What comes to mind when you hear the words "Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention"? Your mental image is both right and wrong — take it from someone who knows. I went to WisCon 29, armed with little more than a bus pass, a travel bar, a new mix CD, and an open mind. I bring my reports from the field to you, that you may learn.
A few basics are in order. WisCon's subjects included feminist theory and history, SF/F, and film/media, with the main emphasis on SF/F books: an examination of feminist/gender/equality issues in them, an examination of the people who read them, the people who write them, and the people who publish them. If you were looking for a specific book, the Dealers' Room was likely to have it, and it wouldn't be out of the question to find the author at the con as well. They also had a dynamite con suite and even offered babysitting services. And they had 700 pre-registered attendees and around 200 more signed over the weekend.
The venue was the Madison Concourse Hotel. Floors one and two were mercilessly assimilated by WisCon, and floor six was the site of the parties, con suite, and child care services. I opted to stay at the Madison Youth Hostel, however, which was a scant two blocks' walk from the con.
Things officially start off at The Gathering: this is a chance for weary con travelers to meet fellow attendees and catch up on recent events. Kind of an informal get-together bordered by formal stuff. Massages, tarot readings, hair-braiding, cookies, coffee, and many goods and services were available, all proceeds of which go to the James Tiptree Society. Various games were set out on several of the tables so, not knowing anybody, I intruded on a group of college kids and British imports who were playing Jenga. We bonded over building blocks. Or perhaps I should say that we bonded while I totally kicked their asses Jet Li-style at Jenga. Go Sojat!
Oh yeah, I'm sure you're wondering what the crowd at a feminist SF/F convention is like. Don't try to kid me, you want to know if there were lesbians, don't you? The quick answer is yes. Yes there are lesbians of various stripes, various sizes, various ages. Ditto the transgendered (pre-op, post-op). And there were homosexuals, and of course, a mass of roughly 50/50 male/female heterosexual attendees.
Eventually, after looking at the various goods that would be auctioned at the Tiptree auction, wandering the Dealers' Room, and the Art Show, I completely lost track of everybody I knew during all this, and had to intrude on yet a second group I didn't know for lunch. By pure chance there was a Texan in their midst, and we bonded, laughing about this thing the locals call "mass transit."
And I should note that as far as venues go, Madison rocks. They've got State Street from the University of Wisconsin to the capital shut down so it's foot traffic only, and you've got the world's menu within a few blocks. Plus coffee shops, candy shops, bookstores, porn stores, secondhand stores, you name it.
Got back in time for the opening ceremonies. Which included a long, weird skit called "The Fannish Inquisition," which was quite funny. I will not attempt to recreate the humor for you here. You're welcome.
After that it was panel time. Dude, whatever else WisCon has, it has the most rockin' pocket program EVER. This 9"x4" 76-page bad girl has information on everything you would ever need to know about the programs, the hotel, and the city. The works. A magnificent labor of love, I suspect it could stop a bullet in a pinch.
And speaking of panels, there were 195 panels running Friday through Monday. Let me restate that: According to the program (which leads you as unto a reliable sled dog), there are 195 activities: panels, parties, and readings. A single mortal could not attend everything, but I tried. I tried for you.
So, starting off, I hung around at #5 "Where's the Sense of Wonder?" The question on everybody's mind was "Is the golden age of Sci-Fi thirteen?" There was much wringing of hands over obvious recycling of ideas (Lost in Space) and unintentional recycling of ideas (The Matrix). Oddly, nobody in this 25+ group really wanted to discuss the age thing. Or that the more ignorant you are of science fiction the more of a sense of wonder you get when you stumble into it. Call me callous, but it's hard to feel sorry for a guy who boasts of thirty years of SF/F knowledge, then complains about how nothing gets him excited anymore.
I slipped out of that and into #10 "The Role of the Witch," hoping that Stevie Nicks might be in attendance. She wasn't, but the room was full of practicing witches (remember our venue, here). This looked good in the program (historical vs. SF portrayal, difference between male and female witches, and why can't good witches ever seem to have great sex), but the reality of it was something altogether different. It took me a while to realize it, but these people take this stuff seriously....very seriously. Evangelicals who don't want you to read Harry Potter ‘cause of the occult? Turn that coin over and you have witches who don't want you to read Harry Potter because it soooo misrepresents The Craft.
