When reality makes dystopian fiction irrelevant, it's time to weaponize optimism
When the world is running down, how do you make the best of what’s still around?
Vote: for The Stanford Newsletter Experiment as “best local blog” on the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin ballot because they don’t have a category for newsletters
Read: Can Tumblr supplant Facebook? What is “cognitive security”? The New York Times had a bad week. You might be surprised how many Americans wear their underwear for more than two days in a row. Is it lede or lead? Who is watching local TV news? Teens are getting their news in a surprising way.
Watch: something so sad they just called it miserable.
Listen: New songs from Sleater-Kinney and Snoh Aalegra, and half•alive’s Tiny Desk Concert that found an innovative way to include backup dancers
But first: What purpose does apocalyptic fiction serve during an apocalypse?
When my sons were young, and had graduated from Curious George and Doctor Seuss, I tried reading them the Hardy Boys series like my dad did for me, but the stories of eager, clean-cut youths solving mysteries did not land with my boys. A Wrinkle in Time found no purchase on their attention. We made half-hearted progress through The Chronicles of Narnia before quitting. My boys were, and are, good-hearted, and sweet, but these like-minded stories stories of nobility and mysticism bored them.
Then I read them the Harry Potter books, all 1,084,170 words. In truth, my wife (not their mother) read some of them, and I’m sure a babysitter or two took a turn, but I would wager that at least 900,000 of those words came out of my tired mouth. I would have happily quit—wizards and magic are not my jam—but they were spellbound by dark tales of danger lurking in plain sight, of inevitable disaster, of death, of deceit and manipulation even by those you trust the most. It turns out my sons loved dystopia.
We followed Harry Potter with Percy Jackson, whose modern mythology struck a similarly dystopian note. The Hunger Games movies came along when they were old enough, though the movies’ depiction of weaponized income inequality disturbed me. Then came the Divergent Series, which imagined a world in which the sorting hat had become weaponized. This was about as far from Little House on the Prairie as you could possibly get.
The boys couldn’t get enough. They loved to see their world fall apart on the page and on screen. My oldest took a zombie apocalypse class in middle school, and our plans became frequent dinnertime conversation. For some reason, my son thought the best place to go in the event of a zombie apocalypse was the state history museum where he remembered seeing swords and battle axes. They were certain a zombie apocalypse would happen, or perhaps their ardent hope appeared as certainty, like kids used to believe in Santa Claus, like they could keep the spirit of complete societal breakdown alive in their hearts all year round.
It’s possible that my getting divorced during the Great Recession skewed their perspectives, but they were not the only ones hoping for the country to devolve into a game show to the death, or armed revolution, or a rebellion against evil. Dystopia was doing gangbusters business at the bookstore and the box office.
All the while, I was putting my business and life back together, and Barack Obama was in the White House. People were going back to work as we moved further away from economic catastrophe. We were making progress. Obamacare was a big deal. History was moving forward. Sure, there was a school shooting every now and then, and every year seemed hotter than the last. And yes, my oldest had been learning to crawl when the planes hit the towers, and my youngest was born when the Iraq War was only a few months old. But things were getting better, right? It looked like we were finally going to pull out of the wars.
So why did it seem like an entire generation was consumed with visions of dystopia? If fiction exists to tell the truth that facts can’t muster, then it seemed like the meta-story of millennials was of impending doom. It’s like they knew something was coming and needed to get ready. Making plans for the zombie apocalypse wasn’t just fun and games.
Looking back, I can see more clearly that it wasn’t just the kids who were feeding on dystopian fiction. Grimdark became a popular genre for adults. With our dragon shows we got rape and slavery. A vigilante billionaire protected a bleak city. A teacher became a meth dealer. The year after Obama was re-elected, a man we later discovered was a rapist played an amoral politician who made Machiavelli look like a cub scout. It was all so awful, and we couldn’t get enough. The bleaker, the better.
It’s funny how quickly reality can make dystopian fiction irrelevant. Trump’s election upended political fiction. Comedians quickly realized that you can’t satirize a politician without shame who tweets like a mentally unwell man who binges on fast food and cable news. Suddenly House of Cards and its supposedly monstrous Frank Underwood seemed trite. Homeland became instantly irrelevant.
Only Handmaid’s Tale and Man in the High Castle fit the moment with their twin views of a fallen America, one to theocracy and the other to fascism. Handmaid’s Tale seemed particularly prescient. Parents were forcibly separated from their children. Powerful men raped women with impunity. The separation of church and state disappeared. We watched as if it were a warning, grateful that Hulu only posted one new episode a week because paying attention came at a cost. The experience of watching had none of the violent pleasure of watching Batman. It felt like Gilead was one possible outcome.
Remember when we used to march? Everything seemed so outrageous, and there was always a new outrage. We sorta got used to it after a while, as strange as it was. The shock had worn off. I remember walking in Manhattan in 2017. Two men were standing next to me on a corner while we waited for the light to change, and one pulled out his phone. “Well, I wonder what he said today,” he said. We all laughed.
