Hopepunk, grimdark, noblebright: Gautam Bhatia on new genres of storytelling
Where does speculative fiction go in a dystopia? New genres suggest that the most likely directions are upward and onward, through stories that champion hope and optimism, collective action, and the promise, at least, of a future less bleak.
Intro: Where does speculative fiction go in a dystopia? New genres suggest that the most likely directions are upward and onward, through stories that champion hope and optimism, collective action, and the promise, at least, of a future less bleak
In a 2014 interview with reviews blog The Book Smugglers, the fantasy writer Katherine Addison observed that the main character of her acclaimed novel The Goblin Emperor – Maia Drazhar – was someone “whose ethical compass could find true north and stick to it” and was placed in a narrative in which “compassion was a strength rather than a weakness.”
Addison saw The Goblin Emperor as a departure from her own previous work, which would now be characterised as “grimdark fantasy”, a style of speculative fiction marked by darkness, pessimism and cynicism.
In the eight years since the publication of The Goblin Emperor (2014), the book has come to be known as a prime example of a distinct sub-genre, what the writer Alexandra Rowland labelled “hopepunk” in 2017. This is a style that, in some ways, is the opposite of grimdark.
Labels are perilous things at the best of times, and the bewilderingly diverse world of contemporary speculative fiction resists easy taxonomy. Any attempt at classification will be necessarily incomplete, and more works will slip through the cracks than will nestle within our categories. At the same time, labels can be useful as an exercise in tentative cartography, outlining a map that is constantly revisable and allows the explorer to fill in their own details as they walk the path.
On this map, grimdark would be the eerie-looking forest of black clumps into which protagonists stumble, often with perilous or fatal consequences. Grimdark has been characterised by its origins (as a response to Tolkien-style epic fantasy, with its tropey clashes between good and evil), its tone (“gritty”, “realistic” etc), its worldview (“pessimistic”, “cynical”, “nihilistic”) and its characters (devoid of agency, or themselves cynical and power-hungry). A grimdark story may be one or all of these things, to varying degrees. An outstanding recent example that checks almost every box is Marlon James’s ongoing Dark Star Trilogy.
The world of the Dark Star Trilogy — explored so far in the two books Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) and Moon Witch, Spider King (2022) — is violent, amoral and worships power. Individual characters struggle within the web of constraints that this world imposes, powerless to change its fundamentals and able only to find fragile and transient moments of redemption.
The appeal of grimdark is easy to see. It offers catharsis in a dystopian real world, and acts as a mirror to that world. It is equally natural, however, for exhaustion with actually existing dystopia to translate into exhaustion with grimdark. This perhaps explains the recent proliferation of works that have entered the lexicon under the categories of “grimlight”, “hopepunk” and “noblebright” (noblebright, indeed, began as a borderline-parodic response to grimdark, and as the name suggests, hasn’t quite shed that association).
Of these, as its name suggests, grimlight (or grimbright) is only a partial departure from grimdark. While it retains grimdark’s basic aesthetic of a violent and amoral world and denies its protagonists the ability to significantly influence or transform it for the better, it nonetheless holds out the possibility of a (qualified) happy resolution for (some of the) characters, often at great sacrifice.
While it would be futile to attempt a definition of something as slippery as hopepunk, Addison’s observations are good pointers. The core of hopepunk is the acknowledgment and celebration of an ethical compass, and of action (sometimes individual, but often collective) that is grounded within that ethical compass.
In the words of Annalee Newitz, hopepunk’s characteristic feature is “an absence of apathy.” Indeed, Newitz’s 2019 novel, The Future of Another Timeline — in which two groups of time-travellers race to “edit” history, in ways that will ultimately alter the future of women — has many of the classic elements of hopepunk, including its recognition of collective action.
As Newitz is quick to warn, though, hopepunk is neither a sub-genre (as individual works can have elements of hopepunk, to different degrees) nor is it a guarantor of happy endings. The key lies in the word “hope”, which survives and flourishes, even in the absence of happiness.
If hopepunk is that rushing river on the fantasy map that the main characters must cooperate to get across (with who knows what waiting for them on the other side), then noblebright brings us to the grey havens. Here there be heroes and quests, some battles to test said heroes, some solid villains and perhaps the odd betrayal to make the quest worthwhile. And there will be a happy ending, of sorts, both for the world and for most of the heroes.
I have, of course, just described the plot structure of The Lord of the Rings, but what is important to note is that contemporary noblebright is neither quite as male nor quite as European as Tolkien’s legendarium.
For example, Bandits (2017) — a four-volume fantasy novel by the famous Chinese writer Priest, adapted as the TV drama series Legend of Fei (2020) — is set in an alternate-medieval China, with women constituting a good number of the protagonists. Indeed, wuxia, the martial-arts-driven sub-genre that Bandits belongs to, has a venerable history within the context of Chinese fantasy literature, going back 2,000 years.
While noblebright’s resolutions remain in the realm of the fantastic, “solarpunk” (again, the p-word) is more grounded in an alternative future than in an imagined past. Much like hopepunk emerged as a response to grimdark, solarpunk responds — although in a different way — to cyberpunk (the sub-genre that is still most easily identifiable by the 1984 William Gibson book that is supposed to have started it all, Neuromancer).
While cyberpunk takes a bleak view of the increasing role of technology in our lives, solarpunk views technology as a possible means of liberation. A good recent example is Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021), which imagines a world where the climate catastrophe has been tackled by a range of collective action, from reserving no more than a half of the world for human habitation to mycelia-based urban architecture.
Much of the “action” in A Psalm for the Wild-Built takes place through conversations between the two main characters, which might surprise speculative-fiction readers more used to high stakes and zero-sum outcomes. But one of the points of solarpunk is precisely that in a future egalitarian and collaborative world, what counts as “stakes” and what counts as “conflict” will itself have become altered.
Solarpunk speculative fiction, therefore, aims to build worlds that might represent future utopias (although, as solarpunk writers often underline, “utopia” does not necessarily indicate freedom from conflict).
Each of these contemporary speculative-fiction sub-genres has emerged as a response to our present social moment. Some contemporary criticism even accuses them of being not just a response but more or less reducible to the present moment, thereby simply reproducing instead of interrogating or challenging it. Recently, a podcast called Rite Gud coined the term “squeecore”, a style of speculative fiction reflecting contemporary neoliberalism. Squeecore is described as uplifting and didactic in tone, veering towards technocratic solutions to structural problems, and celebrating diversity without redistributing or reorganising power.
In response, critics have argued that squeecore is an under-determined term, and that the characteristics do not themselves fit into anything coherent enough to be called a literary movement or style. This only goes to show that the discussions of genres, sub-genres, labels and styles cannot escape a discussion of the political economy that underpins and informs all culture, including literary culture.
(Gautam Bhatia is editor of the Strange Horizons magazine, and author of the science-fiction novels The Wall and The Horizon)