you gotta use that energy and find a way to live.
Still, the stakes are relatively small in scale, the danger only effecting a single community at a time despite the all-encompassing nature of global warming. The city in “The Healing,” by Sarah Van Goethem’s (another stand out for me, partially because of the writing, partially because the main characters are not just scientists) has the largest population, with the lives of about two million people hanging in the balance. But even here, a specific point about the maximum occupancy or all cities is clearly stated.
Even though none of the stories are lobbing atom bombs at the sky (literally, figuratively, or whatever) and usually deal with isolated communities, the anthology as a whole articulates an emergent theme. The point that seems to me being made again and again is that our customs, our hierarchy of relationships, are more flexible than we might let ourselves imagine.
As I read, “Vien Inveniemus Aut Faciemus” by Tales from the EV Studio and Comando Jugendstil-105, I couldn’t help but think of A People’s History of Science. The explorations of engineering of material resources and sustainable everything are beautiful and amazing. But I think the key here is the focus on culture as technology. People worked together and pointed out flaws in the way they dealt with their world and each other. I’ve said elsewhere, there is no greater or more fundamental technology than culture. We change by adapting to new software and rearranging that which we are currently running. We co-create the circuit board maze, and the maze can lead to understanding. These stories crack open the assumptions of community and what makes survival and good behavior function.
One story that I was particularly taken with was “Halps’ Promise” by Holly Schofield, where the necessity of punishment was challenged. Punishment is not an idea that pops up readily when you list words associated with solarpunk. And yet, it was deceptively revolutionary and demanded I pause just on that point and rethink how I interact with my daughter, my students; the carrots and stick we take for granted as necessary to drive our day to day interactions, even our politics.
Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters puts into narrative the most important changes we could make: cutting edge advancement in our relationships to each other. The stories show that people can adapt to anything, even kindness. That is what our future will need most as we come together to share warmth.
Read this book.
I remember a thousand years ago when S.A. Chakraborty sat across from me on my couch with her second (third??) cup of coffee in hand. It was a full house at my monthly Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers novel critique session . I think we were about two submissions into what would be The Kingdom of Copper. She’d told us her next submission would be from a different character’s perspective and I remember cautioning her against it.
My exact words were, “Yeah, you could do it, but your next character better be as dope as Nahri.”
The next month, she introduced Alizayd and he did not disappoint. Now in The Empire of Gold, Both Nahri and Ali level up in epic, primordial fashion, but it’s still barely enough to survive the weight of history and ancient animosities that come crashing down around them.
What makes this story so damn good?
S.A. Chakraborty’s characters are vibrant. They live in a morally ambiguous world where right and wrong come in a decadent assortment of grays. But it is also what makes their actions stand out in contrast and color. Every decision and every mistake is made out of love of something greater than themselves, even the villains. We see how Ghassan's , Kaveh's, Dara's, and Anahid's love was twisted by those who would control their very soul. We see how Nahri and Ali defied that fate.
To me, much of the series, particularly the finale, The Empire of Gold, is about what one does when you live with a thousand-year-boot on your neck. Every painful inch of growth away from obligation for obligation’s sake takes our view point characters closer to death—or in Dara’s case, something worse than death—but also justice. When Nahri and Ali are given bad choices, they fight to find another.
There are layers upon layers of research weaved into the world and there are NO throw-away characters. Every one of them is a person in a real sense of the word and trust me when I say you need every one of them to bring you to the plot twist that’s been building for almost 3,000 pages (there’s more online on S.A. Chakrabory’s website). I actually didn’t see the twist coming, and after editing about 400,000 words a year with BSFW, it’s super hard to sneak up on me. I was happily surprised.
There is a term in fantasy called thinning. This is where the loss of magic becomes an existential threat. That is very much the case in Empire of Gold. But it is also the job of the fantasist is to overlay the mundane with enough magic to transport the reader to a secret place where the real world makes sense. Where the fight against thinning is not the loss of magic but a fight against the loss of something human and important: love, trust, hope, or in this case justice. The Daevabad trilogy is an important story for the world we live in now, and I’m so glad it was S.A. Chakraborty who put her pen to the telling. Read the Empire of Gold.
One final note:
I know S.A. Chakraborty is moving on to a new project (and if it is what I think it is, oh boy, the Indian Ocean never had it so good), but I wilI take these characters in any way I can. And though I know NETFLIX will do something wonderful with a live action Daevabad, there are so many evocative and bright drawings and paintings of Nari, Ali, Dara, and the rest, that in my heart of heats I would love an anime. If anybody from digital Daevabad fandom has the chops, please make it so. Give it the Ryan Renolds Deadpool treatment (only in cartoon form and pg-13).
I love dragons. I’ve loved them since I was eight years old and picked up the 1,232-page tome, Dragon Lance Chronicles and devoured it by nightlight. I look forward to meeting Evan Winter, author of Rage of Dragons from Orbit. I think we’d get along.
If you loved Dragonlance too, but felt that Theros Ironfield (who isn’t even listed in the series’ Wikipedia entry) was great, but wondered why he was the only one, read Rage of Dragons. Or maybe you read Lord of the Rings but felt a certain kind of way about the orcs. Read Rage of Dragons. If you were hyped as hell by Gladiator but closed your eyes and replaced Russel Crow with Djimon Hounsou, read Rage of Dragons. If you inhaled kung fu and exhaled Bruce Lee, but after rewatching Enter the Dragon, felt that Jim Kelly’s role was more of a jived up cameo-sacrifice to the Blaxploitation orisha, and Bruce Lee Roy just wasn’t enough, then read Rage of Dragons.
I think Milton Davis would place this story squarely in the Swords and Soul sub-genre, epic fantasy that draws mostly from medieval African reference rather than medieval European. It is clearly that. The culture, the language, the magic system, the topography; you can feel the heat of an African sun transported through the ether to bake the streets of Winter’s cityscapes. But on a more personal level, it was an escape to a world I had not known but had always wished for.
Winter inhabits each of the characters like a shaman. You are Tau, the main character. As he levels (all the way) up, you do too. Whatever he feels passes through the page like a circuit and hits you. And wait until you meet the demons. Goddamn. Stay ready with that mojo bag.
In the end, this story comes down to one word and one question. Sacrifice: Was it all worth it? Rage of Dragons leaves you asking this question. Thank the queen that the sequel is on its way. Catch up now. It’s a big book. Don’t worry, you’ll want to binge it.
Teacher. Writer. Linguist. @BSFWriters AF. Kaleidocast.nyc Managing Editor. Clockwork_Phoenix. Rep'd by Barry Goldblatt. House of Godzilla. My essays on Tor and for The New Modality here.