- author: kameron hurley,
- category: nonfiction,
- reviews: books,
- reviews: essay collections,
- theme: feminism,
- theme: history,
- topic: fandom,
- topic: female representation,
- topic: genre fiction,
- topic: literary criticism,
- topic: politics,
- topic: publishing,
- topic: science fiction,
- topic: television,
- topic: women in genre,
- topic: writing
It's the start of July. I am trying to review Kameron Hurley's essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution. In my wisdom, I have decided an analysis of her essay, "I'll Make The Pancakes: On Opting In And Out of the Writing Game", would make a great entry point for my review. I reread it to remind myself of the piece's fundamental points:
The more women writers I read, from Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Toni Morrison, the less alone I felt, and the more I began to see myself as part of something more.
It wasn't about one woman toiling against the universe. It was about all of us moving together, crying out into some black, inhospitable place that we would not be quiet, we would not go silently, we would not stop speaking, we would not give in.
It's hard to see the keyboard when you're trying not to cry.
Several weeks later, I actually get some words down. They are mostly about me. I delete them all - rinse, repeat, start again. I consider reviewing a film I hated instead, a piece of media that meant nothing to me, just to let me get some damn words out. I remember that Hurley's work is all about persistence. I start again.
Kameron Hurley is one of my favourite SFF authors. Her novels, short fiction, online essays - every form she has written in so far has stuck a little hook in my heart and pulled hard. Nyxnissa so Dasheem, the protagonist of Hurley's Bel Dame Apocraphya trilogy, left an indelible mark in my reading history. Nyx is a weapon, a monster, a heroine, and a seductively bad, good time — the kind of Scary Female Protagonist Hurley calls for more of in her essay "What's So Scary About Strong Female Protagonists, Anyway?". It was a revelation to see a female character allowed to be so messy, strong, monstrous and human all at the same time; to see a novel call a female character to account for their actions and yet know they were never being punished simply for being a woman who dared to do something. Ever since I first encountered Nyx in God's War, I've been a fully paid up fan-girl fool for Hurley's work. It's no exaggeration to say that her words have kept me alive:
There are days where I indeed feel like I'm screaming along on an island the way a lot of young women writers might feel every time they read the latest bullshit about how they'll be reviewed less, stocked less, and passed over for more awards than their dude colleagues.
But the fact is, I'm not alone. There's a huge, angry, passionate group of people who aren't happy with the status quo, and who are actively speaking out against it.
So, excuse me if I'm more emotional than analytical when it comes to The Geek Feminist Revolution. It's just that Kameron Hurley's words are one of the reasons I've been able to keep writing in the past few years. I'm still able to exist in my small, secure space on the internet because of strategies that she offered up on Twitter or in her online essays: don't be afraid to unfollow; keep your head down and do the work; the mute button is your friend. Don't let the bastards distract you. By writing about her own experience as a long-term feminist and female SFF author, Hurley has made it possible for me to keep going and push through some of the hardest parts of my life.
Maybe that sounds overly dramatic, considering how little I put out on the internet these days; how hunkered down and protective of my online boundaries I am. Well, come fight me about it. I am still here. I am not one among the missing. That is what this author's words have done for me:
I don't blame you if it's too much. I don't judge you for telling this genre or any other to fuck itself. But if you stay in this, next to me, and next to all the other women and men and all the fabulous plethora of otherwise-identified folks engaged in rewriting the narrative of what science fiction is, we'll support you, and champion you, and we'll fight with you.
That's what I have for you. Some days, it won't be enough. Some days, it'll be all that gets you up off the floor. So you pack the guns. I'll make us some pancakes. And let's get back to work.
I read many of the essays in The Geek Feminist Revolution when they were originally published, including "I'll Make The Pancakes" and the Hugo award-winning "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative". Much of the collection is available as single essays online (in fact, you can read one of them — "Gender, Family, Nookie; The Speculative Frontier" — right here at Lady Business). So, why should you, gentle reader, pay to buy The Geek Feminist Revolution? You, who are perhaps less invested in gazing at a physical copy of all those life-sustaining words. You, who I am sure have better manners than to go around literally waving this physical collection in people's face, pushing it into their hands, staring intently at them until they open its covers. Well let me tell you why you should make a copy of The Geek Feminist Revolution your very own precious.
It's about the words. It's always about the words.
Hurley's best known piece of non-fiction is the 2013 Hugo award-winning essay "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle & Slaves' Narrative". This essay seeks to show how the historical reality of women as soldiers, and more generally the fact that women have played varied roles throughout history, is often erased when authors write stories about women. Very serious subject that. So, of course the essay begins with a metaphor about llamas:
Every story you hear about llamas is the same. You see it in books: the poor doomed baby llama getting chomped up by its intemperate parent. On television: the massive tide of scaly llamas falling in a great, majestic herd into the sea below. In the movies: bad-ass llamas smoking cigars and painting their scales in jungle camouflage.
Because you’ve seen this story so many times, because you already know the nature and history of llamas, it sometimes shocks you, of course, to see a llama outside of these media spaces. The llamas you see don’t have scales. So you doubt what you see, and you joke with your friends about “those scaly llamas” and they laugh and say, “Yes, llamas sure are scaly!” and you forget your actual experience.
It is no exaggeration to say that this essay blew up on the internet. It was passed hand to hand, tweet to tweet. It became a core reference in SFF feminist discourse; linked over and over in other essays which built on its logic. As Hurley herself has said, this essay isn't the first of its kind nor does it produce new evidence. So, why was it so immensely popular?
Part of its success was down to the enthusiasm of the feminist section of the SFF community. Here was a relevant, recent piece of feminist writing that collected useful points and evidence into one contained space. Hurley had created a smart, 101 style tool that allowed other feminist writers to quickly sweep aside common sexist arguments and get on with their own work. Instead of having to restate and rebuild their case each time a troll appeared to mansplain that "In the olden days women just didn't" they could link to "We Have Always Fought" and leave the sexists to read or fold. "We Have Always Fought" spread through female-focused spaces, and showed up as a rebuttal in comment sections across the internet. Like Hurley's protagonist, Nyx, this essay was a weapon and the internet wielded it well.
However, to become the first article to ever win Best related Work at the Hugo Awards, Hurley's essay had to be more than a hammer against sexists. And this is where the writing comes in. "We Have Always Fought" is a skillful piece of writing: deceptively funny, personal, varied and full of sharp assertions. It clothes its arguments in story but also make its rhetoric clear, obvious and easy to follow. It's subject matter is expansive; roaming far and wide across llamas, language, African fighters, Hurley's own personal history with misogyny, and a story of illness on a train. And yet it is laser-focused - always returning to emphasise its main feminist points. Its language is simple, firm and confident. All of which combined makes it an exciting essay for the reader to experience. Its contains a diversity of stories, coupled with a driving pace which directs the reader smoothly to their conclusion. It mixes a delicious cocktail of charm and bitterness, and ends with a compelling call to action. It takes the reader on a journey, making the trip as important as the destination. Yet it never forgets that the reader really wants to get to the destination. And so, it makes sure to deliver them securely to their end goal, while also filling their boots with information about women, llamas and activism along the way.
2013, and the years just before, had certainly seen a concerted groundswell of feminist criticism surrounding SFF. People had been shouting about these issues for a long time but something was also starting to shift in certain sections of the SFF community. Perhaps the SFF community was just ready to hear the argument that women have always been here; in science fiction, in battle and in the world. Perhaps the world was just eager to hear the truth ringing out:
What does it matter, if we tell the same old stories? If we share the same old lies? If women fight, and women lead, and women hold up half the sky, what do stories matter to the truth? We won’t change the truth by writing people out of it.
Stories tell us who we are. What we’re capable of. When we go out looking for stories we are, I think, in many ways going in search of ourselves, trying to find understanding of our lives, and the people around us. Stories, and language tell us what’s important.
If women are “bitches” and “cunts” and “whores” and the people we’re killing are “gooks” and “japs” and “rag heads” then they aren’t really people, are they? It makes them easier to erase. Easier to kill. To disregard. To un-see.
But the moment we re-imagine the world as a buzzing hive of individuals with a variety of genders and complicated sexes and unique, passionate narratives that have yet to be told – it makes them harder to ignore. They are no longer, “women and cattle and slaves” but active players in their own stories.
Or maybe, just maybe, the words and the way it was written were part of what made this essay matter so much. "We Have Always Fought" is a damn fine essay, not just the vessel for damn fine ideas. It is crafted with the knowledge that the right words can enhance a powerful message. It is built with the awareness that people need to care in order to hear.
Throughout The Geek Feminist Revolution Hurley circles back to the idea that effective craft and storytelling can really make a difference to a creator's ability to connect with a reader (and how storytelling can change the world). In "Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing", she explains how storytelling can trump fact. In "What Marketing and Advertising Taught me About Failure" and "Unpacking the "Real Writers Have Talent" Myth" she talks about how copywriting taught her to write, and why studying writing is essential if you want to learn how to write. What's more, the reader can see Hurley practising what she preaches in her essay collection. She wraps her critical analysis of pop culture up in personal stories. She uses different formats and lengths for her essays to try and connect ideas with readers. She arranges the essays in her collection into narrative arcs which allows her to build larger points through the connections they make with each other. She is always mixing things up for the reader — trying to keep them alert, engaged and able to read while she hands them some pretty heavy subject matter. Her collection is deliberately accessible. It's shaped around the idea that people should be able to understand feminism - a subject which some reject because it seems too academic and alienating.
So, not only does The Geek Feminist Revolution present vital content about feminism, bodies, politics and SFF. It also gives the reader a masterclass in writing and criticism. Pretty good value for money if you ask me.
I guess I've reached the point where I get to eulogise about my favourite essays, yes? Grant me this indulgence and then I promise I'll let you go.
The collection is organised into four parts: Level Up; Geek; Let's Get Personal, and Revolution. Each section is built around a particular theme. The first section, Level Up - for example is about the technical business of writing and managing a long-term writing career. My favourite section has to be Geek, where Hurley takes a critical look at several pieces of popular media including True Detective, Die Hard and Mad Max. Hurley breaks down how they work, and what kind of stories these pieces are telling the audience. And in doing so, she also weaves what she's tried to teach the reader about writing in Level Up into these essays. The essays in Geek are also personal — for example, "Some Men Are More Monstrous Than Others: On True Detective's Monsters and Men" combines an analysis of the two main characters with stories about Hurley's own dating history. The essays in this section are just some of my favourite pieces of media criticism out there, and they made me wish Hurley produced more posts about other people's work (but I also want her to write more books and live a life, so…).
It's impossible to pick anything like a Top 5 Favourites list from this collection but some of the essays I loved included:
- "I'll Make The Pancakes: On Opting In And Out of the Writing Game" — A pretty obvious choice considering how much it makes me tear up. This is an exploration of Hurley's relationship with feminism and Joanna Russ' writing. It's also a promise and a call to arms. Kind of a love letter to feminists.
- "Where Have All The Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction" — A really a simple reiteration of the sexist arguments railed against in Joanna Russ' How To Suppress Women's Writing. Still, seeing all those arguments explained and cut down in this one short essay has a powerful effect on me.
- "Some Men Are More Monstrous Than Others: On True Detective's Monsters and Men" — Come for the personal story, stay for the smart analysis of TV and misogyny. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch True Detective (it sounds very much like my preferred kind of male-saturated poison so I'm saving it for when I feel particularly shit about the world, I guess) but I loved seeing it drawn apart through Hurley's critical eyes.
- "Wives, Warlords and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max" — If I wanted an essay on Mad Max: Fury Road from anyone it was Hurley. Just a great, great, great feminist critique of the world, female agency and the way this film was shot ('You hear that, HBO? There was no gratuitous nudity in this film.').
- "Finding Hope In Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction" — A short, very personal essay with an incredibly firm structure that amps the power of the stories told up to 2000%. Something exploded in me when I read this.
- "The Horror Novel You'll Never Have To Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance" — I knew the American healthcare system was bad but I had no idea it was also so complicated. Quite simply, this essay educated me and now I'm more informed because of it.
And of course, you should all read "We Have Always Fought".
Some of the essays in this collection were a little short for my taste. I think Hurley excels when she has a few pages to really build a layered narrative into an essay. And there were spots in this collection where I didn't agree with Hurley's analysis. I'd already read "Becoming What You Hate", the essay Hurley wrote about Requires Hate, when it first appeared online. I don't think that essay places the whole situation in it's proper context, and it is a weak piece if you know the whole history behind the author and internet personality discussed. In the essays that follow, Hurley constructs a narrative about how to act when you suddenly go from being on the outside to being 'queen'. And that narrative, which stands in such opposition to the way so many authors act when challenged by fans in pain, was very heartening to see. It allows space for fans to disagree with creators and with her, and promises at least an attempt to 'get out of the way' and to listen. However, I appreciate that this essay will be a sticking point for many of the feminist geeks who approach this collection.
Otherwise though, I just find myself wanting to urge you to a book shop or a library to search out The Geek Feminist Revolution for yourselves. Pick up a copy. Come join the revolution! Just, y'know, GO and fucking get it. It's aces.
Ana reviews The Geek Feminist Revolution for The Book Smugglers
Angel Cruz reviews The Geek Feminist Revolution for Women Write About Comics
Bibliotropic reviews The Geek Feminist Revolution
io9 calls The Geek Feminist Revolution an essential commentary for the Geek World
Leading the Charge: Kameron Hurley's Geek Feminist Revolution