This feature originally appeared in Den of Geek’s NYCC 2019 print magazine.
When author Alexandra Rowland (A Choir of Lies) first posted to Tumblr in 2017, “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on,” she had no idea how intensely that sentiment would resonate with the platform’s community and beyond.
“Initially, I was just vaguely bemused that anyone was listening to me,” Rowland says, “but at the same time, I understood intellectually why hopepunk was resonating with people. Simply put: they were hurting, and hopepunk was a thing that helped comfort the hurt.”
What is hopepunk? It depends on who you ask…
Rowland, quoting her essay “One Atom of Justice, One Molecule of Mercy, and the Empire of Unsheathed Knives,” says: “Hopepunk is a subgenre and a philosophy that ‘says kindness and softness don’t equal weakness, and that, in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.’”
To understand hopepunk as a concept it helps to understand what it stands in contrast to. Grimdark is a fantasy subgenre characterized by bleak settings in which humanity is fundamentally cutthroat, and where no individual or community can stop the world’s inevitable decline. Hopepunk, in contrast, believes that the very act of trying has meaning, that fighting for positive change in and of itself has worth—especially if we do it together.
“I think it’s a reaction against the overwhelmingly nihilistic, dystopian slant to a lot of stories in the world right now,” says author Annalee Newitz (The Future of Another Timeline). For Newitz, hopepunk isn’t a subgenre but rather “a reason to tell stories, a motivation, or maybe a narrative tone.”
“The idea is to tell a story where there are hopeful elements or maybe a hopeful resolution to the characters’ struggles,” Newitz says. “I don’t mean to suggest it’s all about having a happy ending, because you can have a pretty ambivalent, broody ending that still conveys hope. Hopepunk is really about showing readers that we can make it through even the most difficult situations. Even if your hero dies, hopepunk suggests that someone else will be there to take up her torch and carry on.”
Hopepunk is Curtis blowing up the train at the end of Snowpiercer, or Max and Furiosa deciding to risk everything and go back to the Citadel at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s Naomi choosing to open the Roci’s door to let in as many desperate Ganymede refugees as possible in The Expanse. It’s believing that humanity may not be inherently good, but we’re not inherently bad either, and that giving people the chance to prove themselves compassionate is a worthwhile choice.
“At Uncanny, we tend to think of this as ‘radical empathy’ or ‘radical kindness’—choosing to do the good, kind thing, even when the system doesn’t encourage that, as an act of courage,” say Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas, the editors of Uncanny Magazine.
The Thomases contextualize “hopepunk” as a marketing term, one that has gained prominence in the last few years but that has been around much longer: “There have been veins of hope (as opposed to grimdark hopelessness) across literature for hundreds of years, and for decades within the SFF genre.”
If hopepunk, by some definitions, is nothing new, it is a cultural lens seemingly on the rise after a pop culture period ruled by cynical stories, like Breaking Bad and The Dark Knight, and in a real-world environment that has become increasingly distressing.
“We can retreat into paralysis, and pretend that’s somehow pragmatic or realistic,” says Newitz. “Or we can say, fine, this is a horrible problem, let’s get together with other people and try to solve any small part of it that we can. Those are the two pathways we can take through a narrative, too. We can tell stories about people who try to fix things, rather than rejoicing in their splendid destruction. It’s a way of showing other people that just because things aren’t perfect, doesn’t mean they can’t be better.”
Has the definition of hopepunk changed since Rowland first coined the term?
“The heart of [my original definition] hasn’t changed at all, but my efforts to remind people of the angry part of hopepunk definitely have grown,” she says. “The instinct is to make it only about softness and kindness, because those are what we’re most hungry for. We all want to be treated gently. But sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone is to stand up to a bully on their behalf, and that takes guts and rage.”
In 2019, hope can feel impossible. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the struggle to create a kinder and more just world is one that will never be linear and will never be over. It is bigger than any one of us, and longer than any lifetime. If hopepunk is the stories that keep us trying in the long shadow of that reality, then it is a vital ingredient to the recipe for change.
So what is hopepunk storytelling? It’s whatever you need it to be… as long as what you need it to be is a way forward in the darkness.
“In hindsight,” Rowland says, “I’m just very happy–when so many people find a philosophy like hopepunk meaningful and compelling… it sorta restores a bit of your faith in humanity, doesn’t it? Maybe all is not yet lost if there are enough people around to say, ‘Oh. Yes, this.’”
Hopepunk Reading Guide
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonSaga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona StaplesUprooted by Naomi NovikParable of the Sower by Octavia ButlerThe Future of Another Timeline by Annalee NewitzThe Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalA Choir of Lies by Alexandra RowlandThe City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane AndersTrail of Lightning by Rebecca RoanhorseThe Expanse by James S.A. CoreyWayward Son by Rainbow RowellThe Sol Majestic by Ferrett SteinmetzThe Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
Our Opinions Are Correct Podcast, Episode 22 hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
Uncanny Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas (recommendations: “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S.B. Divya, “Sun, Moon, Dust,” by Ursula Vernon, and “Packing” by T. Kingfisher)
Hopepunk Author Interviews
Due to the nature of print media, I was unable to include as many of my interviewees’ insightful thoughts on hopepunk as I would have liked to. Here is a guide to the full interviews from various speculative fiction authors and editors. I highly recommend clicking through to read them in their entirety.
Excerpt: “By telling hopepunk stories, we necessarily have to be asking questions like, ‘How do we care about each other in a world which so aggressively doesn’t care about so many of the people in our communities? Who do we consider community, and is that definition too narrow? How do we fight back against the people who want to make us sit down and shut up?'”
Excerpt: “I think hopepunk is the opposite of apathy. In so many stories these days, characters are (literally or metaphorically) lighting cigarettes and enjoying the end of the world. They may look cool doing it, but it’s profoundly anti-social and toxic. As soon as your characters don’t give a shit about anything, you’re leaving hopepunk behind.”
Excerpt: “We think that the world can always use more radical empathy and radical kindness. Culture is, fundamentally, a mix of people giving in to their most kind and least kind impulses, and much of our storytelling comes from that inherent conflict. We’d rather encourage the former, personally.”
Excerpt: “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.”
Note: The title of this article comes from hopepunk musician Frank Turner’s “Blackout.”