January 14, 2019 / 3 comments
Alexandra Rowland on hopepunk, grimdark, story and imagination
“It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though”. These are the words of fantasy author Alexandra Rowland, whose novel ‘A Conspiracy of Truths’ was published late last year. The quote captures the essence of an idea, a genre, which she coined, called ‘hopepunk’. Fantasy and sci-fi is a world rich in different genres, but as soon as I read how she described what the term meant to her, I realised she had important things to contribute to our ongoing discussion about imagination, in particular to the question of how our storytelling can help to bring to life in the here and now the kind of future we want to create. Are you ‘hopepunk’? You’re about to find out. I started our fascinating conversation by asking her to tell me what hopepunk means, and how the term came about:
“Initially it was actually kind of a joke post on Tumblr. It was just something that sort of popped into my head and I put it online and I didn’t really think about it. The entirety of the post, the first post, was “the opposite of grimdark is hopepunk, pass it on”.
People started responding saying, “I think I know what this means but I’m not sure. Can you give us a little bit more information about it?” And I started really thinking about it and going like, “Oh, actually this is something I deeply believe in.” If you’re not familiar with grimdark first of all, it’s a sub-genre of fantasy where it sort of assumes that when it comes to human nature, the glass is half empty and that everyone has a core of malice and greed and selfishness and that entropy is real and that entropy is succeed in the end. That we are in a kind of decline, as it were, and that evil will more often triumph over good because evil has fewer moral qualms about taking action than good does.
Hopepunk responds to this to say, “I don’t agree with that. I think the glass is neither half empty nor half full. There’s water in the glass and that’s important.” It says that people are petty and cruel and mean, but also people are amazing, and that our communities are capable of incredible things, and that we all as much as we have that core of malice and evil, we also have a huge capacity to do good and to take care of each other and to make the world a better place.
Hopepunk is about fighting for a better future and taking action and doing radical kindness. A lot of times people want to soften it, and think that it is about fluffy self-care, and that’s certainly a part of it, but I want to emphasise that ‘punk’ is the operative half of the word hopepunk. It’s about actively taking action – that doesn’t make a lot of sense but there you have it – and standing up against authority and being the person to stand up for people who are being marginalised or oppressed, or hurt by people in authority.
When you think of that term, people listening to this, or reading this, what would be examples that they would have come across of that that they can go, “Oh, she means like…”
Gandhi is the first one that pops into my head. Especially with the incident at the Dharasana salt works where Gandhi led hundreds or thousands of people up to the salt factory, and they knew that they were going to be beaten down and they just kept calmly walking up. Non-violent resistance is definitely a part of hopepunk.
So many artists and legendary figures are also hopepunk. John Lennon, Robin Hood, Harriet Tubman. All of these amazing historical figures who have looked at a terrible atrocity that was happening around them and said, “I’m going to say something about it or I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to potentially put myself in the line of fire to get it done because this is important.”
In what ways is the concept of utopia helpful, and in what ways is the concept of utopia unhelpful?
Not to do too much self-promotion, but I do want to mention I talk a lot about the concept of false utopias on an episode of my podcast. It’s Episode 1 of Be the Serpent. In that one we discuss how utopia is not a stable system. It’s something that you can achieve for five moments or an hour, but utopia as it’s classically understood requires humans to give up being fully human. It requires us to give up being selfish and greedy, and that’s something that I think we can choose to do consciously, but it is baked into our bones and we’re never going to fully escape it.
We’re never going to fully achieve utopia. That said, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying. It’s something that we should always, always be striving for, with the realisation that we’re never going to quite reach it. The asymptote approaches zero, but never meets it because, like I said, human nature contains both the capacity for good and evil and utopia requires people to be just good.
To be just taking care of each other. To be not having a bad day and snapping at something because if you go home and you snap at your spouse, then suddenly your spouse isn’t in utopia anymore. Utopia implies perfect happiness for everyone. The other problem with utopia is that so much of our society is based on the exploitation of people beneath us. Whether that is people from marginalised groups, or people who have less economic privilege than we do, and to have a perfect utopia, we have to have a utopia for all of us.
A lot of people today would say that we already are living in a utopia because these are the people who have incredible amounts of power, who never have to worry about anything, and who don’t mind particularly that there are millions of people beneath them who are suffering, and being exploited and living through the apocalypse as it were.
I don’t really read fantasy books or fiction books very much so I’ve never come across the term grimdark before, but it seems to beautifully capture something that’s really rampant in our culture. Why is that do you think? As somebody who reads more of that, and has read I presume over a period of time, that kind of fiction, have you seen a rise of grimdark over that time, and if so, why do you think that is?
I think that we’re actually in a current decline of grimdark. As an example, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and A Song of Ice and Fire series are a perfect example of grimdark.
I hated them.
He’s an amazing author from a technical standpoint. Grimdark doesn’t speak to me personally. I think that a lot of times when we see trends in literature – the rise of grimdark really started in the 80s and 90s, and then it peaked in 2000 or so and has been falling off since then – I think that it’s in response to the culture.
When we’re in a period of more stability, where things are more okay, then the literature and the stories that we tell remind us that things are not okay, and that we always have to be on guard against these more negative parts of human nature. When the society around us is crumbling, when it seems like climate change is very real and the apocalypse is coming any day now, and that I might not live to see 50, the response there is again to tell stories that go against what’s currently happening to remind us that this might be happening but it’s not guaranteed, and that there is an alternative, and that we need to keep thinking in different ways and telling stories and remembering the other side of the coin.
So when life starts getting maybe a bit too easy, or we start feeling more optimistic, the grimdark brings in a bit of balance, and when we get into the Trump age, we need the hopepunk. So they both act as a counterweight to us getting too carried away?
That’s my theory at least. That’s what I have noticed from my own perceptions. I don’t have a lot of science to back it up, but yeah, I have the feeling that we storytellers do a lot of, “This too shall pass.”
What for you is the role of fantasy and science fiction in helping us in the real world to change the future and our expectations of it?
Science fiction, fantasy, horror as well, all the speculative genres, do a lot to think about worlds that could be. In literary fiction I see a lot of people writing about the world that is and that is also a very important thing to do. As a science fiction and fantasy author I look ahead and I examine what we could have, as I said before, and the world that we could have.
For example, in my fantasy books one thing that I am doing very consciously is to write fantasy books without homophobia or without assuming homophobia. There may be times when I examine it in a little bit more depth, but the fantasy novels that I have currently written now all exist in a world where queer people are just accepted. Just because that’s the world that I want. I want people to be able to live the lives that they choose, and love the people that they love. And have adventures slaying dragons while they’re doing it, you know?
Everyone deserves those kinds of stories just as much as anyone else does. Telling stories are the ways that we get those stories for people in real life.
Given the possibility that on the other side of this dystopian hump is the most amazing the future that we all dream of, what advice would you give to people who want to be able to tell the stories of that possible future in the best way they can? How can we become the best storytellers of the near future that we could create? A future where it turned out okay?
The first part is loving yourself and I mean this in a different way than most people do. Because when you love yourself, it’s okay for you to make mistakes, and it’s okay for you to accept and forgive yourself for making mistakes. Once you have done that, then it makes it a lot easier for you to approach the parts of yourself where you have made mistakes, or where you have hurt people, or where you have espoused a viewpoint of the world that has contributed to racism or misogyny or classism or other things that make the world a little bit more shitty.
Living in the society that we do, those things have been forced upon us by default. Those are the stories that we have been told before, and one of the wonderful things that’s happening now is that we’re getting so many people speaking out against it and telling stories about how racial micro-aggressions have affected them personally, how homophobia has affected them personally, and really getting a platform to shout about it and to make their voices heard for the first time in history. Which is fantastic, but the lash back is that now a lot of people feel that… for example, my family is extremely white, is extremely, extremely white, and I recently estranged myself from an aunt because I accused her of being a racist.
That was the worst possible thing that I could have done to her, is just to call her a word to describe her behaviour. It was a true word, and it was accurate for what she was doing, but instead of taking a step back and looking at her actions and thinking critically about her actions, she decided that the word itself was the terrible thing. The word itself was worse than her actions were. That’s an example of the sort of power that stories have, when just one word can completely tear down someone’s day.
But we live in a racist society and all of us have internalised some of that and we need to be doing whatever we can to look inside ourselves and to do the hard personal work of untangling our biases and reprograming our minds to get rid of this toxic thing that has been imposed on us by the society that we live in. That requires accepting that we can screw up, and it requires accepting that we’re going to screw up again, and screwing up is okay if you then take the time to learn from your mistakes and try not to do that again. That’s really, really hard if you don’t love yourself while you’re doing it, because you tear yourself down and it’s not fun and it doesn’t feel good. If you don’t love yourself then you’re constantly in a position of defending yourself and trying to convince yourself that you should be loved, and that also doesn’t put you in a good position to be vulnerable to other people.
Going back to your original question I think that’s the key. We have to learn how to be more vulnerable to each other. We have to learn how to be kinder to each other and we have to do the hard work of looking inside ourselves to see how we haven’t been kind to ourselves and how we haven’t been kind to other people as well. Mapping that on to storytelling then is quite an easy next step. Once we can be doing that for ourselves and for the people around us it makes it easier to tell stories about people doing the same thing.
One of the things James McKay said when I interviewed him was that people find dystopian visions of the future much easier because they’re more exciting. There’s more drama in dystopian stories because things go wrong and people fight with each other and actually to tell stories about a future where it turned out okay and a world of solar panels isn’t quite as exciting as a world of fracking. How do we make a utopian future more exciting than a dystopian one? More interesting? More compelling as a narrative than a dystopian one?
