Voice of an alien: Charlotte Church performs her new EP Four with a sci-fi show in London, 5 March. (Photo: Getty)
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Laurie Penny on geek culture and the mainstream: bringing its own problems

Mainstream media have, until recently, been hostile to geeks – who have been hostile back. How do we break the cycle?

If you ever find yourself at a party full of “mainstream” literary types and you confess to having not encountered a book that everyone else considers vital, you may well be met by shocked stares. “Call yourself a reader when you haven’t read Ulysses, or Lolita?”

By contrast, at a party full of science-fiction and fantasy fans, not only is there a much higher probability of pizza, but if you tell them you haven’t read an important book or seen a respected TV show there will be squeals of glee: “Oh, you’re in for such a treat! Let me lend you a copy!” They might also corner you and explain the entire plot while your drink gets flat and your date goes home. I apologise in advance for the ways of my people.

It is my sincere belief that the most exciting literature being created right now is in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. This has been true for some time but the big difference is that geek culture is no longer counterculture. It has gone mainstream. That’s partly because of the internet. Geeks were the first colonisers of what the writer William Gibson termed “cyberspace” and the digital world now rewards the things that they have always done best – unabashed enthusiasm, community-building, nerdy in-jokes, sharing information and big, dramatic arguments. Fans are welcoming to fellow enthusiasts but jealously guard their space from people who seem threatening or just don’t “get it”.

In August, London will host Worldcon (this year styled “Loncon”), the most high-profile and prestigious event in the science-fiction calendar, which includes the presentation of the Hugo Awards – the Oscars of the geek world. On 1 March, it was announced that the television presenter Jonathan Ross would be hosting them. Immediately, a vocal section of the science-fiction community struck back online, horrified that Ross, who has told sexist jokes in the past, had been chosen for the role. Some of the response was anguished and some was vicious, as passionate geeks rallied to defend their “space” from the celebrity comedian like hornets defending a nest.

The odd thing about this was that before geek culture became cool, Ross was one of those celebrities who would have been described as a “stealth nerd”, like when Robin Williams admitted to playing Dungeons and Dragons. Ross writes comics, attends conventions, is mates with science-fiction authors and is married to Jane Goldman, a Hugo-winner. He is also a representative of the snooty, sharp-suited mainstream media that have, until recently, been hostile to geeks, who have been hostile back. When it became clear how upset some people were, Ross withdrew from hosting duties.

Some of the animosity towards Ross comes from the idea that he is part of “old media” – the more respectable spheres of print, television and film production that cater to the broadest and blandest possible tastes. Even as geek culture goes mainstream, it feels threatened by what it considers the mainstream. Many of the most ardent fans see the community that has built up around the stories they love as a “safe space”, a world that is less judgemental than the everyday one. To have that space entered by a television presenter who has earned his living making fun of other people is just the kind of uncomfortable event that fans are struggling with as the dividing line between geek culture and the mainstream becomes as wibbly-wobbly as the space-time continuum.

There has always been a sense of embattled solidarity in science-fiction circles. Decades before geek culture migrated online, fans communicated through zines, magazines and schemes such as the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, which was set up in the 1950s to fly enthusiasts across the Atlantic to meet each other. Some of those fans, like Teresa Nielsen Hayden of the publishing house Tor, are now major players in the industry, opening the way for younger writers of steamy fan fiction and breathless forum-lurkers to become bestselling authors and screenwriters. “Fans aren’t primarily there for the creators,” Nielsen Hayden explained to me. “Fans are there for each other.”

Geek culture is infecting the mainstream at a time when its fans and creators are “cleaning house”. Over the past five years, it has faced down racism, sexism and other forms of injustice on and off the page, on the understanding that dog-whistle intolerance isn’t just execrable, it is also lazy storytelling. Major writers and heroes have been taken to task. This has led to hurt feelings and accusations of censoriousness – but it has also created space for some thrilling new stories. Shortlists for the Hugo and Nebula Awards show genre fiction being used to explore race, gender, sexuality and injustice in ways that are light years ahead of the mainstream. If you haven’t read them yet, you’re in for a treat. Here, let me lend you my copy.

Geek culture is not by its nature more liberal or tolerant than mainstream culture. There have always been reactionaries in the ranks and modern escapist creations such as Game of Thrones are as riddled with gang rapes and gratuitous racism as any other mainstream fiction. The difference in geek culture is its limitless capacity for self-analysis – and eventually, after the pub has closed and tempers have calmed down on Twitter, for self-improvement.

If mainstream art, literature and film could learn one thing from fandom, I hope it is this: its excited utopianism, its sense that, given enough courage and a functioning jet pack, we can create a world that is better, or at least more interesting, than the one in which we deal with the daily humiliations of capitalist patriarchy and computers that won’t turn on. We’re not there yet. But geek culture teaches us that there is only one way to get to the future. We get there together. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood