Hopepunk, Optimism, Purity, and Futures of Hard Work
"The punk movement is anti-establishment, with long ties to political activism and resistance, anti-consumerist, anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian, with a strong ethic of visibility and in-your-face active expression of these sentiments."
I’m tired. You’re tired too.
Right now, we’re all more tired than most people have been in our entire lives—studies show this, both studies of our mid-pandemic world and older studies of the neurological effects of trauma and emergencies, the subtle, cumulative damage to brain and body that comes from waking day after day for months on end to find the world still turned up-side-down by crises (hurricane, flood, fire, coup). This affects our sleep, concentration, memory, reading, energy levels; no one in our interconnected Earth is operating at anywhere near 100% right now, and yet the crises—political, global, and personal—still loom. This is why today, even more than when Alexandra Rowland coined the term hopepunk in 2017, stories like Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden or Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, the kinds of tales where futuristic cyberhippies hunt through the refuse piles of consumerism for the upcyclable materials to build their green new worlds, both match and merit the countercultural and protest-associated label punk. It’s also why such tales are—and have long been—as rare as they are needed.
Let’s talk about the term first, then the tiredness, then why we need more stories that don’t end with everything burning down.
Rowland coined hopepunk in July 2017 as the “opposite of grimdark.” Associated terms such as noblebright, solarpunk, greenpunk, or ecotopia join hopepunk to sketch out a body of imagined worlds which are positive but not utopias, because their positivity lies, not in the world already being excellent, but in the world moving toward the better thanks to the efforts of excellent people who work to make a difference. It is a subgenre tied to resistance: as Rowland put it punk = “fight the man” + hope = “we deserve a better world”. Hopepunk stories tend to showcase cooperation, collective action, resilience, partial victories as the world is moved toward, not to, a better state, ending with (re)construction underway and the world changing, not changed. The subgenre has also been described as weaponized optimism, and as rising from a culture of resistance, specifically anti-authoritarian resistance which swelled around the globe in the wake of 2016, connected with what Malka Older has called speculative resistance, the use of fictional worlds to encourage resistance by showing alternatives to the systems we have now (see podcast discussion). In fact, the term hopepunk as first conceived was so linked to 2016 that, when the 2019 Dublin WorldCon held a wonderful panel on hopepunk where Rowland was joined by Jo Walton, Lettie Prell, and Sam Hawke, they had a rich discussion of whether my Terra Ignota series qualified as hopepunk given that it was written much earlier but released in fall 2016, a very informative question I shall return to after a bit why this term coined as an antonym is useful far beyond analyzing grimdark.
One general signature of hopepunk is that its stories counter tales of emotional darkness or rottenness, not just grimdark with its characteristically violent, amoral, and often dystopian/apocalyptic trappings, but also stories whose settings may be less recognizably grimdark but whose plots and character choices either advance zero-sum narratives where achievement requires causing someone else’s fall, or portraits of human nature in which, in the end, people will always be selfish, backstab, let you down, or look out for number one, and in which systems will always be corrupt and unsalvageable. In Hopepunk, people—often ordinary people, including minor characters—take a stand, resist, work together, follow through and help each other, and in the end, while some characters make bad choices, enough make good choices to leave a positive sense of the capacity of humans to choose good. Put another way, hopepunk presents an image of human beings where, in a prisoner’s dilemma situation, not everyone but enough people actually do choose the thing that helps everyone to make it possible to make the world a better place. So many stories teach us that, when crisis hits the fan, it won’t take long for biker gangs bedecked with human skulls to rampage through the devastated streets, and very few depict how studies show people really behave in crisis, banding together to supply pop-up pantries and mutual aid. In that sense, while hopepunk, at its inception, mainly included contemporary fantasy and near-future SF, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor represents it very well, a story where good people treating each other fairly within a political system succeed in improving their world and triumphing over corrupt backstabbers through the power of the rational fact that most people would rather work with people who treat us well and have our backs than with corrupt selfish backstabbers. Amid so many tales of murder games and cutthroat games of thrones, there is a genuinely punk-like in-your-face contrariness to stories where, when crisis looms, people stand by each other and do good, a portrait of human nature which rebels against the ubiquity of the claim that, when the going gets tough, the smart trust no one.
Before it sounds like hopepunk could describe any story where friendship triumphs, or good guys beat bad guys, these are not stories where a heroic champion or pure-hearted plucky team rise to defeat evil. Remember how often the wholesome hero(ine)’s goal is to defend or restore the status quo, whether a recent status quo (you burned my village!) or one lost years ago before the evil empire deployed its evil plans. The punk movement is anti-establishment, with long ties to political activism and resistance, anti-consumerist, anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian, with a strong ethic of visibility and in-your-face active expression of these sentiments. Punk is also messy. While the grimdark hero, forged by a traumatic backstory and strewing trails of corpses through the sunless waste, is one opposite of the Disney Princess, hopepunk is another opposite. The Disney Princess and many hero stories are purity stories. Think of the messiah-hero who passes uncorrupted through temptations, Sir Lancelot whose invincible perfection is ended by the taint of his lust, Frodo who struggles to resist the ring and takes its aftereffects home with him like a scar, and the classic B horror movie where the girl who has sex is killed by the monster while the virgin survives. Performers who play Disney Princesses for Disney branded children’s party services are warned on penalty of termination to never let audiences see them frown, seem unhappy, express anger, or even sweat.
Punk is grungy in aesthetic, and hopepunk shares that, building better among the garbage of the bad. It also expresses negative emotions, not despair but productive anger, as well as kindness which sometimes needs to take the form of confrontation, or calling someone out. Hopepunk showcases resilience by showing failure, setbacks, and compromise, not as heroic flaws or formative backstories, but acknowledging that messing up is an unavoidable part of taking action in the first place. After all, another opposite of both the grimdark hero and the flawless Disney Princess is Barak Obama in February 2019 stepping before the cameras and saying “I’m here on television saying I screwed up. And that’s part of the – your responsibility is not never making mistakes, it’s owning up to them and trying to make sure you don’t repeat them.” Most grimdark heroes make mistakes, but they are giant character-defining mistakes, leaving the person dark and grim, reinforcing the idea that any failure or impurity is a big deal, not a normal part of living a reasonable life.
Messiness and impurity paired with positive change are one core way hopepunk differs, not only from grimdark or heroic F&SF, but from a huge body of narratives, and even political logics. As articulated by philosopher/sociologist Alexis Shotwell in her brilliant book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, ideas of purity often do harm to action and activism, especially in middle class white America with its Puritan cultural roots. Anxiety about impurity, Shotwell argues, increases white fragility, causing fierce emotional resistance when accepting criticism requires acknowledging impurity. Purity is also used (often strategically) to make ethical choices more difficult, variations on the argument that while company X burned thousands of acres of rainforest, company Y doesn’t 100% reject the use of GM foods, so they’re also impure and you may as well shop with company X. I recently discussed this problem with the head of my local CSA farm co-op: CSAs support buying local, but studies show that if they offer a few items from faraway farms that can’t grow in an area (for me in Chicago this means avocadoes and citrus) local food sales go up as a result, because when people need to go to a grocery store for their avocadoes they are tempted by the convenience to pick up other things (eggs, milk) they would otherwise buy from the co-op—the CSA head wanted to do this, but knew that, if he did, many of his old hard-core supporters would then boycott and attack the co-op for selling out, for not being purely local, even if the result was strictly better for both farmers and climate. Shotwell discusses the impossibility of true purity—practically no foods or products exist that don’t harm something—and the importance of acknowledging harm done in order to be able to evaluate levels of harm, reduction of harm, etc. Purity is especially weaponized against progressive politicians and grassroots movements, opponents harping on one flaw in a candidate, using that to argue that supporting that candidate is a form of impurity or selling out, a very important concept to the punk movement. While concerns over hypocrisy are important, and we must defend against them with tools like Ulysses pacts, opponents of change have learned that, much like greenwashing or the myth of individual responsibility, they can strategically deploy purity language and the accusation of selling out to undermine resistance groups and leaders.
Hopepunk narratives are genre stories which have depictions of human nature (teamwork, honesty, resilience) but which also counter purity narratives, by having space for partial victories, unfinished projects, compromise, and mundane not-character-defining failures and mistakes. Setbacks in hopepunk tend to be more about the outcome for the world, what now needs to be done to help or fix the problem, in contrast with stories where setbacks or failures are mainly beats in character development, the point where the hero must stand by his vow never to kill again, or prove her leadership skills to keep the team together. And these are stories born, as Rowland puts it, from “a political mood of resistance” where the path is neither Disney perfection, nor breaking and becoming grim and tainted, nor being the pure survivor spared by the horror monster by virtue of your virtue; the path is long, hard, exhausting, ongoing work.
This is why it matters that we’re all so tired.
And this is how it can be true, both that hopepunk was shaped by post-2016 resistance culture, and that it is larger than that, uniting both earlier projects (like my Too Like the Lightning) and later ones, especially in this moment of the dual apocalypses of COVID-19 and the climate crisis.
