Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe became known in his eight seasons with the team as much for his activism as his kicking. Now retired from football, he is taking his battle for equal rights into a new arena: young adult science fiction. Kluwe returns to Minnesota Tuesday to read from his new novel, "Otaku."
He says he's never kept his love of video games and science fiction a secret.
"I think it's no surprise to the people in Minnesota who know me that I am also a huge nerd. I don't think I have ever hidden that part of my life," he said from his home in California.
In fact, the way Kluwe tells it, it's remarkable he became a football player at all.
"So, if it wasn't for my parents making me go out and play sports, I probably wouldn't have gone outside and played sports," he said. "But it turned out I was pretty good at them, so I ended up making that a career."
Kluwe played for the Vikings from 2005 to 2012. His advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay rights ultimately caused tension between him and the coaching staff. In fact, he claimed it was the cause of the team’s releasing him, although the Vikings cited his football performance.
Since his retirement in 2014, Kluwe's various projects have included writing in the form of blogs, essays and science fiction. "Otaku," from which he will read on Tuesday evening at Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis, builds on his equal rights activism.
He wanted to write a story like those of William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, whose characters struggle to survive in dystopian worlds ravaged by the bad decisions of past generations.
"Normally, the protagonist of that story is kind of the straight white male, right?" he said. "And I wanted that to not be the protagonist because we have seen so many of those protagonists. For me, it was trying to write a cool story but also trying to give voice to characters that might not normally be the center of the action."
Set in a Miami of the future, flooded by rising sea levels caused by climate change, "Otaku" tells the story of Ashley, aka Ashura the Terrible, “who is basically the top-tier gamer in this world," Kluwe said. "She runs around in this online game doing lots of cool stuff."
Called Ash by her friends, she leads the SunJewel Warriors, a guild of all-female gamers who make their living playing characters in a game watched by millions of people around the world. To play, they wear haptic suits and helmets, full-body clothing that translates their movements into actions in the game.
In the online world, they are the best. As a result they are also targets — both inside the game and outside. Kluwe said this is where the science fiction of the future intersects with the reality of today.
"And that's something that people are beginning to take more notice of, is that being online is not just this separate world divorced from reality. It's very much intertwined with our reality because we are human beings," he said.
Ash and her team face a constant barrage of misogynistic social media, which spills out into the real world where they are regularly threatened with physical and sexual assault. Kluwe said this is the reality for many female gamers in real life.
"That stereotype of the unhinged gamer in the basement, there's a reason that's a stereotype,” he said. “Because those people exist, and they will make your life miserable."
Kluwe said he deliberately created a black female hero to rattle the cages of the haters. He knew, as a white male writing in the first person as a black woman, that he would face questions of cultural and gender appropriation. So, he enlisted the help of Tanya DePass, the African American founder and director of "I Need Diverse Games," a nonprofit working on inclusion issues in the gaming community.
"She gave me some really good feedback and pointed out some stuff [that] would probably be done a little bit different. But for the most part she was like, 'Yeah, it was kind of depressing because it was reading about what I have to go through on a daily basis,’" he said.
Kluwe has been pleased by positive reviews from female reviewers. And he’s excited by one particular blurb, now on the cover of “Otaku.” William Gibson wrote, “An impressively nasty future Miami, with a smart female protagonist, and plenty of action, both real and virtual.”
“Every time I see it, I can’t believe William Gibson said something nice about my book,” Kluwe said. “That’s nuts!”
Kluwe is looking forward to visiting Minnesota. He says some of the descriptions of life in a flooded Miami are based on the Minneapolis skyway system. He says he's sure there will be some football fans at the reading, but he believes that most of the crowd will be like him, proud nerds.
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