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Posts Tagged ‘events’

SIRENS 2018 Keynote: History, Storytelling, and Narrating the Future #Sirens18 #Sirens2018

This is the base script of the keynote I gave at the Sirens 2018 conference in Beaver Creek, Colorado. It’s missing my FUNNY AND GENIUS asides, but this gives you the core message. It seemed to make people happy!

Go forth, friends!

NOTE: I opened with an extemporaneous anecdote about my Spanish book tour, and how so many women journalists were asking me questions about whether or not I still believed in a hopeful future. It was then that I realized how much young people, in particular, were craving hope right now.  So I wanted to talk about hope, and how we can change the world for the better no matter how dark it gets.


So, it’s been another special week out there in the wider world, but…

I’m still here.

We’re still here.

I say this to myself every morning now. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s the breathless pace of the news cycle; the burden of knowing more of what’s happening in the wider world than any previous generation.

Whatever the reason. I’m here. You’re here.

And as long as we’re here, we can help create what comes after us.

As both a science fiction writer and someone with some historical training, I think a lot about the future. Mostly by looking at the past. I’m still not sure if that gives me an edge, or if looking backwards for too long will sour my grim optimism for the future of humanity.

I grew up in the 1980s, the era of Central American wars, liberation movements across Africa, the Cold War, the ascendance of Reganomics, the AIDS crisis. The rich got richer. The poor got kicked out of public health and welfare institutions. It was a dark time; I knew it even as a child. It forged my interest in war, resistance, and dark science fiction dystopias.

But even then, I fervently believed we had improved upon the past. I believed we could keep improving. Logic, I figured, would overcome our baser, socially warped programming that led us to fear of the other, the hoarding of wealth, and Ayn Rand. What I realized, decades later, is that humans aren’t swayed to change themselves, their beliefs, their attitudes, their societies, based on logic. We are creatures of pure emotion.

It’s been found that people who have damage to the part of their brains that process emotions can no longer make decisions. Oh, certainly, they can tell you logically what they SHOULD be doing, but they have difficulty deciding what to eat, what to wear. Apple or banana? If you have no emotional reason to choose one over the other, you will find yourself unable to decide.

Smart negotiators understand this. If you’ve ever tried to argue with someone on the internet, bringing with you all the facts and figures and thinking that will win over the other side, well… you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, too.

There’s an anecdote about a hospital in the 1800’s before the adoption of germ theory where in one wing of the maternity ward, midwives did all the assisting with birth. In the other wing, these young hotshot male doctors assisted with birth. It turns out the wing with the male doctors had a 40% higher maternal death rate than the one with the midwives.

When the head doctor dug further into this, he had this wild idea that maybe women were getting sick because these young doctors generally came to visit the maternity ward right after their anatomy classes, where they were cutting up corpses. And of course, you know – nobody washed their hands between corpse class and the maternity ward.

One would think the numbers would speak for themselves, but the young doctors were absolutely irate about this. How could this doctor even IMPLY that these rich pricks were UNLCEAN IN ANY WAY?? It took years to change this practice, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, because young rich white men were horrified at the idea that they were in some way harboring germs on their bare hands and murdering their own patients.

Logic doesn’t rule. Emotion does.

And the best way to evoke emotion is to tell stories.

The theory goes that what we call awareness is simply our ability to form stories out of stimuli. This is why most of us don’t have any clear memories until we’re two or three years old. We are not truly conscious until we learn how to construct a narrative.

We find ourselves connecting seemingly random events every day. I was out of milk, so I drove to the store. It turns out my best friend was at the store too! She invited me to dinner. At dinner I learned about a new job opportunity from one of the dinner guests. I got the job and that’s where I met my partner. Amazing! The world really does connect us all in mysterious ways!

But the only thing that actually connects any of these events in any spooky way… is you. You experienced them. You gave them meaning. To anyone else, viewing from outside, seeing you bump into your friend, or another guest at that dinner, those interactions had little to no meaning. We created the meaning. We crave meaning.

This is why I started blogging. I wanted to take all of these events I was experiencing as I traveled, and came into this awareness of who I was after high school, and create meaningful narratives out of them. What was I learning? How could I tie these events I experienced to my understanding of the greater world? I actually started my essay writing my writing long emails to friends from Clarion, this weekly or monthly updates that I spun into narratives. I switched to blogging after awhile because I worried that maybe I was spamming their inboxes too much. So I switched to a blogging platform and honed my storytelling there. These stories I made about my experiences were telling ME who I was. It was creating MEANING from all of these random experiences.

We must create these stories – whether written, spoken, or simply as narratives in our heads –  because at its most basic level, our stories ARE who we are. They ARE consciousness.

This is why, when you argue with someone’s story of the world and “the way things are” or “the way things have always been” they defend that story so violently. They have lived with these stories for so long that attacking them feels like an attack of the self.

There’s a fascinating series of studies that presents two groups of students with static images. These are simply random black and white images of what we might call television static, speckled nonsense patterns on a piece of paper.

One group of students is primed to think about a time when they lacked control over a situation. Another group is asked to write about whatever they want.

When both groups are shown these same random images, the group that was primed to evoke the feeling of being out of control is more likely to believe they see patterns in the random noise than the other group.


