Hope Notes:
Rewriting the Future
By Susan Kaye Quinn
I was writing hopepunk before there was a word for it.

That’s not some hipster boast—I’m much more feminist nerd than cool kid—but my hopepunk journey of discovery seems to be a common one. I started with a vague dissatisfaction with common story structure amidst a changing world, searched for alt-storytelling techniques, wrote my angst into a few stories, then discovered the term hopepunk and adopted it like a long-lost child.

Many writers are feeling that dissatisfaction and embracing the idea (if not always the term).

So, what is hopepunk?
The term was coined in 2017 by Alexandra Rowland in a Tumblr post that went viral: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” They later elaborated that hopepunk weaponized compassion, embraced cooperation, and chose radical kindness as a rejection of a world bent on brutality.

Rowland in 2019: “Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.”

Rowland gifted us with the term, but I think they were responding (like many others) to an increasingly chaotic world: rising fascism, climate weirding, gun violence and end-stage capitalism. Once the pandemic started, many writers found themselves unable to write darker stories. The need to affirm how the world should be wasn’t just a coping mechanism, but a desire to shine a light on a path forward.

While world events seem to lurch toward Mad Max, 1984, and the Hunger Games—dystopias that were supposed to warn us, not provide instruction manuals—hopepunk insists that humanity’s natural state is not exploitation and extraction but compassion and community. Cooperation is our superpower: we could not have built our global society without cooperation at every scale.

Yet, somehow, we’ve structured a world that atomizes us into our lonely little cells, toiling to produce and consume our way to mutual destruction.

Hopepunk declares a wholesale restructuring is necessary not only to avoid the unfolding catastrophes but to re-center human flourishing. And the key is to change the stories we tell about ourselves: that kindness isn’t weakness, compassion builds cooperation, and how the demand for a more humane way of being is essential to a better future.

Hopepunk isn’t about utopian societies, but rather, a gut-level rejection of the idea that humans are relentlessly terrible, the end is nigh, and all that remains is the doomscrolling.

In a darkening world, intentionally choosing hope is very punk.

(Punk’s culture has always been a rejection of the establishment and exploitation. Hopepunk says the opposite of exploitation is compassion, healing, and community.)

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or decline from it. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans.” —Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

The future isn’t written—it’s rewritten, constantly, by changes in technology, climate, world events, but also what we think can happen. What’s inside the frame of possibility? What can we imagine? Imagination isn’t enough to conjure a better world, but if we literally can’t imagine it, we certainly can’t do it.

Melissa Aïnseba, in her thesis, Rewriting the Future: “…writers of hopeful climate fiction aim to rethink the world we live in—intertwining nature, people, technology, and the arts… Climate fiction is about reclaiming power and changing the system… It is a call for a diverse, powerful rewilding of stories and relationships, a call for a world in which all humans recognise their own potential in co-creating the future...” (Utrecht University, 2022)

Storytellers generally believe in the power of storytelling to reinforce—or disrupt—narratives about the world. What stories get told? Which voices get to speak? Who is kept quiet, told their viewpoints aren’t important? We’ve only begun to surface stories of the marginalized, but diversity of perspective is stitched into the DNA of hopepunk stories. The future needs all of us, working together.

As Ana Sun said in her brilliant essay about solarpunk (hopepunk’s older, eco-conscious cousin): “While activists fight tirelessly to expose malpractices and shift the Overton window, policymakers push for concrete changes, engineers and designers develop feasible technology, we need narratives to show us that a better world is possible, and how we might get there.”

This idea has been growing for some time. By 2022, hopepunk officially made it into the dictionary. “Hopepunk: a subgenre of speculative fiction and art that shows optimism, gentleness, kindness, and collaboration to be effective weapons in the fight to create a better future.”

It’s not wise to argue with the dictionary, but I’d posit that hopepunk is more a phenomenon than a subgenre. I’ll elaborate on that in a minute, but first, let’s tackle the elephant in the room: some folks are allergic to hope.
Is hope a four-letter word? (The Case for Hope)
Hope is a slippery word. We desperately want hope, but we’re terrified of getting our hopes up. Keeping hope alive is for chumps, children, and the naive. Pain, suffering, and betrayal are the best we can hope for.

“Despair is a black leather jacket that everyone looks good in. Hope is a frilly, pink dress that exposes the knees.” — Rebecca Solnit

We have a tangled relationship with this word.

(And not a small amount of trauma: A recent panel of hopeful speculative fiction authors discussed the blocks to hope; one of the things mentioned was the well-meaning adults trying to temper the hopes of young people and snuffing them out instead. Those kinds of scars don't fade.)

Early in my quest to understand hopepunk—as a term and an approach to storytelling—I discovered an academic presentation by Jasmin Kirkbride, Ph.D. student, which elucidated four roles “hope” played in fiction and climate activism:

•    hope as deceiver (false hope)
•    hope as object (optimism)
•    hope as sustainer (keeping hope alive in the face of adversity)
•    hope as catalyst (realistic hope that motivates change)

When someone criticizes hope in fiction, they often mean false hope, blind optimism, or stories they believe are unrealistic. Half-dragon shapeshifters are fine, but people choosing compassion strains belief!

Writers of hopeful stories, on the other hand, generally use hope as a sustainer or a catalyst: the gritty determination to carry on despite all odds or a fervent belief that the way forward starts with one compassionate act today.

Václav Havel, Czech dissident, writer and statesman: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”

CryptoNaturalist (poet Jarod K. Anderson): “Hope... is messy. If it might all work out, then we have things to do. We must weather the possibility of happiness.”

Activists of all kinds understand the vital purpose hope serves in change—and that the seductions of nihilism let us off the hook for the hard work of building a better world.

I see hope as an endorphin hack into the human psyche; hopeful fiction is an injection of biochemicals that opens our minds to unwritten futures and the imaginative blueprints of how to get there.

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine saving it.” — Rebecca Solnit

Hopepunk storytellers are trying to change that narrative.
Hopepunk by any other name...
From this understanding of the function of hope—in our brains, in our vocabulary, in our fiction—I see hopepunk as a broader phenomenon, an approach to storytelling, rather than a specific subgenre. And yet, some books are iconic examples of that subgenre: for example, Becky Chamber’s Hugo-award-winning Monk & Robot series. At the same time, I believe every writer engaging in hopeful storytelling is co-creating the genre as we go.

One framework that helps resolve this: consider hopepunk as comprised of ten aspects that may be present in a story. A story with 10/10 of the elements could safely be called hopepunk. One with only 5/10 might be hopepunkish, but not necessarily classed in the subgenre itself.

I’ve noticed over the last few years a movement toward more 5/10 stories popping up in the mainstream, mixing hopepunkish elements in with more standard story fare.

It is very exciting.

I have to caveat this hard because the following is my list, and I’m only one of the many people co-creating the genre/movement. Anyone curious about writing hopepunk (more on that soon!) should construct their own list and explore why those elements matter to them.
Sue’s List of 10 Elements of Hopepunk:
1.    weaponized optimism
2.    radical compassion
3.    communalism/teamwork rather than lone hero or “genius”
4.    cooperation/collaboration as a problem-solving technique rather than conflict/combat
5.    interdependence/connectedness rather than radical individuality/independence
6.    Gail Carriger’s Heroine’s Journey rather than Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (type of plot not gender)
7.    anti-dystopian: we don’t have to wait for the world to end to start fixing it
8.    restorative justice rather than revenge; we’re not defeating a bad guy, we’re reforming society to build a just world for everyone (diverse stories and characters)
9.    the fight for a better future never ends; we’re not slaying the dragon to return to the status quo, we’re befriending the dragon and changing the world
10.    gentle vibes: aesthetic of coziness, healing, wholesomeness, sustainability, choosing gentleness over violence
I put non-violence last because if some folks are allergic to hope, you should see how they feel about non-violence. Also: deep misogyny in our society codes almost everything on the list as feminine, and therefore weak, unintelligent, unserious, and unimportant... yet somehow also a threat that will “soften” civilization (an interesting threat, indeed).

I think this is the entire point of hopepunk: to threaten the status quo brutality of our world.

To be clear: I’m not saying that every story must be a hopepunk story, or that stories with lone heroes in violent conflicts that slay the dragon to return the world to the status quo are wrong. I’m saying we’ve had an abundance of those stories, especially the dystopian/post-apocalyptic version, and we need to bring some balance to the Force by making room for hopepunkish tales.

