Today we're beyond excited to welcome Kameron Hurley, author of The Bel Dame Apocraphya series, to Lady Business. This is not a drill!
Kameron's non-fiction work about writing, gender and SFF has won her hearts, minds, and two Hugo awards this year. She is a fire-breathing feminist, a writerly icon, and creator of one of the toughest ladies in fiction. It's a blogging highlight for us to be hosting her words.
Someone once asked me why "alpha males" were so popular in so much romantic speculative fiction, and I hesitated to answer it. Not because I didn't know, but because I knew I was going to have to have a discussion about teasing out the difference between finding pleasure in something you genuinely find pleasurable and taking pleasure in something you think you're supposed to find pleasurable. This is a tough question for anyone who's taken it up — do you truly delight in displaying certain types of behavior, or receiving certain behaviors from others, or are you just taught you're supposed to like it, so convince yourself it's great?
We live in a culture that controls people through a grim hierarchy. Anyone who's ever been bullied in school knows exactly what it looks like, and how it seeks to keep us in our places; the folks at the top work to establish dominance and power. They are the ones who succeed, because the game is rigged in their favor. When you add onto that hierarchy the place of women in it, where it was only about fifty years ago when women couldn't buy a house or get a credit card without their husband's permission, it makes sense for women to make alliances with men who are bullies. Men who are bullies can protect women from other men who target them. The bully who is known to you if far less scary than the one who is not. Fetishizing that behavior when your choices are limited is not surprising.
Funny enough, this tolerance for bullies breaks down the more egalitarian a society is — one need only look up the hilarious exploits of pick-up artists trying to neg women in Amsterdam and Canada to find that this fetishisation of the bully doesn't hold as hierarchy breaks down. Yet when I see my colleagues writing far future fiction, or secondary world fiction, the fetishisation of the bully comes with them, even on worlds they may have rewritten as egalitarian. But why? Well, because that's how the story is told. That's what we expect.
That's what we keep writing.
I was watching an old 80's movie last week called Broadcast News. It's about this go-getter television producer who has a thing for an empty-headed, good-looking newscaster and a ho-hum looking but very smart reporter who's been her best friend for ages. I loved the heroine to pieces — her job came first, she tries to leap into bed with the good-looking newscaster on first meeting him (he gently turns her down) and packs condoms in her purse (what happened to these 80's heroines? Where are they in media today?). It was, I thought, a standard romcom, and I went into it expecting a standard romcom resolution. After all — she must choose one of these guys, right? But as the movie progressed, I found myself increasingly disturbed at the idea that she'd end up with either of them. Neither was a good fit. The good-looking one was just too empty headed for her, and didn't have her journalistic ethics. And the supposed "good guy" displayed a serious mean streak on being rejected that made it clear he was one of those pseudo "nice guys" who's only nice until you tell him once and for all you won't sleep with him. So imagine my surprise when (spoilers!) we get to the end of the show and she does, in fact, choose neither. She takes a big promotion and we fast forward into the future, where they're all living successful lives, all friends again, and she's been dating some other person a few months. It reminded me of the relief I felt at Buffy being able to walk away without a date at the end of the series.
But the expectations I brought to the film were romcom expectations: this is how the formula works. This is how these humans will work. Like human beings and relationships are puzzle boxes with only one solvable formula. In fact, life is far more complicated than that, but we don't always want to see that in our fiction. We want to believe it's all quite simple.
From a reader's perspective, simplicity might be great, but from a writer's perspective, especially one writing at the limits of the imagination, the way that science fiction and fantasy novelists can, creating a new world, or a future, that looks just like today — or our assumptions about how today should look — veers from simplicity to laziness rather quickly.
Even our nonfiction perpetuates this idea that the way we are today is the way we've always been, or will ever be. I saw my first few episodes of Cosmos this week, a show I probably would have interrogated less before I started untangling the stories we tell ourselves are history. As with every other depiction of "early humans" this one showed a recognizable, to us, family group: women holding children, a couple men out hunting, maybe grandma off to one side. They looked like the limited family groups we knew from popular media, instead of the likely far more complicated ones that they moved in during their time: four women and two men stripping a carcass, two men out gathering, an old man watching after the children, two old women tending the fire. The truth is that every archaeologist and historian is limited by their own present in interpreting the future. So when Americans and Europeans talk about early humans, they don't talk so much about early humans in Africa, even if that's where we all came from. When we talk about early humans, they're always hairy, pelt-wearing pale folks hacking out a living on some ice sheet. The men are always out hunting (like good 1950's office workers!) while women stay in camp to dawdle babies on their knees. In fact, small family groups like these could not afford truly specialized roles until the advent of agriculture. Before that, folks needed to work together even more closely to survive — every member pulled their weight, whether that was looking after young children, gathering food, or herding some big mammal off a cliff and stripping it for meat.
One of the best ways of keeping people in line is telling them that certain behavior is "normal" and "has always been done that way." I'll often hear parents lament about how difficult it is to raise young children, and say they feel like failures because they must go out into the world and make money, and be good parents, and be good partners, while living on month after month, year after year, of sleep deprivation. In truth, the advent of the two-parent household is a fairly modern invention. No one in their right mind would set up a system where just two adults were around to mind the crazy schedules of infants. What these stories of the past, and of "normal" do is tell us it's just us that's broken, not the social structures we've created in service to an 8-5 office or factory life.
Yet I still see this construction of families falling down in much of the fiction I read, let alone the often far more conservative media I ingest via movies and television. It wasn't so long ago when doing something like portray the life of a happy single mother was tut-tutted by executives and producers, and an inter-racial family was considered taboo on the screen. But novels and stories are often bound by fewer constraints. We have less pressing overlords. So the only thing that keeps us from portraying new and different ways of social behavior is simply the limit of our own imaginations, and our willingness to buy into the common narrative of family structures, of gender binary, of conventional procreative sex, that limit us.
Everyone writes science fiction and fantasy for different reasons. I get that. But I'm not here to write it to tell people the same old stories. I'm not here to comfort folks who've chosen to live and organize themselves in certain ways and say, "Yes, of course. It's always been this way. It will only ever be this way." I'm here to make worlds that are really different. I'm here to challenge assumptions of normal, of hierarchy, assumptions that humans will always be bullies, or assumptions that "man" and "woman" are anything but poorly constructed language boxes created by humans to organize what is, in truth, a fantastically messy and diverse and incredibly non-binary world.
I write about consent cultures. Matriarchies. Third genders. I write about futures at war, and at peace. Futures powered by bugs, or star magic, or Thundercats. If I'm writing about the limits of things, then I must step out of the narrow narrative boxes of broader media and many of my colleagues and seek out stuff that pushes at that, poking at it with a stick until it all comes undone. I read widely, and build on the work from the fringes that came before me — Geoff Ryman, Candas Jane Dorsey, Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, and new work by folks like Jacqueline Koyanagi and Benjanun Sriduangkaew that challenges what we consider "normal" human relationships and gendered ways of being.
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, and I'm pleased to be part of the massive push for expanding our imaginations, and busting down the limitations we place on our own lives.
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 all together, and start over again anew.
Anything is possible. But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.
Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God's War, Infidel, and Rapture, a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has also won the Hugo Award, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her latest novel, The Mirror Empire, will be published by Angry Robot Books on August 26th, 2014.