It turns out that when we are fearful, anxious, and stressed out – when we feel we have no control over our lives – our brains are more likely to find images in random noise, from correlations in stock market information that isn’t there, see conspiracies in unrelated events, and even develop superstitions.

The more out of control we feel, the more we want to assert structure to the universe around us. The story is the structure. The story is the emotion.

Control the narrative, you control the emotion, you control the future.

Every time we change the world, for better or worse – we do it by tapping into primal human emotions. My day job is in marketing and advertising, so I’m especially conscious of this.

Anti-smoking campaigns were a failure when they focused on the harm smokers were doing to themselves. Smoking, drinking, drugs – many of us view these vices as a vacation from our otherwise exhausting and frustrating lives.

What shifted the smoking conversation in this country was focusing on what it did to the people around you, especially your own children. I remember this shift happening in my own household, when my father stopped smoking inside after intense messages about how secondhand smoke would harm his children.

To change the world, we have to tap into emotions.

Fear works great. Fear of harming your children, sure, but also….

Fear of an Other; fear of immigrants, of your neighbors, of your government. Insurance companies, the media, the government, fear is the stick they wield. Fear of death. Fear of leaving your loved ones with nothing. Fear of losing everything you worked for. Fear of a loss in status.

What I didn’t understand for a long time was what emotion we could use besides fear to motivate people. I went into marketing and advertising because I knew how to write, I understood storytelling, but I also wanted to learn how to change the world. How do you change peoples’ ingrained behaviors?

Advertising teaches the tools of persuasion. It teaches us how to rewire our habits. Toothpaste existed for a very long time before it became a habit. What advertisers understood was that they needed to provide a trigger that compelled people to brush their teeth, and a pleasant payoff when they did it.

Ads invited us to roll our tongues across our teeth, notice the slimy film that builds up there, and brush our teeth. Peppermint was added to the formula so that we had a nice, fresh, tingling sensation afterword that made us feel clean, fresh, healthy, and confident.

A new habit was born. A lot of toothpaste got sold.

This trick – a trigger, a habit, a reward (generally an emotional one), is why people like me constantly check Twitter. It’s why Facebook continues to thrive. The hit of serotonin we get when we see we have a like, an email, a comment, taps directly into our primal pleasure center.

We’ve seen this formula used well for evil, or, at best, nothing super good. But we’ve also seen it used to reduce rates of drunk driving – the mothers against drunk driving campaign, where mothers shared the stories of children who’d been killed by drunk drivers humanized what many saw as an individual vice. Seatbelt campaigns – very similar approach. It wasn’t just save yourself, but – protect your kids; and it was backed up by some gory images of crash test dummies in accidents with and without seat belts. Pro tip: use logic to BACK UP your emotional appeal. Emotion first, bullet points second.

Now, how do we harness these same techniques to promote a better world, a more progressive world, one where, to paraphrase NK Jemisin, there’s “no voting on who gets to be human”?

We do it one story at a time. We do it by embracing change. We do it through holding onto and promoting hope.

Change is the only constant in our lives. Octavia Butler built an entire religion out of this fact in her Parable Duology. She set her novel in what could easily be our present: the last gasping days of the disintegrating United States as it sank into authoritarianism.

It’s a dark duology about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. And yet from this darkness, emerging from the ruins of a gutted civilization, a young woman founds a pacifist philosophical and religious order that transforms those who follow her.  From the ashes, a savior. In even the darkest times: a ray of hope. A glimmer of light.

The knowledge that there is a better world that comes after.

Because it is our stories of hope that have sustained us through each period of darkness, after which we emerged into brilliant flashes of light, and someday, perhaps someday, that brilliant dawn.

It’s stories of hope that made us believe we could fight for marriage equality. I remember an interview with someone who was at the Stonewall Riots being asked if they ever believed they would see marriage equality in their lifetime and they said HA HA absolutely NOT.

And whatever happens next, it doesn’t take away from that great victory.

My mother doesn’t believe so much in hope anymore, and that’s informed her activism, or lack thereof. “Why are these women marching?” she asked me during the women’s march, “like that’s going to change anything.”

Eating up stories of despair, believing the world can never change, that fighting for change is hopeless, is how regressive regimes grind us down. It’s how they win.

It is hope that helped us make sweeping policy changes that protected the most vulnerable among us, and extended the rights of citizenship to all people, no matter who they love.  That hope and that future are not dead, but they are set back once again, in that long and ancient war we have fought and written about as futurists and fantasists and dug into and examined as academics and historians. The long war between the light and the dark, between our better selves and our darker natures.

Our hopeful stories, our ability to tell different futures, and look back at the truth of what came before us, will sustain us through this darkness as they have in the past and as they will in the years to come. That is not to minimize what we will face; we won’t all survive it. But it is a reminder that there is a future, however dark, to push through to the world on the other side.

Each generation has its moment to discover who it really is. We have found out who are friends and colleagues are at their very core, and it has shaken many of us (yes, especially white people). But as with every story of war and suffering and hope and despair we will also discover who the heroes are.

“The real hero is only a hero by mistake,” said Umberto Eco, “he dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else.” (I sure do!)

Each of us can be a hero – on this timeline – in our own way.

We can do it by telling another story. By surfacing another narrative. Not one of fear and anger,  and cruelty, but one of radical kindness and hope that inspires action.

