Reading Adult SF/F: Hopepunk

I’ve been wanting to branch out further into adult science fiction and fantasy for a while. Currently, most of what I read would be considered YA and I want to say there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t want to branch out into adult sf/f because I think its somehow better than YA. There are things that YA simply does better; that’s why I read so much of it. For one, YA is considerably more diverse than adult sf/f (at least when it comes to what is traditionally published). There are more female writers in YA (which comes from bias and gender discrimination more than anything else, but it is still true). And, in my experience, YA tends to be more hopeful.


I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for a very long time. See, my parents are geeks and I was exposed very early in life to things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dungeons and Dragons. I was raised on movies like Dragonheart, Conan the Barbarian, and Red Sonya and tv shows like Xena, Star Gate, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But my parents didn’t read a lot. I did, however, have a favorite uncle that did read and he read a lot. And his library was, to a limited degree (he kept me away from things not age appropriate until I was older) was open to me.


I read Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, Anne McCaffery, dozens of Forgotten Realms stories by various authors, and David Eddings. My uncle is the one that bought me my Harry Potter books. He bought me Eragon and Tamora Pierce and whatever else would catch my fancy.


But during high school, I stopped reading physical books. I turned to fanfiction. There were things I was searching for that I just wasn’t finding in published books but that I did find online. Predominately, that missing thing that I couldn’t articulate was that I just wasn’t finding myself in published work. I was an angsty teenage girl that was questioning my sexuality and life in general. I couldn’t find myself in the sf/f stories I was used to reading.


Eventually, when I started reading traditional stories again, I found myself reading YA. There were female characters, and queer characters, and characters that reminded me of myself. Meanwhile, every adult sf/f novel I tried to read was just a disappointment that I ended up not liking. My uncle tried but the things he gave me were either very Straight White Male, or they were far too dark than I was wanting to read (Game of Thrones. I hated the ASOIAF books). Grimdark, as a subgenre within Fantasy, had become VERY POPULAR during this time period. Frankly, as a women, I have zero interest in reading anything that includes rape. There is simply no reason to include graphic rape on-page except as tantalization which is gross. The emotional impact of rape on a character is just as effective off-page and any decent writer can elude to what happened without providing a blow-by-blow.


But that’s a different tangent.


There are things about YA that I annoy me. There’s a maturity to adult sf/f narratives that YA is often lacking. That’s not to say that I find YA to be juvenile, but the stories are often less complex and the characters are constrained so their choices are often predictable. And, honestly, at times YA can be juvenile. WHICH IS PERFECTLY FINE. It is MEANT for juveniles! I’m not going to criticize a book for being suitable for the particular audience that it is actually geared for. A YA book being about teens, or for teens, or whatever is never a bad thing. But, as an adult, there are things I’m just not interested in reading about.


So, yes. I’ve been thinking more and more about reading adult sf/f. And there ARE adult sf/f novels I’ve read and enjoyed: VE Schwab is one of my favorite authors, I love the Invisible Library series, I really enjoyed the Nevernight series (which, while dark, never crossed any particular lines for me), Martha Well’s Murderbot is as far as I can tell a flawless series. But I’m not interested in reading about rape, gratuitous violence, torture, or genocide. And sometimes its hard to determine how “dark” an adult sf/f novel might go; it’s typically fairly easy to find a list of trigger warnings for YA books but this is often scoffed at in adult circles. It has made me very leery of branching out into the adult genre and I’ve limited myself to stories recommended to me by trusted friends.


I’m going to say that changed today. I know I’m really late to this party, but today I was introduced to the term “hopepunk”.


First coined in 2017 by Alexandra Rowland, hopepunk is “the opposite of grimdark”. That isn’t to say that these stories don’t embrace the darker sides of human nature, or that they are without conflict. In fact, a lot of these stories are centered on corrupt governments and horrible things happen over the course of the narratives. But there’s a distinction.


