Energy Futures, Science Fiction, and the Failure of Mastery

By Josephine Taylor


The After Oil Research Collective argue that ‘a genuine global transition away from fossil fuels will require not only a reworking of our energy infrastructures, but a transformation of the petroculture itself’ (After Oil, 9). In this statement, the collective refer to how petroculture has come to shape values, feelings, and societal norms. Petroculture is a field that argues that energy, and crude oil in particular, has shaped the social and cultural imaginary of the twenty first century. Their argument is that a cultural and societal transition must take place to conceive of a future free from present violent and imperialist modes of resource extraction.

In this article, I address science fiction’s ability to reconceive energy transition, a world after oil, offering what Gerry Canavan describes as a ‘polyvocal archive of the possible’ (Canavan, 16) presenting alternatives to the current imperial and capitalist system. I begin with Liu Cixin’s ‘Moonlight’ from the Chinese science fiction collection Broken Stars (2016). My focus here is on the failure of energy transition, despite renewable sources, and how the violence of the fossil fuel era will continue unchallenged if the cultural and societal structures remain as they are.

The literary analysis then turns to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), looking at how a newly-discovered water based planet is situated as a nonhuman life with its own agency. Julietta Singh’s concept of ‘non-masterful’ politics informs my reading of Solaris, as I explore the moments in which human mastery fails and a different form of relation is then developed (Singh, 15). My research brings together animal studies scholars’ research alongside energy humanities, inviting the question of how a multispecies ethics might inform energy politics and transitions – how non-anthropocentric imaginings of energy can introduce horizons of an anti-extractive project.

Theoretical Approach

I introduce Juiletta Singh’s non-masterful politics as a way of exploring non-extractive modes of living and possible paths to energy transition. Singh’s project is one of unlearning, turning to the conditions of vulnerability which begin through a process of failure. As Singh describes:

In failing to master […]  we become vulnerable to other possibilities for living, for being together in common, for feeling injustice and refusing it without the need to engage it through forms of conquest. (Singh, 21)

By turning to narratives of mastery and its failure (which in this case are narratives of extraction), we discover how these narratives ‘are always fragile, threatened, and impossible’ (Singh, 18). I suggest a non-masterful form of politics can offer new ways of forging energy relations outside of the extractive paradigm.


Liu Cixin’s short story ‘Moonlight’ explores the rise of green capitalist solutions to climate catastrophe and the problems which arise from the fossil fuel economy. ‘Moonlight’ stages advanced technologies and renewable energy resources as a blockade to energy transition resorting back to the fossil fuel economy. Green capitalism offers what is termed as ‘sustainable’ solutions to the ecological crisis. Cixin presents the fatalities and failures of relying on capitalist solutions to the problems of energy and energy transition.

In this short story the protagonist (an energy planner), receives a call from his future self from the year 2123. His future self informs him that Shanghai has been flooded, ‘the last of coastal cities to fall’ (Cixin, 57), as climate change has ravaged the earth; ‘the polar ice caps have gone’(Cixin, 57). The caller suggests to the protagonist that he must implement a transition from the fossil fuel economy to solar energy to save the world from ecological and social collapse. Following this call, he receives an email with the latest future models and technological advancements in solar technology to create a global transition. A few moments later, he receives another call from his future self in the year 2119. Solar energy has now dominated global markets, but the desired outcome does not prevail. The earth is now covered in silicon fields, as ‘after all the deserts had been turned into solar fields, they began to devour arable land and vegetation cover’ (Cixin, 64). The need for energy had kept on growing and solar panels led to an excess of siliconization. The caller proposes one more transition to save the future, ultra-deep drilling, a geoelectric form of green technology.

Once again the protagonist receives details on this advanced green technology and aims to implement it. However, another call takes place, and we find that the ultra-deep drilling did not solve the problems of the fossil fuel age. Instead the earth surface is covered in radiation, an ever expanding drilling force having destroyed the earth’s magnetic field. The protagonist resolves to delete all the emails; having changed the course of history three times in one night, but in the end decided to change nothing at all. The result is an energy impasse of not knowing how to move forwards while being trapped in the current system.

