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Essays & Reviews

WisCon 31

This time I actually brought back my program from the Con, with all my notes scribbled thereon to prompt my pig of a memory.

First, the basics: WisCon, the only feminist SF/F convention in America, is held every Memorial Day Weekend in Madison, Wisconsin (time was it occurred in February — I never saw an ice storm in all the years I lived in New York, but Madison in February delivered a baroquely gorgeous example back in those days, for which I am deeply grateful now; I was less enthusiastic at the time).

Madison is a congenial, liberal college town. The Madison Concourse Hotel is welcoming, comfortable, and right in the midst of things; and this is the very convention at which the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Literary Award took wing from a remark by author Pat Murphy about how there ought to be at least one SF/F/H award named after a woman, amid all the wildly proliferating awards named for guys (the John W. Campbell, the Philip K. Dick, the Hugo, the Sturgeon, etc etc).

This is an in-joke: James Tiptree Jr. was in reality Alice Sheldon, writing under a pseudonym she took off a jam jar label. And the kind of sly, paradox-loving wit that proposed a woman's masculine pen name for an award for gender-bending SF/F is perfectly Wiscon.

Everyone comes a day early if they can, because the outlet stores on State Street have sales on the holiday weekend. Writers (and fans) are generally not rolling in dough, so shopping is a matter of keen interest. This year I got a great summer suit at a Winter Silk outlet store: three pieces, light weight, a beautiful deep shade of teal, $35.

Alas, the shoe store on State where I used to buy sale-price running shoes every spring from grave shoe-salesmen of mature years is now "Jack's", flooded with size 7's (women's) and size 9's (men's) showroom samples and designer sneakers. Fageddaboudit. I'm a women's 9+ these days, and if these damned yoga exercises actually succeed in flattening out my crimped toes a bit, at least another half size increase looms ahead.

So that was my Thursday — shopping, loafing, greeting old friends as they turned up doing the same — and enjoying the fine weather.

On Friday afternoon came The Gathering, a big party with activities that sets the whole convention off with a bang. I did about 15 tarot readings before I felt the concentration drain out of me (last person I read for, if you see this, apologies — catch me next year, and I'll give you a nice fresh, reading sometime during the Con). It was noisy for us talk-people (tea-leaf readers, crystal-gazers), with a belly-dancing class going on in one corner of the room complete with pounding drums. Still, on all that energy I ran one smokin' reading after another — four to six major arcana per layout!

Can't tell you about any of them, though — it all flies out of my head instantly. All I know is, I've *got* to get a new deck: my current one, David Pallidini's handsome first Aquarius Tarot, is not only disgracefully dirty-looking and faded from years of use, but one of the cats has has chewed the corner off the six of pentacles.

Other activities at the Gathering were your street-fair regulars — face painting, hair braiding, rubber stamping, palm reading, cow tipping (symbolic — but unavoidable in WI), show your tattoos — ah — well — maybe those aren't so regular (I saw suave celtic designs and a pair of beautiful raven-wings across the shoulders of one woman) -- a knitting circle, and a clothing swap.

When I'd had my fill of it all, I went upstairs for a restorative nap — tarot reading is tiring when you're working in top gear — and then slipped out for dinner (excellent duck at the Orpheum, a working movie theater on State with a good restaurant in the lobby).

I dashed back to the hotel in time for Opening Ceremonies, which featured a "masque" scripted in iambic pentameter (da-Da da-Da da-Da da-Da da-DA — think the first lines of Frost's "Birches") by a fan and first-time attendant. Appropriately costumed representatives of all of the participating organizations (Broad Universe, the Carl Brandon Society, the Tiptree Award Motherboard, others — Google the Wiscon website for more info) stepped up to deliver their verses in fine voice, although some of the lines were stepped on by hilarity from the ballroom-sized audience (the Con had about 1,000 members this year). The script was delightfully witty and much appreciated (and if anyone can tell me the name of the author, who also played the role of an inquiring newcomer, I'll be happy to put it here — recognition is due).

Programming proper kicked off at 8:45 that same evening with a reading by Guest of Honor Laurie Marks, who had something to celebrate: her "Elemental Logic" series was dropped by her original publisher after volume two, but now book three, Water Logic, is out from Small Beer Press (thank you, Gavin and Kelly!) after several years' hiatus. This series is large-canvas fantasy work more interested in human beings (interestingly gifted ones) in stressful and war-plagued times than in prophecies, battles, hidden royals, and hifalutin' wizardry.

I went to a panel titled "Counting Past Two" which was billed as trying to get beyond our entrenched habits of thinking in binaries ( right/left, good/evil, man/woman/, black/white), and promised some discourse on ideas about "third spaces" and hybridity. It seemed to get parked on abled/disabled, which was interesting in its own right but not what I was looking for, so I left to drop in, late, next door where the academic track of programming was presenting a panel on the idea of the Evil Twin in SF.

Too late, damn it: I missed a presentation by a pair of breathtakingly vibrant identical twins who had delivered a paper about — judging by the questions from the audience — how people's reactions to them reflect America's fascination with and deep unease about the idea of any sort of collective identity, given that our national ideal is something we persist in thinking of as "rugged individualism" (I can think of some less flattering and possibly more accurate names for it).

I did catch some of a companion paper on feral children and their analogs in SF, like "Sarah Canary" in Karen Fowler's book of that name, and how such individuals are used in fiction (and in life) as mirrors or blanks for projections of all sorts of qualities and concepts by the "normal" people they encounter.

I could easily have gone instead to three or four other panels that were running at the same time. WisCon is renowned for being a magnificently laden table with a wealth of offerings, much of it simultaneous. We all do a lot of panel-hopping in hopes of not missing the best discussions and presentations, since you never know in advance what that's going to be. Bursts of wild laughter and hollering from next door can drain a quiet panel or presentation of its audience, but there are always people popping in from other panels to see what's going on in here, to refill the room. The Con Commttee does a great deal of preparatory work on the programming, soliciting program ideas and running them past everyone beforehand by e-mail to judge the level of interest before final choices are made.

Later Friday night we had a hall full of parties on the 6th floor (where the Con suite is always located, with popcorn, soft drinks, chocolate, games for kids, hot dogs, apples, coffee etc. so that sudden sustenance is available at need, thanks to the staff of volunteers). Individual parties are celebrations of book launches given by publishers or organizations, or parties put on to publicize big Cons coming later in the year, a vampire party if Pam Keesey throws one, a scotch-tasting party, and just — parties.

I, however, went to bed. I have a hard time yelling over masses of hilarious noise for hours, particularly since I know there are real conversations I'm going to want to have a voice left for over the next couple of days.

Saturday a.m. brings the Madison Farmer's Market, up a block from the hotel and surrounding the handsome Wisconsin capital building. Also (starting at 8:30 a.m.) panels on How To Read (your own work) Aloud, and looking again, years later, at the SF/F books that originally turned you on to the genre, plus readings by attending authors.

Pardon me; I slept through it all.

Then I grabbed some food in the Green Room (fresh fruit, bagels, pastry, coffee and tea, provided for the program participants by the hotel — WisCon is welcomed by the Concourse as a repeat event that doesn't attract the kind of conventioneers who set off fire alarms or smash things up for "fun").

More or less awake, I headed for a panel on the development of the idea of marriage in the fiction of Ursula K. Leguin, thereby giving up Laurie Marks on teaching at UMass in Boston and discussions on pre-feminist foremothers' books, class issues in Heroic SF ( "Three Comrades go on a Quest" but somehow there's always a King), Modern Mythology (I think this was actually about the TV program "Mythbusters"), Women authors you've never heard of but should have, "Why is fantasy fiction so damn White", and a panel on Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. of whom everyone has heard and whose very fine biography by Julie Phillips was in the running for a Pulitzer.

Oh, and short fiction markets we should all know about (there's a strong professional component to WisCon) —

Wait; some of these items were later in the day, or even on Sunday, but the overload of stimulation and appeal is what I'm getting at. It's like this for almost all of three consecutive days. People walk around with their noses jammed into their program books, trying desperately to choose one neat thing among a dozen neat things, and still not miss the one thing they'll realize later that they really should not have missed.

At any rate, Saturday midmorning I tried for Leguin but stepped instead into a panel on Slash, excellently run by the entirely excellent Sharyn November (a senior editor at Viking who has a fine, autocratic moderating style with a shrewd line in questions). In this case, she pretended not to know what Slash is. For those who really don't know, Slash is unpublished fan-written fiction exploring sexual liaisons between well-known characters from Sf/F fiction (or any other kind), in print or on screen, who do not, in their original fictional frame, ever go to bed together. It all started with Kirk-slash-Spock, if you can believe that.

Nowadays in Slashland even Winnie the Pooh is fair game ("Tygger does Everybody"). Slash used to be mimeographed on colored paper to be handed out privately to one's fellow enthusiasts. Now it's all over the internet and even includes stories about well-known characters from the world of what is commonly accepted as "reality".

Sharyn asked the audience for their suggested Slash combinations. Someone piped up, "Cheney/Voldemort!" Immediate response: "Cheney is Voldemort!" Which thought lends new layers of resonance to the VP's famously snarled instruction to a Congressman to go f-- himself, don'cha think?

Then I went to something else — don't ask, I'm blanking — and then to a quick lunch — Thom Kha at the noodle house, two blocks away. That coconut soup has got to add a pound per bowl at least, it's that good.

Zip back for the 2:30 panels (and there was the Art Show to check out, and I hadn't even been in the Dealers' Room yet to buy some books and drool over others). Skipped an item on the musical "Wicked" (which I've seen and admired for all sorts of reasons), one on books to avoid, and one on Gender in Japan (the World SF Con was to be in Yokohama that summer, so there was an unusual amount of Japanese-themed material at WisCon). Plus the ongoing slate of readings, all of which I would love to attend.

And if you've noticed the inconsistency of tenses in this text, just chalk it up to my effort to give a realistic idea of the head-spinning whirl that Wiscon offers: I probably know where I am most of the time, or when, but usually not both.

It isn't till Sunday that I stop by the Broad Universe table. BU is a young organization devoted to promoting the SF/F/H work of women writers. The model for it was Sisters in Crime, the very successful organization that got women mystery authors a share of review-space commensurate with their burgeoning output in the mystery genres. The impetus for us was a similar problem with reviews and the lack of women authors' names on the contents pages of SF/F/H anthologies and awards nominations lists (BU started with actual tallies of these things). Everybody at the table is jazzed — new members are signing up, and lots of books by members have been bought by Con-goers who've stopped by on their way into the Dealers' Room (I'd forgotten to resupply any books of mine, natch).

Stop. Take a break. I wasn't done with Saturday.

There's a good exercise room at the Concourse which I always mean to use (as I used to, but there were fewer programming tracks then). Fat, as it were, chance. Instead I run down State Street for some espresso, and then it's back to plunge into the afternoon programming (I lost weight during the Con anyway; being too busy to eat offsets a tendency to snag chocolate kisses from the bowls of candy set out at the registration tables).

What I should be doing is hanging out, gossiping with friends and colleagues. Most of us do masses of networking, socializing, and R&R during WisCon, but lately I find the programming — and the great numbers of very smart, articulate participants involved — irresistible.

Some items are repetitious from year to year because the problems they address don't go away (dealing with writers' block; the difficult ethics of cultural appropriation; "Sexism: a Spotter's Guide"; etc.). But there are always new ideas, new takes on old ideas, new authors to hear read, old friends' new work to catch up with, changes in the marketplace ("paranormal romance" is supposed to be a hot seller right now, according to one of the panels on which editors and publishers talked about the current lousy state of everything bookish), new academic slants on our field, and so on.

Where was I?

Saturday, 4 pm, the Broad Universe "Rapid Fire Reading" (five minutes apiece, new writers and pros all mixed together) which I thought I had signed up for — but I'd signed up for a regular 20 minute reading slot by mistake, had to cancel as I hadn't brought anything that long with me, ergo no 20 minute reading for me.

So, what's on? A panel on judging the Tiptree Award (I've been a judge twice, loved it, should attend this item, but there's no time); feminism and comics; the two Guests of Honor interviewing each other (Laurie Marks and Kelly Link). Author Nicola Griffith is here, first time in a long time (she has health issues but seems to be in much better shape than the last time I saw her, thank gods), and I've only had a moment to chat with her; and what about the panel on women's roles in video games, or the panel on real-world magic and speculative fiction, or a staged reading of a new SF stage play to be performed on Sunday evening?

