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Authors: Kameron Hurley

Brutal Women

BOOK: Brutal Women
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What the Hell is This?

“Women are not inherently
passive or peaceful.

We’re not inherently anything
but human.”

-
Robin Morgan

 

These are not particularly good
stories. What you see here is what you get: a struggling writer’s juvenilia,
from the first clunking story I published when I was 17 to to the bizarre
women-and-war story that got me into
Year’s Best SF 12
, and all the
crazy stuff in between.

Writing stuff is easy. Writing
stuff people actually want to read is infinitely harder. Much of it is simply
finding your audience. And not sucking at your craft. The lumbering old SF/F
mags never did like any of my stuff. It wasn’t until the gender-bending
slipstream
Strange Horizons Magazine
started gaining steam that I
discovered the stuff that I wrote actually had an audience.

I collected my first rejection slip
at fifteen. The editor had scrawled a note across the top of the manuscript
saying that cockroaches put her off her lunch, and there were far too many
cockroaches in the story for her taste. I still have that rejection slip, and
about a hundred others, fifteen years later.

I’ve always written violent
stories. Not always stories with a focus on exploring feminist themes (in fact,
many of my stories can be seen as anti-feminist, particularly the early ones,
much to my chagrin). The times I’ve tried to write about other things –
painters and princesses and cockroaches, oh my – I didn’t have very much fun
doing it. And I didn’t publish any of those crappy stories with any more
frequency than my brutal women ones.

At some point my princesses
starting hacking off people’s heads. The painters had same-sex love affairs.
And the cockroaches developed a taste for human flesh.

I had a lot more fun writing those.

And I finally started selling them.

Women & Violence

In my early writing life, I wrote
what I’d call “Sword and Sorceress” type stories. This type was popularized by
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s
Sword and Sorceress
anthologies and her
eponymous fantasy magazine. The stories had strong female protagonists who ran
around in skimpy armor and/or did magic while engaged in some kind of quest or
revenge or McGuffin-type plot.

I worked very hard at emulating
these (see
Once, There Were Wolves
). It wasn’t until I’d received five
years of rejections from the magazine and the anthologies that I finally threw
in the towel. The problem was, I didn’t understand plot. I didn’t understand
tension. And I really hated writing about syrupy nice heroines who were
expected to save their children and/or tribes and/or kingdoms.

It wasn’t until I went to the
Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2000 that I got up the courage to write
stories I was really interested in. The story that got me into the workshop was
about some defective clones that had been tailored to terraform a world, and
whose programming was starting to unravel. My female protagonist was a passive
blank slate goaded into action by her revolutionary brother. I kept wondering
why she wasn’t more interesting.

At Clarion, I decided to write
something different. I liked the idea of a desert country where the sand ate
your blood. Sounds cool, right? And maybe women were immune to it somehow? And
maybe you could, like, literally control the world with blood? And it was
women’s blood that gave them power? It gave me an “excuse” to write a story
with mostly female characters in it.

I dashed off a story about a
knife-weilding nomadic military leader who had joined with a foreigner to
topple her beloved desert matriarchy (see
Women and Ladies, Blood and Sand
).
I wanted somebody who had joined with the “bad guys” against her former way of
life. Somebody who had sold out. That seemed like an interesting person – much
more interesting than the princess who just blindly goes off to save her
kingdom the way she’s expected to.

At the end of the workshop session
of my story, author Geoff Ryman, our instructor for the week, looked at me from
across the critique circle and said, flatly, “I find this story personally
offensive… I think it suffers from a failure of the imagination.”

It was both the best and worst
thing I’d ever heard about anything I’d written. I wrote syrupy, forgettable
stories that barely invited a single personal scrawl from overworked magazine
editors, not stuff that offended people.

I wanted to inspire something in
people. I just wasn’t sure loathing was it.

Power

Where this obsession with violence
comes from, I don’t know, but after Clarion I started to delve deeply into
real-life applications of violence and the history of violence across many
cultures, which formed the basis of my undergrad and graduate work at the
University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in Durban,
South Africa. Strength and violence is how people gained, took, and maintained
power, and that fascinated me. Argue that it’s actually wealth that gets you
the power and you’ll find that that wealth is generally amassed through
strategic applications of strength and violence.

What I must have internalized early
on is that in order to have and wield power, people needed to be physically
strong. Scary. Those who aren’t physically strong should be wealthy or wily
enough to be able to control strong people.

I find this idea fascinating. Not
because it’s a revolutionary idea (it’s pretty obvious), but because I wanted
to know if the world would be different if power was meted out differently.
What would happen when a traditionally oppressed group got a lot more physical
power? Would they be just as bad as the old guys? And if they had all this
physical power, where did it come from? How did they maintain it? One group
can’t maintain power over another without enslaving itself.

This led to the inevitable.