The ideology of the unchangeable reality of global capitalism is manifested in this narrative with disastrous consequences. The text primarily foregrounds energy transition through market demands and goals while providing the infrastructure necessary for whole scale global transition. The narrative appears to critique what Imre Szeman describes as ‘blind faith: the belief that some new technology will arrive to rescue us from our thorniest problems’ (Szeman, 2014).  As Szeman notes of this techno-utopianism, ‘this hardly constitutes a real solution to environmental and energy problems, which are produced by our way of life and not by bad technology’ (Szeman, 2014). In ‘Moonlight’, no transition is enforced in ways of living or structural conditions but simply the introduction of new technology. The texts indicates how technological innovation cannot be solely relied upon. Green capitalism offers alluring solutions which ultimately lead to the same impending disasters that shape the age of oil. ‘Moonlight’ offers the outcome of an imagination deadlock and concludes with nothing happening at all ‘the world began another ordinary day’(Cixin, 71). Capitalism remains the dominant socio-economic model and the fossil fuel industry remains its main source of energy.

‘Moonlight’ presents the violence of extraction and transition, but in what follows I look to the ways solidarity is formed across difference in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and how such a fellowship with nonhuman life forms can generate a different imaginary, distinctive from the deadlocks of capitalist and techno-solutions to transition. The energy impasse, the deadlock of imaginative ways forward from the failed age of oil, can be perhaps become unblocked through the exploration of worlds beyond the domain of the human towards alien and nonhuman Others.


Stainslaw Lem’s Solaris opens with the science fiction endeavour of discovery and mastery, but as the novel develops mastery begins to falter and new relations emerge. The undoing and failure of mastery is my focus, and underpins how my analysis emphasises both vulnerability and ‘non-masterful forms of politics’ (Singh, 15). The planet Solaris is made solely of water, a non-human agent that refuses to be controlled or harnessed by human scientific and technological practices.

In the narrative, there is a transition from distant scientific observer to ‘a participant in mutual exploration’ (Jue, 231) which is the result of mastery’s failure. This failure calls for imaginative horizons of how we engage and live with other nonhuman life forms and elements, and thus problematising our current violent practices of energy extraction.

Solaris provides an acute illustration of the limitations of human mastery and discovery opening us to scenes of vulnerability. As Melody Jue suggests, the central crisis of the novel is ‘that human beings can only know what is other through existing frameworks of cognition and linguistic means’(Jue, 230). Solaris is a narrative that begins as a colonial venture, with the scientific community aiming to understanding and thus master the planet. The crisis of human mastery is demonstrated through the scientific project called Solaris studies: the academic pursuit of understanding the mechanisms of this ocean based planet. Scientists produced multiple hypotheses of its creative movements, attempting to understand the planet’s processes and interactions through mathematical models and equations, evoking metaphysical questions: ‘Was it possible for thought to exist without consciousness?’ (Lem, 25). For Melody Jue, these ruptures in understanding illustrate the novel’s central theme: ‘a crisis that is jointly scientific, masculine, colonial, and terrestrial’ (Jue, 227).

The novel follows Kelvin, a psychologist, who ventures out to Solaris to join a team of scientists hoping to understand the ocean depths of the planet. As Kelvin arrives on station Solaris, he notices something strange about the other scientists onboard, both Snow and Sartorius. Snow is elusive towards Kelvin, uncertain of whether he is a fellow human being. Sartorius having locked themselves in his room, hides away from Kelvin. The sense of apprehension onboard the intergalactic station suggests to Kelvin that something unnerving has taken place. Gibarian a colleague from earth who was also placed on the station appears is absent. Kelvin interrogates Snow on Gibarian’s disappearance only to discover that Gibarian has died in mysterious circumstances. Later, when visited by one of the ocean planet’s avatars, Kelvin discovers what is evoking such madness upon the station. The planet is sending them their past memories of people who were once a part of their lives creating clones of their past lovers, children, and mothers, following and haunting the scientists every movement onboard the station.

Much of the novel explores the scientific reports, investigations, and experiments carried out on the planet Solaris as Kelvin attempts to decipher what is happening to them onboard the station. In the chapter Solarists, Kelvin surveys the history of the scientific communities attempts to make “contact” with the ocean. First attempts at contact were developed through an electronic apparatus: ‘the ocean itself took an active part in these operations remodelling the instruments. All of this, however, remained somewhat obscure. What exactly did the ocean’s participation consist of?’ (Lem, 21). As Kelvin further notes, ‘constantly it seemed, the experts were on the brink of deciphering the ever-growing mass of information’ (Lem, 22).

