Toward Nuclearpunk: Solarpunk with a Twist

Solarpunk, a subversively optimistic genre of science fiction, has proven to be a breath of fresh air for our vision of the future over the past several years. As the latest major incarnation of the various “-punk” subgenres, it joins the likes of atompunk, clockpunk, steampunk, and cyberpunk (the original “-punk” subgenre). Cyperpunk is a very large, wide-ranging, and influential genre, but among its characteristics are transformative effects of computer networks (the cyber), social change and breakdown (the punk), postmodern deconstructionist themes, the slide from the physical to the virtual world, a loss of distinction between the artificial and the real, dystopian futures, and a dark cynical tone.

After the emergence of cyberpunk, other genres appeared that reacted against or built upon what cyberpunk created. Steampunk originally set cyberpunk in the age of steam, with the cyperpunk computer networks supplied by a successful realization of Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”, but soon took on a life of its own, losing much of the dystopian dark cynicism it inherited from cyberpunk and absorbing into its umbrella futurism from the age of steam (Jules Verne serving as a major inspiration), as a result by the 2010s often appearing in mass culture as an optimistic and nostalgic genre of alternate history. Another offshoot of cyberpunk was “post-cyberpunk”, a genre that embodies an optimistic rather than pessimistic view of cyberpunk’s technological and social premises.

Atompunk is a more minor genre that parallels steampunk in that it originally set cyberpunk(ish) premises in the “atomic age”, but took on a more optimistic and idealistic tone as well as futurism from the same era it was set in, becoming a nostalgic and retro-futuristic alternate history genre of sorts. This genre is also known as “Raygun Gothic”, which particularly denotes the dominant aesthetic of early-to-mid-20th-century science fiction. Diesel punk is an even more minor genre that bridges the gap between the age of steam and the age of nuclear reactors.

As the dominant view of the future became (or at least seemed to become) more grim, dark, pessimistic, dystopian, and hopeless, the long-term trend has been for the “punk” genres, with an ethos that strived to subvert what the movement perceived to be the dominant power structure, to become more bright, optimistic, utopian, and hopeful. This tendency to date has culminated in solarpunk, which unlike previous genres claiming the “-punk” mantle is bright and optimistic by design. The solarpunk movement claims that this is because the prevalent view of a dystopian future deserves subversion, hence the “punk”. As a 2016 introduction to the movement puts it, it is a “revolt of hope against despair”. “Solar” in this case denotes a bright and sunny view of the future.

Aesthetic Restoration in Science Fiction

“Solar” is also appropriate in another way: solarpunk heavily features technology powered by renewable energy, including solar power. Craftsmanship, community, social change toward a freer and more egalitarian society, and a fusion of science and nature to man’s betterment also all heavily feature in the solarpunk vision of the future. In stark contrast to the very modernist aesthetics of cyberpunk, carried over from the later stage of “Raygun Gothic”, the solarpunk aesthetic is very heavily influenced by (to the point of becoming a variant of) Art Nouveau, with inspiration also taken from Edwardian fashion and the traditional art of Africa and Asia (Art Nouveau itself was also influenced by Japanese art).

Solarpunk, along with steampunk, interestingly repudiates to a greater extent than any 21st century science fiction genre to date the “aesthetics of guilt” so prevalent in the 20th century, particularly the couple of generations during and following the World Wars (including most of the Cold War). Heinrich Saint-Germain in the early 21st century extensively documented this 20th century cultural catastrophe at his excellent website The Judgment of Paris, along with the “Aesthetic Restoration” toward a renewed embrace of timeless beauty ongoing at the time; this restoration, integral to the larger process of rebuilding Western (and by extension global) culture and civilization after the crises and horrors of the 20th century, is continuing into our own time. Solarpunk and steampunk thus both represent major aesthetic advances, and are the prototypes of a tendency that may become much more common in science fiction in the 2020s and beyond.

Nuclearpunk as Fulfillment of Solarpunk

A fascinating premise I don’t see often that may serve as an offshoot or companion genre is using nuclear energy instead of renewable energy in an otherwise solarpunk setting. Environmentalists, heavily represented in the solarpunk movement, have an aversion to nuclear energy, but by most measures nuclear power has less environmental impact than solar and wind power. Nuclear reactors take up very little space and have no impact on surrounding plant or animal life, two virtues renewable power lacks. Mining for uranium fuel has impact, but so does mining for the materials used in renewable power plants; breeder reactors can also recycle fuel, enhancing performance both technically and environmentally.

