Leading the Charge: Kameron Hurley’s Geek Feminist Revolution

nf3Do you feel it? There is a tremor in the force.

Science fiction and fantasy are steeped in traditions far older than Tolkien and Heinlein—going all the way back to the origins of storytelling. It’s a rich history, steeped in imagination and a desire to contemplate a future beyond our wildest dreams. But our dreams have a dark side, and much of genre’s past—and present—is steeped in misogyny and troubled by a predominance of damaging tropes. How many princesses need to be saved? How many times must the valiant, white-cloaked armies of Minas Tirith defeat the Haradrim and the dark-skinned Orcs? The works of contemporary fantasy trope-busters like N.K. Jemisin or Ann Leckie are proof enough that the expiration date on those outmoded ideas is long behind us. Large portions of the online science fiction and fantasy community—gathered on Twitter, message boards, Reddit, and elsewhere—are clamoring for change, for a speculative field that is better representative of the diversity found both within it and across human society.

Over the past several years, it’s been impossible to be involved in serious online discourse about SFF without encountering the ongoing pitched battle between progressive readers and writers—those who wish to see the genres reclaim their seat as the leading authority on what will make for a better future, or a more complex and inclusive definition of humanity—and the old guard—those who believe the genres’ quest for “social justice” has come at the cost of fun, of the spirit of the Golden Age, when Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were crowned kings. The repercussions of this dichotomy can be felt everywhere. It has made a mess of the Hugos. It has impacted the safety and comfort of women in public and private fan spaces. It has touched the worlds of video games and comic books. It continues to affect the lives of millions of readers and non-readers, every single day. But fans are pushing back, demanding more and better from their favorite authors, editors, and artists. And Kameron Hurley is leading the charge.

Who is Kameron Hurley?

She’s the author of some of the hardest-hitting, most fascinating SFF of recent years, including Empire Ascendant and the forthcoming The Stars Are Legion (coming in January, 2017 from Saga Press). She’s a Hugo Award-winning essayist. She loves ’80s post-apocalyptic action movies. She’s a feminist. She’s a voice for a new generation of socially conscious readers. She is Obi-wan; like the Jedi master, you’d do well not to underestimate her, because she’s come through a grinder that would have chewed most people to a fine paste.

The Geek Feminist Revolution is her megaphone.

Now that I’m on the inside, am I doing anything to make the way here easier for those coming up behind me? Am I signal-boosting voices? Am I recommending books that might have been missed? Or am I perpetuating the same old problems, and the same old narratives, by supporting writers who the system has already privileged on the way here? — “When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside” 

One of Hurley’s guideposts through her career as both a novelist and essay writer is Joanna Russ, a leading writer of progressive, feminist science fiction in the ’70s and ’80s, who Hurley considers one of genre’s most subversive writers. Russ helped to open the eyes of a whole generation of SFF fans and writers, and her impact continues to ripple through fandom and into mainstream media. When Russ was publishing, SFF was just emerging from the “Golden Age,” which was led by popular (mostly male) authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Women were there, too: Leigh Brackett‘s novels and short fiction were popular, and she had an understated hand in defining science fiction adventure through her formative work on The Empire Strikes Back; Katherine Kurtz was writing great epic fantasy long before Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson popularized it in the ’80s; Alice Sheldon wrote such blistering fiction, most of her readers assumed she must be male. But women’s voices of the era have been drowned out amid a cacophony of praise for the men who are considered the masters of the SFF boom of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

“Russ was one of my heroes,” Hurley says in “I’ll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In—and Out—of the Writing Game.” It’s an opinion shared by many who admire Russ’ tenacity, and her sharp dissections of a world overwhelmed by men. “I found her to be the most angry and vehement of the feminist SF writers I’d read; compared to Russ, Le Guin was boringly conservative.” Russ helped Hurley understand that she was not alone—a familiar feeling to anyone fighting for a spot in a fandom that does not always outwardly represent its breadth and diversity. “Often we get tangled up in thinking our experiences are somehow singular, that no one before us walked this road or tackled these problems or felt this kind of angry woe at the state of their chosen profession as a writer of fiction, or anything else.”