The study of Solaris is an Enlightenment project and commercial enterprise, science and capitalism working together. This is evidenced by the prize offered by scientists’ for those who could discover ways of harnessing the energy of the ocean planet and transporting it back to earth:

Two years before I began the stint in Gibrarian’s laboratory which ended when I obtained the diploma of the Institute, Mett-Irving Foundation offered a huge prize to anybody who could find a viable method of tapping the energy of the ocean. The idea was not a new one. Several cargoes of the plasmatic jelly had been shipped back to Earth in the past, and various methods of preservation had been patiently tested: high and low temperatures, artificial micro-atmospheres and micro-climates, and prolonged irradiation […] the end product was always a light metallic ash. (Lem, 177).

This alien planet refuses to be harnessed for capitalist exploitation; human attempts at control and extraction are met with failure.

In his work Energy Dreams, Michael Marder notes that ‘of Greek provenance, the word energy is stamped by a double entendre. Composed of the prefix en- and the noun ergon, energia can be literally translated as “enworkment”, putting-to-work, activation’ (Marder, 3). This  association with activation suggests an implicit extractive logic. Solaris begins with this dominant form of logic but as we witness the arrival of what the scientists term as phi-creatures, the material manifestations of their memories, the notion that the planet Solaris is inert and unthinking matter is questioned.

Kelvin’s own realisation ‘that [he] was not in the least concerned with the mimoid but to acquaint myself with the ocean’ (Lem, 212) ) shows how his interaction with Solaris has shifted from one of colonial extraction and exploitation to a recognising it as a fellow creature and lifeform.

Conclusion: The Energy Impasse and Futures

Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds focuses on science fiction as a worldbuilding process. She declares, ‘I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behaviour”—being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations. We are excited by what we can create, we believe it is possible to create the next world’ (Brown, 14). For Brown, science fiction is rooted in a decolonial and feminist practice, a way of practising a just future together, opening up new and alternative relations to others and the world.

‘Moonlight’, and Solaris explore scenes of energy transition, moments of mastery and violent extraction, encounters with alien and animal Others. The texts experiment, critique, and present alternative modes of living beyond violent histories of extraction. The techno-fix fantasies of Liu Cixin’s ‘Moonlight’ explored how renewables cannot provide the sole answer to a just and ethical energy transition. Lem’s Solaris began with the colonial and capitalist venture, an Enlightenment project of science and discovery, to extract and master alien worlds. As the narrative develops, however, mastery falters and non-masterful relations begin to emerge.

The After Oil research collective have suggested that the energy impasse has no signposts – we have no map to find out where we go next. The failure of human control and mastery within these texts suggest new ways of mutually and vulnerably co-existing with other creatures, energy life-forms, and the earth itself, a method unfounded on capitalism and petroculture.


Josephine Taylor, “Energy Futures, Science Fiction, and the Failure of Mastery,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 5 (2021): n.pag. Web 22 Oct 2021. DOI:

About the Author

Dr Josephine Taylor just recently completed her PhD in comparative literature and culture from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on the intersection between Animal Studies and Petrocultures addressing the ways animals are imbricated in energy history and regimes of extraction. She teaches in comparative literature, politics, and philosophy at Royal Holloway. She is a member of the Beyond Gender Research Collective and co-director of London Science Fiction Research Community. Josephine has chapters forthcoming with Bloomsbury and is a co- editor of a special issue on Transdisciplinary Approaches to Climate Justice. @JosieTaylor94  

Works Cited

After Oil, Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group, 2016.

Brown, Adrienne Maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2019.

Canavan, Gerry and Kim Stanley Robinson. Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Cixin, Liu. ‘Moonlight’ in Broken Stars ed. Ken Liu. Head of Zeus, 2019. 

Jue, Melody, “Churning Up the Depths: Nonhuman Ecologies of Metaphor in Solaris and “Oceanic”, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Faber and Faber, 1970.

Marder, Michael. Energy Dreams, Of Actuality. Columbia University Press, 2017.

Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery, Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Duke University Press, 2018.

Szeman, Imre. ‘Blindfaith’

Wilson, Sheena. “Energy Imaginaries: Feminist and Decolonial Futures” in Materialism and the Critique of Energy ed. Brent Ryan Bellamy and Jeff Diamanti. MCM Publishing, 2018.

Vint, Sheryl. Animal Alterity, Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool University Press, 2010.

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