How would that look if women had
the power?

So, what the hell?

So I started writing other types of
stories. Stories about war and death and bugs and women. Strong women, angry
women, powerful women, bloody women, brutal women. They’re the gritty fighters
and morally fucked-up wretches that we’ve seen battling it out on other worlds
for eons… as men. They have their own non-standard genders, prejudices, fears,
and morals. And they aren’t generally ours.

Every one of us is capable of great
violence. Great mercy. Great kindness. Great despair. What we choose to tell
people is an acceptable expression of these characteristics varies by culture
and class and race, and gender, and a hundred other things. But collectively,
we as a culture decide just how much (and in what ways) we’re allowed to emote
before we’re no longer loved. Before we’re shunned. Before we cut the odd ones
away from the herd so we can start building it into whatever image of “the way
things are” we desire.

In these stories, the herd has been
culled in an entirely different way. And the why and the how of it is what made
writing these stories so damn fun.

I hope you enjoy reading them at
least half as much as I enjoyed hacking them together.

 

The Red House

Dayton, Ohio

December, 2010

God’s War

January 2011

Night Shade Books

 

Nyx had already been to hell.
One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference...

 

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a
centuries-old holy war rages. Fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians,
and conscripted soldiers, the origins of the war are shady and complex, but
there’s one thing everybody agrees on...

 

There’s not a chance in hell of
ending it.

 

Nyx is a former government assassin
who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between
her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the
top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end
the war -- but at what price?

 

The world is about to find out.

Amazon
|
Borders
|
Barnes & Noble
|
Powell’s

 

The Women of Our Occupation

This story first appeared in
Strange
Horizons Magazine
in 2006. It was re-printed in 2007 in
Year’s Best SF
12
and also translated into Swedish and Romanian. Over the years, I’ve also
received emails from fans who read the story as part of their Women/Gender
Studies curriculum at several universities. I’ve never understood why this
story was so popular – switch out the gender pronouns, and it’s a fairly standard
SF dystopia. Maybe that’s the creepy part. That it only takes a pronoun switch
to change one’s reading of the story.

 

The drivers were big women with
broad hands and faces smeared with mortar grit, and they reeked of the dead.
Even when we did not see them passing through the gates, ferrying truckloads of
our dead, they came to us in our dreams, the women of our occupation.

My brother and I did not understand
why they had come. They were from a far shore none of us had ever seen or heard
of, and every night my father cursed them as he turned on the radio. He kept it
set to the resistance channel. No one wanted the women here.

My brother got up the courage to
ask one of the women, “Who stays at home with your kids while you’re here?”

The woman laughed and said, “You’re
our children now.”

But I knew the way to conquer the
women. When I was old enough, I would marry them. All of our men would marry
them, and then they’d belong to us, and everything would be the way it was
supposed to be.

We woke one night to the sound of a
burst siren. The scream was only a muffled moan in the heavy, humid air.

My mother bundled up my brother and
grabbed the house cat. My father made me carry the radio. We hid in the cellar
under the house, heard the dull thumping of bursts.

“They’re looking for insurgents,”
my father said. He turned on the radio, got only static. “You know they
castrate them.”

“Hush, Father,” my mother said.

My brother started crying.

The death trucks and the mortar
trucks came the next morning. The women loaded up the bodies. They shoveled
away the facades that had come off the houses. Our house was all right, but the
one next door had been raided. The yeasty smell of spent bursts clung to
everything. The house had fallen in on itself.

I saw them bring out a body, but I
couldn’t tell who it was. My mother pulled the curtains closed before I could
see anything else. She told me to stay away from the windows.

“Why are they here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “No one
knows.”

One night, many months into the
occupation, two women came to our door.

My mother answered. She invited
them in and offered them tea and bloody sen. The sen would stain their tongues
and ease their minds, and the tea was said to warm women’s souls. If they had
them.

The women declined.

I stood in the doorway of the
kitchen and peered out at them. My brother was at the table eating cookies.

The women asked after my father.

“Working,” my mother said. “Men’s
work. He’s an organic technician.”

One of the women stepped over to
the drink cabinet. She flicked on the radio.

My mother stood very still. She
gripped her dishrag in one hand, so tightly I thought her fingernails would
bite through it and cut her palm.

The radio played—a slow, easy
waltz. Someone had tuned it back to the local station.

“Your husband’s study, where is
it?” the other woman asked.

“This way,” my mother said. My
mother looked straight at me. They would have to come through the kitchen.

I ducked back into the kitchen and
slipped into the study. I pulled open the top drawer. My father’s gun was
heavy. Blue and green organics sloshed in the transparent double barrels. I’d
never held it before. I didn’t know where to put it. Father’s papers were
there, too, papers about the resistance that he said we weren’t supposed to
touch.

BOOK: Brutal Women
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