Truly you are one of the most brutal women in fiction. No – scratch that – you are one of the most brutal people in fiction.
The fact that you are a woman has an impact, I guess, because for all the Ripleys and River Tams, seeing women kick butt is still a bit exceptional. And of course, you don’t just kick butt. You actively seek out mercenary jobs that are likely to involve very large amounts of death and gore. You may not always relish inflicting pain, but neither do you beat yourself up about it. I think this is one of the things that makes you seem quite so brutal. Other violent actors tend to fall into two categories: the mindless thug, usually a lackey; or the somewhat tragic hero, forced to violence by circumstances.** You fit neither mould. By no means a thug, if not exactly burdened by overthinking situations, you’re such as heck no lackey. And while it might be difficult for you to change your circumstances now, with all your skills being tied up in your bel dame training, you both chose that life originally and are making no attempt to change things anyway. Quite to the contrary – you’re working as hard as you can, or can be bothered, to get back in with bel dames, so you can continue on with your violent lifestyle legitimately rather than taking shadow jobs. You are good at this job (as witnessed by the fact that you’re still alive, fourteen or so years after being kicked out of the bel dames and still pursuing the mercenary scene), so why not keep doing it while it keeps doing it?
A psychologist or psychiatrist would no doubt have a field day analysing and investigating you. Upbringing? One of a litter born to a woman who made her living, as far as I can tell, bearing children for Nasheen – men for the ongoing war with Chenja, women to keep society still running. Not a whole lot of familial love going on there I imagine, although you do seem to have felt some affection for your siblings at various points. Work history? Joined the bel dames to be trained as a government assassin. Jobs including finding boys who don’t want to go to the front and making them go; stopping people who are trying to do nasty, nasty things with biological weapons, sometimes involving the bodies of dead soldiers. Plus assassinations when they’re required. Oh, and the odd black job on the side… like carrying illegal bug tech in your womb… I mean, What the hell, lady?? Then you’re kicked out and you go on the market as a freelancer. Sure, why not.
Plus, your planet relies on bug tech. That’s surely enough to send anyone over the edge… although obviously you’re used to it, so the idea of bugs as medicine and bugs as furniture-producers and bug juice as fuel isn’t strange to you in the least. But it’s sure strange to me and it’s one of the more off-putting sides of your story. That and the lots of death as people try to kill you and you kill them back.
And it must be said that you’re not just brutal in your work, you’re also brutal in your relationships. You don’t really seem to believe in friendship. Perhaps it’s just too annoying and too much of a demand on your energy. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that you have good working relationships – your crew in Infidel, Suha and Eshe, are fine and seem generally committed to you, but let’s be honest here – they’re not exactly a top quality crew. A kid and an addict? What does that say about you? And what happened to your crew from God’s War? Yeh, maybe it’s best not to talk about that. Maybe a bit too raw still, since they’re all gone a long, long way away from you, for a variety of reasons but all at least partly because you are dangerous and unpleasant to be around.
So… why then do I keep reading? Why am I so excited that Rapture has been published so I can maybe get some closure? Hmm, perhaps that’s exactly the reason. Perhaps I’m hoping for some redemption for you, although what that would look like I don’t know and now that I write that, actually perhaps redemption would be a betrayal of everything you’ve stood for. You sure can’t be sent off to pasture, to grow bugs or something. I can’t imagine there will be marriage or a steady partnership in your future, and definitely no babies. Restoration to the bel dames perhaps? Going on a killing spree and killing all of the bel dames? Now that would be interesting. Maybe you could be responsible for stopping the war with Chenja! – although that would leave you totally at a loss. Maybe that would be appropriate.
Perhaps you will die. That would make a brutal sort of sense.
I keep reading your stories because for all you’re brutal, you’re also magnetic. Your brutality is part of that magnetism – and I might have done you a disservice in describing you as brutal all the time, because it’s not like you go around randomly kicking puppies or cuffing children or belting your crew. You only use violence where it’s necessary… if sometimes you’re a bit enthusiastic. But you are also a good boss, or try to be; you’re loyal, even if sometimes that comes across (sorry) a bit brutally – especially when it comes to being patriotic. And you’re unpredictable, which is an entertaining trait in a character (it can be damn terrifying in a real friend, though).
