So I was watching a Let’s Play-esque video of a dude and a lady playing a computer game together. Well, no: the dude was playing a game with a goal in mind and the woman was hanging around aimlessly, occasionally having things explained to her, but only when it didn’t interrupt what he was doing. 

She finds her feet pretty soon and they have a lot of fun together, but that dynamic rang so familiar to me I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet. 

I want to talk about how much of my time in (male) geek culture has been me being the Less Geeky One.

For all my school years, all the people I knew who owned computer games were guys, and I was kind of conditionally allowed to be interested so long as the game was being shown off to me, so long as I was a bit of an audience even when I was having a go at whatever-it-was myself. I didn’t have a games console or a TV or a computer that could run things other than solitaire; I’d read all the books that had even the shred of appeal to me in two libraries. I didn’t really communicate much. I really, really wanted escapism.

I loved conversations about geeky media a LOT more than I liked other kinds. I hadn’t seen anything that was on TV pretty much ever, and coming across things like videogames and webcomics where lots of people hadn’t heard of most of them was really great; I was really happy in a social sphere where not having come across a thing before opened up potential conversations instead of shutting them down. I like spending time in a culture where people enjoy sharing their story findings and get passionate about them and will explain why they love a particular plot or how clever the mechanics of a certain thing are.

It always felt a little bit conditional though. I was normally a bit embarrassed about how avidly I soaked up knowledge about whatever escapist thing I was into at the moment; I’d obey conversation rules that were kind of self-imposed but also a fair bit socially conditioned. This person wants to explain you a thing. Mostly just listen and you’ll keep getting to talk about the thing. Challenge their superior knowledge and you’re 1) upsetting a status quo that keeps the person you’re talking to happy and 2) admitting how much you care and 3) admitting how geeky you are, geeky unfeminine girl that you are.

Because, yeah, who’d want to admit to someone who likes a thing that you like and pay attention to it as well.

So, there was a rationale for this while I was a shy but standoffish queer teenager. It was a bit of a scramble for status: I’m happy to hear about about your geeky interests, but it’d be way too embarrassing to admit how long I spent ages reading about the plot of the game I couldn’t afford to play myself. Sometimes I knew more about the thing than the person explaining it to me, but generally the way I’d manoeurved the conversation meant I didn’t really get to tell them that.

Now I have broadband and a gaming computer of my own, but I sometimes find myself wanting to do it still. Dudes really like explaining things, and part of the reason my polite interest conversation tactic worked so well was that actually only really minimal polite interest is needed to trigger a conversation loop where chatter on and repeat themselves for ages. I noticed it back then but didn’t really care; nowadays, when an off-hand query about how someone’s Red Alert playthrough is working out for them cues up two paragraphs of highly specific answer, I roll my eyes instead of smiling about how I get to hear about a thing without having had to admit that I want to.

Nowadays I mostly talk about videogames to women, and it’s pretty much always made me want to say more. We can talk about just how much we’re put off even really good RPGs by how many of the female NPCs are labelled ‘harlots’, we can laugh about just how macho the dude game designers needed to make their dude main characters, we can grin about Chell and GLaDOS and Alyx and whichever other female characters we get to see and be, and if I’ve read bits of wiki and remembered lore and paid attention to game mechanics it’s much more likely to be useful.

 

i really wish there were more stories that applied all the creepy tropes that resonate with me to ANY FEMALE CHARACTERS AT ALL

i want stories about people who live in a dangerous state, who derive their identity from a sense of utility, who the world understands far too well along a few vectors and not at all in most others.

and I WANT THOSE STORIES ABOUT WOMEN and for those women to NOT FUCKING WELL BE SEXUALISED TO A POINT THAT OBSCURES THEIR SELVES

i want stories ABOUT women, not stories that offer women as a prize to their heroes, that put them centre stage without burying them under layers of misogynistic lies. i want to look at the media around me and see stories written without the verbal equivalent of the visual sexism eschergirls skewers

why is it so easy for us as a culture and in our subcultures to spend almost all our creative energy on the feelings and realities of men? i DON’T WANT TO READ ROMANCE, i don’t want to read stories about women battling for access to the coveted emotions of the men they desire or respect or value. i don’t want this default heterosex, come to think of it i’ve gotta admit i could do without hetero genders either if i’m honest.

