Meandering towards Nomadpunk: A Genealogy
by Christopher R. Muscato
There are seemingly countless genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres of literary styles that have attached themselves to the liberally applied suffix -punk. With no governing body to regulate the application of this term, its use can risk seeming empty, void of functional meaning. In fact, there are so many movements that have appropriated the punk moniker that one is forced to question whether there is any value in continuing to utilize it in a meaningful way.
Yes, yes there is. And that is what I’m here to do.
The goal of this manifesto is to establish the literary boundaries and specifications for what I am calling nomadpunk. In the broadest sense, these are stories about freedom of movement and freedom of self as one lens through which to approach utopian visions of ecologically sustainable futures and a harmonious relationship between technology and the environment. While climate fiction in general explores ecological solutions and challenges, nomadpunk is defined by a distinct focus on mobility as being an essential part of conversations about social norms, economics, and power in relation to climate activism. But let’s start at the beginning.
Within the cli-fi movement, nomadpunk owes its existence to one specific iteration of climate fiction: solarpunk. Solarpunk stories are identifiable by the generally optimistic belief that challenges of the climate crisis can be overcome with responsible technological and futuristic development for the betterment of humanity and the world itself, morality writ beyond humanist limitations. Notably, these sustainable futures are presented as achievable ideals, not alternate realities. In that, solarpunk contains a sense of utopianism; if not utopia in practice, then at least utopia in ideology.
Solarpunk stories are hopeful and bright, but are still driven by conflict, by challenging authority, fighting the status quo, and upending systems of power. They still are, after all, -punk stories. To quote Adam Flynn’s crucial 2014 essay “Solarpunk: Notes Towards a Manifesto”, the -punkness of solarpunk can perhaps best be understood as “infrastructure as a form of resistance”. Solar panels, wind turbines, community gardening; these are forms of rebellion against a global order of oil and gas, greed and profit, extraction and destruction.
I have been in love with solarpunk since the earliest anthologies were published. The more I read, I consistently found that the solarpunk stories I enjoyed the most were those that focused on freedom, liberty, decentralization, and community. For the protagonists, mobility was a part of their identity and, crucially, a component of the most -punk parts of that solarpunk tale. However, this freedom to wander beyond borders, to defy restrictions of place, to rebel against the ways sedentary people “should” behave; it felt more aesthetic than narrative, more a happy accident than an intentional critique of presumptions about the future of urban development.
Still, it was clear that there were authors other than myself who were interested, to at least some degree, in the role of mobility as an element of liberty and nomadism as a pathway to ecological harmony. And that is when I began to wonder if it were possible to work those motifs into a distinct sub-genre of solarpunk, an articulation of these themes through a pointed critique of mobility as a part of the solarpunk movement. The result, as you’ve probably guessed, is nomadpunk.
Nomadpunk, as a solarpunk subgenre, shares the same core principles of its lineage. It is defined by the climate crisis and humanity’s relationship with the environment. It is ultimately optimistic and hopeful, presents conflict and struggle as things that can be overcome, and utilizes technology as a tool for resistance and improvement. The technology can be visceral, but it is not suffocating or anesthetizing. It can be around us, even within us, without separating us from the rest of the natural world.
Where nomadpunk differs from solarpunk is in its distinct focus on human movement. Solarpunk, as a genre, is still largely attached to traditional models of “civilization”, in which urban development is presented within a sort of teleological progression of human societies. Andrew Dana Hudson’s 2015 essay “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk” makes this point by arguing that “…solarpunk shouldn’t shy away from its urban destiny. Solarpunk is a continuation of the Anthropocene”. Humans began as nomads, invented farming and settled down, built cities, and have been expanding on that process of urbanization ever since. That’s the order of events, and that’s the thread we’ll follow into the future. This is the narrative many of us are familiar with. However, archaeological and historical evidence proves that this simple sequencing has never actually been an accurate depiction of reality. Societies across the world shifted between nomadism, semi-nomadism, and sedentism, sometimes making seasonal or generational changes to styles of subsistence.
The point is that sedentism was never a foregone conclusion. Neither should we see it as the natural path forward, nor only the dire consequence of societal collapse and failure (and therefore something to be overcome).
Nomadpunk, as a subgenre, approaches the basic ethos of solarpunk from a perspective that rejects the assumed dominance of sedentism in humanity’s restoration of our place within nature. Nomadpunk stories can focus on entire communities that live as nomads and travel with the seasons and changing of resources, or a few people who choose to live semi-nomadically in an otherwise sedentary world, or even an individual who bikes to work, charging their laptop with the kinetic energy produced by cycling because it slows down the pace of industrial life and helps them connect with the environment. The shared elements in these stories are freedom and mobility as being fundamental parts of reorganizing human relationships with ecology and with relationships of power. If solarpunk presents infrastructure as a form of resistance, then nomadpunk expands that to include railways and open spaces, borderless societies and intentional transience, transportation networks that elevate and liberate. The -punk elements of these stories may often come from demanding or creating infrastructure of mobility where it does not exist, or fighting to dismantle infrastructure that confines people as in the harmful effects of ghettoization, urban decay, or rigid and nationalist borders. Demanding freedom of mobility, and equal access to mobility, can be acts of radical utopianism.
In the foundational essay “From Steampunk to Solarpunk” (Republic of the Bees, 2008), the author describes the role of technology in solarpunk in the following terms: “Solarpunk also conflates modern technology with older technology…we sometimes do best to revive older technologies that are based on other sources of energy, such as solar power and wind power”. By the same token, nomadpunk conflates modern ecological sustainability with older models of subsistence and movement, made secure and sustainable with new and responsible technologies. It’s worth noting that “From Steampunk to Solarpunk” elects as its (literal) flagship the Beluga Skysail, a modern cargo vessel powered by wind and sails, mobility enhanced through futuristic applications of ancient ideas.
This example illustrates that there is plenty of room within solarpunk for a critique of human movement (which is why I’m presenting nomadpunk as a subgenre, and not a distinct genre of its own). Not only does solarpunk support decentralized power (making the genre itself rife for proliferation), but solarpunk is also a genre that rejects a strictly neoliberal “Western” approach to the future, drawing heavily from Afrofuturism, Amazofuturism, and indigenous rights/traditions as incorporated into climate solutions. This should go without saying, but many of these cultures, prior to colonialism, embraced nomadism or semi-nomadism as a part of their relationships with natural resources and their own human place within (not above) natural ecosystems. These elements, already within solarpunk, are a natural fit for further examination within nomadpunk.
As for a brief note on style, one hope of this essay is to help loosely consolidate some of the existing trends in mobility-based solarpunk into a distinct subgenre. This means a consideration of what nomadpunk actually looks like, and feels like. In keeping with the movement-based themes of the subgenre, nomadpunk stories should be defined by the journey more than the destination, the craft of storytelling more than plot or resolution. These are stories with room to wander, meander, and turn around. Techniques such as stream of consciousness, alternating narrators, and nonlinear narratives all fit well within this style. Maybe the story reaches a clear conclusion; maybe it creates an entirely new set of paths. Characters may complete an arc, or perhaps we only get a glimpse of their journey with neither beginning nor end clearly identified. If writers tend to see a blank page in terms of tyranny, nomadpunk sees it as terra incognita. The story is the act of exploration.
Can cities still exist in an ecologically balanced future? Can settled societies be part of our utopian fantasies? Yes, and there are good reasons to argue that they should. But there are also reasons to argue that this should not be the only model of humanity’s future, either immediate or distant.
And in respect to that conversation, nomadpunk may have something of value to say.