Intro: Where does speculative fiction go in a dystopia? The new genres suggest that the most likely directions are upwards and forwards, through stories that champion hope and optimism, collective action and the promise of, at least, a less dark
In a 2014 interview with critics blog The Book Smugglers, 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 the 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 his own previous work, which would henceforth be labeled “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 become a prime example of a distinct subgenre, which writer Alexandra Rowland called “hopepunk” in 2017. C It’s 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 necessarily be incomplete, and more works will fall through the cracks than there will be in our categories. At the same time, labels can be useful as a tentative mapping exercise, outlining a map that is constantly revisable and allows the explorer to fill in their own details as they travel the path.
On this map, grimdark would be the eerie forest of black clumps through which the protagonists stumble, often with perilous or fatal consequences. Grimdark has been characterized by its origins (as an answer 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 grim story can be any or all of these things, in varying degrees. A notable recent example that ticks almost all the boxes is Marlon James’ ongoing Dark Star trilogy.
The world of the Dark Star Trilogy – so far explored in the two books Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) and Moon Witch, Spider King (2022) – is violent, amoral and worships power. The individual characters struggle within the web of constraints this world imposes, powerless to change its fundamentals and can only find fragile and fleeting moments of redemption.
Grimdark’s call is easy to see. It provides catharsis in a dystopian real world and acts as a mirror of that world. It’s just as natural, however, that exhaustion with an actually existing dystopia would result in 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-parody response to grimdark, and as the name suggests, hasn’t quite thrown away that association).
Of these, as its name suggests, grimlight (or grimbright) is only a partial departure from grimdark. While it retains grimdark’s core aesthetic of a violent and amoral world and denies its protagonists the ability to significantly influence it or transform it for the better, it nonetheless offers the possibility of a resolution. happy (qualified) for (some of) the characters, often at great sacrifice.
While it’s futile to attempt a definition of something as slippery as punk hopefulness, Addison’s observations are good pointers. The core of punk hope is the recognition and celebration of an ethical compass and the action (sometimes individual, but often collective) that is grounded in that ethical compass.
In the words of Annalee Newitz, the defining trait of punk hope is “an absence of apathy”. Indeed, Newitz’s 2019 novel The Future of Another Timeline – in which two groups of time travelers race to “edit” history, in a way that will ultimately alter the future of women – contains many classic elements of punk hope, including its recognition of collective action.
As Newitz is quick to caution, however, hope punk is neither a subgenre (as individual works may have elements of hope punk, to varying degrees) nor a guarantee of happy endings. . The key is in the word ‘hope’, which survives and thrives, even in the absence of happiness.
If punk hope is that river rushing across the fantasy map that the main characters must cooperate to cross (with who knows what awaits them on the other side), then noblebright brings us to gray heavens. Here there are heroes and quests, battles to test said heroes, solid villains, and maybe some weird betrayal to make the quest worthwhile. And there will be a happy ending, of sorts, both for the world and for most 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 as masculine nor as European as Tolkien’s legendary.
For example, Bandits (2017) – a four-volume fantasy novel by acclaimed Chinese writer Priest, adapted into the TV drama series Legend of Fei (2020) – is set in an alternate medieval China, with women making up a good number of the protagonists. . Indeed, wuxia, the martial arts-focused subgenre to which Bandits belong, has a venerable history in the context of Chinese fantasy literature, dating back 2,000 years.
While noblebright’s resolutions remain in the realm of fantasy, “solarpunk” (again, the p-word) is rooted more in an alternate future than an imaginary past. Just as hopepunk emerged as a response to grimdark, so solarpunk responds – albeit in a different way – to cyberpunk (the subgenre which is still most easily identified by William Gibson’s 1984 book which purports to started it all, Neuromancer).
While cyberpunk takes a dark view of the increasing role of technology in our lives, solarpunk sees technology as a possible means of liberation. A good recent example is A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021) by Becky Chambers, which imagines a world where climate catastrophe has been addressed through a series of collective actions, ranging from booking no more than half the world to human habitation with urban architecture based on mycelium.
Much of the “action” in A Psalm for the Wild-Built takes place through conversations between the two main characters, which might surprise readers of speculative fiction more accustomed 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 “issue” and what counts as “conflict” will itself be altered.
Speculative solarpunk fiction therefore aims to construct worlds that might represent future utopias (although, as solarpunk authors often point out, “utopia” does not necessarily indicate the absence of conflict).
Each of these subgenres of contemporary speculative fiction has emerged as a response to our current social moment. Some contemporary critics even accuse them of being not only a response but more or less reducible to the present moment, thus reproducing it instead of questioning or contesting it. Recently, a podcast called Rite Gud coined the term “squeecore,” a style of speculative fiction reflecting contemporary neoliberalism. Squeecore is described as an uplifting and didactic tone, veering towards technocratic solutions to structural problems and celebrating diversity without redistributing or reorganizing power.
In response, critics have argued that squeecore is an underdetermined term, and that the characteristics themselves do not correspond to anything cohesive enough to be called a literary movement or style. This only goes to show that discussions of genres, subgenres, labels and styles cannot escape a discussion of the political economy that underlies and informs all culture, including literary culture.
(Gautam Bhatia is editor of Strange Horizons magazine and author of the science fiction novels The Wall and The Horizon)