i have access to so so so so many communities of storytelling; imdb and literary encyclopedias to list things exhaustively across a millenium of western storytelling, tvtropes to pick apart tropes and spin links between parallel instances of them, and free fanworks and books online and libraries in real life, media everywhere! 

and somehow still everywhere I look no matter how skilled at storytelling as a community my surroundings are, no matter how many fascinating stories I find that abstract pieces of our worlds through endlessly inventive layers of fantasy or cyberpunk… it is SO VERY RARE for me to find the stories i want.

in one sense of course it’s difficult: myself i don’t know what stories i want stories and why; just that hey shit wouldn’t it be lovely to read about women who hate being given femininity as a default, wow i want to read stories set somewhere whose coercive mechanisms weren’t the ones from our own world, that painted all its broken scary shit in lurid colours and labels and treated it as normal, i want to hide at a distance from my world and enjoy the weirdness and complexity of somewhere else.

do i really have to do it through a male gaze?

 

So, I’ve been talking about Reclaim the Night with strangers on the internet. Not a great idea, really, I’ve gotta say. The problem is that men aren’t invited to march with the women’s group. One calls the event ‘pathetic’, another says we all need to be less emotional. Why are we alienating these poor men like this? We’re missing a wonderful opportunity to ‘foster understanding’ about equality.

No. We ARE taking that opportunity, and I’ve spent as long as I intend to talking to these outraged men but I wanted to take a while to lay the facts out for other people who might be more interested in listening. We’re educating men by marching, if they’ll shut the fuck up and pay attention; we’re educating any men who’re willing to use just the tiniest rudiment of compassion.

Our reasons are all there, stories and statistics both. How many men stop to worry about what they’re wearing as they walk home at three AM? How many men dance a balancing act between ‘dressed up enough’ and ‘looks slutty’ as they get ready to go out clubbing? How many are more worried about whether they’re dressed too suggestively than whether they’ll be warm enough? When they’ve been drinking, are they more worried about whether they’ve got enough basic motor control left not to walk into the road than whether they’ll look drunk enough to be an easy target? How many men check in with an ETA for their housemates as they set off home? How many men have stories about men they know coming home distressed and worried? How many have ever had an interview with the police about what a stranger said or did to them when they just wanted to get home?

Speaking up about that, speaking out about it, marching and shouting and painting banners, that’s the opposite of alienating: it’s an explicit invitation. Please listen. Please change.

And any man who listens should know not to ask to walk with us, because men walking with us is not how to change our situation. Men: if you want equality for women, make space for us. Learn that you cannot stand at our side in everything we need to do and that you cannot listen honestly to us while you seek to make choices for us. While you cast as long a shadow over our lives as you do now, you will not be able to see the colours and contours of our lives that lie hidden behind your own assumptions. It is men who teach us what is sexy and what is safe, what makes us desirable and valuable and what makes us sluts and whores. It is men who make us trapped enough that we only dare claim one night a year for ourselves.

Step into our protest and claim that little corner of that one night a year for yourselves too, and you will hide the realities we’re trying to demonstrate about in your shadow again, the shadow where feminism is ‘equality for everyone’ and inequality is men not being allowed into every single space women build for themselves and their own needs. It’s easy for you to miss the logic that governs our lives, men: it’s nearly invisible to you while you stand between us and safety. If you keep stepping closer, all you’ll notice is that we’re looking away and trying to hide from you. If you keep grabbing us and shaking us and asking why our conversations aren’t all about you, of course you’re going to see us angry.

You didn’t build this distance between us: it’s older than any of us, and I’m not asking you to go away thinking that you need to shoulder all the blame for the way the world works. But I want make it clear that if you’re here to help, it’s your responsibility to move aside at times like this. Until men and women stand at the same distance and you see us as clearly as we see you, you will help us most by listening to us.

Stand back and listen and watch. Stop asking why we haven’t laid a place of you at the feminist table: if you get an answer it’ll be because we’re trained to answer to you and to stay quiet while you sit yourself down at the table’s head.

This isn’t a post about stories so much as it is about assumptions. Say it’s about default cultural narratives, if you like.

I’m having a quiet Christmas this year. It’s strange – telling people I’m not going to visit family has gotten me sympathy and jealousy both. Relatives wish I was able to be there. Friends who’re dating want to go and see their respective families instead of spending the holiday with their partner.

Either way, it’s a time where there’s lots of complicated logistics going on for much of the population of Britain.

I’m really enjoying not being part of that cycle, where holidays get propped up on a framework of traditions and need to be catered for and decorated and there’s a tangle of social obligation and complicated family politics underlying everything. I went to visit my folks another time when there wasn’t An Official Holiday happening and we were all happy to see each other. Christmassy time. 

And today? I got back from work at about half three on Christmas eve and just did nice stuff I wanted to do all afternoon, no elaborate food prep or Official Hostly Duties to worry about, and even though I’ve been at work for seven hours today it’s still been one of the most pleasant Christmas Eves I can remember.

I want to make this my default, I think: I don’t need a cultural calendar to tell me which days I should take to make time for my family. I can do that any time of year, and doing it any other time of year so far has saved us a whole lot of lukewarm tradition and stress. Let me take holidays to do stuff I’m going to enjoy first and foremost –  sometimes that’ll be seeing relatives and sometimes that’ll be taking the time for myself and sometimes I’ll be spending it with friends or family of choice.

I’m feeling a bit fed up with the world right now. It’s transient; it’ll pass. But in the last couple of days there’ve been a lot of downsides demonstrated to living off shift work in a service industry: I’m not likely to get weekends off on a rota, and the system for booking time off is deliberately difficult to access. I’m stuck outside plans with friends and sad.  

Let’s analyse this shit, though.

So, I’m working in a cafe in a big old retail establishment, and the place is designed as a little self-contained business with its own supply chain and protocol and line management system. But, in a great stroke of middle-management overcontrolling invention, hours are allocated by someone outside that system, so the place is critically short-staffed more days than not.

Making sure the place works despite that is a skilled and complicated and exhausting job, but the system’s designed to maintain it that way while removing all significant decisions from anyone with the information to make them best. Uniformity is valued and tested for while even the most pedantic bits of day-to-day operations – the keys to the COSHH cupboard, say – are out of reach without a appeal up a chain of hierarchy. Seems like a great way to foster resentment, right?

I genuinely was not sure what the rationale behind it was. Keeping all power in the hands of the managers makes them busier and doesn’t garner more than the most symbolic kind of control. But it makes the fact that workers and their line managers are required to tick every box and jump every hoop routine; it’s a concrete demonstration that no skills need be recognised other than the ability to replicate an ideal system which takes no notice of the actual resources available.

It’d be easy to say “well, that’s stupid”. At a time when the people looking to work fulltime in a job that pays less than a living wage have run their own businesses and graduated with good degrees, you’re clearly not making the most out of available resources. But asking for good work makes you more likely to have to recognise it somehow. Asking for standardised bad work and expecting to get it when you haven’t provided the tools for that mould? That leaves you a lot more control, and there’s more than enough evidence that’s what the people in charge are after.

I’ve always been torn on China Miéville. He writes beautiful prose about strange otherworlds, and that is totally my kind of thing. I love books about weird places and the unfamiliar people living there, and I love the kind of writer who shows you around their setting in carefully chosen phrases, who can happily spent a page describing the view from a character’s window. Miévilleis definitely that kind of writer.

But I have to put him in a certain box in my mind. This box is labelled ‘DOES NOT WANT TO GIVE US NICE THINGS’, and sitting there waiting for him is one Mr. Iain M. Banks. They’re there to give me advance warning: these are otherwise appealing writers who I need to remind myself just can’t manage to get through a whole story before their inner eight-year-old takes over and sends them on a rampage to smash up the whole intricate world they’ve been building up for a whole book.

I mean, I guess they’re not just having a senseless tantrum: they’re both authors with things to say about nihilism and destructive social and political structures and the dark side of human nature and the like. Still, Embassytown and Perdido Street Station and The Player of Games and a bunch of others were all novels whose premises gripped me and whose writing style I admired a lot, and in all of them a shift took place towards the end that just left me fed up. Rocks fell; everyone died or lost the will to fight. I’d invested hours of attention in these places and characters, and it turned out their stories were going to end in misery and mindless destruction. I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed; I’d wanted to like these characters, and I got frustrated having the story set them off to make a difference to their worlds only to trip up in the final act and spend the rest of the story flat on their faces learning a hard-earned lesson about futility. It just didn’t seem in keeping with the thoughtful storytelling theirs novel start with any more than it would have if the power of friendship saved the day in the nick of time. Sorry, guys; I’ve wandered off from the same page as you.

So that’s my background, and I’ll come out and say that normally, futility isn’t something I’m interested in reading about in sci-fi and fantasy and genre fiction. It works in The Scar, though: it really works.

At the story’s start, the central character gets lost: one Bellis Coldwine loses her home and her social position and her support network, and the novel dances around her current situation as she considers substitutes for them. An elaborate, evocative society moves around her; other characters negotiate their own lives and relationships. Not all that much happens, for a 700+ page novel in a fantastical world with a lot of volatile and dangerous people in it. Whenever something does happen, Miéville assesses its impact; he writes his way towards the big destructive climax of the novel gradually, taking the temperature of the town as he goes and showing us all the stages that lead towards civil unrest.

Miéville earns all the mess and explosions and the big dramatic break-down in this novel in a way I haven’t seen him do elsewhere. I was interested. As always, the setting was beautifully original and detailed, and Miéville’s enjoyment of making up monsters fits in well here. His antagonists were sympathetic and his protagonist flawed and engaging; the ending was well-pitched, and he left some pleasing ambiguities open without it feeling like a lazy writing decision. It wasn’t a book I felt utterly amazed by in any one moment of creative genius, but it feels like a coherent and satisfying story in a way none of his others have to me. Bellis changes very slowly over the course of the book, so subtly that I didn’t notice him write any one key moment for her until I looked back on the finished whole. That’s one of the reasons everything falling to pieces works for me in this Miéville plot more than any others: these huge events that are shaking up whole civilisations are linked close to our main character’s narrative arc, but the way they affect her isn’t at all straightforward. That’s a pretty subtle piece of writing, and it’s more than earned a place as my favourite one of his books.

I’m not an expert on poststructuralism, but from what I understand it’s a term for a really interesting set of ideas that get applied in inaccessibly academic ways almost all the time.

In brief, what poststructural theory states is that words and the things we describe with them don’t actually match up. The objects in question can be measured and weighed and empirically examined, but that precision doesn’t get carried across into everyday language. A British chip is an American’s fry; a poker chip is a different thing again. Physicists can build specificity into the terms mass and weight, but only within the confines of their field: we learn words as they are relevant to our lives and interests, and so each individual’s understanding of them is born from their individual experience. Dictionary definitions and scientific clarity can try to impose exact meanings on words, but meanings are things words gain naturally from a web of concepts and connotations in each speaker’s mind.

Poststucturalist theory reminds us that those nets of meanings words have for us exist, and that they hold us back at one remove from the things we use them on.

That’s the heart of the matter, at least as far as I understand it: there’s a distance between what we each understand by any given bit of language and the thing itself – and, for that matter, there’s no guarantee that any other person’s understanding will match up to either meaning. What’s the use of this observation?

There are a lot of ways to use this claim, a lot of rarefied arguments about whether any true communication can take place between people and do things like ask whether rhetorical questions cover a bleak despair of ever being truly understood. For me, though, most language seems pretty functional. I don’t feel like I need to examine it in polysyllabic detail for hidden flaws. I feel like there are much more immediate things to look at with poststructuralist eyes: for one, the places where different groups already know they don’t share ideas about what words mean.

What people think of first when they hear a word can make a difference to very concrete things: to a person’s safety, to their ability to express their identity and be understood and not be condemned. Here’s where I see a use for the set of ideas we call poststructuralism: the model I just set out gives me a way to to look at arguments and language politics and ideological struggles. Feminist and slut and queer are each embattled words: they’ve been loaded with shaming and activist energy by turns, and changes in their use give and take away power from the group they describe.

Words don’t always convey the same ideas: someone using the word ‘slut’ might be inviting their listeners to share the misogynistic cultural baggage they carry with them, sometimes they can be challenging those assumptions. There aren’t two entirely different definitions there: there are two different understandings of the same collection of ideas. By seeing how that network of social and ideological assumptions, we can see how one use relies on it and the other challenges its influence; for me, that’s a useful tool.