Some months ago, a student activist panel in the Canadian capital of Ottawa brought together representatives of the United States Students’ Association, the Canadian Federation of Students, and Black Lives Matter. Within moments, the discussion unexpectedly veered off into science fiction.
This was no ivory tower academic detour. Science fiction became, for some speakers, the mirror against which today’s struggles are seen for what they are. A lack of black, queer, trans heroes in the future worlds of sci-fi mirrors their erasure in contemporary society. Shouldn’t science fiction—which purports to trade in the speculative future, not the sordid present—do better at portraying other worlds, including other worlds of identity, not just otherworldly landscapes and trinary suns? Anybody who says equality has been achieved need only take a quick glance at the very unequal worlds portrayed in sci-fi and fantasy, to realize they reflect the very unequal attitudes and societies in which their creators remain creatively stuck.
On reflection, it’s not at all strange for science fiction to come up at a student activist gathering. Aside from the familiarity many college students have with pop culture and sci-fi, both progressive activism and science fiction are really about the same thing: envisioning other worlds, inventing new ‘normals’ and showing the rest of society that greater and better possibilities are, indeed, possible. Whether new worlds are created with the stroke of a keypad or the waving of a placard, both reflect the human capacity for growth, for reinvention, for hope. They’re about the fact we can rise above our present nature, and reach for the stars, both literally and societally. They’re about bringing those worlds into existence—either in the books we read and pop culture we consume, or in the social structures that we live from day to day. And maybe, just maybe, the two are linked.
It’s a theme explored by science fiction writer Kameron Hurley. In her essay ‘Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier’, she writes:
The way we challenge convention—the pushing out of the margins—very often happens first in fiction, and bleeds out from that media into larger fandoms, from comics to film to television… Story is powerful. It can hold us back. Box us in. But it can also challenge our assumptions. Teach us to build structures. Or tear down those structures altogether and start over again anew. Anything is possible. But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.
She tackles the theme again, this time from a very personal perspective as a writer, in her essay ‘A Complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex and Sexuality in Science Fiction’:
[N]ormal is a lie. Normal is a story. As a writer, it’s my job to construct new normal for people. It’s my job to show folks what’s possible. It’s my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again. It makes us the most poorly paid but most powerful people in the world.
This is the power of science fiction—not only to explore what other possibilities exist, but to remind us that our present realities are merely one of many possible alternative universes. There is nothing predetermined, or inevitable, about the world in which we live. It is merely the result of one story arc, one set of choices comprising a particular narrative, which has come into being and which could, if different choices had been made, have been any of a hundred different alternative worlds. Science fiction reminds us not only of the possibilities of the future, but of the inventedness of the present.
In her essay ‘Our Dystopia: Imagining More Hopeful Futures’, Hurley offers an intriguing consideration of the respective benefits of dystopias and utopias in this process. Utopias give us possibilities to hope for, but dystopias are important, too, and not only as warnings. Just as we might despair that our present society seems so far from the utopias we yearn for, we can also feel a sense of accomplishment that we have avoided some of our most dreaded dystopias. While many (Hurley included) find a great deal of dystopian reality in our present world, the floating indicator of contemporary society on the utopian-dystopian spectrum reminds us, again, of the power and significance of our individual and collective choices to shape the world in which we live. “If you can dream it, you can make [it],” she writes. “It goes for dystopias and utopias alike.”
Leading the Geek Feminist Revolution
This is merely one of several themes explored by Hurley in her superb collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, which compiles previously published as well as new material by the award-winning science fiction novelist and essayist.
It’s an impressive and exciting collection. It’s also an inspiring one, demonstrating just how much ground has been gained in the struggle to tackle bigotry, sexism and other forms of white cis-man patriarchy in science fiction and fantasy. As Hurley notes in her essay ‘The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories’, the growing demand for stories that actually reflect the variety of gendered, sexual, racialized and other identities of today’s consumers means that publishers and producers of pop culture recycle oppressive tropes at their peril.
With a widening range of platforms offering voice to a growing array of creative producers exploring an expanding scale of diversity, readers and movie-goers and gamers no longer have to settle for books and movies and games that contain sexist elements, simply because the sexist ones also contain engaging storylines or plots or graphics. That’s because there now exists an unprecedented array of sci-fi and pop culture with engaging storylines and plots and graphics that are not also sexist and racist and repulsive in other ways. It means that “we can choose media that doesn’t insult us a lot more easily now than before… And increasingly, I find that though I considered what I was writing to be stuff on the margins, it is actually in a bit toward… well… if not mainstream, then at least carving out its own niche with audiences like me who are actively turning off bullshit stuff because they know there’s more interesting work out there.”
