HOPEPUNK - A TREND IN SCI FI AND FANTASY I HOPE TO GOD GOES AWAY
Updated: Jun 22
I fell down a rabbit hole friends. And I must rant about it, as usual.
I came across an article in Wired (link) about sci-fi author Becky Chambers and a genre called hopepunk.
I honestly had never heard of this, maybe I should have, maybe I am too out of the loop. But it is what it is. Other than describing a style of story writing that I am not the least bit interested in cracking open, and sounds boring as hell to me, it's the headline that got my attention (I guess the copywriter is doing their job.)
It said: Is Becky Chambers the Ultimate Hope for Science Fiction? And I get what they were doing there. Haha hopepunk, hope for science fiction. Very clever.
But I needed to look up what the hell hopepunk actually was. Surely it couldn’t all be plotless happy tea time in space stories.
So in my search I finally came across an article that fit my needs perfectly: Hopepunk, explained, an article from Vox (link)
Good, I’m going to get an explanation.
Well...let me just say.
There is reality and then there is fantasy. I’m not talking about the genre fantasy. I’m talking about the out of your mind, have no grasp of how people work, believing in the possibility of world peace kind of fantasy.
Not to sound cynical, but you know what I call a future where all the fiction books are quaint, cute, and cozy reflections of someone’s optimistic outlook of how they think the world SHOULD be rather than how it IS? A terrifying sci-fi dystopia turned reality.
Let’s just give you the subheading so you can get an understanding of where this might be going, and keep in mind it was written in 2018 (apparently, this is something that has been around for a few years now).
In the era of Trump and apocalyptic change, Hopepunk is a storytelling template for #resistance — and hanging onto your humanity at all costs.
Worse thing about this is they deem themselves the #resistance. I’m not really with it enough to know fully what that is...and I don’t want to know. I do know that a # is a twitter thing so I can guess.
Declared as the opposition to grimdark, hopepunk is apparently going to save us all from ourselves...and meanies. Rebelling against the evils of pessimism and conflict in fiction. I suppose partaking in this kind of content is actively NOT hanging onto your humanity?
“In the modern world, we find most of our rebellious clusters of artists online. So it makes sense that the literary world’s most defiant response to impending climate disaster and the rise of right-wing extremism around the globe has not been voiced from the pages of prestigious literary reviews, but rather from the home of one of the internet’s most stridently progressive and rowdily defiant creative communities: Tumblr.”
Interesting thing about looking at this quote just a few years later, we find that it actually IS voices from the prestigious literary reviews that are telling us this. Becky Chambers is a Hugo Award winner, and her new hopepunk sci-fi has been featured on NPR, Buzzfeed, and given a rave review from Publisher’s Weekly. She is also published by Macmillan, so the resistance is going strong it seems. (I will note that although the writer if the Wired article about Chambers labelled her a hopepunk princess, my words, it is unclear if she thinks of herself that way. She’s just writing stuff she likes as far as I can tell.)
It is like our world is turning in on itself, and we are becoming allergic to feeling uncomfortable. The Vox article quotes Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer and the one who coined hopepunk, I guess. She mentions Heath Ledger’s Joker as some kind of antithesis to their “better than you” movement.
….you mean the best Joker ever? The one that shocked us with his realistic portrayal of a madman, a truly evil person? Would they prefer him to go back to the Wham! Boom! Bosh! Joker of the 1960’s Batman? Why? Because he made you feel a negative emotion?
And we can’t have that can we….
We don’t like feeling anything nowadays and we expect that everyone steps on eggshells around us so that we can go through our lives without feeling shame or disgust or sadness.
Rowland goes after grimdark in particular as an enemy to mankind...or at least to the movement because it “evoke[s] a pervasively gritty, bleak, pessimistic, or nihilistic view of the world.”
And as she goes on, it becomes clear that she somehow sees these forms of media as damaging us somehow, that the violence and pessimism of it...is what the “man” wants….maybe? It’s unclear. But that negativity adds to the divide between people, making it harder for us to come together.
I think the idea is that by telling sweet stories where all the characters work together and the crisis is averted before it even begins, you are rebelling against the divisive narratives.
My problem is however, when it is the mainstream telling you to rebel against the mainstream, I begin to suspect that they aren’t being genuine.