Recent polls show an increasing number of people are jumping straight from denying climate change to saying they believe climate change is real but that it’s too late and there’s nothing we can do can stop it. It’s the emotionally easiest way out of climate denial. It lets one feel that even if one had believed sooner, the small amount one could have done by now wouldn’t make a difference. It avoids the obligation to take action now, allowing one to continue without any lifestyle change, since it’s too late. It is an easy attitude to mock or be angry at, but I cite it here because it connects to an issue which is even bigger for those who have believed in climate change, and the authoritarian threat, and the dangers of big tech monopolies, and the censorship crisis, and systemic racism, and institutional injustice: we’re tired. Working toward change is exhausting. Continuing to work for change is even more exhausting, as we see in the patterns like the turn-out-the-vote group VoteForward, which in fall 2020 blasted past its goal of sending 15 million volunteer-written letters, but this fall keeps failing to hit targets in the 200,000 range. A lot of people poured their all into the politics and protests of 2020, and are now worn down by the exhaustion-trauma of our up-side-down COVID-19 world, and by seeing day-by-day how very partial a victory those efforts achieved, how small a slice of what needed to change is changing.
Fiction does not give us many stories of continuing to slog on after an unsatisfying partial victory. That makes hopepunk powerful.
Dystopian fiction great at out bad parts of our society, and galvanizing action. So is false-utopia fiction, the kind where the happy affluence enjoyed by some turns out to be founded in something sinister and unforgivable. But recent dystopias and false-utopias tend to end with that cathartic finale where the looming tower of the evil government burns down. That is an emotionally satisfying ending, part of what makes modern dystopian literature a fundamentally optimistic genre, transmitting the message that, even in a world with far worse versions of our problems, revolution can still win. Apocalyptic fiction, which ends with the whole world burning down, is also emotionally satisfying: if not cathartic, at least it is fair (the rich and bad guys also burn), and final; at the end comes rest. All of these tend to avoid what lived political experience shows is the hard part: building the new, better system after the evil tower burns, or the false utopia’s sinister secret is revealed—the part we’re living now. Hopepunk tales of actually building the new thing are a rare form, in part because they aren’t as emotionally satisfying. The 25th century of my Terra Ignota has fixed some of today’s problems but is still working on others, a world build which advances the unwelcome but important thesis that change takes generations, and that all our efforts may achieve neither none nor all of our goals, but some, requiring yet more work. Like Emrys’s titular half-built garden—a new society building amid the effects of climate disaster—these worlds are half-built throughout, their stories rich but emotionally difficult, in a way the Death Star blowing up is not.
Another emotionally satisfying kind of is one where everything is saved by someone special rising to fix it all, a destined savior, or in future SF often a genius who invents the tech-that-saves-everything. As I observed in my half-joking 2013 review of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark not only, as the script jokes, “just successfully privatized world peace,” he also invents an infinite clean energy device, which begins to be deployed instantly and effortlessly, without oil lobbies or congressional obstructionism. This attitude—wait for the techies to save the planet—is functionally identical with the declaration that it’s too late to save the climate, since both prescribe personal inaction. As Cory Doctorow put it in his essay Hope Not Optimism “optimists and pessimists share this belief in the irrelevance of human action to the future. Optimists think that things will get better no matter what they do, pessimists think things will get worse no matter what they do — but they both agree that what they do doesn’t matter… An optimist decides not to equip the Titanic with lifeboats because it is unsinkable. A pessimist doesn’t bother to swim when the ship sinks and is lost at sea. To be hopeful is to tread water because so long as you haven’t gone to the bottom, rescue is still possible.” Both optimism and pessimism—both giving up and leaving the work to others—are tempting when we are all so very, very tired.
Embracing hope not optimism involves recognizing that progress is not a natural process which somehow grinds on inexorably no matter what we do, progress is our name for the group consequences of our collective actions. Writing about hope not optimism means writing about the hard and ongoing process of building and rebuilding, not just about the evil tower burning down. In Jo Walton’s Thessaly series, a failed effort to set up a Platonic utopia gives way to the survivors learning from those mistakes and setting up new, less-unsuccessful Platonic utopias, not scrapping it all but keeping the good, and building back better. C. L. Polk’s Kingston Cycle in the books that follow the revelations in Witchmark do much the same. Is my Terra Ignota hopepunk, despite the first three books being written before 2016? Yes, not just in themes, but because hopepunk is fiction about the difficult path of rebuilding, and Terra Ignota draws heavily on Enlightenment France, which literally stormed and burnt down the overlord’s fortress, only to face the multi-century process of building a new system on the ashes. Another profoundly hopepunk novel in that sense is Yusuke Kishi’s 2008 From the New World, which has many twists and surprises for the reader, but the one that stunned me most was when the false utopia’s mask was ripped off and the protagonists… committed themselves to working incrementally within the system to bring about peaceful reform. Kishi’s story is pre-2016, like but Japanese F&SF has for some time had a lot more hopepunk-type tales of incremental rebuilding than Anglophone fiction, since Japan both was and is still incrementally rebuilding after the overthrow of a real lived authoritarian dystopia in World War 2. Thus, I would argue that pre-2016 hopepunk does exist, but shares the characteristic of being born from a real culture of antiauthoritarian resistance, and of rebuilding.
