By Christine Salek
Iowa State’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment produces authors, poets and playwrights well-versed in what the program refers to as “the environmental imagination.” But for two students, exploring this idea meant setting out to advance a whole new genre.
After learning about solarpunk in a Tumblr post that gained popularity last September, now second-year student Phoebe Wagner came to fellow second-year Brontë Wieland with an idea.
“Phoebe approached me and asked me if I wanted to put together an anthology of environmental science fiction,” Wieland said.
“Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation” was born out of this conversation.
Solarpunk is an emerging genre focused on working toward a better environmental future in science fiction as well as the associated positive solutions. The “-punk” suffix refers to its association with countercultural ideology.
“There’s also a lot of social justice that’s also associated with it,” Wagner added. “This idea that you can’t take environmental justice away from social justice, that they’re just sort of woven together.”
Phoebe Wagner is creating spray art as a Kickstarter reward for “Sunvault” backers. (Courtesy of Phoebe Wagner)
Wieland and Wagner turned to Kickstarter at the recommendation of their publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books, and leaned on their own previous experiences with the platform to make it successful. One of their major goals was to raise enough to pay every author whose work they decided to publish in “Sunvault.”
“It also seemed right that something like solarpunk that’s so based in community is also funded by the community,” Wagner said.
In less than a month, “Sunvault” reached its initial goal of $5,000. By the end of the funding period, 236 backers had helped them exceed their goal to the tune of $6,121.
“Having the Kickstarter funds allowed us to be generous so we were able to up how much we were paying for art,” Wagner said.
With solarpunk being such an unexplored genre, Wieland and Wagner were both worried and excited about the kind of submissions they might receive, as well as how people might interpret the genre and how they as editors would select the stories that would help define and embody solarpunk for a wider audience.
“We wanted to be able to give authors the chance to expand that without necessarily breaking the genre,” Wieland said. “I think we did a pretty good job; we’ve taken it interesting directions.”
The pair promised backers and fans on their Kickstarter that submissions would open as soon as they reached their initial funding goal. But in addition to open submissions, they also solicited work from some of their favorite authors, including A.C. Wise, Nisi Shawl and Daniel José Older.
“Probably our most exciting one was Margaret Atwood,” Wagner said. “We don’t have a Margaret Atwood story, but Atwood did email back our publisher and say that she liked the idea. So we were very thrilled about that.”
Brontë Wieland “exercises his limerick muscle” completing rewards for “Sunvault” backers. (Courtesy of Brontë Wieland)
In the two months where submissions were open, “Sunvault” received more than 200 submissions, of which around 35 stories, poems, and black and white line art pieces were chosen for the final anthology.
The anthology is due to be published in May, but in the meantime, many backers of the Kickstarter have some unique rewards coming their way as a thanks for their contributions. Wagner is creating several spray art paintings, while Wieland is writing around 30 personalized limericks.
“Limerick is a fun form, and I think Kickstarters usually work better when they have something a little bit different in them,” he said. “I was excited to get a chance to exercise my limerick muscle.”
Throughout what will turn out to be an 18-month journey from conception to publication, Wieland and Wagner both learned valuable lessons about the publishing process.
“[We’ve been] writing copy for the Kickstarter and creating our website and doing social media, and we’re currently proofing the entire book at this point,” Wagner said. “That’s been a unique experience. And working with a publisher and soliciting authors is not something you generally get on your own, so that’s been a really big learning experience for me.”
“Now we’ve got a pretty good idea of all the legwork that goes into it,” Wieland added.
And as for a second volume of “Sunvault”?
“We’ll see,” Wagner said. “Probably some of it will depend on [the] response and if Upper Rubber Boot offered and said, ‘we would really like to put out another one,’ then I think we would definitely both be involved. But we’ll see.”