Despite not enjoying The Mirror Empire to the point of not finishing it, I was still eager to read this collection of essays by Kameron Hurley. One of the reasons I was so disappointed about The Mirror Empire was that I really wanted to enjoy Hurley’s novels based on what I had seen from her on Twitter, her blog, etc. So I still wanted to try The Geek Feminist Revolution, and I’m glad that I did.
Much of the book concerns writing. In particular, Hurley focuses on the nature of writing commercially while female—both as a fiction author and a marketing copywriter. I always love it when writers talk writing as a business. If you’ve read any of my much older reviews, you’ll know that when I was a teenager, my aspirations were to be a fantasy novelist! However, I gradually realized that I wasn’t interested in the business side of being a published writer. As much as discussions of writing as an art form can be valuable, I also appreciate when writers discuss the practical aspects of their careers. In this case, Hurley doles out that advice while also pointing out the obstacles in place when you are a woman, especially in speculative fiction. She notes that she is standing on the shoulders of giants, like Alice Sheldon and Joanna Russ, but sadly in some ways, now in the 21st century, we are still fighting for a place at the table—even though we have always been there! This theme is perhaps most prominent in “Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction,” in which Hurley responds to a series of statements commonly used as arguments that women have no place in science fiction and fantasy.
The polemics continue, much to my delight. As is the case with many such collections, many of the pieces here have been published elsewhere. Often, however, they have been updated and revised for this book. For example, one of the standout essays for me was “Public Speaking While Fat,” and the version in this book is longer and more detailed than the one that appears on Hurley’s blog:
Obsessing over a body project left me less time for real work. For writing. For speaking. For activism. As, I suspect, is intended by this societal obsession, spending time dedicated to the body meant less time dedicated to being an actual politically powerful member of said society.
Welp, that hit me right in the patriarchy. Full disclosure: I am not fat, but this rings true for so much of the experience of being a woman in our society. One of the most potent walls patriarchy erects in our way is the idea that we need to meet standards of beauty before we can be seen, heard, or accorded credence. Hurley challenging that idea so directly is powerful. Her essay is a rejection of the idea that her body is the problem, in any way, rather than society’s discrimination against her because of how her body appears.
In similar ways, Hurley reflects on issues like access to affordable healthcare. As a Canadian, this isn’t something I have a lot of experience with to the level that Hurley does (although our healthcare system is far from “universal” as some might claim)—but by the same token, I just feel so grateful that I do not live and work in the United States, where apparently my very life is dependent on the largesse of my corporate overlords. Oof.
Which brings us back to writing science fiction and fantasy. Some of the most valuable insights for me as a reader in this collection occur when Hurley discusses why she writes what she writes. She says that she considers herself an optimist and wants to write optimistic futures—but it’s important, she maintains, that we also write the futures we don’t want so we know what to avoid. This is an interesting perspective for me! I have started avoiding a lot of gritty, grimdark speculative fiction right now (maybe because of the pandemic, maybe I just want happy things). However, I see her point. Similarly, Hurley maintains that it is important she constructs worlds that challenge our allocisheteronormative worldview. But she talks about how that is a struggle, because of course she has internalized ideas thanks to patriarchy and white supremacy. Hurley engages with this in numerous essays, including “A complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex and Sexuality in Science Fiction,” where she discusses how her initial attempts to write a bisexual hero were very rough, in terms of the telegraphing of the hero’s sexuality, and didn’t fit into the world she was creating where bisexuality was in fact normative.
So this is a collection of essays by a queer, female writer about her personal life as well as her professional learning. I would have loved to read this as a teenager, and even though my aspirations to write novels are shelved (but not completely abandoned …), I still found this valuable. It was nice to spend some time inside Hurley’s mind like this. I can’t promise this means I will like any of her fiction! But I’ll give it another try and continue to seek out and enjoy her non-fiction.