So, the habit:

Our trigger – thoughts about the future. Our habit – my habit, certainly – telling myself that it’s the Robocop future all the way down. The pay off? Nihilism. Staying in bed. Drinking too much.

Ok, that’s me again.

What I found is that I needed a different habit to replace how I thought about the future, one whose payoff got me out of bed, got me back to work, got me to the gym like a damn adult – and spurred me back into action.

The trigger – thinking about the future. The habit: imagining the Star Trek future that could come after this. Socialist America! Eating the rich! Healthcare for everyone! Abolishing ICE! No more security theater. The payoff: getting out of bed and getting to work toward that future.

Because, remember, the stories we tell about ourselves create who we are at this fundamental level. They are at the very core of who we become and who we perceive ourselves to be.

It’s why those days where we sit around berating ourselves about how dumb and worthless we are can be so dangerous.

But it also means the days we talk ourselves up hold extraordinary promise.

Author Steven Erikson once described a theory of reality at a panel I was on. He said his approach to worldbuilding was to create several characters and show the world through their eyes, because in our own lives – reality is this thing at the center of a circle of human observers, and we are all standing there describing what we see. Together we come to a loose consensus about what it is we’re looking at.

Reality is what we can agree on.  It’s the stories we tell as we stand in that circle.

We can tell a story of human greed, that our neighbors are out to take all our stuff. Or we can tell the story of human compassion and collaboration, that our neighbors want to help us; that kindness is a benefit and not weakness.

What we choose to write about, to speak about, to purchase, to recommend – stories about violent matriarchies, benevolent patriarchies, anarchist utopias, capitalist dystopias, cannot help but take a position on which narrative wins out. Hierarchy is good. Capitalism is bad. Binary gender is natural. Bisexuality is natural. Or not.

Freedom of information is bad. Freedom of information leads to terrorism. The state is benevolent and should be trusted to protect its citizens. The state is corrupt and must be abolished.

Intentional or not, our work – what we write about, whether as academics or novelists – expresses a certain set a values. It’s informed by the questions and expectations we have. When I was working on my Master’s degree, I was shocked to find a document that asserted that 20% of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the African National Congress in South Africa, was composed of women. I thought that was astonishing, in part because… well… how many movies or books about resistance have you consumed where one in every five fighters was a woman? How could this be true, I thought, if I’ve never seen it? But there it was, stacked up in the archives like it was no big deal.

I knew then that I needed to write about it.

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which argues that some of the world’s most happy and successful people choose careers which are driven by a personal mission. These missions don’t spring full-formed from their brains at age twenty or thirty. Instead, they are missions that they explore, define, and refine in the first decade or two of their careers. They come back to their missions when they feel they have achieved a significant goal or milestone, and adjust it as necessary. It is this mission, then, that drives them forward when the grind gets them down.

As human beings, we need to believe that our lives have meaning. What drives us when we despair? More often than not, it is our personal mission. And if we don’t have one, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut and lose focus and purpose… and get dragged down by someone else’s fearful nihilistic narrative.

Trolling reality – because that’s what trolling has evolved into – is both a political force, a moneymaker and a game. Getting people to cry on camera, to talk about how afraid they are, to leave the internet, to stay home in fearful silence, or, to flee from their homes altogether, to sow confusion and promote terror, is actually the end goal of this game.

It inspires a community of professional trolls to keep at it. Fear is the desired result. Public pain and misery triggers the jolt of serotonin that is their reward. Habits, right?

So I can hear the concern, now. Ok, Kameron. I have this hopeful narrative. I’m speaking up about better future. But the trolls aren’t just people yelling on the internet any more. They bring guns and send bombs.

Well, sure. Also I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I could die of carbon monoxide poisoning in my house.

All of us have different situations. But this is what I think whenever I’m invited to speak at an event like this, or whenever I pick up an unknown package on the porch:

I could die on a plane. I could die from taking too much insulin. One of my aunts learned that she had a brain tumor a few years back, and was dead three months later. I could have a blood clot, or an aneurysm.

Death is coming for all of us, eventually. Yes, we are all going to die! Yes, I think about getting shot or bombed or SWATed or whatever. But that’s been my reality as a woman speaking publicly since, like 2004 when I started my blog.

The truth is it wasn’t so much what I was saying that people didn’t like – it was that I was allowed to speak publicly at all, as if there was a test one had to pass, a lofty measurement or set of traits or a bestseller list, or some gender requirement.

But  the alternative, for me, is to be quiet, and to die quietly, hit quietly by a bus.

And that just sounds very… quiet, to me. I like being loud.

But I get that everyone’s mileage is going to vary.

Just remember that as long as you’re still here, I’m still here, you’re still here, we win.

One of the reasons no one can silence me is not just my profound stubbornness and indifference in the face of rage mobs, nor my ability to be able to find the signal in the noise. I stay in this game because I get 1,000% more fan mail than hate mail. I get fan mail of the “You changed my life,” variety.

People who came out to their parents because of something I wrote, folks who found the courage to leave an abusive partner. Folks who moved across the country. Changed jobs. Went back to school. People read things I write and it gives them hope and inspiration and comfort, too; comfort that they are not so different. They are not alone. That the world can be really different.

And it’s that love, that profound love, that will keep me here, that will keep me speaking, that will keep me carrying on, long after the hate speech has been buried in an explosion of fragmented pixels.

Love. Radical kindness. A rejection of nihilism. These are the alternative narratives we must surface and share.

I take storytelling seriously because I understand that storytelling is how we make sense of the world. It is, quite literally, how we build the world. What we dream, we create. What we imagine, we make truth. It is how we can share the same world with billions of people and thousands of other cultures and yet all see this world and our place in it so differently. Story is also how we can begin to change our own view of the world. As Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award speech:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.

Resistance begins not only in art, but in the passionate pursuit of the truth. The truth that there is no monolithic way to be human, now or in the future. That how we organize ourselves has changed significantly over the hundreds of thousands of years we have been on this planet. That we don’t have to be ruled exclusively by fear.

My mom often apologizes to me for the women of her generation. “We thought we changed it all,” she says, but you kids still have to deal with the same shit.” But I’m more optimistic than that. What I see is every generation making incremental progress. Three steps forward. Two steps back. Five steps forward after that, then six back, ooops, damn, okay, get back up, keep going!

Fall down seven times. Get up eight.

Nihilism is the greatest enemy of change. Nihilism tells us that we are all going grubbing back into the darkness from whence we came, and that nothing we do here matters. Nihilism keeps the old abusive systems puttering along. Nihilism convinces us that nothing changes, when in truth – the world is changing all the time.

People like us are just as equipped to change it as anyone else.

As long as we are still here, we are still part of building that narrative.

Someone once asked me why I write and I said, “I write to change the world.” That’s not bullshit. I believe that. You, me, all of us in this room, we are each of us an integral part in a greater whole.

What stories are we telling? With our research, our writing; with the thoughts we share, both ours and those we spread across our social and personal channels.

Every reality is shaped by story. Greed is good. Rich is good. Capitalism is good.

But I come at this world every day now armed with a different story. Compassion is good. Kindness is good. Socialism is good. Looking out for each other is good. Hoarding wealth is obscene. Greed is despicable. Capitalism is a crime against 90% of human beings on this earth.

Say a thing often enough, loudly enough, and you start to change the narrative all around you. Take a look at the news. At the talking points. Who is setting the conversation?

I no longer seek to react to the horror around me. Instead, I state boldly that no one gets to vote on who is human, that each of us is entitled to good health, that unions are a public good, housing is a human right, higher education should be free, corporations must be heavily taxed and regulated, and the government should be afraid of the people – people should not be afraid of the government.

I state these things as truth, without apology.

I speak my narrative. And I force the wider world to defend itself from a narrative of pure human decency, where each and every one of us has no more or less value on this earth than another.

Because the truth is human beings can create incredible things when they work together. When they see each other as human.

We can create incredible things.

We spend so much time fighting the darkness that we forget there’s another way to go about it. Building the future isn’t just about fighting the darkness. It’s about bringing the light.


Radical kindness. Empathy. Humanity. A positive, progressive vision of the future THAT INSPIRES ACTION.

That is the revolutionary future we can assert, promote, and protect.

That is how we’ll win. Not by simply fighting what we hate, but by protecting what we love.

(C’mon, you didn’t think I’d get out of here without a Star Wars reference??)

So, while I’m here, and you’re here… for as long as we’re blessed to be here…

Let’s go build the future.

One story at a time.

LITA Talk: We Are the Sum of Our Stories

I was graciously invited by the Library Information Technology Association (LITA) to give the LITA President’s Talk on June 25th. The talk was recorded and will be shared publicly in the next few weeks.

Until then, here is the full text of the talk (minus my asides, of course).

Thank you so much to LITA President Aimee Fifarek for the invitation (and to N.K. Jemisin for the NYT review that brought Geek Feminist Revolution to Fifarek’s attention!) and everyone involved in coordinating the event. Thanks also to the Tor team, in particular Kathleen Doherty and Zohra Ashpari, for all of their support in ensuring this event went smoothly. It was lovely, and I felt honored to be there.



So, this talk was described a bit disingenuously. And I apologize for that. What I’m actually here to talk to you about today are llamas.

Yes, I’m going to tell you a story about llamas.


On the surface, it’s pretty easy being a llama. I mean, all you want to do is eat, and poop, have sex sometimes, maybe raise some babies, and die old. These are desires that pretty much every llama shares. It’s something they can collectively agree on, and have collectively agreed on since there were llamas.

What they can’t agree on is what the point is of being a llama, anyway. Who made them? What’s the point of all this sex and pooping? They also can’t agree on if bigger llamas should be able to get access to more to eat, even if it means that other llamas may get less. Should little llamas have to poop in one part of the pen but big llamas poop where they want?

These are important llama questions. Pooping is serious business when you’re a llama.

These differences in such philosophical questions posed by herd life caused the llamas to all break up into divisive groups based on these different stories created around the facts of being a llama.

As divisions among the llamas escalated, they didn’t notice that sometimes there were some sheep dogs and leopards wandering among them, agreeing with their stories and planting new alternative facts into their heads, that not all llamas poop, not all llamas eat, so what do llamas really have in common anyway?

But leopards eat llamas, you might be saying, why on earth would llamas be listening to leopards, and I’d say #NotAllLeopards, why don’t you just hear both sides?

Pretty soon these llamas no longer stayed in the same herd together. They formed smaller herds. They started trusting no one but their own immediate families. The llamas could not form a shared reality, a shared story, about the state of the herd and the world around them. Soon, even their own families became suspect.

At some point, the llamas contaminated their grazing spaces. Many died of dysentery and ecoli. Some starved. But most were simply picked off one by one by the leopards who had helped nurture the stories that drove them into these little, more easily murdered groups.

The llamas all sat around blaming each other until there weren’t any more llamas left. The leopards got very fat.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.

Oh, you want a moral to the story. A purpose? Why share a story, if it doesn’t tell us something about ourselves, the way that stories are supposed to?

Well, I guess the moral of the story is…. Thank goodness we’re not llamas.


It’s certainly easier to talk about the folly of llamas and their warring versions of reality than it is to face and understand our own shortcomings. We like to believe that we are rational creatures. But as someone with a deep background in storytelling and over a decade of marketing experience, I know the ugly truth. We are not rational creatures at all. We are driven purely by emotion. And those emotional drives are most powerful when communicated through narrative.

Story is absolutely central to our understanding of ourselves and our reality. There is a theory that human consciousness begins with story. Our awareness of the world hinges on our ability to form narrative. This is why most of us don’t have any clear memories until we’re two or three years old. Before we are able to construct our own consciousness, we must be able to form narrative. It is story that makes us human.

It means we can be shaped and altered entirely by the stories we tell, the stories we are told, and the stories we choose to believe about ourselves.

Scary, right?


My 6-year-old nephew thrives on rules and facts. Household rules, social rules, give him a baseline template by which to measure the world. It soothes his anxiety to know exactly how people are supposed to act. When rules are broken, he loses his mind.

I like to tell him wild stories that aren’t true. When he was four I convinced him that dinosaurs weren’t extinct, just nocturnal, Which was super funny until he corrected his kindergarten teacher, during a class on dinosaurs, by announcing loudly: “DINOSAURS AREN’T EXTINCT THEY’RE NOCTURNAL.”

I know, I’m a terrible Aunt.

Before then, he was happy to believe whatever story I told him. Now he hesitates and interrogates on the assumption that NOTHING I tell him his true. “Auntie Kamo that’s not TRUE.” And when I assert it is he looks for other sources, asks his mom, his uncle, “Is that REALLY true?” in an attempt to find a consensus.

He has learned to think critically (I have turned him into a critical thinker! Mission accomplished!). He’s learning who the best sources of information are. (not me). If only those llamas could learn to think as critically as a 6-year-old.


The way our behavior is shaped by story has been known by prophets, governments, and marketers (for millennia. It’s why religious books are largely written as a series of parable and stories. I still remember the Bible story where the King determines which woman is the true mother of a child by threatening to cut the kid in half! Memorable stuff.

For 15 years I’ve been working in an industry that was able to convince people that tobacco was cool, and then that it wasn’t. We got people to wash their hair every day instead of every week, so we could sell more shampoo. The “tradition” of the diamond engagement ring can be traced directly back to a 1930’s ad campaign by De Beers, in which a copywriter like me came up with the phrase “diamonds are forever” and started convincing celebrities to show off diamond engagement rings.

Everything we do is made up. It’s all driven by stories.


Even our sense of ourselves as a nation is simply a story, one many of us learn when we’re about… six. It is a carefully crafted story of manifest destiny and independence, in which a collection of European immigrants went out into a largely unpopulated continent and tamed it to their will and gave freedom and equality to all.

The only way to stick to this sense of ourselves is to willfully ignore the fact that the country was also built through the use of genocide, slavery, and oppression. We were, for nearly two hundred years, a democracy only in the sense that Athens was a democracy, a democracy that didn’t include women, foreigners, or slaves.

Yet even here there is some truth to the story we tell ourselves, at least. This is a country of immigrants. Together we have built some great things. We have also, collectively, done and continue to do some very terrible things. These are facts we can all agree on. It’s the story around it that changes.

Hijacking the American story is much easier than we’d like to think. Because, like my nephew, we all learned these stories when we were very young, we reject much of what we learn we when are older. We don’t want to believe entire nations of people had to be murdered and forcibly relocated for this country to be what it is. We want to believe they all died of a plague. White people in this country, in particular, don’t want to believe that enslaved hands helped build our White House. We want to believe all slaves were treated well and slavery “wasn’t so bad.” It soothes our sense of ourselves.

But that doesn’t make those things true.

Stories and truth aren’t the same thing.


Much has been made of the rise of the internet and its power in fracturing our sense of ourselves and our stories.

But our mass media is simply a reflection of our true selves and the culture at large. It’s like a carnival fun house where we are constantly confronted with all the best and darkest and most twisted versions of our reality as individuals and a nation.

Technology has simply made abuse and misinformation easier. I get yelled at and harassed on the street constantly when I lived here in Chicago. While walking my dogs last week in Dayton, Ohio I had a guy follow me in his car, espousing my physical virtues while demanding to know if I had a boyfriend. I’m regaled by street preachers about their views of apocalypse and salvation. On trains here in Chicago I’d also encounter wandering folks who insisted we were being controlled by aliens, or…whatever.

Online, it’s simply easier for people like Todd in his boring corporate cubicle to engage in this behavior of abuse and misinformation – quickly and infinitely.

For more than two decades, we have allowed bullying and abuse online and off, on playgrounds and by our sons and daughters, by our police forces, on our college campuses, in our streets, and we have allowed it in ourselves. To achieve this, we have built elaborate stories about why this abuse isn’t really abuse. We talk about how “boys we be boys” and “women are just asking for it,” and “if people just respected people with guns they wouldn’t get shot.” And we have allowed our media to serve us entertainment and call it news.

These stories aren’t solving these problems.


Story has power no matter how it’s communicated. Consider an example less close to home. One without the internet.

After an airplane carrying the then president of Rwanda was shot down in 1994, members of the political elite in Rwanda launched a campaign to encourage the Hutu majority to murder their Tutsi neighbors. Checkpoints and barricades were erected to screen those with Tutsi ethnic classification. One of the most powerful tools of the genocide, however, was the radio. On an extremist radio station, Hutu civilians were encouraged to take up whatever arms they had at hand, murder their Tutsi neighbors, and take their property. Over the course of about 100 days, Hutus murdered somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million of their own friends and neighbors.

A 2014 study estimated that 51,000 perpetrators, or approximately 10% of the overall violence, could be attributed directly to the propaganda espoused by a single radio station. The station was established several years before with a clear mission of promoting Hutu dominance in the region, and shared racist jokes and urged civilians to violence. More damning, the study also found that the station had not only directly influenced behavior in the villages within reception but also indirectly increased participation in neighboring villages through social interactions. In short, mass media can and does affect participation in violence due to both direct and indirect exposure to propaganda.


I bet you relaxed and felt much more comfortable when I was talking about faraway Rwanda than Todd in his cubicle. It’s easier to say we aren’t responsible for dealing with Rwanda. A lot harder to admit that Todd has problems and those problems are American problems.

For decades we have called the rise of misinformation and propaganda in this country entertainment. But it’s becoming increasingly clear what they really are.

Russian chess grand master Garry Kasperov recently tweeted, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking. To annihilate truth.”

Sometimes the only way to share the truth about ourselves is by giving it some distance. The closer it is to us, the more it hurts to see it. It’s like looking at our reflection. All we want to do is break the mirror.


Does truth still exist?

I have seen the attempted annihilation of truth in other countries, and I can tell you the general story of how it happens. But you already know by now, don’t you? You are encouraged to not think critically about media, but to reject it outright. You watch your government state a stance in one sentence and deny they ever said it in the second. When they are called out on this, governments then prevent themselves being filmed, so ordinary people have only the word of the already discredited media on what the government is saying. You see the pervasive spread of radio programs and Facebook pages influenced by foreign governments and bros looking to make a buck who actively spread false stories.

These are things we have witnessed. What remains to be seen is how each of us crafts the stories of these truths to shoehorn them into our internal story of the country we live in, and the people we are.

Because we would rather figure out a way to do that than confront what is really happening. The splintering of our stories of ourselves and our countries feels too much like dying.

So the leopards get fat.


If we can agree the world is confusing, and we often feel that we’re dying, we can, at least, ask ourselves… what happens next?

Now that so much in the world has been discredited and maligned, where do we turn? It turns out that there’s still one shining institution in America that has yet to be tarnished with the “fake news” label. It still holds a place in the public mind as an authority on fact and truth. That last bastion of truth is, of course, our libraries.

They’ve gone after your funding, sure. They don’t want to educate the populace because then they think critically. Authoritarian governments, corporations, people who want to retain power by crushing others, don’t want you to show the public how to really critically interrogate the information they consume.

But we’re not dead yet!

Children still come to libraries, young people still come to libraries, adults still come to libraries, looking for objective truth. In my hometown in Dayton, Ohio we just funded a massive new downtown library space with meeting spaces, cafes, and three floors of books. We still believe in libraries.

We unleashed firehouse of the internet on our countries without giving people the tools they need to navigate that information in a critical way. We assumed that somehow, magically, people would just figure out what was true and what wasn’t.

To help patrons, it’s not enough to show them where the information is, but also to teach them how to think critically about it. Incorporate guidelines for critical thinking in every how to use the library talk, every discussion about the internet. Hell, put up posters there along the computer banks, “Think before you click!” “Think before you share!” That sounds simplistic, but put those messages into the form of stories told by llamas who are making poor decisions, and it becomes powerful.

When I teach copywriting classes, I give my students handy green, yellow, red caution designations for common news sources and sites. It’s not that they can’t or shouldn’t see that information, no! But it urges them to think more critically about what the source is, what their motive may be, and gives them guidelines on how to navigate the vast trove of information. It invites them to take personal responsibility for the information they create, share, like, and broadcast. I teach them about hyperlinks, and clicking back, always to check the original source of a news item buried eight blogs deep. I tell them to take note of the author of the information and think about what biases that person may have. I teach them all to be little mini-historians, using the same training I was given when I pursued my degree.

Most importantly, again, I urge you to share this information about how to uncover the truth in the form of stories and fables, not bullet points. If you want people to remember the importance of critical thinking and their part in spreading misinformation… tell them about the llamas.

We unconsciously examine the biases of our own family members every day. Today, we must all be that studious 6 year old, shaping and reshaping reality, examining sources, doubting, always, but knowing the truth is, as ever, out there.


So finally, I realized that some of the problems I had in crafting this speech is that I was trying to tell you how to save the world with the power of story in…. 30 minutes. What can I say, I’m ambitious. What I’m going to do instead is share with you the story that is getting me through this difficult time in our history.

I tell myself that we all still have more in common than we have been led to believe. We all just want to eat and poop. Occasionally, we may want to have sex or at least have strong human relationships, we all want to live a life where we are comfortable and loved. We all want to die old.

I also have to believe there is a future. I often imagine that it’s 30 years from now, and the world here in America is amazing. We have tackled income inequality. We no longer wake up anxious in the middle of the night about medical bills or how to pay for our children’s medications, because we have all decided that we are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. We don’t worry about how to provide for our parents, or ourselves, in old age, because we have all decided to take care of each other from birth to death, just like a herd of llamas.

Our story, as a nation, has changed from one of The Hunger Games who can kill or rob more people faster than anyone else – to one of sharing for the common good. We have learned how to be kinder. Less angry. The story we tell ourselves now is that we all need each other to be here. I need other people to live because they make my shoes, my medications, they pave my roads, they fund the library that helped me learn to read, they regulate the safety of the food I eat. We all understand and value that, now. Thirty years from now.

I understand that sometimes it takes the very worst happening for us to get to that future. Sometimes, as in Europe, it takes a terrible war. Hard times. Terrible times. I tell myself that we are just beginning to enter those times.

So in this future, I’m an old woman living in an off-grid adobe hut in the middle of the desert, not because it’s the apocalypse and I’m drinking my own urine, but because it’s hot and sunny and when I’m old I want that! And I imagine these students tracking me down. And they come to me and they say, “How did you survive this terrible time in history and get through to the other side? How did you keep up hope when it looked like America had lost its story and was going to tear itself apart, with a foreign war or even a civil war?

And I tell them what I’m telling you now, and that is that I persevered because I could see the future on the other side. I could see us coming together. I had hope for this future. I could see them, these students and their shiny faces. I could see the future I built for them, and all of us. And I told that story to others.

No matter how horrible things got, so matter how divisive we were all encouraged to be, I remembered our collective story.

We all want to poop. We all want to eat. We all want to die old.

And I hope that as we go forward, there is some solace and hope for you in that as well. We are not all going to make it to that future. And that itself is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy to be here. But I believe in that future. And that is my story. That’s the real story I wanted to share with you today.

So, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, those llamas sure have a lot of problems. I hope they can work things out.

I want to thank you all for coming to story time today.

I wish you the very best.


On Kindness and Conventions

I want to talk a little about kindness.

We like to think that geeks are kind, that geeks understand what it is to be outsiders, and so we open up our circles and are super inviting to everyone. But what happens more often is that once we find our groups, we jealously defend them to keep outsiders away. Once we’ve created an “us” we work even harder to define the “them.” This is one of the reasons that conventions have always been so excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last year at ConFusion in Detroit I came in when everyone else was already glommed up into their little circles and went straight back to the bar and got a drink with my spouse. He was like, “Why aren’t you saying hi to people?” and I was like, “I’m afraid. What if they don’t talk to me? What if I’m interrupting someone? What if somebody says something mean to me? If people want to talk to me, I will wait for them to come to me, then I know for sure they want to talk to me.”

Yes, for real. Last January.

And that didn’t change for me until WorldCon last August, when for the first time ever, fans literally squee’d and shouted and cheered when I walked into a room. I had folks tearing up and saying, “OMG it’s such an honor to meet you” and “OMG YOU’RE KAMERON HURLEY!” and all of a sudden after slogging away for nearly twenty years writing and submitting stories, people outside a small group of authors knew who I was, and I realized something had changed. I wasn’t on the outside anymore, even if I sure as fuck felt like a nobody.

I have argued with authors for years about the power imbalance between authors and fans. By the very fact that you’re an author, that you’ve had worked published, it puts you in a position of perceived power, even if you don’t feel powerful. And what you do with that power is important. But first you need to realize, and accept, that you have it and people have given it to you.

I went to my first convention in 2001, and had such a terrible time, and felt like such an outsider, that I didn’t go again until Wiscon in 2004. It was at Wiscon that I did finally find my people. And though those first couple conventions were tough, I eventually got to know more folks so that I knew a few people every time I went and usually had some folks to talk to. The icebreaker was generally my blog; people knew me for that. That said, most conventions remained a little cliquish. It’s tough to approach circles of people who all clearly know each other, or to say hi to people you aren’t sure even care about or remember you from the conversation you had the night before. I know how difficult conventions have been for me, and after WorldCon, I realized that I was in a place where I finally knew enough people that I could start to pay it forward. I didn’t feel powerful, but people perceived me that way, and it was time for me to start walking the talk I’d been spewing at authors for a decade.

So this weekend at ConFusion, I did what my spouse suggested I do, which is to wave and acknowledge folks as I passed them, even and especially when they didn’t respond. If someone didn’t wave back, I tried very hard to dismiss it and not take it personally. Most of the time, it’s because they didn’t see me, didn’t remember me, or were tired or otherwise goal-focused. I know I had to stop and turn and say hello back to people who I didn’t recognize at first. There was only one instance where I said hello to someone and I felt like I was ignored on purpose, but that dude is pretty weird anyway.

Most importantly, though, when I was out at parties, or in the bar, I opened up the conversation circle to people. This is probably the most important thing you can do at either of these events. There is nothing worse than hanging on outside the circle hoping to try and get someone to invite you in. Here are these people who’ve known each other for years, and you’ve been told to socialize at the bar because it’s so great to network! and all you’re doing is standing outside these circles of people with a drink, feeling stupid.

I have done that more years that I care to admit.

In fact, another author came up to a circle I was in at a party one night, and I widened the conversation circle to welcome him in, as I’d been doing with others all night, and he looked surprised and said “Thank you.”

“For what?” I said.

“For opening the circle,” he said. “Most people tighten up the circle when other people come up.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

Unless you’re involved in a heated private conversation, please don’t do that, folks, especially if you’re an author here to meet new folks. Don’t close the circle unless you are seriously meaning to keep someone out who’s a known jerk or something. We’re all at these things to have fun. We have all been that person on the outside of the circle, and you fucking know what it feels like. Don’t do that to people.  I know it’s all terrifying. Just introduce yourself. Encourage everyone else to introduce themselves. Remember what it was like when you didn’t know anyone.

As my spouse often says, kindness costs you nothing. And it means the world to someone else. It’s the difference between having a welcoming and open community and a cliquish, closed community that does not grow and diversify. And if you’re talking the talk about building that better community, then you need to take the tough actions that will help you build that, even if it scares you.

There were, of course, plenty of things I messed up. I made a joke on a panel at the expense of another panelist, not realizing that we had no previous rapport and it might hit him the wrong way. I was saving a seat at a table at breakfast for someone and had to turn someone else away, when in fact what I should have done is pull another table together with ours to make the table bigger.  I can go on. And I did, of course, like we always do, jerking awake from a sound sleep Sunday morning in a panic that I’d committed a thousand social faux pas for which I would never be forgiven.

But, you know: you get up again. You plow forward. You apologize when necessary. You move on. You do better.

I have talked a lot of talk over the last decade. It’s my turn to pay it forward, and to help build the community I’d like to see, instead of just complaining about how shitty things are elsewhere.

Because there is no greater joy than seeing the reactions of people who’ve had their first amazing convention, and who tear up all the way home because in a single weekend they’ve found their people, they feel included, they felt like part of something bigger than themselves.

Be the change you want to see, right? I need to act like the author I always wished I would have encountered when I was twenty-one years old at my first convention. Every time I talk to some new person, especially those at their first convention, I imagine that I’m talking to somebody who is going to come up fighting through here just like me. I’m holding out the hand I didn’t get that first time. I’m opening up the circle.

WorldCon Schedule

It’s going to be the drunkest con of the year!

I was put on a few panels at Worldcon, which I admit still surprises me.

Compared to my nine or twenty panels at Gencon, this will be a fairly relaxing affair as long as nobody crashes into their own face during the Writing Diverse Characters panel, which folks are weirdly wont to do on this sort of panel, especially at the core SFF cons. I MEAN LOOK AT THE OPENING DESCRIPTION OF THE PANEL MY GOD.

I will try and keep a lid on the mad as best I can as moderator, and try even harder not to be the one who walks into my own face.


Writing Diverse Characters

Thursday 16:00 – 16:45, Spokane Falls Suite A/B (Doubletree)

There was a time when most science fiction writers were geeky white guys with military experience (KAMERON NOTE: NO THERE WAS NOT), so most of their characters tended to be geeky, white guys with military experience…including often the aliens (KAMERON NOTE: NO THE REASON WAS WHITE MALE SUPREMACY).  What are some of the tricks to creating diverse characters? (KAMERON NOTE: THEY MEAN HOW TO WRITE CHARACTERS WHO ARE NOT GEEKY WHITE MEN WITH MILITARY XP MY GOD MY GOD HOW LIMITING IS THAT ONE??). What are some better examples of fiction with diverse, well-written characters? (I THINK WE CAN THINK OF A FEW WHY DID NO ONE ON THE COMMITTEE CATCH THIS ONE THESE ARE NOT TRUE THIIIIIIINGS AND THEY ARE PART OF NARRATIVE OF ERASURE THAT IS THE WHOLE EFFING PROBLEM!!??)

Kameron Hurley (M) , Randy Henderson, Mary Soon Lee , Grá Linnaea , Walidah Imarisha



Writing About SF: Yesterday and Today

Friday 11:00 – 11:45, Bays 111A (CC)

From Knight and Blish, through Delany and Le Guin, to the critics of today, SF has had an active (and sometimes contentious) history of criticism.  What is the role of a critic? Who are the great critics, and why?

Gary K. Wolfe (M), David Hartwell , Rich Horton, Michelle Sagara , Kameron Hurley


Self-publishing — How to Market Your Work

Saturday 16:00 – 16:45, 303A (CC)

Your manuscript is done, you’ve found your printer, uploaded your files, and your book is done. Now how the heck do get people to buy it? Successful self-published authors share their methods.

Sarina Dorie, Doug Farren , Kameron Hurley , Annie Bellet