Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.
On 27 July, 2017, on her blog, the Tumblr user and American writer Alexandra Rowland, author of the 2018 novel A Conspiracy of Truths, coined the term "hopepunk" in the following post:
The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.
Rowland was giving a name to an ultra-humanistic, optimistic, and idealistic subgenre of literature (usually science fiction and fantasy) which long predates the existence of the term, and which is considered especially characteristic of, or represented with very high fidelity by, the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Sue Burke, Becky Chambers, Terry Pratchett, Andy Weir, Lloyd Alexander, N. K. Jemison, Octavia E. Butler, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Rowland later explained, in response to requests for elaboration:
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.
It has already been stated that Rowland is the first apparent coiner of the term in this exact context, but the term clearly derives from other "-punk" genres, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, and the more recent solarpunk, which has enormous overlap in philosophy with hopepunk. The "punk" suffix broadly refers to all of these genres having in common an underlying defiance against institutional injustices, prejudices, and the damaging and exploitative results of capitalism upon the world and humanity. If there is one core agreement between the "-punk" genres, it is that capitalism erodes what people believe to be the meaning of being human, and the purpose of being humane, and that attempts to rediscover, reinvent, or restore humanity (both as a concept and as a species) are intrinsically politically subversive.
The first use of "cyberpunk" was by American writer Bruce Bethke in his 1983 for his short story "Cyberpunk," published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories. The term was quickly adopted for the works of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Bruce Sterling, among others, for speculative fiction literature which had themes of defiance against capitalism and widespread surveillance by the government.
"Punk," itself, has earlier origins in the punk music and punk rock genres, dating back to the 1970s through the 2000s, when these genres became broadly synonymous with protest songs against war, the governmental mishandling of the AIDS crisis, and the hostile government responses to several civil rights movements. Prior to this usage, the term referred to a prostitute, or to any member of the demimonde who might be expected to share similar economic and social conditions with prostitutes, and thus is treated by more affluent economic classes as worthless or even pestilential toward the wealthy members of society. We may reasonably infer that it is this sense of social "worthlessness" and dehumanisation that elevated "punk" to a reclaimed slur, once it was applied to music genres and their related subcultures.
Do justly, now.
Vox author Aja Romano describes hopepunk as "weaponised optimism" in her 2018 article explaining it as the newest storytelling trend of the decade. Hopepunk closely intersects the Humanity, Fuck Yeah! narrative trope, though hopepunk does not always necessarily fixate on human exceptionalism, so much as it investigates how humanity (not simply being human, but being humane) is defined and valued, and it asks how humanity can be discovered through catastrophic circumstances or vast unknowns, which demand the best we have to offer of both courage and compassion.
In the era of Trump and apocalyptic change, Hopepunk is a storytelling template for #resistance — and hanging onto your humanity at all costs... as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless. Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.
Hopepunk has emerged spontaneously throughout human literary history in response to sweeping social changes which entailed increasing violence, prejudice, escalation toward fascism, wealth inequality and reduced social mobility, stratification of academia and career fields, gentrification of cities, political corruption, and forced migration of large populations into hostile or exploitative territories, due to violence, plague, famine, or economic or ecological collapse. Hopepunk is written during wars as protests, after wars as horrified commentary, and before and between wars as admonition against escalating hostilities. It is written during epidemics and in the aftermath of immigration, when international citizens are most prone to suffer disillusionment at their working and living conditions in their destination country. As Romano has pointed out, hopepunk is written following historic elections with outcomes that embolden bigots and fascists, and it is written when the state of the world compels humanity toward a state of fear, despair, hopelessness, and learned helplessness.
Hopepunk is written when there is a need for hope. There is always a need for hope.
Love mercy, now.
Apart from the long list of authors named above, whose entire bodies of work qualify as hopepunk in nearly every case, there are many screen media works which are obviously hopepunk. This is a non-exhaustive list, and I will be happy to add suggested items to this list, if anyone wishes to send me recommendations. Unsurprisingly, most examples are science fiction, the genre roots of hopepunk.
- Sense8, a transhumanist speculative fiction series on Netflix
- Doctor Who on the BBC
- The Good Place, a sitcom in which characters who are literally in Hell explore ethical utilitarianism in a very optimistic way
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, though the same cannot consistently be said about all Star Trek franchise works
- Battlestar Galactica, specifically the 2004 series reboot, manages to be thematically extremely hopepunk, as do Firefly and The Mandalorian, despite the settings and inciting circumstances having grimdark thematic qualities as well. In the following section which addresses the parameters of hopepunk, the reader may weigh these three properties against the parameters, and observe how they meet all the necessary qualifications, despite appearing "cosmetically" to be very dark, gritty, and even edgy at times, through the characters' own rhetoric.
- The Fountain, a 2006 speculative fiction film exploring grief, mortality, memory, transience and permanence; again, this is an essentially hopeful story which is parametrically hopepunk, despite being incredibly sad.
- Interstellar (2014), Contact (1997), and Arrival (2016), all science fiction films of planetary exploration or first contact with alien life, are devoutly hopepunk, and investigate similar themes to The Fountain regarding mortality.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) falls under much the same aegis as Firefly: it is only grim at a cosmetic level, and actually carries a very hopeful message about human nature.
- The magical girl genre of anime is almost always aggressively hopepunk, even when the narrative takes equally aggressive dark turns. The strongest example of this is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, in which the protagonist literally transforms into the cosmic principle (or god) of hope itself, as her crowning victory at the end of the series. Many others, like Sailor Moon, and Cardcaptor Sakura, demonstrate a less embattled and more on-the-nose variety of hopepunk, which get them classified as "noblebright" as well as hopepunk. Somewhere between these extremes falls Revolutionary Girl Utena, which employs themes from Buddhism and Greek Tragedy to emphasise hopepunk's capacity for pathos. This quality is shared by the Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe, which has been characterised as a magical girl cartoon where the point of view character happens not to be a girl.
- Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street are definitely hopepunk; hopepunk is not only for teens and adults. These shows discuss real human life experiences, including uncomfortable and frightening ones, in ways that small children can understand, and they encourage child viewers to hope, to seek human connection, and to have empathy for others.
Other literary examples exist, as well, but hopepunk does not always look
like hopepunk. Much of it is disguised behind relentlessly crapsack worlds
where the story focuses on an opportunistic, cynical, nihilistic, or even antisocial protagonist. They are nonetheless hopepunk, if they follow the parameters given below, redeeming these burned-out protagonists by compelling them to form strong human bonds and to outgrow their self-defensive obsessive refusal to have faith in humanity
- The Dark Tower by Stephen King and The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski both depict jaded protagonists who have become rugged individualists, but who grow over the course of the plot into more psychologically robust individuals, with friends and a sense of purpose that goes beyond "killing monsters."
- The Baru Cormorant series by Seth Dickinson manages to avoid being very hopepunk at all in the first novel, but the sequels it becomes deeply humanistic, with one of the most dramatic character developments to be found in fantasy literature. The series features a supernatural (or superstitious) concept called "trim," which is essentially the principles of hopepunk and humanism manifesting as a superpower or a form of magic with real effects upon the world.
- Similarly, the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie, starting with Ancillary Justice, features dramatic hopepunk character growth as the protagonist improves at empathising with human beings.
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, a hopepunk fantasy novel, was written explicitly as an opposition to the escalating tendency toward "grimdark" and "edginess" in fantasy literature.
Additionally, there are many poets whose work could reasonably be classed as hopepunk (despite that poetry is not usually overly narrative in character), including Mary Oliver
, Jalaluddin Rumi
, e.e. cummings
, Walt Whitman
, Danez Smith
, and Emily Dickinson
Walk humbly, now.
To meet the minimal definition of hopepunk, there are a number of properties which a narrative must possess, some tropes which appear frequently, and some characteristics and philosophical stances which are categorically disallowed unless the narrative actively argues against those stances or "proves them wrong" somehow.
- Hopepunk cannot entail the point-of-view characters being resigned to the world staying the way it is, or its injustices remaining uncontested. Hopepunk always entails resistance against some institutional or cosmic force which erodes the meaning of humanity. This force may be literal and tangible, such as an oppressive political regime, or abstract and emotional, such as depression and alienation. When characters attempt to argue that they are the wrong people for the job, or that the time is not yet right to act, they are somehow "proven wrong" by the plot or other characters, or else their own conscience afflicts them until they are unable to remain inactive and indifferent to what is wrong in the world.
- What separates hopepunk from a more classical "Hero's Journey" narration is that hopepunk does not permit rugged individualism or egocentric solitary heroism to persist within the plot: there are no single messianic figures, no saviours, no martyrs, no lone supermen coming to the rescue. Found family, community outreach, collaboration, and interpersonal bonds are central to hopepunk, and a work of fiction is not classified as hopepunk if there is not some community or sense of family of choice at the center of the action. Because nobody is coming to the rescue, the characters at the center of the plot - no matter how mundane and powerless they might seem, by their own judgment - are still compelled to be the people who initiate the resistance. V for Vendetta (2005) is hopepunk masquerading (however briefly) as an individualistic story centered on a masked, mildly superpowered antihero. In an honest analysis of the plot, it becomes apparent that V does not come to anybody's "rescue" beyond his initial encounter with Evey, the point-of-view character, and in fact V acts only as an anonymous figurehead to incite a revolutionary movement of the general population, against a cruelly oppressive fascist regime.
- By extension of the previous point, hopepunk does not permit exclusionary gatekeeping or demographic prejudice, and it adamantly supports every individual being allowed to define their own identity according to their values. Hopepunk consistently demonstrates isolation between communities and infighting inside a community, over labels and identities, as weaknesses which allow the erosion of humanity to continue.
- Hopepunk does not punish the characters for having emotions, and it especially does not punish them for expressing their sorrow and suffering, nor for acknowledging how easy it is to fall into patterns of thought and rhetoric which entail despair, fear, hate, apathy, or loss of a sense of purpose. Men are shown weeping openly, and their companions do not fault them as unmanly for it. Anxiety and apprehension are acknowledged as justified. Breaking under torture is not called weakness or cowardice. Every part of being human is acknowledged, respected, and allowed its space and its voice, including the ugliness, brutality, and sheer unremitting agony and grief of many human experiences. When characters engage in self-directed negative rhetoric, that they are obligated to be strong and stoic, and are not allowed to show weakness to their companions, hopepunk reliably demonstrates that this rhetoric is false, misguided, and damaging. Characters who engage in such rhetoric are consistently pulled out of it by their companions, and encouraged to let others share in their burdens, support them, empathise with them, and help them heal from trauma.
- As an extension of the above point: Hopepunk prioritises self-care. "Secure your own mask before assisting others" is treated as completely correct advice, which characters have an ethical obligation to adhere to, with the understanding that their capacity to do good in the world will be drastically impaired, if they keep themselves constantly in a condition of desperate physical or psychological disrepair.
- Hopepunk treats the work of improving quality of life, justice, compassion, and advancement of the sciences for the benefit of all people, as a perpetual ongoing process which has no fixed final point at which the work will be "done." It treats this work as deliberately intended and expected to outlast those who do the work. As the old proverb states, "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit." Hopepunk treats this continuous work as not only worth committing to, but necessary and an ethical obligation which all human beings inherit by being born human.