There was also a lot of discussion of the history of witchcraft...I always hate it when people at cons talk too much about history. I want to stress that this isn't a WisCon problem, or even a witch problem, but I don't know if anybody on the panel, or even the audience, had a good grasp of the history in question. I heard people discussing the causes of the Salem witch trials citing information that I know was debunked in the middle '90s.
Next: #16 "The Feminist Ideal and the Warrior Woman" almost came to consensus on the definitions of "feminist ideal" and "warrior." Lots of discussion about the discrepancy of girls not getting shot at in the U.S. military. Nobody brought up the fact that a lot of those women joined up because, well, they wouldn't get shot at. Or the fact that when/if they change the rules, female enlistment will go way down. I actually did, but after the panel. The career military man on the panel didn't really like having that possibility pointed out. As far as SF/F goes, the best discussion centered around the idea of warrior women always having to be "flawed" or "driven" to the warrior life (for example, Dark Horse's Conan really fell for this in recent issues). There was also lively discussion on women in the martial arts. Lively.
Parties, parties, parties! They had different themes, different goals, I remember some kind of cow theme (which I suspect was associated with OdysseyCon) and a pirate sort of a thing. Mostly I remember finding a big jug of scotch, and talking for a long time to Jenga-college-girl. At some point the disco lights, the cow themes, and an immense man doing slow tai chi forced me out of that place and back to the hostel. Not to trumpet Madison too much, but in OKC, you wouldn't want to wander, sloshed, by the capital at 3:00 am.
Ted Chiang kitty-cat grin watch, day one: Did not say a single word that I could see.
Started Saturday off by totally sleeping in and missing the first round of panels. Managed to get into #27 "Death in Myth/Folklore." There were discussions of the various aspects of death and his/her changing role in modern culture. Condensed: Bergman/Sandman, Robert Redford/Brad Pitt, Death/Reincarnation.
#34, "Made in Her Image." I was tired, sure, but I'm here for you, people, and that means I'm sitting through SF/F religions created by male and female writers. Which sounded fascinating, but when I got there it had migrated to more of a discussion of feminizing more mainstream religions and taking out offensive pronouns and...
Clearly in need of a jolt, I went to the most arresting title I could find: #38 "Why Men Hate Sex." According to my notes: fisting, racism as a white problem, frat boys have rather violent attitudes about women, male terms for masturbation are almost all violent, but not female. In Yoda-speak: Sexual ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to (and there was some spirited debate about this) narcissism/inflated idea of one's prowess, which leads to violent rejection of any ideas that oppose those paradigms, which leads to a host of problems.
Somehow ended up going out to lunch with the Kentucky Muslim, East Indian Fanboy, and Fifteen-Year-Old Girl-with-growing-list-of-euphemisms-for-female-masturbation.
Kentucky Muslim was one of my favorite college bands, back in the day.
Got back in time for #48 "Welcome to the 21st Century." One word: Doom. Dooooom! There is some damn scary stuff out there. Bee mites now immune to everything, and ten percent of our foodstuffs are pollinated by bees. Some interesting discussion on public health do's and don'ts, and the political weakness thereof. Eco disaster, social disaster. Lifetime immunities are not.
After that I had a quandary: there were a lot of good panels to choose from. I suffered for you people, trying to decide, because this may be the only glimpse you get of...
Okay, I went back to the hostel for a bit of a nap. A big bit.
Got back into the groove in time for #73 "Conventional Religion in SF: Why Religion Hates SF and SF Hates Religion." Lots of definition talk: religion vs. organized religion, Christian vs. hellbound, philosophy vs. dogma, that kind of thing.
Unsettling thing is that Yoda's sex-talk seemed very appropriate at this panel: Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to a desire to feel anything BUT fear, which leads to embracing anything as a defense, and thence to the attachment to that defense, and the exclusion of anything that threatens that defense, even real answers to their ignorance.
