Being a Nerd, Weaponizing Hope, and the Art of Being Happy in Bad Times by Preston Norton￼
2020 was a bad year. I don’t need to tell you this. The four or so years leading up to 2020 were bad in their own way for reasons I probably don’t need to explain. So now here we are, almost all the way through 2021, and still, for whatever reason, everything still feels bad. Our reasons for feeling this way may vary. Maybe it’s because the supply chain is mucking up our holiday plans. Or because we still don’t have a PS5. Maybe it’s because Mark Zuckerberg is turning the already terrible Facebook and all its disinformation-pushing, privacy-invading, mental health-wrecking glory into the sort of dystopia that could only be imagined by 80s/90s cyberpunk authors. We tend to think of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson as the sci-fi writing predictors of the future but let us not forget that David Foster Wallace wrote about a weapon of mass destruction called The Entertainment—a video so entertaining that you would lose all interest in doing the things necessary to live until you inevitably die—and now we have TikTok, the very algorithm of dopamine-pounding visual entertainment! Maybe it’s the way modern news takes all the hate scattered across the four corners of the world and puts it in front of our very eyes, like it’s happening right before us. There are plenty of other reasons I’m sure I haven’t even touched on, but the fact remains that when we were kids, we all thought we would all have flying cars in the future, and instead we all have depression and anxiety.
Now that I have effectively killed the mood, let me tell you about the things that make me happy: Stories. Creating stories. Engaging with people who have been touched by stories I have created. Bonding with people over stories I did not create. There’s a term for this last one, and it is called “being a nerd.” I love nerds because nerds love things. They see richness and joy in fictional worlds, and they lose themselves in them. You may ask: what’s the difference between losing yourself in a story and losing yourself in your phone? I cannot deny that the smartphone is an excellent new platform for presenting stories. (Webtoon, anyone?) But I would ask you who is in control of your brain during each of these activities: your imagination or an algorithm?
My upcoming novel, Hopepunk, is about two girls: Faith and Hope. (Yes, there is also a girl named Charity—all sisters—but she serves an entirely different purpose.) Hope is the main character, and a curious blend of being a sad, insecure, broken hot mess but also being a raging badass. (Sometimes you can be both, and sometimes it depends on who you have supporting you.) Faith is Hope’s older sister, a queer girl, and also the biggest nerd you have ever seen. Hope loves Faith with all her heart, the way only a best friend and sister could. She maybe even especially loves her because they come from an ultra-conservative Christian family in an ultra-conservative Christian community, and Hope is the only one who knows Faith for who she really is. When shit hits the fan and Faith gets outted against her will, she runs away from home. Thus begins two journeys. Hope has to find Faith—even though she has no idea where to look. But maybe even more importantly, she has to change the world that chased her sister and best friend away. And what better way to do this than starting a rock band and defeating the cruel, hate-driven band that has risen like a symbol of everything bad in her small town at their local Battle of the Bands?
But this story does not just belong to Hope. There is a story within the story—a sci-fi romance adventure called Andromeda and Tanks through Space and Time—that Faith writes herself, which readers can use to piece together her side of the story. In many ways, the extraterrestrial protagonist Andromeda is Faith, and although her journey is clearly more allegorical than literal, it is an interesting lens through which readers can see the world through Faith’s eyes.
The term “hopepunk” is not an original word of my own creation. It also might not have existed if the term “cyberpunk” had not been coined decades before it. But whereas cyberpunk—and all the “-punk” subgenres to follow it—represented niche genres under the greater science fiction umbrella, the term “hopepunk” stands out for representing a mood rather than an aesthetic. Coined as late as 2017, a time that was already in the throes of feeling a wee bit dystopian, hopepunk represents an expression of optimism in the face bad times. It came at a time when, for ages, speculative fiction was pushing more and more into themes of violence, amorality, and despair. But when you look to the news, and this is all you see, you can understand why a genre might form in opposition. Hopepunk, as a genre, is all about weaponizing themes of love and kindness and empathy as an act of resistance. When times are dark, we all seek for things to bring light and joy to our heavy souls, and that goes for the worlds that we escape into in our free time.
While there is not a lot of inherent happiness to be found at surface level in Hope and Faith’s stories—at least, not until they fight their good fights—I do believe there is an overarching happiness in the struggle of their respective journeys. Fighting alongside good friends in hard times. Little glimmers of light in the darkness. Sometimes the greatest happiness is finally feeling the warmth of dawn after a cold, dark night. Not everyone gets what they deserve in life, but that’s the beauty of fiction. As an author, I get to “play God” so to speak, and I love my characters. I believe in a hard-earned happy ending. And if my characters have earned it, you better believe my readers have earned it too.
Preston Norton is bisexual, slightly genderqueer, and married. His partner, Erin, is trying to put him on a diet, and he’s revolting (both contexts apply). He has taught seventh grade and ninth grade English, mentored drug addicts, and mowed lawns (in no particular order). He is obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino.