Defining Positive Fantasy

All right, so, I went to a panel on “Hopepunk” fantasy at WorldCon, and this panel was somewhat disappointing to me because it included an (accidental) bait-and-switch. The panel description mentioned The Goblin Emperor, but the panelists had a very specific definition of “Hopepunk” that excluded The Goblin Emperor and any book like that one.

Their basic definition:

Hopepunk = fantasy with a gritty feel, in which the protagonist and the protagonist’s friends and/or community of outsiders push back against a repressive political system.

Really, the panelists seemed to limit the term to that very specific sub-sub-sub-genre. Now, in some ways, I agree. I think that “punk” in the term does indeed imply gritty, and I guess I’m okay with the rest of that definition, though I don’t think it’s necessarily part of what I think of when I think of cyperpunk, steampunk, hopepunk, silkpunk, or any other type of fantasy with “punk” in the name. But I do think that a gritty feel to the worldbuilding is implied, and that feel is almost (but not quite) absent from The Goblin Emperor. The panelists agreed. They were uninterested in The Goblin Emperor and books of that type.

Well, I’m interested in that sort of novel. I’m not keen on the kind of fantasy the panelists focused on. I can only tolerate so much grit. If the worldbuilding is gritty, then the book needs to be way better written or I won’t be able to tolerate it, and even then, it’s pushing uphill. That’s just not what I prefer. Plus as the political situation in the novel gets more repressive, I start to find it more claustrophobic. Plus that’s not the type of story I like best anyway.

So, then … if The Goblin Emperor is not hopepunk, what is it?

Other terms got tossed around during this panel. “Sweetweird” was one of those. I think the term practically defines itself, but I’d never heard it before. If you also haven’t heard it previously, here’s a post about it.

Coined by sci-fi and fantasy novelist Charlie Jane Anders, “sweetweird” describes a certain kind of media that centers the loving and nourishing power of friendship in a strange, bizarre, and difficult world. … “The core idea of sweetweird is: the world makes no sense, but we can be nurturing, frivolous and kind,” Anders writes in “The Sweetweird Manifesto.” “We don’t have to respond to the ludicrous illogic of the world around us by turning mean and nasty, or by expecting everyone else to be horrible. At the very least, we can carve out friendly, supportive spaces in the midst of chaotic nonsense, and maybe help each other survive.”

When we’re defining a type of fantasy by including “the world does not make sense,” that seems to me to put that in the realm of magical realism or maybe some types of supernatural horror. A world filled with or typified by chaotic weirdness does not seem very attractive to me, regardless of whether the characters are nice to one another. Although certainly I’d prefer that to a world of chaotic weirdness where the characters are mean and nasty to one another. Regardless, this is not, of course, a sub-sub-sub-genre that fits The Goblin Emperor or other works like that, whatever those other works might be.

Another new-to-me term introduced in this panel was “squeecore,” which, unlike “sweetweird,” is not a term that immediately conveys anything to me. Except, ugh, “squee,” really? This is not a modern slang term that I actually want to see turn into a real word. If it fades out of usage in the next decade, that’s fine with me. But, always interested in new terms for sub-sub-sub-sub-genres, so I immediately looked it up. Here is a post about this, actually a transcript of a podcast that apparently got people talking about the term.

What is squeecore? You’re soaking in it. Squeecore is the dominant literary movement in contemporary SFF; a movement so ubiquitous, it’s nearly invisible. … The essence of squee is wish fulfillment. Squeecore lives for the “hell yeah” moment; the “you go, girl” moment; the gushy feeling of victory by proxy. It’s aspirational; it’s escapism; it’s a dominant, and I would even say gentrified, form of SFF.

This podcast is defining this type of SFF as being written by and for people who haven’t ever had to struggle financially. That’s where the term “gentrified” is coming from. I’m pausing here, because I know for certain that this characterization is not correct for some of the authors specifically mentioned as writing this kind of SFF. I think this is therefore a perception by people who are pushing back against this tone in SFF, but also who are not necessarily correct in their perceptions.

Also, this transcript goes on:

 … these are stories that are congratulating you for reading them, without really challenging you. They’re telling you, you’re so special and good for reading this. And a major feature of squeecore is treating the act of making or consuming squeecore fiction as a heroic political act in and of itself.

And I’m kind of thinking, about the people doing the podcast, Wow, you’re reading a LOT of stuff into this type of fiction, and I think that’s probably mostly you. That’s how it seems when I skim through the whole transcript. I will add, I didn’t read through the whole thing carefully. That’s therefore my first reaction. I’m also probably biased against the opinions expressed here because those opinions are so negative, and guess what they’re negative about? Right: The Goblin Emperor is presented as an example of this self-conscious and self-congratulatory type of YA-adjacent, overly positive, Pollyanna-ish fantasy.

Obviously I don’t agree at all. So I’m rejecting all these terms. None of them apply to the kind of fantasy I most prefer, which is, let me see if I can make a list that is reasonably accurate. Okay, here:

  1. Positive in tone
  2. Not gritty
  3. Not self-conscious
  4. High fantasy in style, or something in that ballpark
  5. Ends with the world in a better place

I realize #5 may be an extension of #1, but I think it’s a little different. The tone of the novel is obvious from the first pages. You don’t need to read to the end of, say, Troubled Waters or Chalice or The Cloud Roads to know that the story is going to be positive. You can tell that right away, immediately. They then go on to end with the characters in a better place, which is part of what the tone promises; but also, at least by the end of the series, with the world better off as well. If the characters solve their problems by essentially creating a pocket universe and crawling into it after giving up on getting the world to improve, that is not at all what I’m talking about here.

