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Kameron Hurley, Author of God's War, on "Fearing the Woman in the Dark Alley"

Kameron Hurley has been writing for a long time---intricate, bold, and thought-provoking short fiction and blog posts on a variety of subjects both personal and societal. Now, Hurley's first novel God's War is out and garnering great praise, with Publishers Weekly writing in part, "On a planet settled by Muslims and ravaged by constant war and pollution, Nyx, a former government-sponsored assassin...gets by as a bounty hunter. Her assistant is the foreign magician Rhys, who can control the ubiquitous insects that drive the planet's technology. When the government asks them to hunt down an off-worlder who possesses technology that could end the war, they find themselves facing off against foreign agents and their fellow bel dames. Hurley's world-building is phenomenal [and].... (she) smoothly handles tricky themes such as race, class, religion, and gender without sacrificing action."

Yes, that's right: It's bugpunk! This is gritty, edgy, and thoroughly entertaining science fiction that comes with all the bells and whistles. For example, check out the amazing book trailers for the novel on Hurley's YouTube channel as well as her awesome website for the book, which includes a sample chapter. You can also sample her short fiction, which has been collected in year's best anthologies, in a collection created for the Kindle.

Hurley's been kind enough to write a series of short pieces for Omnivoracious on issues related to her novel, the first on re-imagining revolution. Here's the second.


Fearing the Woman in the Dark Alley
by Kameron Hurley

If you ran into a svelte woman in a dark alley wearing leather pants and a halter top, would your first instinct be to fear for your life? Run away? Prepare to defend yourself?

Probably not, right?

Yet there has been a proliferation of these women in much of the fiction landscape for the last 10 years. The “post Buffy” urban fantasy heroine has become a bit of a cliché, in no small part because the covers that portray her have all started to look alike. Hot pants, tattoos, over-the-shoulder glances; these are largely faceless heroines, women whose skin we can neatly slip into. They are witty and know how to use a weapon, but for all the leather pants and tattoos, they are conflicted just as often with love as the new supernatural powers they wield.

But, most importantly, despite the guns and tattoos and supernatural goings-on:

They aren’t scary.

No, really, they aren’t. If the leather pants weren’t a clue, the sexy poses should have tipped you off. These women are not meant to actually be threatening. Even if you’re a vampire and she kills vampires, there’s just as good a chance she’ll sleep with you as shoot you. That’s the conflict, after all.

But it’s a conflict that isn’t all that scary. It’s just sexual tension wrapped up in another form. It’s tough women as fetish, not a real person. The first time somebody wrote a Buffy rip-off was about as good as the first time somebody wrote a Tolkien rip-off, and then everything started to fall apart from there. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of good knock-offs, but at the end of the day, there are far more knock-offs than there are reimaginings. Or evolutions.

Unfortunately, once a marketing movement gets going, it becomes very difficult to kick your book out of it. I know one author who only tangentially included a fiery woman with a sword in their book, but lo, right there on the cover was a woman with a sword in skin-tight clothes with over-the-shoulder pose.

I don’t begrudge Urban Fantasy as a genre. It can certainly be a lot of fun for folks, though it’s not generally my cup of tea. What bothers me about it is that it seems to reaffirm something I’ve suspected for a long time:  Women aren’t allowed to be scary. Not really scary. Not in a non-sexualized, non-fetishized way.

Why is it all hot pants and back tattoos? Why the symbols of toughness instead of actual dark alley terror? Why do we celebrate “girl power” but sneer at “women power”? I’d argue this is because women can and are incredibly scary, and even if that’s something powerful that we’d like to read about, we have to dress it up as something else. Something more relatable. Safer. Something that doesn’t offend our loved ones and ensures that we are still loved and respected and not beaten up or harassed or made fun of for appreciating stories about women who can scare the crap out of the guy in the alley.

Urban Fantasy is a great avenue for exploring women’s real-world negotiations with new avenues of power, but its heroines struggle with the same syrupy-sticky half power that their real world counterparts angst over. I want to be tough but loveable. I want to be cool but acceptable. I want power but not all the stigma that comes with power. I want to be special, but not so special that nobody loves me. I am equal, right, so why do I still feel like I have to be married or partnered or buried in children in order to be a real person? And if I’m so equal and so good at killing demons, why am I still making less money than guys? And if I’m so equal why do I still get terrified by every guy I see in a dark alley?