First, the horrible things don’t happen without reason. RoAnna Sylver has a thread on twitter about Good Pain vs Bad Pain. “Bad Pain” happens without reason and often without hope for recovery or healing (either for the character, the reader, or both). “Bad Pain” either builds on existing IRL marginalized pain to the extreme, or it doesn’t acknowledged the pain at all. Often, it exists for shock value. Example: a beloved character dies, but it has no effect on the narrative and there’s no mourning of the death in-text (Fred Weasley, Walsh from Firefly); if a character has to die to motivate the hero(es) and it is either a woman or a POC; everything about “bury your gays”. Rape scenes are almost always a source of “bad pain” because their in-text inclusion never adds anything to the narrative; often they are used as a world-building short-cut to show how terrible a setting is. Glen’s death in The Walking Dead, and other things that can be summed up with the words “torture porn”.


On the other hand, “Good Pain” is cathartic. It is a character death that fulfills a narrative arc in a successful and meaningful way. Example: Matthias’ death in Crooked Kingdom. He is basically killed by a younger version of himself and that has thematic meaning, and his character arc is concluded in a satisfying way even if it is sad/hurts. “Good Pain” acknowledges IRL pain without capitalizing on it, and the end result should be some kind of healing or emotional fulfillment for the reader (if not the characters).


Avatar the Last Airbender recently went up on Netflix and I watched it for the first time since it was originally airing. I was surprised by how often the bad guys win, how often the stakes are raised episode to episode, and how terrible things become. I don’t remember things being so bleak, but there are times in the series that it really seems like it is impossible for them to win. The last few episodes focus on the idea that Aang, in order to save everyone else, is going to have to go against his own beliefs and kill someone. The ultimate solution that Aang comes to is rooted in his unwavering kindness. In the words of Uncle Iroh, “In the darkest of times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”


My favorite fantasy writer of all time is David Eddings (and his wife Leah, who assisted him and was later credited as a co-author for many of his books). I adore the Belgariad series, which on the surface is very much a fun and humorous adventure story, but they also include slavery, human sacrifice, and genocide (but never explicitly). There’s a female slave character that is a survivor of genocide and that talks about being raped and bearing children from those rapes; there’s a whole culture built around being human sacrifices and women that try to be pregnant as much as possible because pregnant women aren’t sacrificed. There’s some dark stuff happening, but they are largely kept off-the-page and either only eluded to or they’re summarized quickly. The narrative is never designed to hurt the reader, or capitalize on trauma.


The second way dark themes are handled differently in hopepunk than they are in grimdark is with defiance. This is the “punk” part of hopepunk, right? Grimdark embraces despair and says “this is how things are, it can’t be changed, get used to it”. Hopepunk says, “Fuck that. We can change it and we will change it.”


For example hopepunk rewards kindness, while grimdark punishes it. Grimdark showcases characters that are kind as naive. They are usually betrayed, their kindness thrown back in their face, and they don’t often survive to the end of the story. In hopepunk, kindness is revolutionary and a characteristic of great inner strength. To once again reference Avatar, Uncle Iroh is often called weak for his acts of kindness, even by his nephew, and Zuko’s redemption centers around him realizing his uncle’s true strength and embracing it himself.


And that is what hopepunk is about. It is about recognizing that kindness requires strength and defiance, that fighting for a better future is one of the most radical and hopeful things you can do. It is about facing something bigger than yourself and saying “no”; it is about refusing to give up your morals or to give in to despair and hopelessness.


Hopepunk is the sort of fantasy and science fiction I’m all about, the sort of stories that I crave. And I’m planning to dive all in.


I researched. I dug through different articles (this was my favorite one), recommendations, and a questionable Goodreads shelf. I made myself a list of adult sf/f books that (at least seem to) qualify as hopepunk. I’m going to dedicate myself to reading them, reviewing them, and creating a resource for readers like me that want to read more adult sf/f but are just very confused and leery about how to proceed. From recent discussions on twitter, it is clear I’m not alone.


Here’s my TBR and notes going forward:


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
* Written as a direct commentary to “grimdark”
* The “quintessential example of hopepunk”
* MC is not human


Claudie Arseneault (author of Constructing a Kinder Future, an article about hopepunk and solarpunk)
*City of Strife (fantasy, queer)
* Viral Airwaves (sci-fi, queer, ace rep)
*Queer author


A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland
* Sequel: A Choir of Lives
* Queer
* Author is the one that coined the term “hopepunk”


Becky Chambers (basically the queen of this genre)
* The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (I’ve actually read – 5 stars)
* A Closed and Common Orbit
* Record of a Spaceborn Few
* To Be Taught, If Fortunate (standalone)
* Queer author, all books feature queer characters
* Books are very character driven, slow pace


Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series by Tad Williams
* The Dragonbone Chair
* Stone of Farewell
* To Green Angel Tower
* George RR Martin claims this series to be one of his biggest influences, but reports indicate the TONE of MSAT is the complete opposite of ASOIAF. I want to give it a try but I am leery because its a fairly dated series which usually means sexism and/or racism at the very least.