Well, scratch that last one at least; I fly out Sunday afternoon.

Someplace in there, I do get to sit and talk for a bit: I think it was at breakfast Saturday, actually, with Ellen Klages, reveling in the success her YA novel "The Green Glass Sea" has been having, with speaking gigs at schools all over the place. The book is about the Manhattan Project in New Mexico. Ellen is enjoying all this success and attention to the hilt (well, Ellen enjoys everything to the hilt).

Meanwhile, my "quiet room" (on the 4th floor, a smoking room that stinks to high Heaven — it was all they had in the "quiet" category) has been canceled. A couple with at least six small children has been installed right across the hall from me. One of the kids — a very cute girl of about six or seven in a pink sun dress — is learning how to open the hotel room door with the plastic "key", again and again and again.

I have to move up to the 12th floor Governor's Club: chocolate mints on the pillow, free breakfast ( "Continental", mostly buttery starch and coffee) and free afternoon snacks (deep fried, forget it), free drinks at the 12th floor bar in the evening (hmm, okay, a bit of Grande Marnier for a nightcap — and, for a wonder, it's not watered down in the usual hotel style). It's quiet, but I can't get the Con rate once the event has started, so it costs. Oh well — privilege seduces, there was no alternative, and I'm only up there one night.

Pack like a whirlwind; phew. Moved. Dinner, I think (not in the hotel dining room, which tends to get a bit overwhelmed by the Con and to run too slowly for anyone intent on the programming — but there are lots of quick, cheap eatieries nearby, as well as at least one very good restaurant that has to be booked far in advance).

On to the Tiptree Auction, run that evening for the benefit of the Tiptree Award, which gives a $1,000 prize for each year's winner(s) for best gender-bending SF/F/H of the year. Our auctioneer, the aforementioned Ellen Klages, has done standup comedy professionally. Now, on a stage, in a bee-costume of yellow and black striped shirt and tights, she does it for us. Her auctions of donated materials (and decorated lunch boxes that Ellen makes herself) are riots of improv humor and wit. How it works: she cracks a joke, walks around on the stage, and the bids go up and up, and she cracks jokes about that, and they go up more, and then there's the recurring red brassiere with author-signatures on it, and — well, suffice it to say, it's fantastic, producing massive hilarity and usually an astonishing take as well.

Meantime, I miss panels on feminism and fantasy art, writing about war, the popularity of Rocky Horror, gods know what else.

Parties, briefly, before a mid-evening crash-and-snooze, passing on the 10:30 pm panels ( "When Good Books Happen to Bad People"). There's stuff at 1:30 a.m. as well; what are they thinking? But I'll bet people showed up.

Sunday, 8:30 a.m.: I catch a bit of "What the Shadow Knows About SF", a panel about the Jungian archetype in SF/F: it's doubles and villain-hero pairs and (of course) the new "Spiderman" movie. My notes (scribbled at odd angles in all the blank spaces on the program booklet) read: "Innocence that persists becomes ignorance, not wisdom". And "In folk traditions, the person with no shadow has no soul".  Upon reflection, what do about that Cheney/Voldemort thing?  If you are all shadow, are you a just doubly evil, or a zero in the soul department?

Off to breakfast with attendees who also belong to the usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition, in the hotel dining room: cheerful, lively, about 8 of us (thank you, Alma, for pulling that together).

At 10 a.m. , "Heroic fantasy: Can This Genre be Saved?" Orange Mike opines, as a reader, that there's no need at all for the sub-genre of Heroic Fantasy (war, prophecies, royalty, chivalry, and magic) because we have Tolkien; the rest is all just imitation. Others demur: George R. R. Martin's ongoing opus, "A Game of Thrones", is mentioned approvingly. Mike speculates on what he thinks Tolkien had that most of his imitators don't: philosophical conviction, linguistic erudition, and a deep sense of tragedy.

There's a paper on Baba Yaga, and Geoff Ryman's wonderful novel "Air", a story about technology and a "Third World" culture that has agendas of its own; transsexuality as trope; what happens with women who acquire political power (Thatcher, Eva Peron, Condoleeza Rice, et al): and, as usual, lots more, running on through Monday morning (including the banquet Sunday afternoon and the award ceremonies, etc. etc., oh damn it — ).

Not for me; it's time to go.

I pack up, check out, and for a few minutes before the airport shuttle leaves I duck into a panel on colonialism in SF. A British panelist comments that the reason the English gave up India was not really Gandhi and his protests (merely "morally uncomfortable" for the Brits) but the fact that after 1945 the US withdrew its wartime financial loans to England. The British, broke on war costs, could no longer afford to maintain control of India, so they made a virtue of necessity.

This is not a perspective I'd ever considered, but it sounds plausible to me (I'm an economic historian by training): follow the money and you'll seldom go far wrong. It's hard to hear these panelists, though; "Lady Poetesses from Hell" is whooping it up next door. I pass them up and dash briefly into the book room, for some last minute buys.

Then I'm on the shuttle to the airport, missing all sorts of wonderful things ( "Little girls on the hero's journey", "What do writers owe their readers?", "This is not your mother's childhood", "Are blogs more trouble than they're worth to writers?", "Just how smart are animals?" "Writing scenes of violence", how could I have missed that? Or "How to do good work in High Fantasy", or the dessert salon, or a staged reading of a play, or "The crutch of religion and moral behavior", damn damn damn — ).

Notes, scribbled on page 43 of the pocket program: read Garth Nix; read Elizabeth Knox's new books, "Dream Hunter" and "Rainbow Opera" (note to self: YES. This New Zealand writer is the author of "The Vintner's Luck", one of the most original and affecting fantasies I've ever read). Read Ysabeau Wilce's "Flora Segunda", Chamberlin's "Merlin" books, and Sharmon Hale (?), "Anna Burning". Read Tamara Pierce (YA), and Nancy Farmer.

The Newberry Award winner, it says here, usually fits a formula (big social problem, somebody dies): it's the compromise choice, so they go for gravitas (ie, moral instruction). Kids don't read these books unless assigned them in class. But the four or five "Honor Books" (runners-up) for that award are the ones the judges really loved, and they're the ones that kids (and adults) tear through with delight.

However, if the Newberry is a unanimous choice and there's no Honor List or else a very short one, go for the winner: all the judges loved it — it's that good a book. That was the word from one of the panels on YA fiction — a very hot area right now — that I did get to.

On the plane home I read Carol Emshwiller's latest from Tachyon Press, "The Hidden City" — clean, lean, clever, and full of heart, like all Carol's work. I get home exhausted but happy — satisfied, stimulated, encouraged.

So what's so special about Wiscon, besides the cornucopia of good stuff and the energy-blast? There are lots of SF conventions all over the US and beyond, and I attend about a half dozen every year.

Let me put it this way: in Madison I didn't have to wade through the same old-same old menu of panels on space warfare, writing ve-e-ery long fantasy series, the influence of the New Wave (men who imported literary tropes into SF in the fifties and sixties), the genius of this or that (male) author, the lists of must-read new Fantasy/SF that somehow only include the names of male authors unless someone bethinks them, belatedly, of a Kelly Link or a Chris Moriarty; or those all-male panels (of which there are great numbers at most SF conventions) with guys strutting and joking and scrapping with, and for, each other.

SF/F writers are smart, and these guys can be extremely entertaining and seriously informative (like when you get a couple of physicists talking about advances in theory which SF authors might find useful), so don't get me wrong: I go to other SF/F conventions because I enjoy them too, meet friends there, learn stuff, and come back, usually, on a post-convention high.

But. Let me try to explain how Wiscon is different.

There are men at WisCon, and they are welcome — men worth knowing who think that women are worth knowing too, men who understand how to share discourse with women rather than roll right over their words without even knowing they're doing it. But women are the spine of Wiscon, not "and while we're pointing out the bright lights of our genres, let's not forget Carol Emshwiller, or Nalo Hopkinson, or Jane Yolen . . . ".

SMC, 2005