Hopepunk’ and ‘Up Lit’ Help Readers Shake Off the Dystopian Blues

By Ellen Gamerman (WSJ)

March 13, 2019 8:48 a.m. ET


Books and entertainment with a dash of optimism are attracting people who have had their fill of darkness

Books, movies, television shows and other works that promote hope, community and kindness in the face of great challenges are riding a wave of popularity. With real-world worries looming large, some audiences are seeking optimism in their entertainment.

“I think it’s valuable to tell a dark story, but people want an alternative. They don’t want to look at a grim future and say, ‘That’s it, that’s an inevitability,’” said novelist Becky Chambers, whose book “Record of a Spaceborn Few” depicts acts of compassion after a tragic spaceship accident. “It’s something of a relief for people to be exposed to futures where they say, ‘Hey, this might turn out OK.’”

Fans see fiction’s fight against pessimism on TV shows like “The Orville,” a quirky space opera beloved by fans of “Star Trek,” and “The Good Place,” a comic look at the struggle to be worthy in the afterlife. In film, moviegoers embraced the Afrofuturist utopia of Wakanda in last year’s “Black Panther.”

The podcast “Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope,” set in a zombie apocalypse, aims to lift the spirits of a traumatized public. And a hopeful science-fiction project called “Better Worlds” recently drew buzz on the website the Verge.

Happy endings are especially notable in fiction about the future, where dystopia and pessimism often rule.

Among this spring’s more hopeful sci-fi releases: “Finder,” a novel by Suzanne Palmer arriving in April about a relentlessly decent hero who tangles with a deep-space colony. In June, Ferrett Steinmetz releases “The Sol Majestic,” about a teenager whose free meal at the galaxy’s best restaurant leads him on a cosmic quest. More titles include the late-summer release of “A Song for a New Day,” a novel by Sarah Pinsker about an underground musician who stands for humanity in a world racked by terror and disease.

In the charged political climate following the election of President Trump, sales of classic dystopian novels rose, and more recently, the industry has notched a spate of notable feminist dystopian novels. But there are signs of dystopia fatigue.

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Demand for dystopian fiction aimed at young people, the category’s largest group of readers, fell in recent years. Print sales for young-adult dystopian novels declined to 850,000 last year from more than 5 million in 2014, when “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” and “Divergent” were in theaters and popular new series hit bookstores like Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” and Marie Lu’s “The Young Elites.” Similarly, e-book sales fell to 99,000 last year from more than 4 million in 2014, according to NPD BookScan/PubTrack Digital.

Last year, Cat Rambo, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, started teaching an online course, “Stories That Change Our World: Writing Fiction With Empathy, Insight and Hope.” More than 20% of the titles she’s reading for the group’s Nebula Awards this year feature strong, feel-good elements, she said, compared with just a handful five years ago.

Some readers of speculative fiction call this more optimistic style “hopepunk.” Here, cooperation beats out go-it-alone antiheroes, altruism exists even in the face of the apocalypse and resistance to dehumanizing forces is rarely in vain.

The term is attributed to Alexandra Rowland, a 29-year-old novelist from Holyoke, Mass., who called for it in a 2017 Tumblr post as a contrast to harrowing sci fi some call “grimdark.” Hopepunk joins a long list of sci-fi and fantasy “punk” subgenres, including “solarpunk,” built around climate change, “mannerpunk” about the power of etiquette and even “Trumppunk,” pegged to the president.

In unskilled hands, critics say, such storytelling can come off as corny, trite or forced.

 “The real problem, I think, is determining in advance how a story is supposed to make us feel,” said Lee Konstantinou, a University of Maryland associate professor of English who has written skeptically about hopepunk. “You can’t just depict an imagined world ravaged by environmental disaster or war or oppression, and then sprinkle a little bit of hope at the end. Hope has to be earned.”

In other fiction genres, some publishers are hailing an uplifting style they call “Up Lit,” which they also frame as a respite from current events.

When writing his new novel “Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss,” author Rajeev Balasubramanyam stopped himself from detailing the severe abuse suffered by one of his characters, a theme he would have run with in the past. Such details could throw the story off balance and threaten his more therapeutic aesthetic.

“Artists throw their pain at the canvas and want the reader to empathize with them, where this was more me empathizing with the reader, being kind to the reader and being kind to the characters,” said the 44-year-old British author. The book, on sale in the U.S. later this month, follows a middle-aged economist’s quest for happiness after he fails to win the Nobel Prize. In the U.K., where the title came out in January, a magazine on mindful living included a copy with a free yoga retreat in a recent reader contest.

The Up Lit record includes best sellers. Two hits from the last couple of years: “Less,” the comic novel about a struggling writer by Andrew Sean Greer that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine,” the Gail Honeyman novel about an eccentric loner that Reese Witherspoon’s production company is planning to adapt for the big screen.

Positive themes have threaded through many sci-fi stories before, of course, including dystopian ones. Just look at the enduring popularity of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” about the resistance to an oppressive patriarchy. The book spawned an Emmy-winning TV show and Ms. Atwood’s sequel “The Testaments,” arriving in September.

For some writers, mere glimmers of hope aren’t enough—they want utopia. W. Mahlon Purdin created one such world in his self-published new novel, “The Dreams of Ida Rothschild.” While conflict brews elsewhere, the planet in the year 6,000 has become Emerald Earth, where people live forever and prejudice is dead.

Mr. Purdin, a 71-year-old writer from Marblehead, Mass., was diagnosed with cancer while writing the book and found solace in the work.

“It was a way to show my belief,” he said, “that the human race is really a beautiful, wonderful thing.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com



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