Gamechanger by LX Beckett
* Queer
* Scifi
* Complete societal overhaul


The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp
* Sequel: Gather the Fortunes
* Urban Fantasy
* Takes place in New Orleans


A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
* Post-pandemic
* Found family (which is honestly something almost all of these have)


The Expanse by James SA Corey
* 8 epic-length novels, starting with Leviathan Wakes
* Space Opera


A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by CA Fletcher
* The dog does not die.
* Just about the relationship between a boy and his dog??
* Post-Apocolyptic


Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
* Queer
* Lesbian Librarians?
* Just to take this straight from the synopsis on GoodReads: Reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.


An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
* Bisexual MC that has anxiety
* Aliens
* Deals with fame, the fickleness of the public, and how the internet impacts these things


The Library of the Unwritten by AJ Hackwith
* Queer
* Book-about-books
* MC is a librarian in hell and sometimes has to track down characters that escape from books
* Heavy VE Schwab vibes, sounds similar to The Archived


Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
* Middle-grade
* Book-about-books


The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
* Queer
* Space Opera


The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin
* All three books won the Hugo
* At least some parts of the first book are written in 2nd person?? Which is… weird.
* I’ve owned this series forever and need to read it but I’m intimidated


Lady Astronaut Series by Mary Robinette Kowal
* Alternative History – A meteor hits the Earth in the 1950s and everyone has to evacuate to Mars


Guardians of Aandor by Edward Lazellari
* Urban Fantasy


Maradaine Elite Series by Marshall Ryan Maresca
* High Fantasy
* From synopsis of first book:  Dayne must decide between his own future and his vow to always stand between the helpless and harm.


Queen of Roses by Elizabeth McCoy
* AI MC is installed on a cruise ship and has to deal with people when she’d rather not.


We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
* Sequel: We Unleash the Merciless Storm
* Queer
* Handmaiden’s Tale-esque.


Blackfish City by Sam J Miller
* Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.
* So queer???? I THINK?


The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
* Time Travel


A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker
* SciFi
* Queer
* Deals with music
* Public Gatherings are forbidden?


Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather
* Queer
* Sentient Space Ship


The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
* Magical Realism – something makes people’s shadows disapear and this takes their memories too
* Post-Apocalyptic


Two Dark Moons by Avi Silver
* Queer
* Unique gender
* MC must rely on reptilian beings her people consider the enemy to survive.
* Overcoming historical trauma between two cultures


The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz
* Queer
* Takes place at a famous restaurant in space
* Becky Chambers meets The Good Place


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
* Humanity flees into space after a catastrophic event, and 5,000 years later they return: seven distinct races returning to Earth.


Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver
* Queer
*Ace/Aro Rep
* Dystopian
* Superpowers/Mutations?


Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sonderby
* Queer
* Autistic MC


The Trans Space Octopus Congregation by Bogi Takacs
* Short stories
* Ownvoices Trans author
* Author is autistic


Flotsam by RJ Theodore
* Sequel: Salvage
* Steampunk + aliens + magic


Space Opera by Catherynne M Valente
* Literal Space Opera
* Described as Euro-Vision in Space
* Humor (parody?)
* If humanity can’t win this intergalactic singing competition, Earth will be destroyed.


Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
* Sequel: The Wild Dead
* A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.


Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
* Apocalyptic Sleepwalking Pandemic
* “an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it.”
* “The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world”
* Hopeful horror?????

3 thoughts on “Reading Adult SF/F: Hopepunk

  1. You should check out our podcast If This Goes On (Don’t Panic). HopePunk in SF/F is our main theme. We inyerview Alexandra Rowland in the first epiosde. 🙂 Don’t read Tad Williams, your suspicions are correct. Blackfish City is very queer and also awesome.


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