In 2017, fantasy author Alexandra Rowland posted a message on Tumblr: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” Obligingly, the internet did just that, describing everything from The Great British Bake Off to Jon Snow (though not Game of Thrones, the book and TV series in which he’s a character) as hopepunk. Such cultural artifacts were held up as proof that, as Rowland later elaborated, caring fiercely about something—anything—is an act of bravery and revolution in and of itself.
The concept of hopepunk caught on with readers of science fiction and fantasy especially: they were worn out by stories of relentless evil and destruction. Instead, they wanted tales in which the good guys push back and, preferably, win. Over the next few years, amid political and social upheaval, the popularity of stories about caring and fighting for a better world grew.
Now, amid a global pandemic, raging wildfires, monster hurricanes, and economic and geopolitical crises, hopepunk holds even more appeal, as evidenced by a host of new books that cater to readers’ desire for optimism, passion, and characters who rage against the machine.
A hopepunk book isn’t simply a story with a happy ending—there’s nothing punk, after all, about mere hearts and flowers. For a book to be hopepunk, the will to care about something enough to go to the mat for it must be central to the plot: a driving force that propels its characters. And that doesn’t necessarily mean things always go well for them.
“People really do want stories that provide a model of hope,” says Mike Allen, publisher of Mythic Delirium Books, which will publish C.S.E. Cooney’s hopepunk Dark Breakers in February. The book tells the story of three parallel worlds—one human, one Fae, and one goblin—that are battling in the face of corruption and oppression.
“We see a lot of comments on social media that particular books are heavier than they can handle at the moment,” Allen says of readers. “We’re seeing attention, instead, on hard-hitting positive stories.”
Hopepunk books are far from fluffy, feel-good beach reads, says Paula Guran, editor of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, Vol. 2 (Pyr, Oct.). But they’re inspiring. “This type of fiction isn’t escapist,” she says. “It confronts reality and helps people cope.”
Characters in hopepunk narratives, Guran adds, “have survived something, and you have them showing cleverness, resilience, caring for each other. Even if doom is inevitable, we can emerge. Even in slasher films, there’s someone standing at the end.”
Some hopepunk narratives are reaching beyond growth and hope for individual characters and imagining worlds that have solved, or are engaged in solving, problems similar to those real-world societies face.
In October, St. Martin’s will publish Lindsay Ellis’s Truth of the Divine, a first-contact narrative in which an earthling and an alien form an unlikely bond and navigate questions about whether to extend human rights to nonhumans.
“We’re seeing a lot of books about people fighting for equality of different types,” says Peter Wolverton, executive editor and v-p at St. Martin’s. “People want books about a better world.”
Another hopepunk title taking on issues of equality is the recent Melville House release Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis, in which the comrades of a feminist Marxist gather at her funeral and learn, from her diaries, how to create a perfectly democratic society.
According to Carl Bromley, executive editor at Melville House, Varoufakis conceived of the novel in response to questions from his economics students at the University of Athens, which were difficult to answer with historical examples. “He landed on speculative fiction as a thought experiment,” Bromley says. “What would you do to replace capitalism? How would you get to the utopian society?”
In stark contrast to old-school superhero stories in which a single champion saves the day, hopepunk stories rely, usually, on characters banding together against a common enemy, whether that enemy be a dictatorial government, an invading alien army, or the encroaching wildfires and tsunamis of a planet that’s had enough of humanity’s foolishness (see “Inhospitable Climates,” p. 36).
Hopepunk naturally appeals at a moment when people are asking what they personally can do to make the world better—especially against overwhelming odds. In hopepunk, the solution is communal. No one person has to wear the cape and rescue the planet single-handedly. Each character has a sword to take up, a part of the equation to solve, a mission to complete.
With any luck, such stories might not feel so speculative after all.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C. Her memoir Never Simple will be published by Henry Holt in March 2022.
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