Hacking the Networks of Power: How We Became Energy Parasites Counting the Rays of the Sun

Wallpaper (detail) from the Tencent TV series “Three-Body” (2023)
Wallpaper (detail) from the Tencent TV series “Three-Body” (2023)

The English word power has a double meaning that is of particular interest in the present: on the one hand, it stands for domination and, on the other, for energy. The question of domination, which underlies any energy supply, is becoming increasingly urgent in the face of multiple crises, not least because “solutions” such as the “green energy transition” reproduce existing power asymmetries and threaten to exacerbate them. It is therefore time to rethink the energy-domination nexus in a dialogue with science fiction and art, as Stefan Tiron argues.


Power outages were the order of the day in Eastern Europe. Sudden darkness plunged entire neighborhoods into darkness on a regular basis. On the downside, TVs went dark and all the food in the fridge was at risk of spoiling. On the upside, you had dark skies – you could look up on starry nights and turn up the battery-powered transistor radio. This was probably one of the most commonly remembered lived experiences of how an “energy crisis” affected my generation. Lenin’s (or Edison’s) “light bulb” seemed to visibly flicker. This meant that everyone had candles stashed away in preparation for the next blackout.

This low-tech, low-energy apocalyptic preparedness did not prepare us for the next big event – the highly unequal distribution of electrical power that marked the classist, racialized, and gendered electrification of post-1989 price hikes and energy privatization. Increased ownership in general, and car ownership in particular, was felt (heard) in waves of out-of-sync car alarms blaring into the night whenever there was a power outage or some parking lot kids were messing around. Thunder or freak storms also seemed to trigger this new rhythmic signature of automotive personhood in the 1990s, signaling that more and more cars needed to be protected from potential burglars, falling branches, and extreme weather.

When did we become energy parasites?

A non-teleological history of electrification should include both blackouts and how and when we became energy parasites. How and for whom are energy flows redirected and to what new thermodynamic ends? During the shock therapy years of the emerging market economy, the mushrooming of gigantic shopping malls and retail spaces around Bucharest, Romania, revealed another electrical phenomenon: the oblique way in which huge parking lots around new commercial spaces remained lit, while at the same time, during recurrent power outages (yes, they happened all the time), blocks of apartments and neighborhoods were plunged into darkness. Private commercial spaces became blinding islands of light in the night. The speed of light is a universal constant in this universe, yet these photons seem to follow class power lines. As expected, the privatization of the energy networks, carried out in the blink of an eye under the pressure of the IMF, was riddled with scandals.

The deregulated power plant regulator

In the certainly flawed but highly entertaining 2023 American absurdist comedy TV series “I’m a Virgo” by Boots Riley (director of the fabulous “Sorry to Bother You,” 2018), Cootie, a 13-foot-tall black gentle giant, attempts to redistribute electricity by breaking into a power plant run by a hyper-greedy corporation. “What’s more surreal, Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo” or capitalism?” asks filmmaker and cultural critic Charles Mudede pointedly.

Living in a Bay Area “with skyscrapers that rise and fall from the ground, houses on the highest of stilts, and billionaire superheroes,” Cootie and a group of what might be called “electrical activists” team up to try to turn off the regulator and redistribute electricity more fairly and equitably than any corporation. But it is still a short electrical respite. The working class hoods are temporarily out of the dark until a new regulator is installed. Currently, this ability to deny or jeopardize public utilities has become critical as part of an exterminationist politics where infrastructure is weaponized, contributing to a recent huge spike in wars and genocidal actions. In 2023, according to IISS, there were 183 ongoing conflicts around the world, with the increasingly robotic hand of militarism not only destroying countless civilian lives, but also ensuring immense suffering for survivors by targeting energy grids, dams, hospitals, water supplies, and even nuclear power plants.

The economic war on the poor in “I’m a Virgo” ensures that the magical invisible hand of deregulated market capitalism has its finger on a regulator that can turn the electricity on and off in poor working class and immigrant neighborhoods, leaving them in the dark, while at the same time the nearby skyscrapers that house the “energy ruling class” shine as bright as suns.

