Today’s post is a prelude to my upcoming novel Commonwealth. This week, I’m discussing themes and ideas that will be explored in the book.
The first installment of Commonwealth is live on Patreon today! If you become a subscriber, you can read it now:
You can sign up for as little as $1 a month, and you won’t even be charged until October. But there are higher tiers where I’ll post behind-the-scenes material, footnotes and scenes from the cutting room floor.
If you want to see more before you decide, I’m planning to make the first two chapters freely available on Daylight Atheism. I’ll post them in installments beginning next week.
Last but not least: Because of the nature of this book, it would be hypocritical of me to only make it available to those who can pay. If you’d like to read it but truly can’t afford to subscribe, e-mail me and we’ll work something out.
What are we fighting for?
And we could add many more items to that list: misogyny and racism and xenophobia, religious fundamentalism of all kinds, anti-vaccine paranoia, gun violence and police brutality, despotic and theocratic governments, corporate capture of democracy, gerrymandering and voter suppression, opioid epidemics and lead-tainted drinking water, overfishing and habitat destruction and antibiotic resistance and mass extinction… there’s no end to the evils that plague us.
Just looking at the whole list, when it’s written out like that, can feel paralyzing. The world’s burden of sorrow seems crushing, too enormous for any one of us to make a difference. How do we preserve the motivation to fight on? How do we keep the flame of hope alive when the night is all around?
Earlier this year, I found out about the literary genre of “hopepunk“, a word coined by the author Alexandra Rowland:
Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.
…It’s about doing the one little thing you can do, even if it’s useless: planting seeds in the midst of the apocalypse, spitting on a wildfire, bailing out the ocean with a bucket. Individual action is almost always pointless. Hope and strength comes from our bonds with each other, from the actions we take as a community, holding hands in the dark.
I hadn’t heard of hopepunk when I started writing Commonwealth, but when I came across it, I saw immediately that it was a perfect description of what I’d been striving for. I’m not surprised that many authors, myself among them, are independently hitting on the same inspiration. When the world around us is at its lowest point, that’s when we most need fiction to give us hope for the future.
I’ve always thought that the stories we tell should have happy endings. After all, if you want tales of love lost and evil unavenged and the downtrodden suffering without redemption, you don’t need to open a book. You can just turn on the news. The real world has enough tragedy without us adding more.
But hopeful stories offer more than mere escapism. They show us a world that’s better than ours, a world where reason and justice and compassion can rule the day, and thereby give us a blueprint for how to change this one. They give us the courage to imagine possibilities that were once inconceivable, just as the achievements of our world were once a reformer’s distant dream. You have to believe that a better future is possible before you can work towards it.
To be clear, hopepunk doesn’t have to be nice. That’s the “punk” part. It doesn’t mean that the world will be saved with a kumbaya circle. Sometimes you have to give the bully a bloody nose, slay the dragon, rise up against the evil empire. If anything, niceness is overrated – in the guise of “civility”, it can cover up terrible evils. Hopepunk is inherently kind, which isn’t the same thing. Kindness means standing up for the downtrodden even when the powerful would prefer that we didn’t. It means telling people they’re committing harm even when that’s a message they don’t want to hear. It means defending the moral norms that are right and not just the ones that are popular.
The logical opposite of hopepunk is “grimdark” – the philosophical viewpoint that people are inherently vicious and selfish, that might makes right is the only moral law, and that bleak, brooding cynicism is the only sensible response. Grimdark is a very popular genre in noir fiction, grim-and-gritty comic books, blood-and-guts fantasy, and dystopian and apocalyptic sci-fi – more popular than hopepunk, if anything (although here are some counterexamples).
I think there’s a perception that utopias are dull, like painting with just one color from the palette, and that the violence, deceit and betrayal of grimdark stories makes them more exciting and more “grown-up”. But there’s no reason that has to be true. In fact, utopian stories should be more exciting, because the stakes are so high. The struggle to forge a utopia, or to defend one against outside threats, is a conflict whose outcome has tremendous consequences for everyone involved. It’s hard to build up, but easy to destroy.
In grimdark stories, by contrast, there are no stakes. No matter who wins today’s battle, the wars will never end and the cruelties will never cease. No matter which cruel and selfish person seizes the throne, life will remain nasty, brutish and short for all those below. It’s a foregone conclusion that any attempt to create lasting change will fail. In a grimdark world, we know at the outset how everything will turn out, so there’s no reason to care what happens along the way.
The hopepunk mindset rejects this excessive pessimism. I don’t hold a naive view of progress – progress is both fragile and reversible, and often under threat – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The world really is better than it used to be, and that’s worth celebrating, however much remains to be done.
At the same time, hopepunk rejects the idea that creating utopia is a one-and-done deal, that we just have to fulfill the prophecy or put the chosen one on the throne and then everyone will live happily ever after. Hopepunk says that such a society is no more realistic than the nightmares of grimdark.
The struggle to build a better world will never be truly finished. Any society inhabited by human beings, no matter how perfect, will have jealousy and tragedy, grief and heartbreak. However prosperous it is, it will have to decide how to set priorities and how to divide its finite resources, which means there will always be disagreement and conflict. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a utopia, or that utopia isn’t a goal worth fighting for.
In politics, conservatives are the grimdark faction. Their strengths are fear and threat; they win when people believe that their way of life is under attack, that they’re menaced by enemies on every side and the only way to survive the battle is to be cruel and remorseless themselves. They win when people believe that dreams of a better world are nothing but naive fantasies and the most we can aspire to is to hold on to what we have.
Liberals and progressives are the hopepunk faction. We win when we’re inspirational, when we give people hope that the future will be brighter than the past. We win when people feel compassionate and generous, when they’re willing to embrace others in the expanding circle of empathy, and when everyone understands that we can work together to accomplish more than any of us could do alone.
This, then, is our task: not just to depict this more perfect union, but to make it so compelling, so beautiful, so right that people will be drawn to the vision.
So, let’s be extravagant in our imagination. Let’s dream of impossible cities and secret utopias. Let’s picture the world we could have, the world as it could be if humanity was truly united in purpose: an end to war and hatred, democracy enshrined across the globe, every human being guaranteed a life of dignity and security.
Let’s dare to conceive of economic systems beyond capitalism. Let’s dream of solarpunk futures and “fully automated luxury communism” – worlds like Star Trek or Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, where humanity’s material needs can be met effortlessly and work is a quest for fulfillment and self-actualization rather than brute survival.
And yes, let’s portray the struggle to construct that utopia. Let’s not omit the sweat and the spilled blood, the toil and the strife, the tenacity and the sacrifice that will be required of good-hearted people – because that long climb underscores the value of the reward that’s waiting at the end.
And one last thing: As a preview of next week, here’s the first sentence of Commonwealth:
“It was a hot, muggy night in May, and it was snowing again.”
Don’t forget, you can sign up to read Commonwealth at http://www.patreon.com/adamleebooks.