The New Punk — Why Hopepunk and Noblebright are the SFF Genres of 2019
When I think of punk, I think of rebellion. Rejection of the status quo.
In the 70s and 80s, the rise of conservative values throughout the Western World pushed down people who didn’t fit in. Society struggled to maintain a hold of the nuclear family. The Hippie Movement of love and peace didn’t pan out all the way, giving rise to an angry counter-culture who resented and hated the world that desperately didn’t want outsiders to exist.
Punk was a place where outsiders in society — people who did not conform to gender or societal roles — could overtly mock and reject conservative values, from dress code to standards of beauty to what it meant to be a person. Concepts like hetero-normativity were questioned, as was the structure of society. Why did things have to be the way they were?
This is an over-simplification, of course. It’s impossible to go into all the details of the punk movement and all its subcultures in the introduction to an essay that really isn’t about that punk movement.
Rather, it’s about the new punk. Because the punk movement of the 70s and 80s no longer really exists. The 70s and 80s no longer really exists. The world of today is very different.
Concepts like heteronormativity and gender roles are now questioned in public. And the conservative values of yesteryear, flabbergasted by the concept that their tenants of reality are not universal, are fighting back. Violently.
In fact, violence seems to be the main mode of communication nowadays. Violent language. Violent rhetoric. It gets to the point that people are raging in the streets over a Gillette advertisement saying that men can be better. Somehow, a simple message that would be stated in an elementary school class is somehow controversial.
The President of the United States regularly makes offensive, crude comments about his enemies. A person who very likely committed sexual assault was handed a seat on the Supreme Court while the victims of his crimes still can’t return home without being threatened with violence.
The violent uprising of 70s and 80s punk isn’t counter-culture. It IS culture.
So a new counter-culture — a new punk — is here to replace the old. And that culture embraces love to counter hate — but not in the naive hippie way, but a mature perspective that says “War and hatred exists and hugs won’t stop it. We need to fight, but on our terms.”
And that punk is reflected in fiction perfectly by the emerging genres of Hopepunk and NobleBright.
Fiction as a Lens
In order for any of this to hold any meaning, we need to discuss how fiction exists as a lens for reality.
Throughout the 19th Century, literature served as a lens to illustrate the conflicts between society and the individual. Neo-Classical works depicted the value of functioning within society. While class systems and industry sucked sometimes, it was possible, Neo-Classicist writers argued, to find happiness inside that system. Jane Austen is one such writer, whose works consistently reflected people finding their bliss in the system without opposing its rules.
On the other hand, the Romantics saw value in the individual. Reject society’s rules. Fall into the clutches of nature! Some saw it in a darker light, claiming that it was because of society that people suffered. The Bronte Sisters are Romantics.
Pride and Prejudice reinforces the society of Jane Austen’s time.
Jane Eyre shows society as a monster that breaks and ruins people, and that happiness can only be achieved by burning society down.
The culture wars can be mapped out throughout the history of fiction, be it high-end literary fiction or more speculative material, like science-fiction and fantasy.
Until Ridley Scott’s one-two punch with Alien and Blade Runner, mainstream science fiction and fantasy was fairly optimistic. I say “mainstream” because any SFF fan worth their salt knows that tons of dark fiction existed since the genre’s beginning. Blade Runner, for example, was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick, a writer well-known for his paranoid views of reality.
But mainstream SFF — from Star Trek to The Jetsons — portrayed the future as optimistic. Cool tech, utopian world views — the future was gonna be bright and cheery, right?
Well, wrong, actually. Dead wrong.
The 70s brought a new cynicism to Americans all over the world, what with the Vietnam War and Watergate breaking public morale. Genre fiction offers a viewpoint into a culture’s zeitgeist at the time, but what SFF popped up in mainstream entertainment during the 70s?
Well, to be fair, none. None until Star Wars and Alien came out. Obviously, scifi fiction and comics were flourishing, but television and cinema remained mostly grounded in realism.
This left a lot of writers steaming over the “childish” and “naive” perspectives of SFF writers of yesteryear, leading to writers to come to a new conclusion: that SFF needed to be brought down to a more realistic, human level.
Enter William Gibson, the inventor of what would later be called “cyberpunk.” Gibson believed that technology would not improve society, but that the same problems would persist regardless of whether or not society matured technologically.
Neuromancer, the first book of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, is often seen as the start of the cyberpunk movement. The book established the core rules of cyberpunk: industries use human as a commodity, computers will not make life better, the division between humanity and computers will be blurred, and the man sucks. 80s punk aesthetics mixed with cold, grim computer jargon.
The book became a huge hit. Over time, however, the punk aspect of cyberpunk became overshadowed by the cyber. This can best be illustrated by the overall shift in focus from the world being awful to everyone being awful. By the time The Matrix came out, the cyberpunk aesthetic became a commodity, utilized in mainstream culture until it became meaningless.