While optimism and pessimism both offer tempting ways out of feeling one must take personal action, Shotwell’s analysis of purity helps expose another such temptation, a third narrative: purity stories where just by remaining pure the protagonist triumphs or survives. All those B horror movies where the virgin lives, or purity of heart expels the demons, the Disney movies where the princess comes through spotless, the moment when the T-Rex eats the bloodsucking lawyer not the hero, or in the disaster movie when the kind protagonist goes back to save the orphan and thus is saved when falling rubble crushes others—these narratives are inheritances of Puritan-influenced providentialist thinking which expects fate to preserve the pure. As we face climate change and COVID-19, the archetype of purity of action offering safety in troubled times offers a strange hybrid between abdicating responsibility and facing responsibility: the idea that by making the right choices to stay personally pure—an end far easier to act on than political reform—one increases one’s chances of salvation, either on the personal scale (the eco-disaster spares your house, the virus spares your family), or on the global scale of feeling that, if enough members of the human race are good at heart, if there are enough good people in the city of Sodom, then God/Fate/Providence/climate change will be more likely to move toward the good ending not the bad ending. For many people, especially in America, the ideological residue of Puritanism and providentialist Christianity means that pursuing personal purity can feel like a way of helping indirectly with crises like climate or authoritarianism when direct action is intimidating or exhausting. Someone who feels guilty doing nothing may feel overwhelmed trying to engage politically, but making grocery store choices that prioritize personal purity feel like taking effective action, because so many narratives tell us that purity makes the optimist ending more likely to come true. There are other varieties of providentialist thinking which let one abdicate a sense of personal responsibility (the new fad for stoicism is one) but pursuing personal purity has the bonus of making it feel like you actually are taking action, while evading the whirlwind of messiness, compromise, and option paralysis involved in choosing among the array of impure political candidates, or the innumerable activist causes competing for our help.
I have written elsewhere about the importance of diversity of narrative structures, that we need not only many kinds of characters but many shapes of stories: heroes and antiheroes, protagonists and teams, kind aliens and scary aliens, false utopias and real utopias, stories where we cure the plague and stories where we accept a lower quality of life. We even need some purity stories since—as Shotwell obesrves—purity is a very useful and positive tool for self-examination and thinking hard about our choices. And we need hopepunk. There is nothing wrong with sitting back sometimes to enjoy blowing up the Death Star—when we’re this tired that’s often what we crave. But because we’re this tired, we also need stories of people who are tired like us. Who are trapped between crises like us. Who are grungy, and sweaty, and compromised, and struggling like us. Who resiliently come together, trusting and supporting one another, as we must. Who screw up, and admit it without being broken or defined by the screw-up, and work on ways to not screw up again. Who make good-but-imperfect choices, and are genuinely slowed down by their exhaustion (an important one) yet help one another get back on their feet and keep working.
We need all sorts of stories, but we have a special need for hopepunk right now, because, in many people’s lived experience, this is one of those false-utopias which seemed great but has had its unforgivable underbelly exposed, plural underbellies in fact—climate impact, structural inequality, global inequity, systemic racism, dystopian tech. We need better models for what to do now than just blowing up the overlord’s tower, since that doesn’t fix it. Revolutionary France three revolutions later tells us that doesn’t fix it. As the final volume of my Terra Ignota (Perhaps the Stars) sees print this month, it’s amazing finally feeling how the themes and structure the series already had when I first planned it years ago have a different momentum here in 2021. People often ask if my outline changed as I wrote the books—it didn’t, but my understanding of what parts of that outline were powerful, and needed, that has changed. Speculative resistance is about looking at other ways the world could work (worse, better, mixed), and using that to help us think outside the box and push for new things. The hopepunk subsect of speculative resistance is about depicting how that push requires kindness, compromise, teamwork, resilience, and—tired as we are—a lot more time.
We need those stories, always, but especially right now.
Check Out Ada Palmer's Full Series - Terra Ignota
ADA PALMER is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a cappella vocal music on historical themes, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. She writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and
fantasy-related matters at Tor.com.