Review: Wilders’ solarpunk world engages despite a problematic protagonist

wilders cover
Wilders, the first book of the Project Earth series by Brenda Cooper

One of the first questions a publisher or agent asks a prospective author concerns genre. They want to know where a book will sit on a bookstore’s shelf. Is it science fiction, literary fiction, memoir, or something else? These pigeonholes get subdivided into ever more finer categories. I’ve put my dystopian thrillers in the science fiction category, which includes a grouping almost no one has heard of: solarpunk.

“Solarpunk” derives from “cyberpunk,” a speculative fiction sub-genre often focused on a singular technology combined with a dark, urban aesthetic. (The suffix “-punk” is now regularly attached to any sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre, or sub-sub-sub-genre, to the point of ridiculousness.) While still technology-driven, solarpunk has a “sunnier disposition matched to strong environmental themes, such as sustainable lifestyles. It’s sci-fi for the hiking, biking, and yoga crowd.

Author Brenda Cooper’s Wilders, the first of a two-book series dubbed “Project Earth,” ticks off all the main boxes for solarpunk. In a relatively near future, Seattle and Vancouver, BC have merged into a mega-city protected by a dome from the Outside, a semi-savage world left to nature and humanity’s more brutish tendencies. Autonomous, protective “ecobots” roam the countryside until they are hacked by rogue elements bent on attacking the AI-run city of Portland. Coryn Williams is a city-bred orphan who abandons urban life to find her older sister Lou, who’s gone to work for a foundation attempting to return agricultural and rural land to its wild state.

Cooper is at her best when building a world with technologies that reflect an upper-middle-class green dream of a sustainable culture. Everyone has a self-driving car. The masses walk or take public transportation. Running is a favorite activity. Wilders’ best scene concerns a chase on bicycles with glasses using augmented reality. The city’s citizens also suffer from a Nietzschean ennui, even oppression, brought about by a governing system that makes too many choices for its people. In this sense, Cooper injects a dystopian undertone into an otherwise utopian world. Apparently, you can’t have one without some of the other.

As a protagonist, Coryn is a puzzle. She’s a smart, if naive young woman taking huge risks to find her lost sister. However, after making this decision, until the last 50 pages or so, she’s caught up in other characters’ drama, rather than making things happen, as most readers should expect from a “hero’s journey” character. She has a fierce personality, but it’s sometimes just irritating. Too much of her dialog is snarky comebacks. She’d be more likable if she’d had a special skill that the “good guys” needed to defeat the “bad guys.”

Readers can categorize Wilders as a balanced response to the early 21st century fascination with literary dystopias. The Wilders’ utopia is far from perfect, and Cooper is correct to predict that perfection alienates those who can’t live up to expectations or don’t have the ideal fit of skills to needs. Conflict between those left behind in the march toward sustainability and those smart enough or connected enough to thrive in the new world is inevitable.

What are your thoughts about solarpunk?

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