If the tides are turning, Hurley deserves her share of the credit. Her unapologetic and brilliantly incisive critiques of the genre have helped to expose the ways in which much contemporary sci-fi and fantasy remains mired in oppressive tropes, due not to any innate qualities of the genre, but rather due to the lack of creativity, and often violently defensive backlash, of the privileged defenders of traditionalist status quo.
Many of the essays in this collection were published in previous years, marking the battles that Hurley and others have waged to open up the genre to its fuller potential. She gives credit to many of those who deserve it, with particularly consistent praise for scholar and writer Joanna Russ, who died in 2011.
But it’s a broadly-themed collection as well. The first quarter of the book comprises a series of essays on the nature and challenge of writing. These are essays for the aspiring writer, offering advice and insight from Hurley’s own experience. The predominant message here—persistence—is elaborated with comparisons and metaphors drawn from Hurley’s day job at a marketing agency. This is the sort of hard-love inspirational material that an aspiring writer digs out when they’ve received their umpteenth rejection letter, and found an eviction notice in the mailbox for unpaid rent to boot. Hurley’s been there, done that, and shares a range of witty and bolstering advice for those who, like her, are prepared to soldier on.
The second quarter of the book comprise critical essays on sci-fi and pop culture. Here’s where much of her criticism of sexism and other oppressive tropes may be found. The essays deserve a much broader audience than simply fans of sci-fi and fantasy; this is pop culture critique at its best, with a lot to teach literary criticism as well. Hurley’s writing style is unpretentious, honest and down-to-earth, but the critical analysis here is refreshing and much-needed across a range of genres and disciplines. Best of all, it’s accessible to a general audience; meaning there’s a chance it might actually have an impact.
Above all, it’s honest. Hurley takes her politics seriously, and applies as critical a lens to her own work as she does to the work of others. In essays like ‘Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories’, she reflects on criticism she’s received in response to her own writing.
“If I was going to write a problematic story, I needed to either fix it or take responsibility for it… I would love to be one of those writers who just says ‘Hey, it’s a brutal world! Everyone is mangled and killed equally!’ but that isn’t really true. It’s like somebody saying that the reason all the female characters in their fantasy books are passive, raped damsels who exist to be saved by the hero is because it’s ‘realistic’. Like, what? Realistic in what world? And did you forget you were writing fantasy?
“I fail a lot at this, as this example shows. I get caught up in the bullshit just like anybody else. There’s no excuse for it, and all I can do is endeavor to do better next time, and ensure that any time I do employ a trope, I’m acutely conscious that I’m doing it for a really fucking good reason that I don’t yet have the skill or ability to write my way out of. Because though our stories may be fiction, the people who read them are not…
“Writers cry ‘Censorship!’ when readers and reviewers point out issues like these, but the reality is that writers can write whatever they like. They simply need to take responsibility for it. They need to be able to sleep at night with a full understanding of what their choices have contributed to, and the world they are helping to build. So, what world are you willing to build? How will you sleep at night? These are the questions you should be asking with every keystroke.”
Hurley combines her life-long passion and talent for science fiction and fantasy with a welcome dose of intellectual analysis, drawing on the ideas of feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory but in accessible and often self-reflexive ways. In ‘Women and Gentleman: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters’, she considers how concepts of masculinity infuse her work and the work of others, and how writers can usefully engage with that.
“I, too, grew up on Conan stories and Mad Max. I grew up celebrating dangerous alpha males who fucked and drank and blew shit up with no consequences. But 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 a world. I started to think about ways that hyper-masculinity would affect the quality of 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.”
Sci-fi Reflects Writers’ Choices, not ‘Reality’
There’s another important, underlying message here, and one central to the struggle to expose and dethrone the varied dominant forms of privilege in the genre: writers have a choice.
“As fantasists, as fiction writers, we sell fantasy. I get that. But fantasy is not bodies. It’s stories. What we sell does not have to be in service to a narrative of objectification.”
“From a reader’s perspective, simplicity is great. But from a writer’s perspective—especially one writing at the limits of the imagination—the way that science fiction and fantasy novelists create futures that look just like our assumptions about how the world operates today isn’t simplicity, it’s laziness.”
“We are so often limited by our own expectations of stories, by the stories that came before, by the heroes who came before… How is it we can bear to live with ourselves, as readers and storytellers, if we swallow those limitations without questioning them?... When our heroes are broken, it’s up to us to remake them.”
Just as importantly, she reminds us that what we read on the page also has real-world impact.
