I’ve been meaning to write about hopepunk. One of my online friends, Susan Kaye Quinn, is a novelist in this newly recognized genre, and today she posted “A Brief History of Hopepunk.” Another online friend, the novelist P.J. Manney, has been hosting a Facebook group devoted to what she calls “The New Mythos,” recognizing the importance of giving people realistic hope for the future by showing them how people can work together ethically, even in very trying circumstances. That’s the essence of hopepunk. It’s what Aja Romano – in a terrific summary – refers to as “weaponizing kindness and optimism.”
Usually when I talk about the genres we can choose for our group-defining stories (meta-narratives), I’m talking about the directions in which we’re collectively headed. Are things getting better, like with progress? Are they getting worse – is there a potential catastrophe that we’d better avoid? But that’s not the only way we can categorize our meta-narratives. Another way is to think about what we, as individuals, can do as part of a larger group. That’s where hopepunk and its alternatives come in.
In 2017, the novelist Alexandra Rowland coined the term with this tweet: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” She later elaborated on her idea here, initially, and then in greater detail here.
Grimdark, as a literary genre, is all about cynicism and despair. There’s really no point in trying to do anything, because it will just get torn down. It’s grit, and it’s realism, and ugh. For most of the people living in the world of Game of Thrones, this is their reality. It’s common in cyberpunk, too – think Blade Runner.
But that’s not our only choice. You can also stand up to darkness and destruction, against all odds, not really expecting a final, conclusive victory, but fighting for what you know is good and right. Like the people of Ukraine. That’s hopepunk.
Putin, we are told, is in the grip of a Restoration meta-narrative, unleashing destruction to restore the borders of Imperial Russia. If the tsars controlled it, he wants it. Zelensky, by contrast, says the story of today’s Ukraine is the story of sustaining the land to which today’s Ukrainians have a personal connection, “our life built by us, our parents and grandparents, generations of Ukrainians.” It’s a story of regular people, trying to survive.
Back to Rowland: “Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.”
One classic example of hopepunk is from Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Sam set off for Mordor on their own, determined against all odds to destroy the One Ring. They have no magic. They have no amazing skills with weapons. They’re little, and they’re frightened, and they’re ever so tired. And there’s no place more grim and dark than Mordor. But off they go.
But grimdark has two opposites. Sure, we have the ordinary people who care and try, in hopepunk, but we also have the chosen hero and ultimate triumph of noblebright, the dazzling achievement of one person whose courage, innate talent, and often special powers mark them as extraordinary, entitled, and… you get the picture.
Rowland uses Tolkien’s Aragorn to illustrate. As she puts it, “in Tolkien terms, it’s Aragorn, rather than Frodo and Sam (who are hopepunk as hell). In noblebright, when we overthrow the dark lord, the world is saved and our work is done. Equilibrium and serenity return to the land. Our king is kind and good and pure of heart; that’s why he’s the king.”
But really, when you think about it, that’s not what Aragorn wanted to be. By choice and by temperament, he was Strider, doing good on a very small scale. He only assumes that mantle of responsibility because the time comes that he has to, so as not to let down his friends (and to be allowed to marry his beloved). Aragorn has a hopepunk soul.
So here’s how each of the three genres addresses that question of what we can each do, as part of a larger group.
- In grimdark, there is no meaningful larger group. We’re all on our own. Nobody’s looking out for us, and looking out for the rest is just a waste of time.
- In noblebright, a few special people do all the work and take charge of the group. The rest of us enjoy the spectacle of their achievements and trust them to do what’s best.
- And in hopepunk, it’s all up to us. We are the group. We’re all in it together, and we’d better get to work.
And we recognize that the story doesn’t end. We don’t get caught up in the dramatic but satisfying meta-narrative genres of Triumphs and Redemptions, because although life comprises many stories, it is not a single story. We’re not living in suspense until the final resolution and closure. Life goes on.
This is all of vital importance in today’s political life. My partner just showed me a link to results from a 2017 survey, in which shockingly high numbers of Americans believe it would be desirable to “have a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.”
In other words, they want real-life noblebright.
Fortunately, the more educated we are, the more we remember that it’s our own responsibility. (Education! Yes!)
And also fortunately, when it comes to reaching the general public, the worlds we immerse ourselves in for recreation do remind all of us that regular people matter. Star Wars may have Luke Skywalker, destined to overthrow the Empire, but it also has General Leia, doing what needs to be done without Luke’s special powers. And it has Rey, who at least thinks she’s an ordinary scrappy orphan, and who does her best – pure hopepunk.
Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have Hawkeye, an ordinary guy who just happens to master archery. And we have Peggy Carter. Peggy is not a super-hero; she’s a regular human being who cares very much about whether her homeland is overtaken by fascism, and who works hard to prevent it.
Because that’s what fascism is – giving up on real and sometimes tiresome democracy, leaving government to “strong men” who sell the public on a heart-rending vision of their beautiful homeland corrupted by those who don’t fit their vision, those who are less than perfect. Fascism is turning your country over to noblebright and misguided ideals of Beauty.
Hopepunk is what democracy is about. We’re not just spectators waiting for someone in power to solve all our problems. We’re all responsible, and we all pitch in. We think about the bigger picture, and we understand that we’re in it for the long haul. And we’re not alone.