It is interesting actually, I have seen more graphic sex and violence in indie streams lately than I have ever seen in the mainstream. And I have to challenge the core idea that pessimistic novels divide us in the first place…..
Yet, she also takes the credit for every story ever, saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is hopepunk….that Frodo from Lord of the Rings is hopepunk….that a Handmaids Tale is hopepunk….basically everything dark or light, happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, is part of the #resistence because it shows people fighting for a better future….
No it is not! What the hell are you talking about? That is almost all stories ever. That is the point of a character arc! That is the point of most plots!!!
Maybe I'm just confused. So for people like me, she has laid out some points of definition.
“A weaponized aesthetic of softness, wholesomeness, or cuteness — and perhaps, more generally, a mood of consciously chosen gentleness.” So pacifism 2.0.
“A worldview that argues that the fight to build positive social systems is a fight worth fighting.” ….please show me the person who doesn’t think that way. And can I add that one of the things I love about grimdark is that much of the time, people do fight only to find that they are not able to change a damn thing!
“An emphasis on community-building through cooperation rather than conflict.” ….I wonder what that might mean for a story….oh yeah! No plot!
“A depiction of the fight to achieve human progress as something permanent, with no fixed ”happy” end. For example, see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff TV series Angel, which ends just before the big climactic fight in which all our heroes are hopelessly outnumbered.” ….ok but Angel can’t possibly be hopepunk because of #3 - (imagine Angel where the team has no conflict) and #1 - Softness was not a virtue in that show, in fact by the end the only soft character, Fred, was killed and replaced by an incredibly hard old god, and even Wesley’s softness had been beaten out of him….I guess there was that one episode where they got turned into puppets, that could be considered weaponized softness…. Can I also mention how incredibely grimdark of Joss Whedon to end the show before their biggest failure ever.
A sense of self-awareness about weaponizing kindness and optimism — and even emotion itself — in the face of that fight. As Rowland noted in her definition of the term, “[C]rying is also hopepunk, because crying means you still have feelings, and feelings are how you know you’re alive.” - Honestly all this makes me think of is my aunt who was a manipulative sociopath who definitely weaponized her emotions and terrorized everyone in our family with them. Her kindness could kill you! In an editor's side note, readers don't like criers. I tell all my authors to get rid of the crying unless something awful happens...truly awful. Readers see characters who cry as manipulative or head cases.
Even more, Rowland tries to make it seem like this is a left-wing thing—a Liberal only or progressive thing, and all this divisive grimdark, nihilistic, uncomfortable feeling nonsense is right-wing and somehow....Trump’s doing? Not sure if I got that right....
Look, I’m not conservative, I’m not liberal either, and I find myself pretty dead centre most of the time. Not that it matters...the idea of putting ANY political leaning on a genre of fiction is the craziest thing I have ever heard of!!!
Let alone attributing the Character Arc!!! The Heroes Journey to one….I can’t ...I can’t even….
It’s funny to me that in the Vox article she talks about how “Noblebright” (never heard of it, the only definitions I can find just say people fighting for good, good beating evil, and opposed to grimdark)...is also in opposition to hopepunk because noblebright suggests “social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good. The “chosen one” is chosen because they are mythically wise, noble, and just, and heroes win the day by virtue of being heroes.”
….but you just said Buffy the Vampire Slayer was hopepunk….and she is the poster girl for the “Chosen One” trope...for god sakes the show starts with “In every generation there is a chosen one.”
And who said that inherently noble heroes mean social systems are good. There is nothing in any definition I can find that says “noblebright” needs to be nobility, or political or social leaders. I think she is just getting confused between a Noble (rich swanky hoyti toit) and a noble person (someone with a moral compass and ideals.) She uses the example of Aragon in Lord of the Rings as somehow bad because he is a noble leader (I guess because he is part of the social elite that makes him bad somehow, even if he sacrificed himself for them...whatever) and Frodo and the hobbits as hopepunk because he is the underdog who struggles but never gives up. Completely missing the fact that Aragon struggled too. She talks about how Frodo and his hobbit friends are hopepunk because they fought as a community...totally missing the beauty of Lord of the Rings that many people from all walks of life—rich or poor, powerful or weak, all got together to help fight.
