Inside science fiction’s compassionate revolution
The science fiction and fantasy genre, which concerns itself so frequently with distant stars and imaginary lands, has become a space in which the prominence of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people most closely mirrors real-world America.
That might surprise those who recently saw the field rocked by a right-wing movement that rebelled against an imaginary liberal bias in subject matter and the increasing diversity of the writers in its awards pool.
But the 2019 nominees for the genre’s prestigious Hugo Awards have been announced, and they are inarguably the most representationally progressive group of authors and creators in the history of the award.
The Hugos recognize excellence in 20 categories, but four of them—Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, and Best Short Story—are considered the highest honors given at the ceremony, which takes place annually at the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. Of the 22 authors nominated in those categories in 2019, only two are cisgender men. The six nominees for Best Novel are five women and one transgender man. Writers of Black, Asian, and Indigenous descent are represented throughout the ballot. The Best Long-Form Editor category is made up entirely of women, and also there are more women than men nominated for the Best Related Work category, which includes nonfiction about the field.
Just four years ago, two highly organized campaigns known as the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies successfully gamed the system to nominate a whiter, straighter, more male and more politically conservative slate of authors. That resulted in several categories being dominated by authors and works that Hugo voters found wholly unacceptable. Rather than choose from among the Puppies’ chosen candidates, voters took the dramatic step of refusing to issue an award to anyone in those categories at the 2015 convention.
Some, including both lifelong WorldCon attendees and the Puppies themselves, believed taking that step would have disastrous long-term effects for the credibility of the Hugos.
“That’s so weird to me,” writer Alexandra Rowland said, “because I was there, and I was witnessing this incredible moment of love and community.”
The voters’ solidarity with marginalized creators, along with changes to the nomination and voting rules, led to significant progress. The Puppies tried to hijack the nominations for two more years before finally fading away. In 2018, almost every category of the Hugos were won by women, including N.K. Jemisin, who became the first person ever to win the Hugo for Best Novel three years in a row. Before Jemisin, no Black person of either gender had ever won the top award.
Then came this year’s historic collection of nominees, which are notable not just for the elevation of a more diverse field of storytellers, but for the specific type of story that many of them represent.
Rowland coined the term “hopepunk” on a whim in a 2017 Tumblr post, having no idea that it would catch on so strongly within the community. She defined it initially as “the opposite of grimdark,” referring to a popular dystopian subgenre characterized by nihilism, amorality, and a negative view of human nature. Hopepunk, in contrast, is optimistic about humanity and sees kindness as “an act of rebellion” against a power structure that benefits from people giving up on compassion.
In an essay for the Winter 2019 issue of The Stellar Beacon zine, Rowland expanded on hopepunk, emphasizing the resistance element. Unlike another subgenre dubbed “noblebright”—characterized by the belief that righteous heroes can and will prevail over wicked villains—hopepunk does not deny the inherent injustices of the real world. However, it also recognizes the potential for justice within humanity. Compassion and empathy are weapons in the eternal fight between good and evil within the human heart. Hopepunk acknowledges that that fight will never be won, but insists on fighting anyway, because, as Rowland wrote, “the fight itself is the point.”
In this sense, hopepunk is subtler and less rigid than other subgenres. “You can find it, or not find it, wherever you look,” Rowland said. In her mind, it has grown beyond the confines of genre altogether. “This isn’t something that we necessarily just have to keep to fiction,” she said. “This is something that we can embody and live up to in our day-to-day lives.”
The idea of hopepunk as an ideology has roots in the idea that humanity defines itself through storytelling, an idea that Rowland thinks about often and explores in works like her novel A Conspiracy of Truths, in which a storyteller accidentally wreaks havoc on an entire nation.
“We tell stories to model ways of behavior so that we can live in communities together and have civilization together as a cooperative thing,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that hopepunk is something so many people are responding to with such hunger and eagerness, because this is the story that they’ve been lacking.”
If the 2019 Hugos are any indication, hopepunk is indeed on the rise. In addition to Rowland’s own nomination for her podcast, Be the Serpent, numerous works on the new ballot can be considered hopepunk.
The NBC television show The Good Place has been nominated twice for the second straight year. James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse was nominated for Best Series in 2017, and its television adaptation just received its second nomination. Janelle Monae’s short film Dirty Computer is about an android’s struggle for sexual freedom despite attempts to force her into programmed heterosexuality, while Becky Chambers, who writes philosophical science fiction about culture and compassion, is once again up for Best Novel for Record of a Spaceborn Few. Several nominated writers participated in The Verge’s Better Worlds project, which published science fiction writers with hopeful themes, including Kelly Robson, Rivers Solomon, and Justina Ireland. Perhaps most interestingly, the fan fiction website Archive Of Our Own has been nominated, legitimizing a form of writing that has long been treated as an embarrassment, but which has been fertile ground for hopepunk fiction since before the term was coined to describe it.
“We’re getting better,” Rowland said. “This would not have happened five years ago, certainly not 10 or 15 years ago. As bad as the world seems, the arc of the universe bends toward justice.”