The Ink Pot


Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Coined in 2017 as a response to grimdark, a subgenre of speculative fiction that depicts dystopian, violent, and amoral settings (think The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie), hopepunk is steadily gaining traction and popularity in the bookish community.

The current standout author of the genre is Becky Chambers, who has written the Hugo-award winning Wayfarers series and The Monk and Robot duology.


As such, her work informs many of my reasons why you should read more hopepunk and will be referenced frequently throughout this post. You can find her author website here.

A good hopepunk fiction celebrates the collective in the face of adversity. It denounces apathy and cynicism, uplifts resilience and equity, finds joy in acts of kindness, great and small, with loveable characters to boot. It lends itself most to science-fiction, often depicting ideas about sustainable tech, environmental stability, alternative socio-economic political systems, and inclusive, progressive cultures.

Many out there do not like it. In fact, they hate it.

Variously dismissed as overly sentimental, pious, or (my personal favourite) unrealistic, you don’t have to look very hard to find this subgenre’s critics. Take a charming quote from a review of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet on Goodreads: “this is just microaesthetics with marketing ambitions”.  Admittedly, a great turn of phrase. But in this post, I want to explore why this attitude is so harmful, and how hopepunk can fulfill an important niche in the ever-evolving world of speculative fiction.  

In a nutshell, hopepunk is so culturally vital because it gives us permission to envision a positive future for humanity. We have forgotten how to imagine worlds where humanity thrives, instead of survives (or simply dies). Hopepunk pushes boundaries and encourages diverse voices and perspectives to make good on that promise.

Let me give you a taste of what hopepunk books are like.

In Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, readers are shown a future centuries after humans left Earth through the eyes of four main characters living in the Exodus Fleet, a group of enormous spaceships (think Wall-E) where the last of humanity lives. Almost evoking a slice-of-life anime, we meander through these characters’ lives, watching over their shoulders as they go about their jobs, eat meals, face problems, resolve conflicts (some big, some small), and philosophize about purpose, success, and a life well-lived.

In Psalm for the Wild-Built, a non-binary Tea Monk stumbles across an ancient sentient robot in the wilderness asking the question: what does humanity need? The two characters travel around the land making tea and trying to figure out the answer to that question for the rest of the novella.

In The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, a few aliens are trapped together on a small spaceport after a satellite blows up in orbit.

These aliens include a giant beetle-millepede, a mix between a giraffe and a fluffy dog, tiny monkey-like beings, and a mouthless humanoid species that communicates through flashing colours on their cheeks. The entire book—some 350 pages—boils down to these characters trying really rather hard to be nice to each other, respect each other’s differences, and help each other out. All of Chambers’ work—and as a result, most of the authors pioneering this subgenre—are immersed in this blend of feel-good, inclusive, can-do outlook.

Taken at a surface level, what I’ve described could be considered twee, even tepid. Why should you read books that center such a no, please, after you! attitude? My answer: because if you dig beneath the surface, I believe where some people see naivety, you’ll see experimentation.

Think about how we culturally envision utopia and dystopia.

In broad strokes, we tend to think of goodness, grandeur, and purity as products of the past. The feeling behind the saying “ah, the good old days” permeates our art deeply. A lot of speculative fiction is rooted in some version of humanity’s past. Series like The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb or even The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson are sprawling epics that exhibit a sort of yearning for kingdoms of sword and sorcery that champion systems of honor, lineage, and fairness. Organizations like Medieval Times or The Renaissance Festival entice people to experience a fantasy of the past where revelry reigns. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are many stories that borrow from the past that are dark, dystopian, and twisted (do you think I’ve forgotten about grimdark)? But it’s undeniable that we remember howto envision the past as full of potential for good and hope before struggle.

On the flip side, so much of our vision for the future lies in the potential for evil and struggle before hope.

The Red Rising series by Pierce Brown imagines a dystopian future in which an enslaved person struggles and fights his way to power in an evil society, eventually questioning his methods as he presides over a still-broken future. Essential classics like The Handmaids Tale or 1984 explore nightmarish futures in which wretched versions of humanity preside over a broken world. And again, don’t get me wrong: these stories are essential and teach us important lessons. But ask yourself: how many of our imagined futures examine what it means to sacrifice and struggle for hope in a dark and twisted world, but end before something better can play out?

This is where hopepunk comes in: it dares us to envision worlds where humanity make different choices and, crucially, it describes the consequences.

A core theme of Chambers’ works is humanity’s collective agreement to do things like reject capitalism, abolish war, shut down oil and gas production, or otherwise prioritize the safety and future of the planet. But that’s not how it works! I hear you cry (and see you write on Goodreads). People just simply aren’t like that! Yet why not? Why not choose to envision a future based on collectivism, social equity, and progressivism without centering the story on struggle? Why not write about what it would be like if we didn’t have to work to live (see The Monk and Robot duology)? Why not philosophize about what would happen if a human fell in love with an AI (see The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet)

What critics of hopepunk disregard is the basic purpose of fiction: to imagine.

In a world where children grow up afraid to go to school, where elementary school students complete projects titled “How would YOU save this dying planet?”, where dreamers can’t dream because it costs $80k a year, where you live to work and work to live, where a hundred thousand other problems leave you bursting at the seams, hopepunk gives you permission to imagine.

And beyond that, it will make you feel good, if you let yourself be vulnerable. Whether you feel listless, directionless, depressed; whether you feel joyful, inspired, fresh: these books can be for you. Hopepunk does, at times, feel precious, sweet, clingy: but it’s unapologetic and it’s honest, and it eases the burden of that existentialism that weighs so many people down.

Do yourself a favour: go read some hopepunk.