Then things seemed to get worse. Gilead no longer seemed as theoretical after the Senate put a man credibly accused of rape on the Supreme Court for the unstated yet obvious purpose of outlawing abortion. Some rich men lost their stations because it became time to listen to women, but a woman accused the President of rape and it barely made the news. A respected lawyer released a report documenting the President accepting election help from a hostile foreign power and then lying to cover it up, and nothing happened because all the king’s men and all the king’s horses decided that the one person in the world they could not charge with a crime was the king. Actually, that’s unfair. No one asked the horses, but by then we were freaking out a little over children who had been separated from their parents. They were sleeping in cages on concrete floors under emergency thermal blankets.
We began to ask what all this meant. Is this when we freak out? The President talked about staying in the White House beyond two terms, and it didn’t lead the news. Things got so weird so consistently that this sentence resulted as the natural consequence of events:
“Imagine the dystopia that is a country divided in a hashtag battle accusing a former president and the current president of staging the suicide of a pedophile emperor to cover up their child molestation.”
Fiction tells us the stories that reality can’t. We no longer needed to be warned that the sea levels were rising or that unchecked power corrupts or that unaddressed systematic sexism and racism twists society into something unlivable. We didn’t need prestige television shows to warn us that grimdark was coming. We just needed to watch the news. What was the point of dystopian fiction in a dystopian era?
With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.
Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.
Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.
Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.
Put simply, hopepunk weaponizes optimism, and it’s more popular than you’d think: Sense8, Pacific Rim, Dear Evan Hansen, and Mad Max: Fury Road. It had been here all along, of course. Star Trek: Next Generation had laid the ground. The Martian beat the dawn of hopepunk by a couple years. The entire Lord of the Rings series? Hopepunk as heck.
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.”
The damndest thing happened on the way to utter ruin: Handmaid’s Tale made the turn from dystopia to hopepunk, from a warning to a way out. June started out a victim, became a rebel, and now runs the resistance. If you quit watching the show because it became too hard, you have missed the portrayal of a Harriet Tubman for Gilead. There are victories to be had even when things are bad.
Fiction tells us what we need to know, and right now we need to know that things can get better.
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What I’m reading
WSJ: "U.S. mortgage debt reached a record in the second quarter, exceeding its 2008 peak as the financial crisis unfolded."
Does WordPress + Tumblr = a Facebook that won’t crash your democracy?
Here’s an interview with one of my favorite columnists, Monica Hesse, who’s new enough to me that I had no idea she was also a best-selling author.
This Walter Shapiro profile of Elizabeth Warren is spot on.
This testimony from the RAND Corporation to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the need for “cognitive security” provides an interesting way to defend democracies against what the Russians' call “information operations” and the President calls “the cyber.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is writing a movie that she wants to direct, but she’s keeping everything else about it a secret.
Recent studies indicate: 45 percent of Americans wear their underwear for more than two days in a row. Also, “those who are most distrustful of the news media tend to be the most biased readers.” Carbon taxes could have similar benefits to government regulation of polluters.
News nerds: Newsletter subscribers are five to 10 times more likely to subscribe to a news organization than are social media followers. It’s “lead,” not “lede.” The older, blacker, and less-educated you are in America, the more likely you are to be interested in local TV news. Half of teens are getting their news from YouTube, but not from news organizations. Two-thirds of Americans think the news media does a bad job of separating fact from opinion. Does covering misinformation amplify it? Here’s how thinking like a psychologist and not an economist could improve journalism.
Last word: How evangelical voters can support Donald Trump, by all accounts well shy of a moral man, is an interesting question that Elizabeth Bruenig asks with intelligence, humility, and respect in her first-person essay in The Washington Post.
What I’m watching
This conversation about grief and suffering between Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and some brothers at a very young age, and Anderson Cooper, who just lost his mom, is the best seven minutes and twenty-seven seconds I’ve spent in a long time.
So I was at my mom’s place with my two sons, and her husband puts on Les Misérables, which I had never seen and knew very little about. Two hours in, I began reacting.
Me: This is sad.
Me: Why would anyone watch anything this sad?
Me: This is sadder than Schindler’s List.
Me: This is sadder than the Second World War.
Youngest son: Dad, the title is The Miserables.
The defensive me asks why people pay good money to feel this bad. The secret me discovered how much emotion one piece of entertainment can deliver.
What I’m listening to
“I Want You Around” is the lead single from Snoh Aalegra, an Iranian r&b singer raised in Sweden, has been out since February, but I just found out about it recently because her album, - Ugh, those feels again, dropped. Apparently Prince was a big fan of her last album and was something of a mentor for her, and for my money this album is much more fully realized. If you like Sade, you’ll like Snoh.
I’m not quite sure where I land on half•alive, which is out with a new album, but their Tiny Desk Concert is worth a watch, especially the last song which starts at 7:37, and I dig the video for “still feel.” (If you like dance, watch that video! I’m looking at you, S.R. and C.T. And you, too, B.S.)
Finally, it’s a shame that Sleater-Kinney is breaking up, because their new album, produced by St. Vincent, shows the feminist riot grrrl band adding an alt-pop dimension to its music. This one, “Can I Go On,” is my favorite.
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