Which is exactly what I see happening: hopepunk is the vibe you’ve never heard of, yet it’s seeping into everything.

In the past, your average post-apocalyptic story might have had 2/10 hopepunk elements (with a tiny thread of hope saving you from utter despair; I’m looking at you, Snowpiercer), but new twists on post-apocalyptic shows like Station 11, Last of Us, and The Leftovers are closer to 5/10 in hopepunk elements: cooperative narratives, gentle vibes, emphasis on healing, teamwork, and compassion, even amidst some brutal landscapes or storylines.

Mainstream storytellers across mediums (short stories, books, TV, film, games) are rummaging around in the hopepunk bin and coming up with fresh twists. Hopepunk elements like “cooperative plot line” or “character who chooses radical compassion” enliven these stories and endear the audience.

In other words, hope is popular. Just don’t call it hopepunk.

Sweet Weird. Solarpunk. Utopias. Hopeful Sci-Fi. Optimistic climate-fiction. New Mythos.

These hopepunk-adjacent terms all nibble at the edges of the broader idea, but to me, the name is less important than the phenomenon. The inability to pin down exact subgenre definitions is a signal: this thing is big and is being co-created by a lot of folks in a bunch of variations. I strive to write all the elements on my list, but not necessarily in every story. I like seeing hybrid mainstream stories sprinkle a little hopepunk on everything. Expanding our narrative choices is how we rewrite the future.

Again, I want to emphasize that darker, dystopian, even grimdark stories still have (and will always have) a place. Both horror and hopepunk are rising in popularity, and I think that’s connected: both are reactions to anxieties about the world. Horror viscerally grabs your attention and releases different neurochemicals, reassuring us there are worse things than what we see in the news. Different people access hope in different ways because we’re all unique weirdos slumping along in this dizzying transition time. What works is what works, and if horror fiction is what keeps the real horrors at bay for you, carry on. But for many people, what works is a little (or a lot) of hopepunk smeared all over their fiction.
Okay, where can I find these hopepunkish stories?
I’ve compiled a short list of representative examples in short stories, novels, film, TV, and even games. O.E. Tearmann has a more extensive list of novels, anthologies, non-fiction and podcasts.

Becky Chambers’ novels are often held up as hopepunk. Her Monk & Robot series has close to 10/10 hopepunk elements, notably a very cozy vibe. Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopic near-future climate-fiction Ministry for the Future is likewise called hopepunk, and it’s a ground-breaking work, but less cozy, more focused on the path to a future that avoids apocalypse.

Disney’s Strange World is what a 10/10 hopepunk climate story looks like on the screen. This video review of Strange World dives deep into how it directly critiques the hero’s journey: the characters literally take a break to play a cooperative board game that baffles the older generation. And that’s not a throw-away: it’s explicitly stating the theme.

I should mention that my Gen Z kids are amazed there’s a word for these cooperative-storyline tales since cooperation is the culture in which their generation swims. This is another reason I believe hopepunk is a movement, a cultural shift already embodied in a younger generation that’s grown up in the polycrisis and is adapting ahead of the rest of us.

Examples with fewer but still strong hopepunk elements: Free Guy is a heroine’s journey movie about (literally) building a community; Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has a captain whose superpower is empathy; Stray is a game where the entire thing is a cat vibing its way through the post-apocalyptic landscape (hint: you’re the cat).

The YouTube channel Our Changing Climate has a video, Why We Need Utopias, that talks about the political underpinnings of these hopepunk-adjacent stories: “The story is a powerful tool, one that harnesses the future to create change in the present.” (Full disclosure: they discuss my story Seven Sisters, which placed in Grist’s contest Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. I encourage people to submit to the contest and check out their call for solarpunk.)

When I started writing my near-future hopepunk climate-fiction series, Nothing is Promised, in the depths of Summer 2020, I was trying to build my own raft—something to help me stay afloat amid the chaos of the pandemic, civil unrest, and climate wilding—and to find a plausible way forward, something I could believe was possible. The books have the near-future climate solutions of Ministry for the Future and the gentle vibes of Monk & Robot, even though I only discovered those works afterward. What I found when I released the first novel was that readers were looking for those things too.