“Stories teach us empathy, and limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable. Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too. I see this all the time…”
The third quarter of the book offers very personal reflections on life. Among other themes, Hurley reflects on how body-shaming intersects with other forms of oppression, and the struggles she’s experienced in day-to-day life as well as being an increasingly prominent celebrity in the sci-fi world. She reflects on her brutal struggle to survive as someone with a chronic illness in the years before the advent of America’s nascent health care system.
What all these essays demonstrate is Hurley’s grappling with another common trope of sci-fi and fantasy—that valuation of rugged individualism which echoes so well with ‘80s Thatcherism and Reaganism and today’s neoliberal capitalism (a theme perhaps maximally represented in the alpha-masculine works of Robert Heinlein, but prevalent throughout the genre). Much like the broader society, science fiction has offered a battleground for that tug-of-war between self-reliant individualism and utopian socialism.
Hurley offers a helpful perspective as someone who grew up in thrall to rugged individualism—(“as somebody who grew up upholding ‘80s action-movie masculinity as the pinnacle of cool. I always liked the idea that strong people were loners who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, who had witty lines and impeccable health and virility and nobody messed with them”)—but has since come to realize that “You can fight all you want for individual wins, and fight to be the ‘exceptional’ woman, but so long as there’s institutionalized oppression, bias, and unregulated, out-of-control capitalism that treats people as disposable objects, you’re an exception, not a rule… We cannot effect true change alone.”
“I’m still gung-ho about assertiveness, negotiating for yourself, standing up to injustice, and the like, but I’m far less likely to tell people that all they should be doing is looking out for themselves, and fuck everybody else,” she writes. “When you look at the way we’ve constructed our entire society, very few of us would thrive in a place where we had to be totally self-sufficient.”
The same, of course, goes for iterations of feminism. Hurley recounts her own journey from the simplistic assertiveness of ‘lean-in’ feminism to the more nuanced perspective that it takes more than activating and leveraging your privilege to build (and live in) a just society.
The final quarter of the book, aptly sub-titled ‘Revolution’, collect some of Hurley’s broader-themed calls for change: reflections on whiteness; on the role of allies and intervention. She explores the misogynist backlash in sci-fi and fantasy—efforts to rig the Hugo Awards with masculinist writers, among other things—and its relation to other misogynist backlashes like Gamergate.
Change, even positive change, is not the result of civility, she reminds us.
“Change is messy. It’s angry. It’s uncomfortable. It’s full of angry people saying angry things, because they’ve been disrespected and forgotten again and again and again and again, and they’re tired of being fucking nice because it makes you uncomfortable if they act in any way that is not deferential or subservient to you and your worldview.”
In another critique of authors and other influential people who become defensive about their privilege instead of using it to fight for change, she notes the irony that “for a community of folks who grew up reading comic books and farmers-who-become-heroes, we sure do balk when we suddenly go from farm boy to hero. Because that’s a heavy fucking responsibility, and it’s easier to pretend you’re still mewling Peter Parker, complaining about how no girl will fuck you. You may not feel like you have power or influence, but you do—as do I. There are a few things we can do when we have power and influence. We can take our toys and go home. Or we can get the fuck up and fight for the people who are continually shit on, and act like a fucking hero would act.”
Most importantly, Hurley applies her arguments to her own work. She notes that as someone who has now become established as a sci-fi writer, she has amassed a certain degree of privilege. It’s incumbent on those of us with privilege to acknowledge it, she says, and not act defensive or angry when called out for it or when challenged by those who don’t possess the same privilege.
“The reality is that you cannot change a system from the inside unless you, too, are willing to change. You must acknowledge that you’re here to make it easier for those who come behind you, and you are going to knock down walls along the way that they won’t have to scale. And you will need to love them still, and welcome them, even though they will not understand how much you fought, even though your paths to this place will be different. You must be all right with them hating you for being there ahead of them. You must be all right with becoming the one they associate with the system…
“You can’t avoid becoming the enemy. But you can be less of an enemy, a more welcoming villain, a force for good and change who fades quietly ahead of the onslaught of new, more powerful voices you helped over the wall. You can learn how to get out of the way, instead of impeding them.”
If more social activists had the insight, self-reflection and wisdom that Hurley, as a sci-fi writer, professes, then the world might indeed be a better place.
Hurley’s collection is not only entertaining and engaging, it’s also important. This summer is already proving to be a hot one for readers, and especially for essay collections, with attractive offerings from Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and others. But if you only read one book this summer, make sure that it’s Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution. It could very well open up new worlds for you.
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