Russ was a voice speaking for thousands, millions, billions of women who needed a voice but did not know how to be heard.

Russ hadn’t really published much work since the late ’90s, due to illness and, I suspect, exhaustion at this bullshit game. It’s hard. It’s brutal. It’s no fun.

But even though she hadn’t been in the game for a while, there was some safety and security in knowing she was still alive. That her voice was there. It existed. Her work was available. She wasn’t going to be shut up.

With her voice there, I realized, I didn’t feel as much pressure to step up.

She was there to do it.

I didn’t have to.

In 2011, Russ passed away, leaving a legacy that has inspired people to be better and fight harder, and a community changed irrevocably for her efforts. Hurley despaired at the thought of a world without her anger and passion. Who would fill that gaping void? Could it be filled? She began to realize that the void was not a vacuum, and would not fill itself. “Instead of telling other people to step up … Well … I could be the one to step up. I could be one of those voices. Because, shit: I’ve been screaming on the internet for 10 years. What’s 40 more? […] One thing Russ’s death taught me is that you can’t rely on other folks’ voices always being there. Sometimes it needs to be your voice.”

As I get older, I understand why so many writers, especially women writers, throw in the towel and tell the industry to fuck itself. We climbed our way up here over the wall, and now we’re on the inside, and we find there are more hurdles, and higher walls, and we must not only throw ropes over the side to help others after us, but also scale these new walls. What I never understood from the outside is how difficult it is to stay on the inside. [… ]For all my cynicism, I believe in the goodness of people, I believe we can get to a better world without destroying each other. I believe we can reach back, and throw the rope over, and pull others through to help us continue our climb, instead of trying to face the hurdles of a broken system alone as those before us did. — “I’ll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In—and Out—of the Writing Game”

Scaling ropes left behind by Russ, Hurley made her way inside, and she’s fighting like hell to stay there, to bust open the castle gates, and usher in those fighting alongside and behind her. Her weapon is not a sword, nor a gun. It’s not deceit, or poison. Her weapon is her words. And we all know the old proverb that speaks to the power of a pen.

Hurley is a hugely prolific essayist, and often does wide-ranging blog tours leading up to the release of her new novels. The Geek Feminist Revolution gathers them from her blog and around the web, and adds several new pieces. In a sense, they are considerations of geekdom and SFF, but they’re more than that: they’re cunningly crafted narratives examining issues of sexism, racism, and dismissiveness plaguing modern society. In an age where SFF coverage is dominated by men—both in terms of whose books are being reviewed, but also who’s doing the reviewing—Hurley’s voice is essential. She raises issues that are difficult to read about, especially if you’re an 18-34 white male, like me—because she’s right: things have to change. But don’t think of her writing as a jagged pill to swallow; The Geek Feminist Revolution is a delight to read, and Hurley’s ability to weave oft-hilarious, oft-heartbreaking personal anecdotes into persuasive narratives is equalled only by the inestimable Roxane Gay.

These essays remind us that humans are complex and multi-layered . Women can be “whisky-drinking, gun-toting, lone wolf types.” Men can be empathetic and caring. When we celebrate paper-thin “heroic” male characters, Hurley says, “it’s celebrating a broken world that never was.” Denying this, or withholding “feminine” traits from male characters, and vice-versa, is something she calls “willful blindness.”

Hurley discusses the inherent dangers of willful blindness by examining her own attempts at trope subversion. “By turning squads of soldiers committing war crimes into women in my short story ‘Wonder Maul Doll,’ and invading forces from other shores into women in ‘The Women of Our Occupation,’ I started to peel back the ‘normalcy’ we attach to this extreme sort of masculinity and uncover the rottenness at much of its core — while simultaneously creating more interesting and complex visions of women.” Boys will be boys, but what happens when women behave in a similar manner?