Arguably the greatest cyberpunk story ever told is the Japanese anime film, Ghost in the Shell, has had its imagery and philosophies appropriated by almost every pseudo-intellectual work of science fiction to follow it, often by writers who really don’t get why Ghost in the Shell worked. It’s not the technology. What Ghost in the Shell does so well is that it questions reality without really having a solid answer. And you don’t notice because you yourself are mapping out answers for yourself. It doesn’t lecture or pontificate. It just presents a worldview that deconstructs our own.
On the other hand, there is GrimDark.
While many may use GrimDark as an insult to works so edgy and vicious that they border on ridiculousness, the origins of GrimDark also can be traced to the punk movement. In the 60s, Michael Moorcock, fed up with Tolkien and his prancy elves and noble history and order, wrote the novella “The Dreaming City,” which introduced the world to the first edgelord of fantasy, Elric of Melnibone.
Elric was an edgy prince of a kingdom defined by its decadence and misery. He ends up destroying said kingdom in the first story written, and spends the rest of the series hacking through monsters using his wits and an evil, sentient sword known as Stormbringer. It eats souls.
Moorcock drew heavily from swords-and-sorcery from his childhood, such as the Conan stories, in order to craft a world counter to Tolkein’s already counter-culture world.
Moorcock was later followed by writers such as Glen Cook, who created The Black Company, another counter-culture fantasy novel series that presented the world as essentially rotten.
While dark fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire is mainstream, GrimDark is that taken to an extreme. Extreme violence. Extreme cynicism. Extreme everything.
Some GrimDark stories, like the manga Berserk or Joe Abercrombie’s novels, are legitimately great works of fiction. Most are not. Like with cyberpunk, many writers of GrimDark confuse aesthetic for meaning. They have the iconography of GrimDark, but lacks the story telling strength to ground it.
So to recap: cyberpunk shows the world through a gritty, cold lens that questions reality, while GrimDark rejects that any hope can exist in favor of a world where everything is rotten.
These ideas were counter-culture back in the 80s, but in modern times, the majority of these ideas don’t feel like a rejection of our values. If anything, well-done modern cyberpunk or GrimDark works feel more like a reflection of our values.
Which makes it no longer really punk.
So what is punk in 2019?
In the 80s and 90s, children’s entertainment offered kids a comfort. Never before had as many cartoons existed in this period of time. Among these cartoons that I believe had a huge influence on modern Hopepunk and NobleBright are the following: Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, Care Bears, and, on the video game side, Kirby and Pokemon. Furthermore, the ever-present existence of Disney animated films, in particular the Disney Princess films of the 90s, had a huge influence as well.
As society and pop culture became grimmer and grittier, many people became nostalgic for these softer, more loving forms of entertainment. Everything seemed so dark and drab. Why not add color?
NobleBright works appeared far earlier in fiction than Hopepunk did, in part because NobleBright was far easier to create. Worlds where things are hopeful and bewildering. Even when awful stuff happens, there are ways to resolve problems peacefully. Well-known examples include Dinotopia, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Adventure Time.
On the other hand, hopepunk possesses all the counter-culture rejection of mainstream values as 70s punk, only it does so through a soft, loving lens. This is where you see a lot of overt rejections of hetereonormativity. This is where body positivity, feminism, and racial diversity are paramount. It uses the aesthetics of stories like Sailor Moon to discuss mature issues relevant to its audience, but throw a lens that rejects violence, even when violence keeps pounding in.
I am not sure what the first work in pop culture was to use this aesthetic was. However, I do know that the first one to use this aesthetic that I saw was Steven Universe.
Since then, the floodgates have been opened. The Jem and the Holograms reboot comic? The She-Ra reboot? Hilda? Lumberjanes? To name a few.
The Importance of Hopepunk
I feel the fact that these stories have been so attacked by chunks of mainstream entertainment is proof enough that these stories have value.
Steven Universe has been constantly banned or censored throughout the world for its depiction of LGBTQA themes. The She-Ra reboot remains a target of hatred for many conservative people on the internet, in part because it rejects the notion that all female characters have to be attractive to their male audiences.
This violent reaction to these cartoons brings me back to that Gillette ad I mentioned before. The simple ad stating that men could do better to stop bullies triggered a MASSIVE backlash. It’s stunning that such an unoffensive advert could cause such anger, but that’s the world we’re in. That’s the world hopepunk opposes: one where bullying and harassment is seen as expected or common.
Punk needed to violently oppose conservative values in its time, but the punk movement hasn’t died. It has simply adjusted to the times. This new punk needs to embrace love, but not the hippie passivity of the 60s, but an assertive, relentless outpouring of emotion, to say “We are fantastic and amazing and we’re all we have on this dying, crummy planet.”
Long live the new punk.