Gregory Lynall, Imagining Solar Energy: The Power of the Sun in Literature, Science and Culture

Gregory Lynall, Imagining Solar Energy: The Power of the Sun in Literature, Science and Culture (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 296 pp. £90.00 Hb. £28.79 Pb. Ebook £23.03. ISBN: 9781350010970

In Imagining Solar Energy: The Power of the Sun in Literature, Science, and Culture, Gregory Lynall bridges the discussions of solar energy from the sciences to the humanities and tracks cultural histories, myths, uses, and futures of the Sun across various media and scholarly fields. By analyzing the religious, scientific, and literary depictions of the Sun, Lynall illuminates a comprehensive history of the Sun through its cultural envisionings.

Divided into seven chapters, Lynall discusses solar energy chronologically from Archimedes through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic era, Victorian era, science fiction, and the nuclear age before ending with the contemporary fascination with solar panels. A fundamental mission of the book, with its wide chronological scope, is to reorient renewable energy as historically a primary source of energy, as opposed to its current classification as ‘alternative’. As well, Lynall seeks to redefine energy humanities scholarship from a technological determinism of energy technology to a ‘reciprocal relationship between solar energy and culture’ (3).

In chapter one, Lynall considers the burning glass, a lens that concentrates the Sun’s rays to heat up or burn the material on which it focuses. This miraculous device was used, mythologized, and commandeered by a variety of players including religious groups, scientists, and military commanders as a source of power, whether divine, political, or environmental. However, the single most influential story about the sun's power was Archimedes’ legendary harnessing of the sun through a burning glass in 212 BCE to incinerate approaching Roman ships at Syracuse. Also, Copernicus’s heliocentric scientific revolution in the sixteenth century literally re-shaped the Sun from a ‘perfect polished sphere’ (39) circling the Earth to a more divine and sublime object of power in a heliocentric solar system.

Chapter two follows the emergence of new burning glass devices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and their acceptance or rejection by scientific institutions at the time. François Villette and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus had particularly renowned burning glasses, and their European travels to raise funds sparked both awe and horror at the brilliance or blasphemy of the scientists. First seen as natural magic, burning glasses then circled back to imaginings as solar military weapons. As a literal symbol of the Enlightenment, the burning glass became tangible but still maintained its mythological roots as a God-like cleansing power.

In chapter three, Lynall discusses Romantic tropes of the sun as developed in and around  1816, the ‘year without a summer’ due to an 1815 volcanic eruption in Indonesia that created unusually cold temperatures throughout Europe. This happened in tandem with speculations on the ‘health’ of the sun, its lifespan, and the fate of humanity in the event of a decaying sun. With the discovery of invisible infrared radiation by Sir William Herschel in 1800, many famous writers took up the idea of invisible energy in their fiction, evident in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the seemingly limitless Heat-Ray in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Politically, the Romantic period saw the use of Prometheus and burning glass rhetoric of cleansing and rebirth to inspire the Age of Revolution in France, America, and elsewhere.

Progressing chronologically, the fourth chapter suggests the extension of solar anxiety in science fiction as an interstellar, geopolitical issue. Aliens with more advanced harnessing of the sun could swiftly destroy humanity, and in the case of The War of the Worlds, Martians invade Earth due to a decaying Sun making Mars increasingly uninhabitable. Lynall places these anxieties alongside the nineteenth century’s establishment of our definitions of the word ‘energy’ as a power source. The term ‘solar energy’ also became widely used along with the first substantive worry over the finiteness of coal as well as the sun as energy sources.

This new vocabulary of energy brought our understanding of the sun from a fantastic mythology to an industrial commodity, and chapter five looks at this change through fictional tropes of a space solar power station. This station collects power from the sun and beams it to Earth, providing an infinite energy source. These stories also illustrate a fascination with ‘individual genius’, the power of singular scientific minds to radically change the world through their isolated genius. Contemporary science fiction has archetypes of mad genius villains who through their own brilliant manipulation of the world around them attempt to take over the world, and Lynall provides a nineteenth- and twentieth-century foundation for these modern-day symptoms.

In chapter six, the post-war literary reactions to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed a cultural enmeshing of solar and nuclear energies. Lynall brilliantly reads science fiction and classic works like The Lord of the Flies to hold anxieties about uncontrolled nuclear power and the ethical stance of the Western world after the destruction of the two Japanese cities. The science fiction trope of the Heat-Ray or Death Ray as the world-ending tool of choice by villains is thus seen as cultural anxiety over who can most effectively harness the Sun, and what destruction this can lead to in the wrong hands.

The final chapter centers on the irony of the Sun as a renewable energy source that will reduce reliance on fossil fuels just as it is the very source of energy that the Earth’s atmosphere is increasingly trapping with greenhouse gasses, consequently leading to global warming. While negative imaginings of solar power as a destructive force have been the primary depictions in literature, Lynall argues for a positive ‘solar technological sublime’ (184) that evades characterizing the Sun as a commodified ‘natural resource’. Lynall qualifies this positive solar sublime as also a potential pitfall as the promise of technological advancement frequently subdues the holistic cultural shift needed to confront climate change.

Lynall’s Imagining Solar Energy ultimately shows the history of our relations with and understandings of the Sun, and in doing so pushes back on the narrative of solar power as a new, alternative resource of the future. Lynall’s combination of humanities and sciences literature models the wider push toward reintegration of the disciplines to meet the current climate crisis. The Sun, the originator of all of our energy on Earth, is the perfect guiding light to coalesce beneath.

Alex Tischer, Independent scholar, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment