There is a battle being fought right now over the most important thing in the world: stories.Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution thus comes at the perfect moment. It is many things: a guidebook to the pitfalls and the peaks of science fiction fandom today, a manifesto and rallying cry for those who want to see a different future, and a tactical plan for this war.
That might seem like an exaggeration – after all, there are things to fight about that are more tangible, more seemingly relevant, more visibly impactful. But humans are storytelling creatures. From the moment we’re born until the moment we die, we tell ourselves stories – from the pretend play of children to the history we learn in school, the narratives we write of our daily lives, the jokes we tell, and the dreams we dream.
We live inside stories, but also shape the world in the image of our stories. Our narratives tell us what our values are – what we should fight for and what we should hate, who we should consider a hero and who a villain. They valorize those people we consider important and erase the ones we think are insignificant. They make the invisible and the marginalized more so, and they are capable of recreating the world as it is in order to perpetuate it. And today, with the newfound accessibility of a variety of mediums, stories reach wider than ever before, which means they have an unimaginable power to change the world, or keep it as it is.
That battle – over the future we shape, fought via our stories – is nowhere so visible as in the world of science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction has always been the fiction of the future, the literature of possibility, which imagines the way the world could be. For a long time, that future have reflected the status quo, remaining a neat simulacrum of the present. It told stories of people we had long assumed are the heroes of any narrative (white men) rescuing damsels in distress, just as our social structures endlessly privileged the success of men and the subjugation of women.
But the literary landscape is changing, as women and writers of color break into the realm of science fiction, and with them, the imagined futures are changing. Heroism is no longer the prerogative of the white alpha male character, women are no longer exclusively prizes, and people of color are no longer relegated merely to being exotic Others. The people who get to be heroes now represent a much wider spectrum of individuals, and the future they exist in is consequently a much more diverse one.
In short, science fiction has begun to imagine a future with a completely different status quo. If it is the literature of possibility, those possibilities more than ever differ from what we have so long accepted as normal. Not everybody likes that change, though, hence the war. Those privileged by the current narratives don’t want to see them changed, so much so that fault lines have appeared within the world of science fiction geekdom. The deeper of these fault lines – Gamergate and the ongoing fiasco of the Hugo Awards – were prominent enough to make mainstream news.
Hurley simultaneously sits you down and explains what this war is all about, stands up at the podium with a rousing speech about fighting in it, and pores over maps and battle plans like a general about to issue orders. It will make you reconsider not just the stories you’re so used to consuming, but also the values, tropes, gender roles, and archetypes that underlie them, and the ideologies and politics that underlie those.
If human society is a cultural construct shaped by our stories, then Hurley meticulously picks apart those stories and provides a precise, articulate perspective on why our world is the way it is – and how we can change it. In an almost preternatural fashion, she seems to have an articulate response to just about any argument I’ve had, ever, about sexism, racism, gender roles, storytelling, representation, (in)visibility and marginalization, and every other related issue you could possibly imagine.
In particular, Hurley’s collection appeared especially serendipitously alongside the emergence of another fault line in fandom: the “thinkpiece,” published a few weeks ago by film critic Devin Faraci titled “Fandom Is Broken.” In a way, that’s the theme of a lot of Hurley’s essays as well: the fight for change is an ugly one, and the harassment, gatekeeping, and inaccessibility of certain aspects of fandom are only a few of examples of the way in which that brokenness manifests itself.
The difference, though, is that while Hurley talks about the actual problems plaguing the geek and science fiction world (such as the harassment and death threats faced by female gamers due to Gamergate), Faraci calls broken the idea of wanting representation, and the fact that fans are fighting for inclusivity in a genre that imagines possibilities. In short, he’s calling fandom broken because he puts Gamergaters in the same category as the people fighting against them, whom he dubs “entitled” whiners trying to shape the media according to their whims.
Faraci’s “thinkpiece,” then – like the comments on any article about feminism – is an example of exactly why The Geek Feminist Revolution is so necessary, in its entirety or as an excerpt taken from a page chosen at random. One of Faraci’s most intellectually lazy and self-indulgent claims is that entitled fans are making entertainment too political – a claim deserving no other response than a quote from Hurley’s book that I’d like to paint on the door of every convention, comic book shop, and video game story.
The idea that science fiction is only good if it isn’t ‘political’ is code for “does not reinforce or adhere to the worldview shaped by my personal political beliefs.” The reality is that all work is political. Work that reinforces the status quo is just as political as work that challenges it. (139)
In short, everything is political, fiction included – for fiction is how we consider the consequences of the world as it is today and of the choices we make. The desire to make fiction apolitical is in itself a political choice born of privilege, while the battle over who to include and exclude in our stories is similarly a political choice over who deserves to be empathized with and who should remain invisible. Which means that, in the end, Hurley’s book applies not just to the world of science fiction and geekdom, but to culture at large. If humans are storytellers, then any story will be inherently political. Every tale is a battlefield, any anyone who cares about the future of the human race, a future shaped and fought over via stories, would do well to pick up Hurley’s collection.
Luckily, Hurley’s collection is infinitely readable as well as accessible, clear, and effective. As a rallying cry and a manifesto, it is not mere empty words. It is one of the more perceptive and insightful works of non-fiction I have come across in years. When I cracked open this book, I would occasionally dog-ear a page as I read a particularly memorable statement, a paragraph that I wanted to share on the web, or a claim that made me rethink the narratives I had become used to. As I delved further into the collection, the number of pages I marked began to increase exponentially, until, about a third of the way through the book, I’m pretty sure I was turning down the corner of at least every other page, if not every page.
I wanted the majority of this book everywhere. I wanted it all over social media. I wanted it on bumper stickers. I wanted it on T-shirts. I wanted it on the mugs I drink my morning coffee out of while I checked my e-mail for my daily dose of internet idiocy. I wanted it on my blog. I wanted it quoted in thinkpieces. I wanted to write entire thinkpieces about paragraphs or even sentences of this book.
And yet, for all these truth bombs and revelations, these strange mirrors that reflect our reality back at us in new yet familiar ways, The Geek Feminist Revolution is an incredibly readable book. It’s exactly the kind of thing you could devour in an afternoon at the beach, and then walk home looking at the world and wondering if you’re living in the same reality you were in this morning, because you see everything so completely differently.
The essays in this collection are about stories, but they’re also stories themselves. As if to prove the point that stories shape the world that we live in as well as our worldviews, Hurley sets out to make the reader consider the world in a new light by telling stories about her own life and experiences in academia, writing, and science fiction fandom. Her stories provide a compelling foundation for almost any argument she makes, proving yet again that stories can change the world – which is why it matters which stories we tell, which ones we read, and – most importantly – which ones we consider valuable, exemplary, and worthwhile. And, insofar as a book of essays is also a set of stories, then Hurley’s book is one of those world-changing and exemplary stories.