The Hopepunk Debate

Back in 2017, SFF writer Alexandra Rowland wrote on tumblr: The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.. She later expanded that statement in a longer post. Here is a quote:

So the essence of grimdark is that everyone’s inherently sort of a bad person and does bad things, and that’s awful and disheartening and cynical. It’s looking at human nature and going, “The glass is half empty.”

Hopepunk says, “No, I don’t accept that. Go fuck yourself: The glass is half-full.” YEAH, we’re all a messy mix of good and bad, flaws and virtues. We’ve all been mean and petty and cruel, but (and here’s the important part) we’ve also been soft and forgiving and KIND. Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.

At the time, I was quite taken by the post and found myself nodding along. I even planned to write a response to it, though I never got around to it for some reason.  But what Alexandra Rowland labeled “hopepunk” was already in the air last year and it has become even more notable since then.

Hopepunk has been deliberately coined as an opposite to grimdark, which was already going strong, when I got on the internet in the late 1990s, though back then it was the new cool thing. And grimdark SFF has been at the centre of several debates in the past twenty years  – you can find my previous blogposts about the grimdark debate here. It’s still popular and going strong – the David Gemmell Legend Awards still regularly go to grimdark novels, the winners of the self-published fantasy blog-off are frequently grimdark as well and the unabashedly grimdark Game of Thrones is the most successful TV series in the world – but grimdark is no longer the scrappy upstart, the counterpoint to the bloated big fat fantasy of the 1990s. And by now, more and more people – often the sort of marginalised people who only exist as cannon fodder in grimdark fiction – are heartily sick of grimdark and want something else, so enter hopepunk.

Hopepunk has been quietly chugging along all year. Here is an April 2018 Strange Horizons article by Claudie Arsenault (thanks to Joyce Chng for pointing it out), in which she doesn’t use the term, but very much describes the phenomenon and also points out that a more hopeful and positive kind of SFF is often to be found in indie and small press books, often by marginalized writers.

But in the normally dead time between the years, hopepunk suddenly resurfaced on the genre radar again in a big way. It started in November, when Alexandra Rowland expanded on her original tumblr post with this essay in The Stellar Beacon. In this essay, Alexandra Rowland also explains why “hopepunk” doesn’t mean “nice” and differentiates hopepunk from noblebright, another countermovement to grimdark. It’s a great essay and I urge you to read it. Meanwhile, let’s have a quote:

Ask it of hopepunk, then: “What’s the point?”

And the answer is, of course, that the fight itself is the point.

It’s not about glory or noble deeds; it’s not about an end result because there is no end. There’s always a tomorrow and when the sun rises again, we’ll still have a dam holding the water back. For now. But entropy is real, and dams must be maintained, and it takes all of us to do it, and it’s done by linking arms with the people next to you, by building a community with deliberate intent.

It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though.”

It’s about being kind merely for the sake of kindness, and because you have the means to be, and giving a fuck because the world is (somehow, mysteriously, against all evidence) worth it and we don’t have anywhere else to go anyway.

It’s about digging in your heels and believing that one single atom of justice, one molecule of mercy does exist somewhere in the mindboggling vastness of the universe—believing in that, even if for no other reason than fuck you, buddy; fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. I do what I want and this, this is what I want; this is the world I want to live in: One where the atom of justice exists, even if I’ve never seen it myself, even if I’ll never see it.

It’s about doing the one little thing you can do, even if it’s useless: planting seeds in the midst of the apocalypse, spitting on a wildfire, bailing out the ocean with a bucket. Individual action is almost always pointless. Hope and strength comes from our bonds with each other, from the actions we take as a community, holding hands in the dark.

Today, the subject of hopepunk was then taken up by Aja Romano who wrote an article about it for Vox, quoting Alexandra Rowland and others. The Vox article spread much further than the original essay on a small indie gaming site and suddenly the knives came out by those who really have a problem with either the label or the phenomenon or Vox or all three.

Now it’s certainly possible to have issues with the proliferation of -punk suffix subgenre names, though that fight was lost ages ago. I keep a master list of punk suffix genres with explanations and examples on my PC that’s a whopping 24 pages long. And considering how much havoc the cyberpunks wreaked on the science fiction genre, starting with the wholesale erasure, whether intentionally or unintentionally, of the feminist SFF of the 1970s, they deserve having their suffix tacked onto anything and everything. Never mind that they started it by coining Steampunk. And besides, hopepunk and its idea of “The world is crap, but we keep fighting and we do it together” actually fits the punk aesthetic more than many other punk suffix genres.

It’s also possible to disagree with Aja Romano’s list of things that are hopepunk. In fact, I disagree with several items on that list myself and there are even some that IMO are more grimdark than hopepunk. But then, genre and subgenre definitions exist to be argued about. And besides, grimdark and hopepunk are not just opposites, but also uneasy neighbours, because hopepunk is often set in grimdark worlds, only that people are fighting back in little ways.

However, quite a few people also seemed to have issues with the very idea of hopepunk itself. There were complaints that hopepunk glorifies bland centrist politics, that it’s just some cutesy tumblr thing, that it’s supposed to make readers/viewers feel validated and complacent and that it’s way too much about feelings besides, that it’s an empty coolness signifier for dweebs and squares, that it won’t motivate real political change and won’t bring about the revolution (echoes of 1970s pop culture criticism here), that people should read non-fiction and biographies instead of hopepunk, that it’s just marketing and that it’s a middle class thing.

Do you know what else is a middle class thing? Grimdark. Because some of the most eager fans of grimdark are/were young white men (and occasionally women and non-binary folk as well) from middle class backgrounds, in short the sort of people for whom the world was not very grim at all compared to more marginalized folks. Back when The Wire was the best show on television(TM) (about four or five best shows on TV ago), I said about British fans of The Wire on a long defunct forum (paraphrasing obviously):

They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube. But they like The Wire, because it makes them feel tough and because they think that’s the way real life is.

It was a deliberate insult and it was aimed at someone who had just denigrated my viewing choices. But the point still stands. Some of the most eager consumers of grimdark are white middle class kids who just realised that parents and teachers are imperfect, that there are some really horrible things happening in the world, that the TV is lying and that elections don’t always mean that the right person wins. And so they became cynical and go for grimdark because “it shows the world as it really is”. In many ways, a taste for grimdark entertainment is normal for teenagers and young adults, once they lose their illusions about the world. The exact delivery mode varies – punk rock, heavy metal, grunge, 1990s anti-hero comics, depressing YA books – but most young people go through a grimdark phase in their late teens and early twenties. I certainly did. Most gradually grow out of it by their mid to late twenties, though some never do. In fact, you can sometimes trace the grimdark interlude in the work of artists – often musicians and comic book writers; novelists normally take longer to break out – who came to fame young. Early works are grim and dark, later works are more hopeful though not necessarily less dark.

However, when a whole genre or worse, a whole society gets stuck in a grimdark mode, then you have a problem. In some ways, that’s what happened to American pop culture in the early 2000s, when every movie and every TV show was suddenly death, torture, terrorism, corrupt politicians, murdered women and “We must make hard choices”. For me, this coincided with me growing out of my own grimdark mood, so it was bloody annoying, but due to shifted US demographics, it also coincided with the so-called millennials entering their own grimdark period and the September 11 attacks kicked the whole thing into high gear. Things gradually lightened up a bit around 2007/08 on the film and TV front, though then the financial crisis and the so-called great recession struck and everything promptly went grimdark once again. Meanwhile, SFF was still stuck in grimdark mode and only gradually started to emerge from all that gloom, usually in works on the margins of the genre ignored by the genre mainstream. I read very little SFF during that time and instead turned to other genres and only gradually found my way back. Then from 2011/12 on, more hopeful works gradually started to appear. Among Others by Jo Walton came out in 2011, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach in 2013, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison in 2014, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin in 2015 (still not sure if this one belongs on this list, but many seem to think it does), Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders in 2016. All of these books were big successes, won and were nominated for awards. And all got plenty of pushback and not just from the puppy fractions either. Also in 2016, the Brexit vote, the election of Trump and the rise of the far right around the globe happened and people suddenly needed hope more than ever. They also needed stories that tell them that even when things look dark, people can still live, love, work together, fight and hope.

When I read some of the reactions to Aja Romano’s hopepunk article (since not a lot of people seem to have read Alexandra Rowland’s), I want to ask, “What do you have against hope?” I also want to break out that old Tolkien quote about escape and jailers. Not to mention that a lot of the complainers seem to accuse hopepunk of being some harmless, fluffy, nice thing that – at least according to Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term – it isn’t. Not that there isn’t a tendency among those people who can afford it to retreat into the private and domestic during politically difficult and oppressive times, see Biedermeier. And actually, some of the Biedermeier works were not nearly as harmless and fluffy as they seemed on the surface.

I’ve never used the term hopepunk to describe my own work (yes, I’m talking about my work and yes, that’s probably marketing. Get over it!), though it certainly fits. The In Love and War series is definitely hopepunk (though I call them cozy space opera), since it’s the story of two people who fight to be together and live the lives they want (and right some wrongs along the way) in a universe that has other ideas. Ditto for Shattered Empire. My post-apocalyptic collection After the End – Stories of Life After the Apocalypse is definitely hopepunk (and volume 2 will hopefully come out in 2019), because it focusses on people, surviving, rebuilding and just living their lives after the world as everybody knew it has ended. The Day the Saucers Came… would also fit under hopepunk, since it’s about the survivors (and it turns out, prominent figures of the resistance) of a 1950s B-movie style alien invasion, none of whom are the sort of people who usually survive that sort of event. There will be more The Day the Saucers Came… stories in 2019 as well. I guess you could even call the Hallowind Cove stories hopepunk (though those are on the lighter and more humorous side), because they’re about people living with the weird, where sometimes the solution is “Feed the monster cookies”.

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