Q&A with the Editors of Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation

“We dug deep and pushed seeds / from locked away vaults / into the earth so gentle we pushed / and we wondered if the past / could be reborn.”
~ from “Fairy Tales & Other Species of Life” (Chloe N. Clark)
in Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation


When I met my husband, we got to know each other by talking about all the plays and musicals we acted in during high school (Him: Guys and Dolls. Me: Li’l Abner. Him: Oliver. Me: Greater Tuna). We had a lot in common, until later when we talked books. He asked if I’d ever read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I said no. He balked, I shrugged. We still got married.

brightly colored cover image for Sunvault

I didn’t read science fiction then, and I don’t read much now. But when I heard about Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2017), I was intrigued, especially with the subtitle.

I’ve enjoyed speculative fiction over the years (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke), and I know of the word STEAMpunk (though I can only envision what it looks like, not how it reads). How “solar” and “eco” fit into the mix, I wasn’t sure. At first glance of Sunvault’s cover, though, I was ready to dive into the pages. The Editors’ Note, then, ensured I knew what to expect:

Often [in Science Fiction], the environment was an antagonist, already destroyed to the point of no return, or simply not a consideration. . . . [Solarpunk] emphasizes innovative interaction with both our communities and our environment; socio-environmental thought and creation, rather than merely survival in a decaying world….

These days, a positive focus on the connection between human and environment is worth investigating. Sure the stories may be fiction, the art futuristic, but as Donald Maass says in The Emotional Craft of Fiction, “the purpose of stories is not only to change characters, but also to point the way to a change in us all.”

Meaning, a story imagined is still built on some thread of truth; we should pay attention.

The stories, poems, and art in Sunvault look to a future when humans cooperate with the natural world rather than use and abuse it, and the book as a whole paves way for discussion of such possibilities. In today’s Q&A with Editors Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, we learn more about the genre, the stories, and the aspirations behind the collection. Plus, there’s a giveaway: you just might win a copy of Sunvault, with its cool cover and wonderful works! CLICK HERE to enter the giveaway (deadline: Aug. 29th).

Now welcome Editors Phoebe and Brontë!

Christi Craig (CC): There’s plenty to love about Sunvault, from the introductory notes on the genre of Solarpunk (for new readers like me) to the stories and poems (of course!). But what struck me immediately when I cracked open the pages was the list of contributors–such diversity! Writers of color, international authors, an excellent balance of men and women. Can you tell us a little about how this project began and one of the keys to reaching such a wide range of writers and artists?

Phoebe Wagner (PW): When Brontë and I met in fall of 2015 in Iowa, we bonded over our love of speculative fiction—we were the only two fiction writers dedicated to the genre in our year. Especially in 2015, the speculative trend involved a lot of negativity and dystopian settings, which, don’t get me wrong, I love a good dystopian romp, but I was tired of feeling hopeless. I love happy endings, and I grew up on positive stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Wrinkle in Time. Brontë and I had been tossing around the idea of editing an anthology together (because graduate students have loads of downtime), when I came across a post by Kdhume on Tumblr about solarpunk. The –punk genres have always inspired me, and this new –punk genre with a focus on environment, socio-environmental issues, community, and positivity seemed like something I wanted to be a part of.

As for the diversity, we are both passionate about seeing diversity in publishing, particularly in our home genre of SF. To that end, we commissioned work which helped set the atmosphere when submissions opened. Solarpunk naturally attracts a diverse audience since the genre is dedicated to diverse communities, and we wanted to honor that. Consider that the first true solarpunk anthology was published in Portuguese in 2012 (though World Weaver Press is working on translating it!). This movement is global.

Brontë Christopher Wieland (BW): From the beginning, we knew we wanted this anthology to represent as many perspectives, places, genders, and groups of people as possible, so we made sure to reach out to various communities and ask explicitly to see work from them. In our call for submissions, we encouraged writers from marginalized and underrepresented communities to submit. We also worked hard to spread our message widely on social media, especially Twitter where there’s a thriving and beautiful community of SF writers.

Cropped version of Carlin Reynolds' drawingCC: Speaking of artists, I’ve been studying the artwork you include (Carlin Reynolds’ “Radio Silence” [see cropped image to right] is one of my favorites). The pieces appear to be drawings in pencil or ink, a simplicity in the choice of medium that matches many of the stories as they focus on new beginnings and a back-to-basics kind of living. The images themselves, though, are all but simple; full of intricate detail, they each warrant thoughtful discussion on their own. In your original call for artwork, did you aim for a certain style? Or, what did you hope to receive?

PW: “Radio Silence” was a perfect submission since it fit so well with Iona Sharma’s “Eight Cities.” Solarpunk does have roots in art nouveau style, which we mentioned, but more broadly, we wanted to see how artists interrupted the ideas of solarpunk. Since we were limited in the types of images we could print (mainly black and white), we pitched the idea of the art being like coloring book pages, so each reader could, if desired, personalize Sunvault.

BW: Mostly, I think we hoped to see what images solarpunk conjured in artists without our stylistic input. We wanted to see how many interpretations of the ideas we described were out there, and we found some really beautiful work!

CC: Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Boltzmann Brain” is a powerful piece of flash, depicting one after another of ecological disaster but maintaining a sense of optimism to the end. I love, too, how each new section opens with “We hope you are out there, and you are reading this message.” What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

PW: I hope readers feel encouraged to become engaged, that it isn’t hopeless. We have a hard road ahead when it comes to climate change and social justice. This summer has seen America pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and I’m still sick over the domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. It does not feel like a hopeful time. I hope the stories, poems, and art in Sunvault will encourage small and large actions, encourage resistance, and bring joy. It’s hard not to smile when I look at Likhain’s bright cover.

BW: Hope, courage, inspiration, and new ways of thinking about how we approach our world, especially in terms of physical and social environments. Much of the work in Sunvault revolves around fighting for a better, more just world, and that message is even more valuable now than it was when we started work on the book.

CC: What did you love most about editing this collection as a team?

PW: First off, it was just plain old fun. While I love working with Brontë in general, having someone with different interests, experiences, strengths was vital. It was nice to tag team with him, too, since grad school has a tendency to dictate when you can do stuff. If one of us had a stack of papers that needed to be graded, the other could shoulder more work.

BW: Having a separate perspective on each piece illuminated my own thoughts about each submission. There were times that Phoebe saw value in a piece that hadn’t initially grabbed me (and vice versa), and it always lead to lively discussion and important time spent rereading stories and expanding my idea of what the book would be. Sunvault would look so much different if either of us had done it alone, and it’s much, much better because we worked together.

CC: Now that your editing work on Sunvault is done, what are you reading these days?

PW: I finished The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin and it blew my mind. While not exactly solarpunk, there are a lot of similar themes. I’ve also been on a YA reading streak these days and loved Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper.

BW: As always, I haven’t been reading as much or as widely as I’d like to be. Recently I’ve been diving deeply into Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, both of which I’m using to shape my teaching for the upcoming semester. I also just finished Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep by Sylvia Sellers-García.

Phoebe Wagner grew up in Pennsylvania, the third generation to live in the Susquehanna River Valley. She spent her days among the endless hills pretending to be an elf, and, eventually, earned a B.A. in English: Creative Writing from Lycoming College. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Follow her on Twitter: @pheebs_w.

Brontë Christopher Wieland is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where he thinks about how language, culture, and storytelling shape the world around us. In 2014, he earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Mathematics and Lingustics. His fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online and Hypertext Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @BeezyAl.

REMEMBER: Enter the giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Sunvault!

About Christi Craig

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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