Sure, I think that’s really easy and now we’re going to get into some sort of writing craft advice here. Because the thing that makes stories exciting is stakes, and when there are big stakes, when there’s lots of drama, that’s obviously very exciting. There are absolutely ways to work in stakes to utopian fiction. Solar panels might not seem as sexy as something dramatic and loud like fracking but I think that in the right hands it’s about how you approach it and it’s about how you frame it.
If I were going to tell a story like that (the genre people use there is ‘solarpunk’, where punk is a little bit more of an aesthetic choice rather than an operative half of the word). Solar panels break. Solar panels can be stolen. It’s still a resource that people are using. If you think about it in the way as any other resource, we talk about solar power being a renewable resource but we still need that tool between us and the resource. It’s not something that we can just directly put our hands on and use. We need a way to convert it.
So if your tools break, then that’s stakes. If your tools are taken from you, that’s stakes. Suddenly you are in a position of mortal danger again where your very lifestyle is being threatened, where your life is being threatened. One of the reasons that people have possibly felt like utopian fiction isn’t as sexy as grimdark is because the writers who are writing about those futures want the softness so badly that they forget that they have to make their characters earn it. Just like we ourselves have to earn it by fighting for it. If you want to write a story with that kind of theme, then put your characters through hell first. Because utopia is all about the happy ending right?
Just to bring another literary genre into it, romance novels do this amazingly, amazingly well, because one of the requirements of a romance novel that defines it as a romance novel is that everyone gets a happily ever after, or at least a happy for now. But that doesn’t make romance novels boring, it makes them super, super exciting because romance authors have figured out how to make their characters earn that happy ending. It’s not something they just get handed. It’s something that they always have to fight for.
It’s something that they have to earn. It’s something that they have to do the personal work and personal growth in order to achieve it, otherwise it’s impossible. It’s something that they have to fight for just as much as characters in a fantasy novel have to fight the dark overlord and defeat him. And it has resulted in romance novels being one of the biggest – sorry, I think the biggest – and most lucrative genres in the industry. Which is definitely nothing to sniff at.
So you’ve unleashed this thing, where has it gone? Where has it taken root? How have you seen it spread? What’s its impact been?
It’s kind of weird and surreal man. I never expected it to be going this far. There was the article on Vox.com of course. I was asked to be on NPR to talk about it which, yeah, was really incredible. I had a wonderful time. That was one of the most fun things that I’ve done.
Starting last January it started getting talked about on panels at science fiction and fantasy conventions. I was invited to Arisia, which is a convention in Boston, to talk about hopepunk on a panel there. And last year – I want to say there were between six and ten panels about hopepunk or hopeful fiction at conventions all across the country and I think one or two abroad as well, which has been amazing. It’s definitely seems it’s getting some mainstream traction now.
People are starting to hear about it. I’ve seen a couple of celebrities re-blog my One Atom of Justice, One Molecule of Mercy post, which is very weird and surreal. Yeah. So it seems like it is something that is really resonating with a lot of people, and that makes me so grateful and so hopeful for the future because this is something that clearly is singing to people’s hearts in a way that makes their hearts sing back in harmony.
You’ve said that “being kind is a political act”. Do you see that as a rising thing? Do you see that in the politics that people are increasingly turning to now? Is that a growing part of our political mix do you think?
Oh yeah. I absolutely think so. Just the amount that I have seen people get more politically active in the last year has been amazing. I want to point out that kindness doesn’t necessarily mean softness. Kindness can mean standing up for someone who’s being bullied. If someone has a gun to your friend’s head, punching the guy with the gun is an act of kindness because you’re saving someone through that. So kindness is not always soft.
Kindness is not necessarily passive. Kindness is something that you can go out and fight for. Going to a protest, if you frame it in a particular way, is an act of kindness because you’re doing something for the future. You’re contributing to the future. You’re putting more good in the world is I think how I would define doing kindness. If you see someone being shouted at by a bigot on the subway, just standing up for them and having their back is an act of kindness.
And being kind also is something that requires so much bravery sometimes. And so much willpower and self-certainty, and being aware of who you are and seizing an opportunity when it happens, because sometimes these opportunities are so brief and it’s something we only see a glimpse of. If you’re not prepared to jump on it right away, then it can pass you by. And on the other hand you have to be careful of jumping on it too soon because there are people who don’t necessarily want help. It is this balancing act between helping immediately but also knowing when to step back and keep your hands off because someone else is also competent and has got a handle on it.
There’s a question that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed for this book, which is, “If it had been you who had been elected as the President of the US in 2016 and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ – recognising the need to really bring this radical imagination to the fore front in education, in public life, in home life, in policy making, in everything, and if you had been elected with that as your political platform, what might you do in your first 100 days in the Oval office?
I have three things. To make America imaginative again, first of all, children are the future. That’s not a cliché, that’s something that’s absolutely true. We need to be doing so much more for them. We need to be giving them the best possible education that we can. We need to be funding schools so much better than we are, both in terms of paying teachers, making sure that teachers have the supplies that they need, making sure that the school buildings themselves are safe for children, and are fostering an environment of creativity and learning.
This is something that would take longer than 100 days, but I think that we need to revamp the whole way that we approach education with children, because the way that we educate children now is very much about preparing them to be factory workers and increasingly that is not how the future is shaping up to be. The more and more we automate factory production, the less we’re going to need people who are used to sitting in one place doing something tedious for hours and hours and hours at a time. We need people who can think more critically and who can look at the world around them and do the jobs that machines will never be able to do. The current system of education that we have is not something that can ever, ever accomplish that. That needs to be completely turned down and restructured.
But in the meantime in the first 100 days, just give teachers a lot more money. There’s stages we can do this. Short term goals, long term goals. With the tools that we currently have available, let people do the best possible job that they can with them, and then get them better tools while they’re working on that.
The second thing that I would do is to funnel a lot more money into the arts. We can be doing a lot more to support artists, to support the accessibility of art to the vast majority of America because there’s so many people who don’t get art in their daily lives. That’s so important to them. There’s that protest song from ages and ages ago called Bread and Roses. It’s a fantastic song. “Give us bread, but give us roses”. We need the essentials to survive, we need bread, but we also need beauty in our lives as well. Just making art more accessible to people.
When I say art a lot of people will think of museums or what is held in privilege and prestige by a very, very small percentage of the population, which are the white people in power. But I mean art as something that everyone can do, something that everyone has access to, something that is a vibrant and lively expression of their culture. We need to be funding spaces for that to happen, to give people places to express themselves.
And then the third thing – I think I have a fourth thing after this as well – we need to keep funding the big government institutions that are imagining the future as well, specifically NASA. NASA has been doing so much to encourage technology and to encourage thinking in the very, very long term. They are looking out into space and now we’re exploring Mars which is incredible. We are capable of doing so many amazing, amazing things if we start thinking that they might be possible. If we’re willing to take a chance on them. We’re going to pay for this by taxing the shit out of all the rich people by the way. Yay.
In Ireland they have a thing where artists don’t have to pay tax…
Yeah, I think they still have that. That was the fourth thing that I was going to say. Completely revamping the way that we approach taxing the people who are creating art. I think they still have that in Ireland don’t they? Artists can apply for a waiver on their income tax goals.
Right now I, as a freelance author, I have to pay self-employment tax and that’s really high. I would love to have more of that money. The people that are creating art should have less of a reason to pay for the art that they’re doing. They should be paid for their work rather than having to pay for the privilege of being an artists.
You said in the article that I read of yours, “First you must understand that everything is stories.” I wonder if you could just expand on what you mean by that?
Oh my god, I would love to expand on that! First of all go buy by book, ‘A Conspiracy of Truths’… I’m joking. I just said that the childhood human brain is designed to absorb information as quickly as possible. What that is, is pattern recognition. That’s what we’re doing. Stories are just patterns put in words.
You look at the night sky and instead of seeing a random scattering of stars, your brain wants to impose order upon it. You draw constellations out of nothingness. You look at a random movement of caribou and you impose a story on that too. I just read an amazing article about the reason that we as humans used oracular devices, like tarot cards or casting the bones or reading the entrails, and it’s because randomness is something that can be very, very useful in a pre-industrial society. The world is random and sometimes we need to think in a random kind of way, but the human brain doesn’t want to. The human brain is all about order and structure.
We impose as much order and structure on the world around us as possible, and draw stories out of nothingness. We frame history as a story rather than as the actions of people because it’s easier to comprehend and to understand when framed as a story. Economics is a story. Money is a story. You look at a dollar bill and you ask yourself what is this? This is a piece of paper and ink and a story. Just paper and ink do not have an inherent value, right? Other than maybe a couple of pennies, which are also a story.
You can’t even talk about stories without talking about stories. But you’re looking at a dollar bill and it’s ink and paper and a story, and the story is the valuable part. Story is the part that says, “This is worth one candy bar.” Everything that we do, the civilisation that we have, the rules of politeness and etiquette are also just a story that we’re telling each other so that it’s possible for us to live in such close and huge communities with each other without going completely crazy and murdering each other.
Because if there’s rules then there’s a game that we can all play together, and we can all play pretend and have the civilisation and not devolve immediately into going completely crazy and killing all of each other. So, yeah, the whole world is made out of stories because that is the default tool that any human uses to understand the world around us.