So… thanks. Thanks for keeping on trying even when it’s really hard. Thanks for keeping on. And thanks, Kameron Hurley, for this amazing character. I can’t imagine she was easy to write, and I imagine she was also pretty hard to sell to a publisher – bug tech! irredeemably tough chick! – so thanks, too, Night Shade Books. You rock.
*Nyx is a character created by Kameron Hurley, featured in God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture.
** Yes, this is a generalisation. It’s my letter, go away.
– do you mind if you call you Joanna? I’m not going to pretend like I know you from your writing, but Ms Russ feels rather distant and Professor Russ is rather intimidating. I do kinda get the feeling, from your work, that should I meet you in a social setting, after I recovered from my awkward fangirl-induced silence and/or hysteria, you would be Joanna. Thus –
I’m 31. That means all of your novels were written before I was born. Much of your short fiction was, too, and almost all of your reviews. (Happily you’ve kept writing essays and the like, so I’ve got heaps still to read – not that I’m even through your fiction yet.) Despite being an historian myself, and one obsessed by the ancient and medieval worlds at that, there is a small part of me that is still somewhat amazed that work from before my birth can have an impact on me. Although I quite like Ancient Greek tragedy, for example, medieval literature rarely affects me on a visceral level; it’s too foreign; I mostly like the ancient tragedies because they’ve become so wrapped up in Western European culture.
The point is, your fiction does affect me. I’m only a child of the ’70s by the grace of three months, and I grew up in Australia, so I don’t really understand the anti-feminist rhetoric that so clearly affected The Female Man, for example. I sometimes get made fun of for identifying as a feminist, which is insulting and horrible and all those sorts of things, but it’s never turned actively nasty, actively hostile – which I know is a blessing. Reading The Female Man, especially the section where you anticipate reviewers’ reactions? Well. It was like a punch to the guts to realise that you expected that sort of reaction. And it makes me admire you fiercely for being willing to put your work out there and endure that sort of reaction because you believed in your work, and in what you were saying.
(All of this may make me sound naive and innocent. I’m not, really. It’s just that my understanding of second-wave feminists’ experiences has often been a bit academic, I guess. Hostile critical reviews, especially when they’ve already been actively anticipated and lampooned, are not academic.)
The first of your work that I read was “When it Changed,” and I had the advantage of reading it without already knowing the reality of life on Whileaway. When I gave a copy of that story and The Female Man to a friend of mine entering law school (she has a Masters in Philosophy as well, don’t worry), I had to scribble out the intro to “When it Changed” because it revealed who the narrator was, which is of course most of the fun. Since then, I’ve read one of your Alyx stories, The Two of Them, “Souls” (which I was overwhelmingly excited to see as a double with a Tiptree story!), and To Write like a Woman. I really enjoyed that collection of your non-fiction, by the way, and I’m dead keen to get the others. You have such an incisive mind, and such a delightful turn of phrase. I especially enjoyed your essays on “What can a Heroine do? or why Women can’t Write,” and “Somebody’s Trying to Kill me and I think it’s My Husband: the Modern Gothic.” You maintain an inspiring balance between humour, and compassion, and cutting criticism that makes your work wonderful to read. So, thank you for that. You have indeed inspired me.
My one issue I wanted to mention is your early dismissal of stories you said you were set in “galactic suburbia.” Admittedly I only know about this from Lisa Yaszek’s book of that same name. I quite enjoy the (well-written) stories set there, and I’m wondering whether you have changed your mind since your discussion of them. If you haven’t, that’s fine… I guess I wonder if, with distance between then and now, things have changed. And at the heart of that wonder is the question of whether you think things actually have changed enough for it to be worth changing your mind. This is getting convoluted; let me explain my (now admittedly naive) thought process. I am presuming that part of your dismissal stemmed from the idea that those stories weren’t feminist enough, and that female authors ought to be writing more challenging, more overtly feminist, work. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe you just didn’t like them. Fair enough. But if my assumption has any truth, do you now think that there can be a place for more domestically-oriented texts? Hmm… it may well be that I am just digging myself in deeper now, and this is making me sound totally unreconstructed.
The reality is, this is fanmail. I love your work. I love that you write/wrote fiction and non-fiction, that you are an academic who is passionate about science fiction, that you are a passionate feminist, and – what spins me out – that you have been those things for so long (sorry, I don’t mean to imply that I think you are old…). You are an inspiration to me.
With deep regards and immense gratitude