“Whereas other authors, perhaps, grew up to emulate this writing and construct these hyper-masculine heroes without question, I started to think about how Conan would actually get along in the world,” Hurley explains in “Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters,” which examines the way we idolize characters like Mad Max and Conan. “I started to think about ways that hyper-masculinity would affect the quality of the characters’ lives. I realized that Conan would never have a happy ending. Whether or not that’s something to celebrate, I don’t know. But it’s something we should talk about.” It’s important to, “write about people. Not caricatures.”

Any piece of writing that’s meant to connect with people is a story—from fiction to ad copy—and Hurley, a marketing copywriter by day, takes the same approach to her essays as she does her fiction. “Storytelling is a universal: every culture does it. There’s a reason our religious books aren’t simply a list of shall-and-shall-nots. Morals and teachings are contained in stories, which are studied, dissected and passed down; we remember stories in a way we don’t remember lists of facts,” she explains in “Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing,” which details the method behind her Hugo Award-winning essay, “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.”

“Science fiction writers create all sorts of futures—that comes with the job. But it’s not the type that matters—hopeful or dark—it’s the variety we see as readers. It’s nurturing the imaginations of those who will go on to create the world around us,” she adds in “Our Dystopia: Imagining More Hopeful Futures.” Hurley is keenly aware that writers have the vision and authority to help shape the future, and it fuels much of her work, as she discusses in the collection’s introduction.

As both an essayist and science fiction and fantasy novelist, I write about and for the future. I talk about the past to remind us that what we believe has always been true—that men and women are somehow static categories, or that men in power has always been the default, or that same-sex love affairs were always taboo—has not always been thus. Who we are, how we define ourselves, how we structure our societies has been vastly mutable over time. I talk about that because if we assume the world has always been one way, then change it not only scarier (“but what happens if we change?), but appears to be impossible (“it’s never been done!”). […] It has been my passion […] to both understand and interrogate creators’ responsibilities to their audiences and to the wider culture. If the stories we tell become not just books, but comic books, television series, movies, and merchandising endeavors, then what we are doing right now could have a profound impact on future generations of storytelling, which influence the behavior of our entire society.

Ultimately, all writers have an agenda. Whether they’re trying to push forward a personal belief, a political agenda, or just write a rippin’ good yarn, every story is a product of its author’s inner complexities. They aim to change the reader—by leaving them entertained, opening their eyes to a new way of thinking, or laying bare troubling or encouraging thoughts about the human condition.

“There’s a lot of whining about ‘message fiction’ these days, which is bizarre, because every story is a ‘message’ story, or it wouldn’t be a story,” Hurley puzzles out in “Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max,” an examination of our addiction to watching other humans persevere (or not) through extreme circumstances. In “In Defense of Unlikeable Women,” she concludes that, “[s]tories tell us not only who we are, but who we can be. They paint the narrow behavioral boxes within which we put ourselves and those we know. They can encourage compassion and kindness and acceptance, or violence and intolerance and reprisal. It all bleeds from the page or the screen into the real world.”

Like the heroes in her stories—Nyx in God’s War, or Zezili in The Mirror Empire—Hurley is fierce and determined in her fight. She doesn’t hold back, and she’s not afraid to hurt feelings. But she’s also hopeful, and, like Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), she believes that a better world exists somewhere, but we have to fight for it. “I’m pleased to be part of the massive push for expanding our imaginations and busting down the limitations we put on our own lives,” she says in “Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier.”  “Anything is possible. But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.”

