One Atom of Justice, One Molecule of Mercy, and the Empire of Unsheathed Knives – Alexandra Rowland

They have built an empire of lies
Where the dead beneath are buried twice
To better feed the living above
And you can keep the teeth of hunger off your own neck
Only if you tell the ravening lies yourself
And they too want to live

Let us build together
The empire of unsheathed knives and hungers
Where we will not lie in small rooms and say we want poetry
When all we want is to live
Let us pave the streets in corpses
They are paved so already, and we cannot raise the dead
But let us leave them out next time
Let us bury lies instead of the living
Whose mouths we stop up with stories
Let us build it soon, if not today

 “Victory Condition” by Astolat

In July of 2017, I coined the word “hopepunk,” initially defined very simply in a Tumblr post: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” When asked to clarify, I wrote: “The essence of grimdark is that everyone’s inherently sort of a bad person and does bad things, and that’s awful and disheartening and cynical. It’s looking at human nature and going, ‘The glass is half empty. ‘Hopepunk says, ‘No, I don’t accept that. Go fuck yourself: The glass is half full.’ Yeah, we’re all a messy mix of good and bad, flaws and virtues. We’ve all been mean and petty and cruel, but (and here’s the important part) we’ve also been soft and forgiving and kind. Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.”

I believe the purpose of this article’s commission was to have me write something uplifting.

I don’t know if I can. I think it would be (I’m afraid it would be) nice.

Awful word, nice. A word to silence anything that discomfits you: You won’t make any progress toward those basic civil liberties you want if you can’t be nice about it.

Nice is nonthreatening. Nice is comfortable. Nice is a quiet neighborhood with white picket fences and white minivans and an overwhelmingly white demographic, where we don’t talk about things if they aren’t nice.

Photo by Jonathan Harrison

The world has never been nice. The world has always and only been a never-ending, Darwinian struggle for survival, an “empire of unsheathed knives and hungers,” clawing at each other and climbing over each other in a mad riot, pushing our boots down into someone else’s face to heave ourselves up a little higher or risk being trampled ourselves.

But once in a while, the people toward the middle of the heap manage to look down and see the mass of wretched bodies below, the base of the pyramid that’s supporting them, and for a moment, they see the instability of their own position, that their pyramid isn’t built on solid ground but on human flesh and human pain. For a moment, they see, and the illusion of niceness is wrenched away from them, and they weep, but still, still not for the people below them whose suffering has gone on so long. They weep like children over the teddy bear that’s been snatched out of their hands. They weep only because the world suddenly isn’t as nice as they thought, and it’s hard to deal with that.

Nice is an illusion, and so is the suddenness of realizing the lie. You see others’ pain only when it’s gone on for eternities already. It is not new—the world has always been on fire. In the first weeks of the news about ICE separating children from their families and putting them in detention camps, I reached out for old protest songs and my fingers landed on “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” first recorded in 1948. 19—fucking—48.

The world has always been on fire. We have always been monstrous to each other.

But alright. Hopepunk.

First, you must understand that everything is stories: money, manners, civilization. It’s all just little tales we tell each other, little collective hallucinations. A set of rules so that we can all play pretend together.


And in reply, Susan protests, “Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

“MY POINT EXACTLY,” says Death.

dark times
Composite by Mark Sabalauskas

But when you stop believing that there is even an atom of justice in the world? What’s the point then? How do you go on without that?

What’s the point?

I’m afraid. I’m losing my story, my belief in an atom of justice. I watch it happen, a little more every day, unraveling from my hands—and I’m a professional storyteller. If anyone should know how to keep a strong hold of these threads and stop the edge from fraying, I should be able to, right? And if I can’t manage to hold onto it, then how can anyone else?

But maybe it’s easier for other people—people who don’t know that a story can be as fragile as a silk veil. Maybe they hold it tighter, less nervous of tearing it with rough handling.

I’m afraid of who I’ll be when the last threads slip out of my fingers. I’m afraid of settling into complacency, of something in me breaking, of retreating into niceness as the last-ditch sanctuary before complete despair. And I don’t mean this rhetorically: I have tears in my eyes as I write this. It’s hard to breathe. My hands shake. I’m afraid.

“Hopepunk says [about human nature], ‘The glass is half full,’” wrote the me who lived in mid-2017. Seems naïve now, doesn’t it? Those are the words of a person cloaked in a story that hasn’t yet been worn threadbare and ragged; a person who thinks they have a sword in their hands, a person who thinks that they as an individual can make a difference, that there is some fundamental goodness in humanity
What do we do when our hands are empty, when our warm cloaks are gone, when we look around and see how big the world is? When we see how helpless and insignificant we are, how the rest of the world isn’t even particularly cruel or evil, just . . . mediocre? Complacent?

If there are gods watching over us, please, please deliver us from complacency.
And if there aren’t, if we’re all alone in the dark and our candles are guttering: What do we do? How can we go on?

What’s the point?

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell

Besides being monstrous to each other, there’s another thing us humans are particularly good at.

Have you ever started a fire with two sticks?

Have you ever looked up into the night sky and thought that perhaps it wouldn’t really be so hard to count the stars?

Have you ever built a library in Alexandria?

Have you ever walked to the North Pole?

Have you ever left someone you loved very, very much, even though you would sooner have torn your own heart out of your chest with your hands, because you had to do something important on the other side of the world and they couldn’t come with you?

How do you do it? How do you manage when the task before you is enormous and impossible?

How do you do it? How do you go on?

Here’s how you start a fire with two sticks: sheer, simple, bloody-minded obstinacy.

That’s how you count the stars, build the library, and go to the North Pole. That’s how you hold the story even when it’s unraveling in your hands.

You grit your teeth, and bear the pain, and keep going: One star at a time, one brick at a time, one step at a time.

You can do a lot when you decide to be a stubborn motherfucker who refuses to die.

Here’s a story for you.

When you fight, you win. When you believe in something good and noble, you prevail. People have an essential core of goodness in them. People will change their minds, will learn, will grow, will repent, will earn forgiveness. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The dragon can be slain. The great evil can be obliterated from the world. Love always wins.

Those sound nice, don’t they?

Those aren’t hopepunk.

There’s this other subgenre, slightly less well-known than grimdark, called “noblebright.” Noblebright is about goodness and truth and vanquishing evil forever, about a core of goodness in humanity. It’s most of the Arthurian legends, the Star Wars original trilogy, Narnia . . . in Tolkien terms, it’s Aragorn, rather than Frodo and Sam (who are hopepunk as hell). In noblebright, when we overthrow the dark lord, the world is saved and our work is done. Equilibrium and serenity return to the land. Our king is kind and good and pure of heart; that’s why he’s the king.

Photo by Ricardo Cruz

It’s all very nice.

You ask noblebright, “What’s the point?” and the answer is, “Vanquishing the great evil. Finishing the work. Saving the world. Winning.”

The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax. Utopia is not a stable system. It doesn’t last. The best we can hope for is five minutes, an hour.

There’s no such thing as winning forever. Evil cannot be vanquished, only beaten back for a day or two, and then it trickles back in, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam.

Photo by Randy Colas

Ask it of hopepunk, then: “What’s the point?”

And the answer is, of course, that the fight itself is the point.

It’s not about glory or noble deeds; it’s not about an end result because there is no end. There’s always a tomorrow and when the sun rises again, we’ll still have a dam holding the water back. For now. But entropy is real, and dams must be maintained, and it takes all of us to do it, and it’s done by linking arms with the people next to you, by building a community with deliberate intent.

It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though.”

It’s about being kind merely for the sake of kindness, and because you have the means to be, and giving a fuck because the world is (somehow, mysteriously, against all evidence) worth it and we don’t have anywhere else to go anyway.

It’s about digging in your heels and believing that one single atom of justice, one molecule of mercy does exist somewhere in the mindboggling vastness of the universe—believing in that, even if for no other reason than fuck you, buddy; fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. I do what I want and this, this is what I want; this is the world I want to live in: One where the atom of justice exists, even if I’ve never seen it myself, even if I’ll never see it
It’s about doing the one little thing you can do, even if it’s useless: planting seeds in the midst of the apocalypse, spitting on a wildfire, bailing out the ocean with a bucket. Individual action is almost always pointless. Hope and strength comes from our bonds with each other, from the actions we take as a community, holding hands in the dark.

Nobility and righteousness look really stylish and cool, and they keep you safe from criticism (how nice!), but they’ll tire you out.

Take bloodthirsty, vengeful joy where you can, because the night is dark and the fight is long and there are no knights in shining armor waiting in the wings to slay the dragon at just the right moment of dramatic tension. Be spiteful. Be petty. Be rude. Spray-paint someone’s house. Grab your local senator and tar and feather them, I don’t know. Do whatever you have to do, as long as you’re doing something, as long as you’re taking hold of the world around you in a real way and yanking it in the direction of Slightly Less Terrible. Armchair ethicists wonder, “If a man has a gun to your friend’s head, isn’t hurting him just as bad as him hurting your friend?” No, it isn’t. Also, what’s wrong with you? Punch the man with the gun. Save your friend. Not all kindnesses are weighted equally, and generalized, aimless, unradical kindness is no better than niceness.

Give a fuck about the world around you, about the people around you, about the people who aren’t around you, about the people on the other side of the world, for no other reason than because they’re people who love their children, who laugh, who dance, who kiss, who cry.

Photo by rob walsh

You know why humans are so great at being monstrous to each other? Because when you forget that someone is a person, when you forget that they laugh and cry and love their children, being monstrous to them feels good.

That’s all. Terrifyingly simple, isn’t it?

But alright. That’s a tool. As long as that’s already hardwired into you, you might as well embrace it. Use it. Lean into it. Be monstrous to the monsters, if that’s what it takes, if there’re no other choices left.

And if you do have choices still, remember: Nonviolent resistance, too, comes from a place of rage.

Complacent people, nice people, don’t stare down a squad of armed soldier-police. They don’t walk up to the Dharasana salt works knowing that they’ll be beaten bloody or killed. It’s not a thing you do when you think there’s any other way to make them listen. A person has to be angry about something to get to a point where they’d do that, where they’d wager their very life to hold the line.

Hopepunk isn’t pristine and spotless. Hopepunk is grubby, because that’s what happens when you fight. It’s hard. It’s filthy, sweaty, backbreaking work that never ends. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t noble, and it isn’t nice, though I expect the natural inclination (and even my own instinctive inclination) is to make it so—to forget the word “radical” in the phrase “radical kindness,” to forget the “punk” part of “hopepunk,” which is really the operative half of the word. To forget the anger of it and let it soften, because softness is what we’re aching for. We want the world to be better—kinder, more just, more merciful. We still yearn toward noblebright, toward an honest and desperate belief that love conquers all. Except, when the other guy has more guns and fewer moral objections than we do, it doesn’t.

We forget, sometimes, that we have knives too in this empire. That we can unsheathe them, that we can turn our blades to the defense of an atom of justice and a molecule of mercy that might not even exist—except . . . except for where we make them exist, in the hands we hold out to each other, and in the shelter we offer even when we ourselves are exhausted, footsore, and filthy, with the wolves at our doors.

There are no heroes and no villains. There are just people. That’s hopepunk: Whether the glass is half full or half empty, what matters is that there’s water in that glass. And that’s something worth defending.

Photo by Pascal Bernardon

Read also: The Uses of Optimism: Utopias

Alexandra Rowland is the author of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS (Saga Press, November 2018). She attended Truman State University in northern Missouri, where she studied world literature, mythology and folklore, and now works part-time as a game monitor at an escape room company and occasional bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of her feline quality control manager. She can be found on Twitter as @_alexrowland.

This essay appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The Stellar Beacon a ‘zine about geek and gamer culture and which also supports Return to the Stars, a space opera RPG about optimism, cosmopolitanism, pop culture and, occasionally, hopepunk.


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