Even better, nuclear has far greater power density than any other energy source, fossil fuels included; given advancements in reactor technology which will lower building costs (the vast majority of the cost of nuclear power today) it is virtually inevitable that nuclear power will eventually become much cheaper than any other energy source. Abundant and cheap energy with little environmental impact is the solarpunk ideal; nuclear is a better way of achieving this than renewables, especially over the longer term future.

This nuclear version of solarpunk might be superficially similar to atompunk or Raygun Gothic, but since it would be a rather different subgenre the moniker “nuclearpunk” might be appropriate. In particular the Edwardian Art Nouveau rather than 20th century modernist aesthetic would distinguish it from atompunk or Raygun Gothic. The decentralist or even anarchist ethos native to solarpunk is also quite distinct, and could carry over to nuclearpunk. Plans do exist for nuclear reactors small enough to power a neighborhood or even a household, designed to be buried to attenuate the radiation, the nuclear counterpart of solar rooftops. While nuclear does operate far better at larger scales, much the same applies to renewable power as well. Advancements in reactor technology will only make small-scale reactors more practical over time. In addition, a future with extremely cheap energy might be a future where individuals and households use as much energy as towns or even cities do today, ameliorating this issue.

Energy Storage in the nuclear Future

A nuclearpunk future would, like its solarpunk counterpart, preclude the possibility of the primary energy source powering small-scale machinery like lawnmowers and motorcycles, necessitating the storage of the energy in a denser form. Electric motors powered by batteries is the standard solution for renewable energy, and would work just as effectively for nuclear energy. Indeed, nuclear-electric is used to some extent even now; most of the electricity France’s high speed trains use comes from nuclear reactors.

Synthetic fuel is another possibility, and while this can be accomplished with renewables nuclear reactors are far better suited to synthesizing fuels. This is because heat is the most efficient way of breaking air down into its components and combining them into new forms (e.g. carbon dioxide and water into hydrocarbons); nuclear reactors generate terrific amounts of heat in the process of generating electricity, so the marginal cost of putting that waste heat to use is minimal. Los Alamos in 2008 proposed using this method to synthesize gasoline; with the construction of thousands of nuclear reactors, they estimated gasoline could be produced at $6 per gallon.

With a far greater number of cheaper and more advanced reactors available in the nuclearpunk future, the cost of producing gasoline or other fuels (such as hydrogen, which can be extracted from water directly and might be cheaper) would be far lower than it is today. This means there is an excellent chance synthetic fuel will become far cheaper than its fossil counterpart; in any event gasoline may be replaced progressively by natural gas (as is happening to some extent now) and ultimately by hydrogen, the chemical fuel with the greatest specific energy. Where hydrogen is impractical, mechanical batteries using flywheel energy storage, far more powerful and durable than any chemical battery we have today, might be employed in a nuclearpunk or solarpunk future.

There is no scientific reason why nuclear reactors couldn’t be made small enough to fit into a car with enough power density to propel it at high speed, while being shielded enough to protect the occupants from dangerous levels of radiation. Only engineering obstacles exist, and these will be surmounted over time. Cars powered by on-board nuclear reactors will exist in at least the more advanced stages of the nuclearpunk future; larger vehicles will be nuclearized earlier than cars as technology advances, including trucks, airplanes, zeppelins, and especially spacecraft and seagoing ships, some of which are already nuclear-powered today.

Vast Energies, vast Riches?

If living standards are ultimately limited by the abundance of energy, it is very significant that natural gas, the most energetic fossil fuel, has a specific energy three times greater than wood, the pre-industrial fuel of choice. The supply of fossil fuels immediately available, as opposed to needing to grow forests, is another large factor. The potential of nuclearpunk becomes obvious when one realizes uranium has a specific energy 1.5 million times greater than natural gas; the leap to nuclear, therefore, is in specific energy terms 300,000 times as significant as the leap from wood to fossil fuels. GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (a sketchy metric but it’s the best we’ve got and it gets the idea across) in northwestern Europe increased 10-20 times from the late 18th century to the early 21st century.

300,000 times that rise would yield a GDP (PPP) per capita increase of 3,000,000 to 6,000,000 times; GDP per capita would rise from today’s 60,000 per year to 180 to 360 billion per year, well beyond the resources available to even the richest men today. This is just for nuclear fission; nuclear fusion is about an order of magnitude more efficient still, so perhaps GDP per capita would then rise to a trillion per year or so. Given these figures the mind boggles at the possibilities for a better future.

