The Essential Stripiness of Zebras: Hopepunk, Noblebright, and Other Positive Speculative Fiction

A recent article in Vox about the "hopepunk" movement caught my attention, both because I'm interested in positive speculative fiction and because, to my mind, it mischaracterises noblebright - a movement of which I'm a part (and which I had a small role in founding).

Basically, the Vox article takes what I consider an incidental aspect of noblebright and treats it as essential: the idea of the good ruler. I just listened to an episode of Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz's ironically titled (and excellent) podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, in which they discussed this article and positive SFF. (Link is to a transcript.) They followed the article's lead in thinking of noblebright as boiling down to "if Aragorn is king, everything will be OK".

I've always been a little antsy about the "noble" in "noblebright", to be honest, because actual medieval nobles were rarely good people. The term's origin is in the Warhammer 40K fandom, where it stands as the opposite of grimdark, and since the noblebright fantasy movement was also a response to grimdark fantasy, my online friend Cecilia, who writes as C.J. Brightley, proposed it as the name.

I had earlier, tongue in cheek, referred to what we both write as "cheerybright", taking the literal opposite of "grimdark". Perhaps that's a better term for something that Anders and Newitz also discussed, properties like the new She-Ra series, that have happy sparkly bits in a world where dark things happen, but are opposed by the power of friendship.

Anyway, the Vox article contrasts hopepunk (perpetual resistance in a world where everyone is imperfect but we have to try to make things better anyway), to noblebright, which it thinks is about the belief that there are good people, and there are bad people, and we need to make sure that the good people are in charge, and then everything will be fine. That's at best an oversimplification (on my part as well), but it also, I think, misses the point of noblebright. It isn't primarily about rulers, though it does at least admit the possibility that (morally) good rulers can exist and would be preferable to bad ones. Rather, it's about the idea that good people, or at least people of good intent, exist, and can make a difference even in a dark world. Which sounds kind of like hopepunk, really.

Anders and Newitz came to the conclusion that noblebright believes in the essential goodness of humanity, and hopepunk does not. Now, this is interesting, because a number (not all) of the core members of the noblebright fantasy movement, including Cecilia and me, are Christians, and tend to hold the essential fallenness of humanity as a key theological idea.

Which reminded me of zebras.

More than 20 years ago now, I and the team I worked with went to a seminar at the Auckland Zoo, held by two consultants who had been brought in to teach us some soft skill or other (I don't remember exactly what, after all this time). As part of one of their presentations, they included the idea - which didn't relate at all to whatever their main point was - that people are essentially good. "Do you agree?" they said to us, expecting the answer "yes".

I didn't agree, and said so. "So do you think that people are essentially bad?" they said.

I didn't have a good answer to that at the time, but later on, standing in front of the zebra enclosure, I came up with one. They were saying, "We believe that zebras are essentially black." When I disagreed, they assumed that I believed that zebras were essentially white. (Yes, I've switched those round from the usual associations, because otherwise there might result a complete side-track discussion about whether I was being racist, which would distract from the actual point.)

In fact, zebras are essentially striped.

zebras

Now, since noblebright is, in many ways and on many occasions, a reversion to pre-grimdark modes of storytelling, it can easily fall into a divide between good people and bad people, Chosen Ones and Dark Lords, heroes and villains (all of whom, I emphasize, can come from any social class and play any social role; it's not about rulers). One of the tropes of fantasy is that good and evil tend to be externalized, and that can lead to the problem of the all-good character (with whom the reader identifies) opposing the all-evil character, and the resolution to the problem being the destruction of the evil character (or race, or nation). We've all seen where that leads; not only to gas chambers, but also to the idea that deposing Saddam Hussein would automatically and by itself make Iraq a wonderful place.

At its best, and at its heart, I believe noblebright is about flawed, but well-intentioned, characters putting the interests of others above their own interests, and joining with others of like mind in struggling, suffering, and sacrificing for the hope of a better world. And that in turn implies that the world as it is has an essential brokenness and darkness in it, an idea found not only in Christianity but also in Buddhism. (I often paraphrase the first of the Four Noble Truths as "this whole thing is all messed up".) It's not a utopian world, though one mode of noblebright can be to show us a better society than our own (still with imperfections) functioning well; a kind of aspirational literature. That's part of what I attempt in my Gryphon Clerks books.

And speaking of the functioning of society, I think there may be something there to bring out about hopepunk vs noblebright. The idea of perpetual resistance that's embedded in hopepunk tends to imply not only that society is always going to be in need of revolution and opposition, but that the very idea of society itself is inherently oppressive, and that can never be changed; whereas my experience of noblebright, and my own belief about the real world, is that society functions as well as it does (which is better than many people think) because a lot of ordinary people turn up each day and work to the best of their ability to make things better. I've spent much of my career working with engineers and civil servants, which is why I make them the heroes of my books. Without their unspectacular but essential service, we would be living in a much worse world.

Of course, I'm a middle-aged, educated straight white man, which could help to explain my tendency to consider the current system as "imperfect, needing reform, but better than what you'd have if you tore it all down"; people with less hegemony might differ on that point, and I understand why, even if I don't agree.

The other thing I think about a lot in this context is agency. I often make a (somewhat simplistic) contrast between genre fiction, in which protagonists take (eventually) effective action against opposition in order to bring about an outcome they desire, with "literary" fiction, in which characters often decline through helplessness to hopelessness. Anders and Newitz, in their podcast episode, also contrasted "optimism" and "hope", defining optimism as the idea that things would turn out OK basically on their own, while hope is more "if we work together and do everything we can, it might be better".

Though I describe myself as a techno-optimist, I certainly don't believe that things will turn out fine by themselves; my SF stories, when I write SF, tend to be about futures in which we need to fight to hold on to human values in a world transformed by technology, not always for the better. I believe technology can help us build a better world, but only if building a better world is what we're setting out to do, and only if we think through carefully what a better world would look like.

All of these thoughts could open up in all kinds of directions; it probably needs a book. I haven't mentioned solarpunk, for example, which is a form of positive science fiction that somehow often manages to show us a world I consider dystopian and struggles to tell interesting stories that aren't choked by exposition. I haven't discussed dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and whether they can be, or even are essentially, hopeful (a question Anders raised that didn't receive a lot of discussion on the podcast). But I think the important point here is that how you write positive SFF will depend a lot on what you believe about humanity, society, technology, and "the good", and it's a good idea to be clear in your own mind about what those beliefs are, and check that you're not just repeating tropes that tell quite a different story. To be as fair as possible to the person quoted in Vox speaking about noblebright, perhaps we have occasionally done that while setting out to do something else.

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