I wrote an article where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsibles alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a twenty-three-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that it’s become a conscious but also unconscious expectation that anyone who isn’t—at least some of the time—must be inherently unnatural. […]

Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan. — “In Defense of Unlikable Women”

Hurley’s writing prompted me to reexamine my own fiction, to revisit a short story I’ve been working on and rework a plot point about an absentee mother. I gave her a new backstory—not an easier one, but one that is more complex, less dismissive. This morning, I saw a woman walking down the street smoking, and I realized I hold women to a higher standard than men—a double standard. I’ll forgive a man for smoking, even if I despise it generally. But not a woman. Even when these biases come from a place of good intention, they’re damaging. I’m no different than the snide message board commenter who declared Hurley an alcoholic for sharing an anecdote from her college years. Writers must strive to create characters—male, female, trans, non-binary, or any other point along the spectrum—that are rich and varied in their motivations, flawed and strong in ways that are not cheap, easy, or, worse, dismissive of the complexities of our labyrinthine individual wants, needs, and desires.

Like Gay’s equally provoking, revelatory Bad Feminist, The Geek Feminist Revolution is a handbook for navigating the complexities of a world waking up to the need for equal representation. Reading it might make you a better, more understanding person, but it’ll also entertain the heck out of you, and open your eyes to the breadth of the world and the challenges that we face, together and individually. Hurley doesn’t hold back in her examinations of geek and pop culture but, like Gay, she doesn’t give herself a free pass, showcasing through personal anecdote and reflection how even those who are committed to breaking down prejudicial walls aren’t flawless. “I’m the biggest self-aware misogynist I know,” Hurley admits in “We Have Always Fought.” It’s this candid self-analysis that gives Hurley and Gay’s discourse so much power. They reduce the fear and intimidation around the word “feminist” by illustrating that it’s okay to strive towards an ideal, to fight the small fights, even if you are flawed, even if you make mistakes. Dust yourself off and try again. Always try again.

Shortly after being elected as prime minister of Canada, my fine country, Justin Trudeau said, “We shouldn’t be afraid to use the word feminist. Men and women should use it to describe themselves whenever they want.” Both of these essays collections are important works not just for women and men who already self-identify as feminists, but those curious about the movement in the modern day.  “Hopefully 20 years from now,” Trudeau continued, “people will look at what we think is acceptable today and find it horrifically off-base.”

Donning not just Russ’s mantle, but one worn by Octavia Butler, Alice Sheldon, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany, who all fought or are fighting for better representation in genre, Hurley has positioned herself as one of speculative fiction’s  most vocal, respected essayists. Like Russ, her work amounts to a ruthless attack against the patriarchy so prevalent within geek culture.

When we see sexist and racist behavior, the only way to change that is also to point it out and make it clear that it’s not okay. The reason people continue to engage in certain types of behavior is because they receive positive feedback from peers, and no one challenges them on their assertions. — “Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction.”

I’ve read most of these essays before, some of them many times. I even published the one that lends it a title on my now-retired blog; it earned Hurley one of her two 2014 Hugo awards. But reading them together in one book adds impact to her discourse, grafting a linear narrative to an argument Hurley has been constructing for years, illustrating that change is occurring, and must continue to occur, not just within SFF, but throughout all of popular culture. As the introduction points out, the war must be waged beyond the borders of fandom. “I have been fighting this narrative for a long time, because it is not limited to popular culture,” she says. “Popular culture is simply a microcosm of our wider culture, and we live in a culture that doesn’t like to uplift female voices without a fight. The fight takes its toll. I am imperfect, and I am tired.”

Reading The Geek Feminist Revolution is like sitting down across from Hurley at a hotel bar in the middle of WorldCon, whisky in hand, and having an intimate discussion of everything that needs to change. You leave feeling like you can make a difference, that you have a voice, and that there are others out there just like you, fighting in whatever ways are available to them. It’s a fight to make the SFF fandom of tomorrow a better, safer, more inclusive, and interesting place.

“Because I write such dark stories, many people think that I’m a pessimistic person. But that’s not true,” Hurley admits in “Where Have All the Women Gone?.” Between every line she writes is a message that the world can and will be a better place if we keep demanding change. “I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history that has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.”

The Geek Feminist Revolution is available now from Tor Books.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy