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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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.