- As an extension of the above point: Hopepunk does not treat death, loss, grief, mortality, impermanence, or transience as the end of the story, nor even as things which are to be avoided. Characters in hopepunk frequently need to abandon their homelands and natal families, in order to commit to their resistance. Sometimes the necessary continuation of "the good work" is hammered home with a climactic final battle at the end of a long hopepunk media franchise or book series, in which it is inconceivable that the vastly outnumbered or overpowered protagonists will win or even survive, yet they fight nonetheless. The Scholastic science fiction children's book series Animorphs by K. A. Applegate, and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, all three follow this trope to the letter. Sometimes this is taken to the point of the sympathetic characters actually being shown dying onscreen, still holding out hope for the continuing mission despite their own impending deaths, such as in the Star Wars film Rogue One. The "eucatastrophe" coined and loved by J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the favourite tropes in a hopepunk author's toolbox, and it is used abundantly and with gusto, but usually also with pathos and catharsis, in line with hopepunk's emphasis that grief and sorrow are correct and justified emotions, not to be discouraged, so long as hope is resolute. Hopepunk openly admits that you can't go home again after you have left and done things which changed you as a person; even if you have managed not to change, the home you attempt to return to will likely have changed in your absence. Frodo Baggins returns to the Shire to discover that it is no longer "for him," after all that he has seen and sacrificed in order to protect it. Hopepunk honours, respects, and even reveres this sacrifice, and does not flinch away from allowing its protagonists to express it fully.
- Hopepunk places aesthetic qualities of wholesomeness at the center of characters' living spaces, fashion decisions, and dining habits. They dress and furnish their homes in practical and comfortable ways which emphasise the simple, universal, nonthreatening approachability of creature comforts. They eat together, consuming the well-known and easy-to-prepare comfort foods of the diverse cultures of the characters depicted. Warm natural colours and "cute" or "soft" colours, such as pastels, soft and "cozy" textures, and "consciously chosen gentleness," are prioritised. Hopepunk adamantly avoids objectifying or overtly sexualised fashion, status-oriented fashion, conspicuous consumption or the decorative minimalism characteristic of the homes of the modern wealthy elite, all of which depict human physicality as something which is for sale or display, and which depict human living spaces as performative rather than actually intended for comfortable living. Nikita Mor explains in a 2017 essay on Thought Catalog, "Being soft is not a weakness. It's what makes you strong." Ava Romano adds, "Hopepunk combines the aesthetics of choosing gentleness with the messy politics of revolution."
- Hopepunk knows it is hopepunk. It explicitly discusses hope, right there on the page or on the screen. The characters talk about hope; they think about hope; they express the importance of optimism and kindness as acts of resistance. They do not describe their resistance in terms of revenge, vendetta, retaliation, or punitive justice (or else, if they do, they eventually change their minds on this stance); if justice is mentioned at all, it is restorative justice, in which the protagonists hold out hope that their enemies can someday be made peaceful friends and allies, working together toward mutually benevolent shared goals. In V for Vendetta, V openly admits to Evey that his obsession with revenge makes him philosophically and morally incompatible with the world that he intends to create through the revolution he has incited, and his eventual departure from the plot is his commitment to the truth of this confession, out of respect for those who will need to actually live in and rebuild the world the emerges from the ashes of what V destroys. Sometimes, in hopepunk, the narrative will fixate on hope using the term "survival" instead, but despite this aggressively literal and even bleak language, it remains fully apparent to the observer that the characters hope not merely to survive, but to live, and to have lives full of meaning, which they consider worth living. Merely surviving is not actually enough for them, and is not their end goal. They strive throughout their struggle to survive, to preserve the inherent values of humanity, community, and compassion, because they intend to live in a world which still values these things, after survival alone is no longer the most urgently pressing issue.
- Hopepunk treats stories as important, especially stories which are acknowledged within the primary narrative as being, themselves, hopepunk. Hopepunk asserts that just as love and community are what will save the world, stories will be the vehicle by which people find and create love and community, connecting across vast distances of time, space, and identity in order to find common ground and a shared sense of justice and empathy. As Samwise Gamgee tells Frodo,
"It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for."
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Iron Noder 2020, 16/30
The quoted text throughout this writeup is attributed to Pirkei Avot in the Talmud.