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:
- Positive in tone
- Not gritty
- Not self-conscious
- High fantasy in style, or something in that ballpark
- 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.