These are all great questions, and fun to explore, but they’re not questions I’m interested in. I’m interested in what happens when women are no longer afraid of the guy in the alley. I’m interested in what happens if it’s the woman in the alley who incites terror. Could that world exist? What would it look like? I want to unpack and reimagine what a truly free, powerful female heroine would look like. I want a Conan for women, who can chop up monsters and fearlessly bed whom she wishes without fear of repercussions or dirty conscience. Who is she? What world does she live in?

And, most important of all… why don’t we see more of her?

Are we just as afraid to write about her as we are to imagine her in that dark alley waiting for us, gun drawn, without pity or sympathy for man or beast or vampire or child, who’ll take off our head and hit the bar on the way home before slipping into blissful, dreamless sleep; the sleep of the unfettered, the conscienceless, the powerful?


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God, I am so very tired of the not-at-all-impressive female characters who are, in theory, so badass and strong and heroic...and whose conflict is: "Are they or aren't they going to have sex with the monster?" Which isn't conflict or even a question. They ALWAYS sleep with the monster. And then they insist that even if he IS a monster, he's got a loving or a tender side. Somehow, that's supposed to erase the fact that he is or has been a murderer and eater of humans.

The insistence by the women-in-leather-pants that the monster isn't really THAT bad--even if he has a history of destroying people--sounds to me like a battered woman saying of her abusive husband, "But he's always so sweet to me afterwards." That doesn't wipe out what he's done and what, in many of these books, he's STILL doing. Just, y'know, not to the female protagonist, so that makes it all right.

I'd love to read about genuinely strong and genuinely scary women who accomplish something by being strong and powerful. I'd like to read a story where a woman is genuinely skeeved out by the idea of sex with a handsome and homicidal angel, demon or were-mountain lion AND DOESN'T CHANGE HER MIND. I want stories where the woman not only has a voice but is listened to. I want stories where the woman's intelligence and moral strength matter.

I want more than the trappings of heroism for women in fiction. I want the real thing. I want women to be strong and brave and clever and shrewd and completely able to deal (or able to learn how to deal) with whatever the world throws at them. I want them to have fantastic friends, as well as parents and sibs and kids they're crazy about, and I want them willing to fight--not just physically, mind you--for these friends and family members, and then I WANT THEM TO LIVE. Because women have been sacrificing themselves for friends and family and the world in fiction for a long long time, and I am very very tired of the trope that says that women can only achieve victory by self-sacrificing death. (Or by a death that inspires the heroes. Either way, this loathsome trope seems to say that a woman can't really be a hero...only a martyr. I don't like that at ALL.)

It seems like a genuinely strong woman who scared the hell out of her enemies would be an incredible heroine...infinitely more so than the ones you mention who seem to be just playing at being badass.

And I'm definitely going to look for your bugpunk novel, Ms. Hurley. Because that sounds promising.

@Stephen I have no wish to live in Orwell's 1984, either. Should he have not written that book? I enjoy reading about *interesting* worlds, not happy ones.

I am annoyed when people argue that tho physically intimidating male heroes are the stuff of canonical literature, writing a truly intimidating woman hero is just "going too far."

"I want a Conan for women, who can chop up monsters and fearlessly bed whom she wishes without fear of repercussions or dirty conscience. Who is she? What world does she live in?"

Well, if you want her to be an exact analogue, she lives in a world where she chops up as many other women as Conan did other men. She lives in a world where women who aren't like her now have to be scared of other women as well as of men. And she lives in a world where women can discard children as carelessly as barbarian men blow off the bastards they father.

That really a world you want to spend much time in?

Sarah Conner from T2 is, to me, a great, scary female character. She's this tough, nearly asexual heroine driven not by the typical post rape, revenge scenario but by the simpler and nobler need to protect her child. Linda Hamilton plays it great. She's thin and built, taking her sexuality out of the equation. She has no need to try and entice men, she simply needs to survive to protect her son and is willing do whatever it takes to do that, even killing a man who has done nothing wrong (Miles Tyson) to ensure her son's future. It was a bold step for Cameron to take a character the was largely victimized in the first movie and make her so tough in the second without the usual cliches (although one could say that her victimization comes in the form of the terminator, who looks like the ultimate male victimizer- silent and huge-chasing her throughout the first movie). Still, I love the idea the she acts as the ultimate mother grizzly bear- and everyone knows you don't get between a mother grizzly and her cub.

I guess my kneejerk response to all this is: why are we glorifying the ability to create terror in a dark alley at all? I can see your point about lacking true equity when only one gender possesses it... but it's not really a GOOD thing when men inspire terror in dark alleyways.

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