Counting the sun’s rays

Meanwhile, back in Western Europe, a belated solar future is dawning, but it is unequally distributed in a different way (to quote cyberpunk author William Gibson), with the energy transition seemingly creating solar haves and have-nots. If you’re a lucky landlord or homeowner in Germany, the process of applying for and obtaining all the necessary paperwork and permits to install a small PV system on your balcony is certainly to your advantage. But as a precarious tenant, this process is bogged down and mired in various inconveniences, clauses and obstacles. Living and walking around Wedding Berlin will give you an accurate idea of where the solar panels have sprung up and where they haven’t.

Wallpaper (detail) from the Tencent TV series “Three-Body” (2023)
Wallpaper (detail) from the Tencent TV series “Three-Body” (2023)

Though perhaps we should be grateful when the German mainstream media, in the midst of undeniable climate emergency doomerism plus an increasingly warmongering climate, finds a ray of hope and appetite for a brightly utopian subgenre of SF (see the article in Tageschau) called sunpunk. Becky Chambers’ Hugo Award-winning duology “Monk & Robot” remains an example of both hopepunk and solarpunk, which for many is a departure from the tired apocalyptic and dystopian wastelands so beloved of the film and gaming industries, both of which are increasingly seen as redundant and disempowering. A solarpunk attitude has spread from colorful Tumblr and Behance accounts to Youtuber channels, animations, and sunpunk-themed games. Yet we still count the sun’s rays.

Solarpunk is not enough

As always, there is the risk of greenwashing, because “Solarpunk Is Not Enough” (without anti-capitalism) as Andrew Sage puts it on his YT channel. Pop Detective’s “In Defense of Disney’s Strange Solarpunk World” notes that the solarpunk aesthetic often exists as feel-good packaging. In an age of absurd “Planet B” and “Zero Carbon” product labeling, one wonders if it isn’t just a runaway advertisement for yogurt companies, ultimately selling us another commodity, even if it does inject a much-needed utopian agency.

It is no coincidence that the very companies that ravage the earth and its resources, such as Disney, have used Sunpunk in an attempt to clean up their act and diversify. Sunpunk likely inherited a dualistic conception of the modern energy economy, divided between “flexible and resource-intensive grid power for urban centers” on the one hand, and mostly tropical “low-grade off-grid devices for the minimal and static needs of the rural poor” on the other. This dualistic imaginary was structured by “hierarchies of urban and rural, race and class. Prior to the current green transition, both Northern non-fossil energy advocates and Indian scholars “imagined solar energy not as a post-carbon energy, but as a pre-carbon parallel track for those left outside the modern energy economy” in areas where firewood and dung were scarce. Non-teleological historical perspectives on the solar energy revolution and visions of the “high-energy good life” from the Global South, such as Elizabeth Chatterjee’s “Poor Woman’s Energy: Low-Modernist Solar Technologies and International Development, 1878-1966” invite further sunpunk elaborations beyond the high-modernist “Big Solar” narratives.

One out of 10 suns

At the 81st Worldcon in Chengdu/Sichuan China last fall, to which I was invited by Science Fiction World on the recommendation of Heliu aka RiverFlow (winner of the Best SF Fanzine category), I noticed several solarpunk panels (although I never attended one). Chinese solarpunk SF is entirely justified, not least because it is a direct outgrowth of China’s 77.8 percent of the world’s total photovoltaic (PV) module production. Importantly, even if it is in the good direction as mentioned above, we should not confuse a history of solar energy only with PVs for direct energy generation.

In the legendary past, the mythical archer Hou Yi threw arrows at the 10 suns when they decided to rise all at once and scorch the earth’s surface. Based on this fable, the initial and highly volatile alignment of the 10 suns has now left only one red dwarf sun, with the rest morphing into three-legged black ravens.

