This interview with Ferrett Steinmetz was part of my research for “Are You Afraid of the Darkness: A Guide to Hopepunk,” a feature written for Den of Geek’s New York Comic Con print magazine that delved into the hopepunk term. I recommend beginning with that article before diving into this full interview transcript.
Den of Geek: When did you first encounter the term and what was your initial reaction? Has it changed?
Ferrett Steinmetz: I loved it the moment I heard it. I’m an old punk who knocked around some of the Nazis that the Dead Kennedys decried in “Nazi Punks F**k Off,” so the idea of punk utilized for something other than some Hot Topic-style cynicism flooded me with joy.
Do you consider hopepunk a genre or something else?
I think hopepunk is a loose idea in search of foundational works. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been absolutely slam-dunk hopepunk must-reads – you have no idea how many times I’ve pushed The Goblin Emperor into people’s hands – but those labels have been applied long after publication. I don’t think we’ve had a seminal work of hopepunk yet where it was identified as hopepunk as it came out, like the Bruce Sterling’s Cyberpunk anthology or Neuromancer, so right now there’s a lot of people tossing around the idea of what hopepunk could be.
I think in the future, we’ll get one or two works that resound massively as hopepunk and then the definition will contract. But for right now, everyone’s hopin’.
Are there narrative elements that a work must contain to be considered hopepunk? Are there elements that a story must not contain if it aspires to be hopepunk?
For me, hopepunk is a visceral, gritty realism mixed with the idea that kindness is not foolish. Yes, there’s a lot of terrible bastards out in the world, but a lot of those wretched attempts to dehumanize us get defanged thanks to pure love and cooperation. Grimdark tells us that deep down, the bastards always win, or at least drop turds in the soup – hopepunk acknowledges that there are massive threats, both personal and institutional, but smart and compassionate can win the day.
Do you think of hopepunk as a reactive idea? Does it have to be in relation to grimdark/noblebright or is it something bigger than that?
I think it’s a reactive idea, but it’s reactive to the world and not the fiction. The government’s on fire in almost every country, it seems, and the old tropes of “We kill the bad guy and everyone gets better” seem too simple by half. These days we’re wrestling with not just one evil leader, but racism and sexism with roots thrust deep into the landscape – bureaucratic tides of subtle pressures that are designed to exhaust and dehumanize you. Writing fiction that is, in some way, a reminder that nihilism is just another style of storytelling can be one of the best forms of escapism.
What are your favorite examples of hopepunk?
Like I said, I can never recommend The Goblin Emperor highly enough. I also love Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga and the Expanse series.
Are there genres or parts of the entertainment industry where hopepunk is more likely to show up?
I wish I had an idea.
Do you consider any of your own work hopepunk?
Oh Lordy, yes! The Sol Majestic is about a magnificent restaurant in space – but it’s also about the dynamics of the restaurant business, specifically what the value of labor is, and who should benefit from the immense wealth that funds that restaurant. And my next book due in 2020, Automatic Reload, is set in a cyberpunk dystopia where auto-driving trucks have put 40% of the population out of business and where computerized targeting means no bullet ever misses – but despite that, you’ve got two people trying desperately to see how they can improve this terminal capitalism.