Nuclear Bombs for Fun and Profit

Even then, nuclearpunk only really starts to take off, and cross over with atompunk, when nuclear bombs start to come into the picture. While their military uses are well known, peaceful applications for nuclear bombs, just like bombs based on chemical explosives, abound. They are useful for liberating natural gas, cracking oil in shale or tar sands, and sealing deep-water oil wells. After oil and gas drilling is obviated by synthetic fuel, deep seismic sounding is another use for nuclear explosives, as is the manufacturing of superheavy elements. Isotopes on the “island of stability” require far more neutrons than can be created by particle accelerators; the environment near a nuclear explosion is sufficiently neutron-rich to create these isotopes. The half-lives of these isotopes may range from a few seconds to hundreds of millions of years (similar to Uranium-235); if their true half-lives, which now are a mystery, are on the shorter end they would be merely a scientific curiosity, but if their half-lives are on the longer end it could unlock an entire new level of nuclear energy and materials science. This could be a very interesting aspect of a nuclearpunk world.

The ultimate use of nuclear explosives, however, is for propulsion. Nuclear pulse propulsion, as I have often mentioned on this blog, is unmatched in its power among technologies we can currently access, being capable of propelling almost any size of spacecraft up to 10% of light speed. Hydrogen bombs can be mass-produced at low cost, which together with a very large spaceship can drastically lower the cost to get to Earth orbit, to something like $6 to launch one person. The cost of propulsion may become so low at that point that lighting a nuclear bomb under your craft may become not only the preferred way to travel between planets but between continents and regions as well. Linear-no-threshold models of radiation’s effects predict an excess of 1-10 fatal cancers per nuclear pulse launch, which far from being a show-stopper may easily be offset by environmental remediation, and that is assuming the linear-no-threshold model is even accurate; the evidence in favor of low-dose radiation having a neutral or even positive effect on health is surprisingly robust. In any event the risk to the environment from even heavy usage of nuclear pulse is negligible, and the reward to mankind immense.

Biosphere to Biospace

Rewards, however, will not only accrue to mankind, but to Earth’s entire biosphere. Cheap launch costs make it easier to lift spacecraft heavy enough to be a large-scale space habitat in one fell swoop, large enough to be a self-sustaining ecosystem representing an Earth biome. As man expands into space, we will take the biosphere we evolved in with us, turning the biosphere into biospace. The natural world that arose on Earth will then become invulnerable even to the Earth itself being totally destroyed, and in habitats in outer space every species may be given a refuge free from even a remote possibility of competition from invasive species or environmental contamination. This, rather than restricting human behavior in the name of the environment, represents the ultimate biodiversity conservation program.

Cheap space launch also would enable industry, mining, and other economic activity to be located in space rather than on Earth, sparing Earth’s biosphere from the adverse effects of human activities to an extent unseen in living memory, all while maintaining or even expanding human living standards rather than contracting them. This would enable all of the Earth’s environment not used for human housing to revert to nature, the ultimate form of rewilding. Even much of the population may move off-planet, freeing up even more land for the wild; even ten billion human residences, though, would have rather minimal environmental impact on a planet-wide scale without mining and industry, particularly if they were powered by well-shielded and self-contained nuclear breeder reactors.

Biodiversity, of course, given the inevitable speciation that will occur on myriad space habitats over the long haul, will increase with the conquest of space. Genetic engineering, even in its more conservative forms, will create an explosion of new breeds of plants and animals, a theme touched upon in solarpunk today. This will also be true in a nuclearpunk world. The explosion in energy usage made possible by unlocking the full power of nuclear need not mean the ruination of the natural world; it could easily be its salvation. This is right in line with the solarpunk ethos, even if the methods are not.

Nuclearpunk as alternate History

Bright, optimistic futurism certainly fits like a glove into the nuclearpunk premise, but it also works well as an alternate history setting, and this is where it starts to overlap with steampunk. Aesthetically the solarpunk movement as well as the nuclearpunk proposed in this post take up where Art Nouveau and Edwardian fashion left off, and those happen to be the last major aesthetic and artistic movement before the crisis of the 20th century. An alternate history where the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War never happened would be a fruitful one to explore for a nuclearpunk setting, as there would be far more aesthetic continuity. The tradition of timeless beauty would be decades, perhaps up to a century, ahead of where it is today, as would self-confidence in Western civilization and optimism for its future.

