At the February Pittsburgh PARSEC science fiction meeting, we bandied about the term “hopepunk,” which made me roll my eyes for the umpteenth time. Punk was always about running counter to the norm, not conforming to it. Steampunk and cyberpunk, at the beginning, were in line with this notion. But now Steampunk has tiny Victorian hats and seems to be more about costume and less about substance in theme (which is fine for others–it’s just not my thing), and we have everything from dieselpunk to greenpunk. My friend, a former punk, hates the trend of calling everything “punk” like we call everything “gate;” he gags over the titling of the fairypunk sub-genre. Credit where credit is due, hopepunk, after first annoying me, has grown into a concept that makes sense, even with its “punk” usage.
Begun by writer Alexandra Rowland on Tumblr in July 2017, she first described this latest trend simply as “the opposite of grimdark,” a term in itself that causes a stir of controversy whenever it’s mentioned. She asked followers and readers to pass it on. In later clarifications, she wrote that “Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance…but 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.” The soul of hopepunk is resistance, the will to struggle in the face of adversity to make the world a better place. The characters may strive and never succeed in their lifetime, but if everyone pulls the same way, the world will someday change. I may not love hopepunk fiction, but I sure can appreciate its message, and appreciate it as an important sub-genre. In a world and culture where everything seems to be dark and gritty, hopepunk certainly runs counter to all that.
This brings me to probably my favorite sub-genre: grimdark. What exactly is grimdark? The answer is as nebulous as it is controversial. Grimdark began from the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, which said “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” Grim + darkness = grimdark. A term was born. But when the literary world got hold of the term, it grew into its own sub-genre. One blog, dedicated to noblebright, yet another sub-genre, sees grimdark as “The notion that the actions of one person can do little to improve this world in decline, that the forces of evil and inertia and temptation will ensure that all of us are doomed. The best we can hope for is a little struggle with morally ambiguous heroes to oppose danger and maybe rescue for a brief time a few others.” I, in vehement disagreement, find this definition both lacking and purposefully self-serving. For me, grimdark is about the “world” not being black and white, good and evil; people and characters live lives with their own motivations. Bad things happen, and it’s how we react to them that defines our stories. Villains rarely see themselves as villains. At least the good ones don’t.
Writer and editor Jared Shurin put it well when he wrote that “grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists: whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, grimdark is ‘fantasy protestantism:’ characters have to choose between good and evil, and are ‘just as lost as we are.'” Yes, these kinds of stories are right up my alley.
But enough of my tastes. Grimdark doesn’t appear to have one definition a reader or writer can nail down. Enjoy it or not, it’s thematically in opposition to hopepunk. Well, what about noblebright, then? Surely it sits squarely in opposition to grimdark and in alignment with hopepunk. That’s what I thought when I set out to sort through these speculative fiction sub-genres. Well, the answer is both a resounding yes and a resounding no.
Noblebright, as author C. J. Brightley puts it, “exists to bring beautiful, fantastic, hopeful writing to the public, to provide a literary opposition to the forces of grimdark, and to remember the taste of strawberries.” Right there, noblebright is set as a foil to grimdark. So how can it fail to align with hopepunk, which seems to espouse the same exact ideals? It’s complicated. According to Rowland, hopepunk knows everything is impermanent and nothing is promised, whereas in noblebright, we can eventually win the fight and have a happy ending. The struggle continues vs. struggling and overcoming. Also in noblebright, Rowland contends that social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good. With hopepunk’s strong themes of resistance, noblebright just isn’t comparable.
So where did my musings lead me? I learned about two new sub-genres, for one, and may someday write in them. Then there’s the realization that noblebright and hopepunk, two optimistic sub-genres diametrically opposed to grimdark, don’t quite mix with each other. And, you know what? All this research and reading has got my brain spinning in different directions, so maybe it’s high time I pick up a few lighter works and read how the other side of the speculative fiction community sees things.
I still wish the mind-numbingly unoriginal trend of naming everything “punk” would die a quick and painful death, though. My punk fatigue is real.
Note: I’ve relied heavily on some online sources and articles for this blog post, and it would be wrong not to mention and list them. No, I’m not publishing anything or claiming original content beyond my own thoughts and spins, but I’d still feel a plagiarist if I didn’t point to my sources and admit they did the heavy lifting for me long since.