In the highly acclaimed 2023 Tencent series, based on Liu Cixin’s acclaimed “The Three-Body Problem” SF book, the legendary Hou Yi’s chasing away of the 10 suns exists as a mural on the wall of the government office of the clever detective Shi Qiang. It is also mentioned by characters as a reference to the fictional alien Trisolarians who inhabit a chaotic multistar system. Instead of the usual green meadows dotted with PV panels, flying sun-powered buses, permaculture fields, and cows grazing in the shadows of edible urban parks, the usual stock images of sunpunk aesthetics, a Three-Body alien world is highly unstable, constantly and rhythmically made and unmade by a series of unpredictable stable and chaotic eras.

Revolutionary helio-determinism

An earthly cosmology – or the heliocentric and teracentric “Goldilocks” zone identified by human scientists – is clearly not a universal constant out there. Such a parochial (terrestrial) worldview cannot initially make mathematical and astronomical sense of the variability and oscillation of other worlds exposed to the solar radical contingency that affects the cyclical rise and collapse of civilizations. The Soviet scientist, cosmist, biophysicist, pioneer of aerionization and heliobiology Alexander Chizhevsky (1897-1964), while in exile during the years of repression, continued experiments based on his heretical thesis of a causal relationship between the activity of the sun’s surface and the revolutionary eruptions of humanity. In his search for solar-induced exogenous change, Chizhevsky hypothesized that the twists and turns of human civilization were intimately influenced by solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The philospher Georges Bataille himself, in one of his most important books of 1949, “The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy,” derived both terrestrial capitalism and autotrophic biological life from the sun’s energetic ontological excess and wasteful masturbatory nature.

For others, the “enormous fire-thoughts of this huge luminary… corresponding to the physical energy of its colossal chemical body” are highly mediated and indirect, “affecting the nerves of this microscopic biped less than the wind that blew against his face” (John Cowper Powys). Thus, with panpsychist bravado, Powys renders humanity dangerously oblivious to the turbulent aura of the sun’s brooding plasma at the beginning of his 1932 maximalist epic “A Glastonbury Romance.”

Fugitive sparks and thermodynamic tactics

If one were to sum up the stark and absurd injustices of today’s disaster capitalism, it might be this: an autonomous car patrolling the streets of San Francisco while a homeless man charges his laptop by “cable hooking.” Welcome to the sub-solar niche of energy parasites!

I borrowed the term “energy parasites” from the canceled Piksel (NO) Festival edition that was supposed to take place in Bergen last year, co-curated by !Mediengruppe Bitnik and Joanna Moll. Unfortunately, after months of sustained effort, it never happened because the Bergen festival directors abruptly decided to cancel everything at the last minute, one day before the opening, without any prior notice or proper excuse. In a joint curatorial statement, Joana Moll, Marta Millet, !Mediengruppe Bitnik and Noemi Garay expressed their dismay and disappointment at this untenable situation. In this article, I wanted to share some of their ideas, because I think such efforts deserve our attention and care, as indicated by the initially invited artists’ projects, which unite highly relevant thermodynamic tactics, assembling “parasitic approaches to energy and energy distribution.”

For instance, the artist duo (Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf, based in Berlin), in collaboration with Joana Moll, planned to invite to Bergen in 2023 many projects and initiatives that would have approached the energy crisis in a novel way, by fostering a common “electrocenic” consciousness and solidarity around the current brutal restructuring of the global energy system and the ensuing waves of energophage capitalist expansion and contraction. The tours, talks, and artworks were intended to feed on generally disregarded energetic options, thus becoming “a temporary, networked, and parasitic surplus to the Bergen cityscape” for the duration of the festival. These festival artworks and guided tours would have been plugged in and recharged using the city’s infrastructure of public power outlets, USB ports on buses, and would have invited the public into energy-scavenging shopping centers and bus terminals to enjoy the artworks. Such examples must be considered if we are to rethink our existence as energy parasites, channeling fleeting sparks and excess rays.

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