I can come up with a long list of novels that fit this sub-sub-sub genre, but we still don’t have a word for books that fit those criteria. Not hopepunk, not sweetweird, not (ugh) squeecore. The closest is therefore still …. noblebright. Which is a term that did not catch on, and no wonder. I don’t think anyone likes it much. I don’t. But the way the term is handled, it still comes much, much closer to defining the type of fantasy that includes The Goblin Emperor and other books like that than any other term I know of.

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15 thoughts on “Defining Positive Fantasy”

  1. Yeah, I keep wishing someone would come up with a better term than noblebright, but so far nobody has. The idea of it is excellent, but the name itself just feels somehow off-putting. I feel like there has to be some way of using “hope” for a genre descriptor that isn’t hopepunk, because the “punk” part of that really does limit what fits into that category. Maybe just “hopeful fantasy”? Though, ha, I don’t know if we can call it a subgenre if we aren’t mashing two words together. “Hopefan”? Definitely not!

    And wow, that podcast about this supposed “squeecore” is SO condescending it sets my teeth on edge. It is so arrogant, and it seems to reflect such a narrow view of fiction and of story. Oh well! To each their own, I guess. I don’t read horror or grimdark, they can continue to disdain stories of hope and joy. (“Hopejoy”? Nope, that’s even worse than “hopefan”)

  2. Louise, I’m right there with you. Every single term that has ever been suggested is bad. Even “Hopeful fantasy” is bad. “Noble” just isn’t a word that can be used unironically right now — that’s what’s offputting, I think — and “bright” could work, but somehow doesn’t. Although “bright” may work better than “hope,” now that I run the words through my mind.

    I sometimes like “Horror Lite” — the kind of horror where it’s clear from the beginning that the good guys will win and no one the reader especially loves will die. That’s why I prefer Dean Koontz to eg Stephen King.

  3. That podcast though… not all spec fiction has to challenge or discomfit the reader or the status quo, in order to be speculative.

  4. I’ve seen “superversive’ used for that sort of positive, the world isn’t great, but there are good people in it and it is possible to make moral choices fiction

    I hate ‘squeecore’ both the term and the description.

  5. From Quora:
    Schadenfreude is the often tightly coiled satisfaction we feel at someone else’s misfortune. Maybe it comes from the near-primal belief that I will have more if others have less.

    Mudita is its antonym, a Buddhist term for vicarious joy: the joy you feel when someone else succeeds, the sheer delight in witnessing another person’s well being. Mudita is free of any self-interest and I can experience it even when I am going through my own difficulties.

    I’m not sure ‘mudita’ would ever catch on, but it does seem to fit as covering the opposite of schadenfreude.

  6. Amazing! Someone arguing that a “-punk” genre should be — punk!

    I think it’s lost all connection to its root, though.

  7. I rather like that word mudita. I guess as written in English it would be mentally associated with mud, which, unless one is a rice farmer (or a messy young child), is not generally seen as a positive thing.

    The Dutch pronounciation would be closer to “moed”-ita (pronounced like the English mood), which means courage in Dutch – and lo and behold, the unpleasant association does not occur and the word feels perfectly fine, including a faint English association with the good mood you get from witnessing another’s good fortune.

    Would it be more likely to catch on if it were written as moodita? It looks more clunky that way, so maybe not; but the spelling choices made when transcribing into English do make a difference for how a word is perceived.

  8. Elaine, I think we should make a concerted effort to bring “mudita” into common use. This is a common feeling! We should give it a name to help emphasize that!

  9. Good suggestion, Hanneke! I’m going to pronounce it “moodita,” but the spelling looks not only clunky, but silly, so I plan to spell it “moedita.” The “oe” dipthong is so unusual in English that it doesn’t suggest anything except (to me) that this is an interesting word. I grant, my perception of oddly spelled words may not be the modal response.

  10. Two questions about your list:

    What does #3, not self-conscious, mean? Does it mean it doesn’t have a snarky, look-how-cool-I-am vibe?

    And I’m not sure I agree with #4, high fantasy or related. But I guess that depends on how you define high fantasy. I think of it as some mix of elves, monarchy, swords, mages, medieval-ish, and perhaps containing a journey. But you mentioned The Cloud Roads, which I love, agree it is hopeful fantasy, and would not have considered high fantasy.

  11. OtterB — yes, by “not self-conscious,” I mean, you can’t see or feel the author saying “Watch me put this cool thing in! Do you see how cool I am?”

    And for me high fantasy is all abut tone and has absolutely nothing to do with elves. Here’s a post of mine where I tried to define what I mean by high fantasy.

  12. Whatever the name used for this favour of SFF (and I agree none of the options are catchy), I would love if you made a blog post with your ‘long list of novels that fit this sub-sub-sub genre’, and then we could have a recommendation thread.
    (I like to bookmark the best recommendation threads for this imperfectly named grouping and refer to them when I need a new uplifting book.)

  13. I agree, I need to do that sort of post. I’ll start one now and see if I can hit “publish” before the end of the week.

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