I recently completed that series and spent the last year exploring the genre with short fiction (my hopepunk story, The Joy Fund, is published in DreamForge). Now I’m working on the screenplay for a TV pilot: it has the near-future climate crisis of Extrapolations but with solutions as well as problems, and the tense drama of The Diplomat but with a hopepunk vibe of cooperation fighting against the cut-throat politics.

Screenwriting is a long-odds venture, and the WGA strike will determine if screenwriters even have viable careers going forward, but none of this (for me) is about career or money or fame.

I write these stories because I believe in something much more powerful: that stories matter. That the tales we tell shape what we think is possible. And because storytelling is what I do, and I want to put my skills in service of building a better world.
What if I want to write hopepunk?
Welcome, my friend! But I should warn you: this is harder than it looks.

Ursula K. Le Guin spoke to this long ago, saying it was easier to tell the story of the hunter than the gatherer, and that was a limit we should overcome (1986: Carrier Bag of Fiction): “I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Who ever said writing a novel was easy?”

I think of hopepunk as a mod to the (unsexy) structural underpinning of storytelling (see my journey here). What does the infrastructure of connection actually look like? Why does the real world push us to live separately and “independently” when the reality of the world is wild interconnection? When interdependence is how we survive best?

The first step to writing hopepunk is to understand that the Hero’s Journey structure (call to adventure-quest-return) is just one option, and a very Western viewpoint at that. Check out Kishōtenketsu structure (intro-development-twist-conclusion), a classic in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean narratives for contrast. Then dive into the Heroine’s Journey (descent-search-ascent) to see how we’ve been using alternate structures in Western storytelling all along, but mainly in romance, comedy, cozy mysteries, and stories with group casts. I recently watched A Man Called Otto, and it’s so thoroughly heroine’s journey, I couldn’t help but shout at the screen (my husband is used to this by now).

Change is already happening.

The next step is to find hopepunk and solarpunk stories you like. Reading is key to banishing biases about these stories, so you can see their possibilities.

Then make your own list of hopepunk elements. Use it to critique the stories you’ve written and to explore the ones you’d like to write. Short fiction is a vibrant ecosystem of hopepunk and solarpunk, partly because novel publishers are still warming up to the idea, but also because short fiction is a cauldron of innovation. In 2022, Neil Clarke (EIC of Clarkesworld) said at Confluence that short fiction is the future of novels: what you see in short fiction now will be in novels five years hence.

I can only hope.

If you only pluck one or two elements from the hopepunk bin to twist up your stories, I count that as a win. We should always be examining our storytelling, critiquing our assumptions, asking what stories are not getting told: hopepunk is a lens through which you can do that for any story.

The climate crisis is teaching us that “we’re in this together” isn’t a slogan but a statement of reality. As this analysis of Tomorrowland rightly points out, doomerism creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Fifty years of dystopian movies has created a doom loop... but it’s one we’ve already started to break.

“You have to believe me,” George Clooney's character in Tomorrowland says, that he knows the future is doomed.

“Why? Don't we make our own destiny and stuff?” the younger character replies. And when she does, she breaks the doom loop.

I wish it were that simple.

But, in a way, it is.

We’ve seen so many depictions of a wasteland hellscape where brutality wins the day, and it speaks to what people experience in the real world. It’s not that violence doesn’t exist—it’s that brutality is the exception, not the norm. It’s destructive of civilization, not building of it. For every impulse to destroy, there’s the instinct to tend-and-befriend coming along to heal the wounds, rebuild the homes, and care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. If we didn’t have these tendencies—deeply coded in our social species—we wouldn’t still be here. If we want to rewrite the future and banish the doom-cycle, we need to remember we have an instinct to help.

That movement started before we had a name for it—hopepunk is bubbling up everywhere because we need it. Humans are wildly inventive and adaptable, and sometimes those things hurt us, but our instinct to work together saves us. Every time. One man’s tiny solar DIY project or one woman’s guerilla planting of seeds inspires countless others, feeds a movement, builds a revolution. Stories that marry individual initiative to collective action show us how we get out of this: together.

Hopepunk stories remind us who we are. I hope you’ll write one.

DreamForge Anvil © 2023 DreamForge Press
Rewriting the Future © 2023 Susan Kaye Quinn