Even Frodo himself would still be considered noblebright too, by what I can see, because Frodo is good, overcoming evil….end of definition.
I’m confused. I'm lost. All I see is contradictions. I’m just gonna say it….this is dumb...really really dumb.
...and I’m beginning to suspect that this Rowland character has never actually seen any of these shows or movies, or read a grimdark book at all.
Just say you want to write happy, feel good, cozy fantasy and sci-fi and go about your life. Why the hell are you trying to start a political movement around it? Or start a fiction genre around a political movement? But then again, I seriously doubt it’s rebellious nature if the Big 5 publishing companies are actively searching it out and promoting it for you. Or is the big powerful corporation on the side of taking down the society that propped it up in the first place then giving the power back to the people, the “communities” you love so much?
Ok, sure…. We’ll go with that.
Honestly, I’m a little peeved that any fantasy or sci-fi genre is being attacked like this. Genres like grimdark ARE an answer to other mainstream “sellout” fiction. Science Fiction and Fantasy has had this reputation for a long time. Sure there is what I would consider parts of the genre that have been taken over by money hungry publishers looking to get out content as fast as possible to make a buck and then quickly move onto the next, but there has always been a sect of the genre that said fuck that, I am writing what I want….like grimdark.
And any book written with integrity and passion and skill is going to find an audience that wants it. The world may be polarized right now but don’t project your crap onto a whole medium of communication, damn.
I’m sorry, but leave fiction the hell alone. No genre is your enemy, nor is it the enemy of the people. Shall we burn all the “bad” books next? And especially keep your hands off my sci-fi and fantasy. You can continue to write in any way you want to. If you want to write a story like Beck Chambers and show happy cooperative aliens having tea, go at it to your heart's content. But don’t tell us that this is “the only hope for sci-fi” as if it were on its deathbed. It doesn’t need saving. But it is more than happy to include you into the repertoire.
And here is a helpful criticism. The basic elements of a good story, like plot, conflict, tension, personal and global stakes, and the fucking character arc, all of which have been used successfully by story tellers since the time humans huddled around the camp fire to hear the elders tell stories of creation and divine heroes, are not part of your #resistance.
Stories are lots of things, and they can be a form of resistance on their own. Especially in the days before modern publishing conglomerate machines. Was the fucking bible not one these? And in order to resist the powers that be, those stories very rarely show happy people, fighting in cooperation with their communities to a happy non-ending.
The most important stories ever written that actually did change society (for the better in most cases) have been deeply pessimistic.
1984, Things Fall Apart, The Catcher in the Rye, Heart of Darkness, A Brave New World, Crime & Punishment, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and oh my god so many more.
I’m not saying there is no space for positivity and optimism, I just don’t understand this move to say that anything that is negative is somehow bad for you. I seriously don’t think that you can change the world by presenting us with a fantasy. I think that the only way you can change people
is to show them what they look like from an outside perspective. Like when you take a picture of a drunk girl who thought she looked like a the hottest thing since fire at the club, and show it to her the next day to give her a reality check that actually, she looked like a drooling crackhead with her skirt tucked into her panties and vomit on her chest. It’s not pretty, it is not kind, but she is going to remember that photo.
And as to this idea that you are taking part in some political resistance, fighting against the Man through your happy little niche, I will leave you with a quote from a Slate article on why hopepunk ISN’T the only HOPE for sci-fi (or any of the punk subgenres for that matter.) I may not agree with everything in the article, I can agree with this...
“But if this is your choice, if you’re writing science fiction that decides on its attitude toward the future in advance of doing the work of imagining that future, you’re not heeding the most ambitious calling of the genre. You’ve substituted the hunt for a cool new market niche for the work of telling compelling stories that help us think rigorously about how we might make a better world, or at the very least better understand where our world might be heading. If, instead, you retain the hope of writing fiction that confronts readers with new ways of thinking about their relationship to the future—our future—you may need to drop the -punk suffix.
Doing so might be the most punk thing you can do.”
But again, that is just my opinion and I respect your right to have your own. And Like I said, I am new to this hopepunk nonsense, if I got it all wrong, start an argument in the comments. I’ll be there like flies on a corpse.
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.