Talked a bit with a group of women who worked rape crisis lines and noted that, as feminism spreads there are backlashes against patriarchal organizations that serve as shields for rapists/molesters. See, the women/survivors write SF/F related to their experiences, and those same patriarchal systems react by trying to stem feminism. Outrageous? Think back to '90s Sinead O'Connor and her protests against Big Catholicism's treatment of child molesters within its ranks. For a closer event, think back about three years ago to Big Catholicism's carbon-copied scandal in the U.S. Want to see the future? Think Mormon.
What's appropriate after a discussion like that? Dinner. In this case, I went with the Jenga Brits and two of their friends to an Afghani place. Afghani food, for those who don't know, is like Indian crossed with...something else.
Then there was the Tiptree Auction. Which is a way to get cash for the James Tiptree Organization. And was incredibly funny. How funny? It started with writer/comedienne Ellen Klages strutting out in a Darth Vader outfit and announcing that the last thing she'd auction off was the scary mask. "What about the Vader mask?" someone shouted. You get the picture. I will not attempt to repeat other jokes/humor. I will say that afterward were parties. Oh. My. Yes.
What can be said about parties of this nature? Themes, that's what: the New England Science Fiction Association book launch party, haiku earring party, Chicago in 2008 WorldCon party, TOR party, and the Ratbastards party.
Themes, schmemes. The fact is it was a long hallway lined with open rooms promising strange delights and libations. At the TOR party, I shared a bottle of fine single malt whisky with a circle of people (editors, interns, flunkies, hangers-on). At some point I met a bunch of edgy British (not the Jenga Brits) in the stairwell.
Ted Chiang kitty-cat grin watch, day 2: I swear he wore that same long-sleeve sweater thing yesterday. I swear he wore it last year. It looks good on him, but still. Saw him speak. Too far away to hear words. Suspect he is one of those Asian guys who drops his voice down low. Having never actually HEARD him speak, the accusation is baseless.
Sometime around 3:30 am, the Madison Youth Hostel accepted me into its patchouli-funk hippie-arms for the night.
Sunday I managed to get up early enough to only miss the earliest block of panels. Caught the last end of #109 "Wake of Harry's Broomstick." Being neither a YA reader (...outside of Harry Potter...) or a writer, this one didn't hold much for me.
#113 "Technology as a Feminist Issue" held even less. Techno-geeks don't make the best panelists, to be honest. In fact, a lot of these technology panels only discuss one thing: computers. And by computers, I mean the internet. What about the South Koreans' artificial womb? What about cloning? What about the MRI illuminating our most private thoughts and desires? Yes, the Blackberry might mean that your five-year-old really can be best friend 4ever with her childhood playmate, but will they end up working in a Beijing pleasure brothel as population control marginalizes women? Will they rent men at a Reno pleasure house since a little sperm goes a long way, especially in the low-price world of South Korean test-tube babies? Would you carry the developing fetus in a thermos? 'Cause that's the only way my wife is ever going to have kids.
Along those philosophical lines of questioning, I posit this: If a person attended a SF/F con and didn't listen to some readings, would a bear wear a funny hat? I can't answer, as I DID go to a reading in #121 "Broad Universe's Rapid Fire Readings." Got my fill of virtual reality sex and moved on.
#122 "Buddhism and Taoism in SF" held an inescapable pull for me. Summary—Buddhism is hard to explain. Taoism is hard to explain. Put 'em into SF and you really can't explain it very well at all. But they did try, God/Buddha/Cosmos bless 'em.
Martial arts and geeks go together like Funk and Wagnall, so I was not surprised to find #130 "Meet the Weapons Demo" to be full. You've got nunchuku questions, they've got answers! Heave a heavy sai of distress when you see weapon usage totally misrepresented in movies? They feel your pain. Although they did not have knowledge of every weapon from every milieu, they did paint with a broad
sword brush and had a good answer for just about any question. Nobody got his or her eye put out, either. Aces!
Just when I thought it was safe to lick the underside of a toilet seat again, I found myself in #131 "The Next Pandemic." Let me say it again: Doom! Doooom! Influenza is coming to get us. New strains immune to more and more anti-virulent agents. Governments are remarkably poor at public health—if they report honestly they look bad, if they overreact, they look bad. A bright ray of hope is that some of the money funneled into homeland security is being bled off to train local first responders on how to identify pandemics.
After spending some quality time washing my hands with plenty of soap and hot water, I looked for #140 "Viable Paradise" panel, found their room empty. Found the panel in the hotel bar, Woo hoo! Picked their besotted brains about the event. Sounds like the place to be, if you're into that whole trying-to-be-a-writer-thing. Someone suggested we go to the con suite for lunch.
The con suite. My relationship with this SF/F institution is complex. See, I've always felt that the con suite, whatever else it was, wasn't for me. I'm all grown up, professional job and whatnot, I should be able to go and buy what I want for lunch. I assumed that the whole thing must be for the chronically poor people who have no other choice (or have kids). Sure, I'd grab a coke or something, maybe some popcorn...thence to a few apples for breakfast, and once you've tasted the power of the dark side of unlimited free hot dogs, Tostitos, and those little waxy chocolate doughnuts, well, there's just no going back, really.
Can I go off on a tangent here? I can't think of the con suite without thinking of the equally venerable Dealers' Room. And there is this guy, this vendor at the con. He's got books, graphic novels. He's also got SMUT. Graphic Novel Smut (note that this is not the same as #150 "Smut and Nothing But"). I don't really have a problem with this. But I find it remarkable that, while his stack of Guest of Honor books and Sandman graphic novels remains unchanged, he's selling out of Young Witches and Shadow and Light. Who is buying the porn? Women? Men? I rounded out my collection of Phill Foglio's XXXenophile (which is, ahem, erotica) and put the question out of my mind.
Ran into new author Leah Cutter and her retinue, went with them to dinner at a Thai place. I concede that Madison Thai is spicier than Oklahoma Thai. Lots of long in-depth discussions about the legitimacy of fan fiction and slash fiction. Which I found kind of creepy and weird.
Got back in time for Guest of Honor speeches and presentations. Pre-festivities started with the announcement of the Tiptree Award winners (Joe Haldeman for Camouflage, and Johanna Sinisalo for Not Before Sundown), and the introduction of the Carl Brandon Society (which does for SF/F and writers of color what the Tiptree Society/Award did for feminists/women).
The two Guests of Honor (Gwyneth Jones and Robin McKinley)made me feel pretty bad about myself, in that they both are huge names in the SF/F world. Huge. Yet I've never really heard of either of them. Makes me wonder if I'm lagging behind, makes me realize that yet more books are going to added to my reading list before this is all over. On top of that, since I really didn't know much about either Guest of Honor, I didn't get a whole lot out of their speeches, although I did find them interesting. Well...Robin's was more of an update on her life, which I appreciated, but didn't find all that riveting.
Guess what was riveting. Parties! Tried to get five other people to kick in $10 each so we could become a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society under the name of Penta Di Blanco, but was unsuccesSFul. Passed out free shots from my travel bar. Found myself finishing off the vodka with a feisty middle-aged woman who was laying it all out about the Viable Paradise and Clarion workshops. Finally looked at her badge to find out who she was: Eileen Gunn! Whoa!
The entire experience was worth every penny and every second spent there. WisCon attracts a fantastic crowd of writers, editors, academics, scientists, and fans. Panel and discussion topics run the gamut from hard feminist theory to pseudoscience in sci-fi, to the craft and business of writing, to discussing favorite TV shows (I'd say a good third of the panels were somehow associated with Buffy/Angel/Firefly). In spite of my sometimes snarky comments regarding the panels I did attend, trust me when I say that definitive works of SF/F or straight science and history, were bandied about at each one, so if you don't get anything from the panel itself, you won't walk away empty-handed.
Condensed version: if you didn't get to WisCon 29 in 2005, get ye to WisCon 30 in 2006.