Technology and innovation would also be far ahead of where it is today; the diversion of resources from destruction in real life to creation in the alternate history would accelerate innovation just by itself, but globalization would also be far ahead. Globalization exerts a developmental effect on underdeveloped countries; in what is now known as the Third World most of the 20th century was devastating. Globalization went into reverse during the World Wars; global trade as a percentage of the economy plummeted, not to recover until after the Second World War.

To this day, however, the recovery has been partial: global trade has to date never returned to the pre-World Wars trend. Even after globalization resumed, during the Cold War state socialism, central planning, and protectionism, all greatly strengthened by the World Wars, were implemented across the Third World, greatly inhibiting development there until those policies were progressively abandoned starting in the 1980s. That is seven lost decades that without the World Wars would have seen growth and convergence. The gains from integrating innovators, scientists, and businesses from these regions would be substantial to say the least.

Even among the developed countries, globalization and a freer system of international travel, trade, and migration would have greatly helped. To this day passports and visas are generally required to pass borders, a requirement that in most places, including North America and all of western and central Europe, only started during the World Wars. Unilateral free trade, considered the sine qua non of free trade in the 19th century, has also not resumed, the more protectionist bilateral and multilateral treaty regime having constituted the “free trade” position during the 20th century. Only now thanks to the libertarian movement is this position becoming mainstream again. These obstacles would not have existed in a 20th century without global wars.

While it is easy to envision a 20th century that turns out worse than it did even without the World Wars, it is far easier still to imagine a 20th century that turned out much better than it actually did. Innovation rates globally and even in developed countries by most measures actually peaked in the late 19th century, stagnated for a few decades, and subsequently experienced a severe drop during the World Wars, even extending well into the Cold War years. Although many measures indicate a recovery in progress after the Cold War ended, full recovery has yet to be reached.

This might not match popular perception, but mass market technology appears to lag actual innovation quite substantially. Innovation crashed starting in the 1910s but the rate of advancement in consumer-level technology didn’t slow very noticeably until after the 1960s; if you look closely, most of the technology we associate with the middle and later 20th century actually predates the First World War, including every mechanized household appliance except the microwave (even that dates to the 1940s). Thus after the technological conveyor belt started delivering post-World War innovations the harvest dropped substantially. The rise in innovation seen in the past several decades has likewise not yet been reflected in consumer technology, but fruits of the earlier increase are nevertheless starting to trickle in in our own time. Most of the 21st century should thus witness accelerating consumer technology and underlying innovation as well, albeit only as a recovery to 19th century levels.

The point of this exercise is not to complain about the past being better than the present, but to point out that a world that advanced much further technologically than our own did over the course of the 20th century is a very plausible scenario. If innovation rates had remained at or near their late 19th century peak over the course of the 20th century, technology and science could easily be a century ahead of where it is today, perhaps as much as two centuries ahead. If technology advanced this fast, it would have numerous very interesting effects on society, but the upshot is that a nuclearpunk world is not only a plausible future in forthcoming centuries, but also a plausible alternate history for our present day. There’s a retro-futuristic setting for you!

Conclusion

Whether as a speculative future, an alternate history, or something else altogether, nuclearpunk, envisioned as a solarpunk setting with nuclear power taking the place of renewable power, is both very plausible and very interesting as a setting, worthy of taking a place alongside solarpunk as a subversively optimistic vision of the human future.

Indeed, in many ways the nuclear version would be even more subversive, having the same decentralist and even anarchistic advantages as solarpunk but also challenging the taboo around nuclear energy and radiation, a welcome challenge considering we live in an excessively radiophobic society. This would be especially true of settings that include nuclear bombs as a mass market product, something few authors, artists, or worldbuilders are willing to contemplate. Indeed, if the concept of crypto-anarchy, an idea that for whatever reason isn’t seen too often in science fiction, is employed in combination with the even rarer concept of nuclear anarchy, that would be a very potent brew for worldbuilding that may produce an almost truly unique product.

The brew may be too potent for some, but the ideas outlined in this post have great potential to make a compelling science fiction setting. The transition period from our world, or another pre-nuclear world such as an alternate history, to a nuclearpunk world of cryptographic and nuclear anarchy might be particularly rich in possibilities. The potential for exploring new frontiers in worldbuilding, artistry, and authorship is overwhelming, all contained within the vast reaches of nuclearpunk.

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