My mom encouraged my writing mania with a caveat: “If you want to be a writer, that’s great. But remember you’ll always be poor.”
Joanna Russ once said that she wrote science fiction because it let her explore “How things could be really different.”
I went into writing fiction thinking I’d live in abject poverty, forever cleaning dog kennels. When you’re working shitty jobs, imagining how things can be really different is pretty liberating.
As I got older, though, I started to look up from the page and realize how needlessly broken the world was. I worked hard to pull myself out of the writing-in-poverty trap, finding myself hemmed in on all sides by other people’s conceptions and expectations of my place in the world. I eventually found an actual career as a marketing and advertising writer. People are happy to pay you to convince others that whatever is broken in their lives can be fixed with something you buy over the counter. Suspect as this cause may be, marketing taught me that behavior can be changed. Preference can be taught. We can create new worlds, new societies, new social codes, within a single generation.
But I wasn’t seeing an acknowledgement of how societies themselves – their sex and gender assumptions, their morality, their approach to child bearing and raising, their attitudes toward hierarchy and even hygiene- could be really different in the SF/F I was reading. Instead, I saw Mars stories from Bradbury where dad sat in the living room reading the paper and mom played housewife. Men were doing things, and women were having things done to them. It’s no wonder that plundering my mom’s old bookshelf of women’s lib books led me to explore feminist SF like Joanna Russ’s. That’s where the exploration was happening. That’s where things could be really different.
Reading science fiction, for me, was far more escapist and mind-bending than other types of popular or literary fiction. I didn’t want to read about people with my problems – I wanted to read about people who’d busted off beyond them and built something different. I read about people with new and difference and far crazier problems. I read for the hope that things could change.
And, later – I wrote to be a voice of change.
When I published my first book, God’s War, and the sequels over the course of the last three years, my parents were staunch supporters of my work, leaving copies of the book with every waitress, flight attendant, and in every doctor’s office they visited. But they were not my readers. This isn’t an uncommon thing, for a lot of SF/F writers I know. “Too weird” folks will say, without acknowledging the broken weirdness of our own reality.
Looking back on what I write, and why, challenging a reader’s assumptions feels like a benefit, not a drawback. But we don’t all read to be challenged. We don’t all read to imagine something different.
We read to watch other people experience troubles far worse than ours, but still relatable. We read to feel. We read for entertainment. We read as a form of travel.
But I read – and write – for a shocked sense of wonder, a jolt away from the familiar. I yearn for something that tells me that everything I imagined was fixed is, in truth, in flux. That the world is malleable. That we can change everything if we want it badly enough. The bad guys win, sometimes, sure – but more often what we uncover is that they weren’t actually the bad guys to begin with.
So I continue to support my mom’s love of Oprah’s latest book club selection, and smile when my grandmother posts Facebook updates about how my books have too many foreign words in them.
Who knows – maybe one day Oprah will pick one of my books for the club, and my mom will open it up and discover it is, indeed, about people after all.
Just ones that are really different.
Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of God's War (a Kitschies' Golden Tentacle recipient), and its sequels, Rapture and Infidel. You can find her online at @KameronHurley. You can read what kind of books her mother, Terri, is passionate about here.