From its Birkenstock and braless beginnings in 1976, to its multiple-piercing and over-the-coccyx tattooed present, WisCon has been cutting a feminist swath through the SF/F world since the Bicentennial.
Can one person, a straight white male at that, possibly encapsulate the 30th anniversary of such an event? Can he hope to get IROSF to publish his WisCon reports two years in a row? Would it help if I sweetened the deal with pictures and sound? For those of you not lucky enough to have been among the 1000 guests, those who did not heed my advice last time, let me be your eyes and ears and try to get across to you a little about what you missed.
Things got started early this year, Thursday night in fact, with a pre-party sponsored by OdysseyCon. The Chicago Bovine Convention book-ended the convention with the opening party and the Monday night Dead Cow Party. And they had a hoof in seemingly every night of parties, or so it seemed to me. The Thursday party was a fairly tame event; there was not much booze, so it attracted mostly the early-comers and workshop attendees.
Often people (men) ask me if there is a subtle anti-male attitude at WisCon. I laugh and tell them that at WisCon if there is male-bashing to be done it is far from subtle. Regardless, there is a kind of solidarity among the men at this convention. Allow me to demonstrate:
I'm waiting to get into an elevator, and a man I've never met before (he may or may not have even been going to the Con) is waiting there with me. The doors open and out come a group of con volunteers. One, about 12 years old or so is heard to say: "I subscribe to the theory that nobody is so bad as to be completely useless or so good as to be without fault."
We board the elevator.
Absolute Stranger: "That young man has never met my mother-in-law."
Dotar Sojat: "Manages to do both at the same time, doesn't she?"
Absolute Stranger: "Yep."
This is the face of male bonding, my friends.
Let me get back to business by saying a few words about the writers workshop. Those words are: thirteen pros, fifty-two participants. Four hours of critiques. Like the Con itself, the workshop filled up quickly, and I heard that extra pros had to be recruited to handle the overload. WisCon goes the extra mile.
In spite of the tameness of the OdysseyCon party, I ended up wandering to the hostel about 2:30 am. Someone must have read last year's report, 'cause it was full of conventioneers. Sweaty conventioneers as air conditioning is NOT an option at the Madison Youth Hostel.
Friday morning the Con proper started, tearing me into three conflicting pieces: Should I go to "Books You Bounce Off Of," a reading (with up-and-coming powerhouse Jennifer Pelland), or do I blather about my stone-age leanings at "Does SF Have to Have Metal?"
How the heck do you make that decision? This gives you an example of the kind of internal struggles that the sold-out crowd in attendance had to deal with on an hourly basis.
And let me be clear: over the course of the Con there were 268 items on the program. That's 73 more than last year. The program book? Awesome. 92 pages, double foldouts, low-fat, cyber-roasted, high-fiber, full-caf, perfectly-organized with cheese sprinkles and a half-shot of estrogen. It actually says that on the cover...and it was 'way more than a half-shot. Rumors that excess pocket programs have been sent to our fightin' men and women in Iraq to substitute for missing and damaged body armor could not be confirmed as of the writing of this review.
Back to Friday. Truth is, I half-assed those first three panels, catching some of all, but not all the best of any.
Nor did I experience the best that Madison had to offer, food-wise, for much the same reason- too many options! Let me give some props to the host city: Madison has been host to all 30 of the WisCons. They also proclaim the week of WisCon Sci-Fi week, and the venue is at the nexus of the state Capital and the University of Wisconsin. Foods of many nations are available within walking distance from the hotel, as is Room of One's Own-a feminist bookstore that hosts the annual pre-conference reception (which includes Guest of Honor readings).
I walked past the foods of the world, though, and ended up at a hole-in-the-wall high-end pizza-by-the-slice place. I think a gourmet chef ran it. He was offended when all I wanted was pepperoni and mushroom. I tried to make amends with the basil chicken, but it was too late, the damage was done...this will be the only time I talk about food.
Got back after the afternoon sessions had already started and put all my remaining eggs into one basket: Academic Papers. Mary Ann Mohanraj gave a talk on an introduction to Fantastic South Asian Literature centering around several East Indian/Hindu myths. I hope that one of my previous incarnations was not as a woman in India. Sorry, but it had to be said. They got the shaft even in the times of myth.
This was followed up by "Really Truly Dead: Witches Across Borders" by Helen Pilinovsky. She specializes in Eastern European fairy tales and centers around Baba Yaga. She started with a simple fairy tale, then outlined a second re-telling that was older and weirder, and finally a third. Each older tale gets more complicated and ambiguous, and in each the witch (Baba Yaga, natch!) gets more powerful. Like, The Mother Goddess kind of powerful, with the Day and the Night and the Spring and the Winter hanging around her door.
Total Disclosure: the subtitle of this review "The witch is dead. Long live the witch," was one of Ms. Pilinovsky's quotes. Perhaps the best quote from the con. Maybe even, the best quote evah!
After that, I have to confess that the Gathering was a bit of a let down, really. Billed as the official start of the convention it struck me as odd that WisCon had been going for 5 hours already. Plus, the Gathering is three and half hours long. I guess they are shooting for a casual meet-up kind of atmosphere, but most of the morning participants were pumped and ready to go.
I drifted from conversation to conversation, I tipped cows at OddCon's booth, I was harassed into buying an auction ticket, and I picked up a random galley (the Sword of Grass). Skipped the opening ceremonies in favor of intruding into a Clarion group's outing to the spicy Thai place. Word reached me that the opening ceremonies were plagued by logistic problems and electrical problems. These things happen.
While WisCon attempts to be an open environment, I do have to note that this year I was aware of some very subtle stratifications. There is the usual pro-writers and everyone else split, of course, but there is also the Clarion attendees and everyone else split. I'm sure if I looked hard enough I could find the Odyssey and Viable Paradise splits. But the Clarion groups were very obvious, especially the graduates of Clarion West (sniff!). I understand that WisCon is a chance to catch-up, a reunion of sorts even, but there was exclusivity to it, in some ways.
Startlingly enough, there is a huge contingent of British SF/F fans at WisCon. And they don't divide into classes at all. Fandom in the UK seems to be a different animal than it is in the U.S. Tragically, the conversations about the differences took place over drinks (pints, ha!) so I can't really recall them. It was the pints that gave me the odd idea to capture audio of British fans quoting British actors from SF/F movies.
Due to a last-minute room change I was forced to play charades at the "Silent SF/F/H films 2005" panel. Quick! Two words, first word rhymes with Amityville. What the heck rhymes with Amityville?
After that lesson in humility I got another fix of the mythic in "Feminist Fairy Tales." Somebody (not me) finally brought up the whole wicked stepmother being a parallel for the fact that women do more bad things to one another than men do. Discussions turned lively. Encapsulated: Men rape women. Women abandon the rape victim.
That cheery topic was abandoned to bring up that as bland as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty may have been, character-wise, the story was very much the heroine's. Prince Charming doesn't even get his own name, much less any speaking roles. However, he loves the girl for who she is, not for what she can do for him (which is what the stepmother does). Interestingly enough, it's never a wicked stepfather doing these horrible things in fairy tales. Hidden meaning? I kept my own counsel on that one.
Regardless of the downer topics and heavy discussions, I made my way up to the sixth floor. What for? Parties, of course! Five parties at once, melded like fingers curling into a fist hammering the good times home.
Parties were a bit tamer this time around, I later learned all the action was to be had on the second floor at the Rabid Transit Karaoke party. Rumors reached me that Ted Chiang rocked the hizzy with a rendition of Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up." Shivers!
The next morning the hostel was full of hung-over WisCon attendees. Sweaty WisCon attendees. Seriously, the hostel had more funk than Sly and the Family Stone. Saturday is also the day of the farmer's market, so the Capitol building is ringed in by carts and trucks and good country folk hawking their wares. Charming, in a third world kind of way.
I cut through it all to get to a panel called "Never the Hero." Unabashed anger! Sidekicks at best! Eye candy at worst! A thought experiment: if Susan Ballion hadn't changed her name to Siouxsie Sioux and become a punk/goth goddess, but had kept all of her vicious humor and unsavory habits, could she have become a New York editor specializing in children's books?
The answer is named Sharyn November. Smokin' like a chimney, drinkin' like a fish, and cussin' like a sailor, she dominated every panel and discussion she was on. All I remember of anything else in that panel was Guest of Honor Jane Yolen talking smack about J.R.R. Tolkien. Oh, and I picked up the first of three good recipes:
Recipe #1: How to Make Any Panel at WisCon Break Into Cheers and Whoops
Find some reason to work Phil Foglio's Girl Genius into the conversation. I saw this demonstrated numerous times during the con.
After that was lunch with a bunch of strangers at a sushi place. Turned out the older woman across from me who couldn't handle chopsticks very well was Lois McMaster Bujold. Shivers!
In the interest of being polite, I asked if she was sick of talking about writing, her own in particular. She was not. Still gets the thrill whenever somebody asks. Awesome.
After that I felt the need to bask in more celebrity so I hunted out Jane Yolen's reading. I'm sure it wasn't representative of all her work, but the reading did deal a lot with the idea of men bad, women good...aaand I was done basking.
That sounds like sour grapes doesn't it? Was not! Mostly my loyalties were being torn by too many panel choices. I had to bail on Yolen to get to an academic paper on Gendered Cyborgs. I missed most of it, but it appears that until the cyborgs seize the means of their own production they can never be free. Truer words were never spoken, just ask poor Hektor.
Another thought exercise. Tool. Punk. Porn. Women who are into tools, and the tools that they love. Cursed hammers? Got 'em. Rotating penis? Got 'em. And I got to get into my favorite up and coming Brit author Charlie Allery's "Loose Drawers."
At the "Baring Your Soul in Bare Feet" panel I let my feelings on Ewoks and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy be known. This was easy to do as I was actually on the panel. The moderator bailed so we got a substitute. A level- headed British (!) woman who kept the room from exploding into an ever-escalating shouting match, in spite of my best efforts. I DID however, get the word out that in spite of what you may have heard, Billy Idol's 1993 effort Cyberpunk was awesome. It's a concept album, people!
Then it was time for women warriors. Unlike last year, we didn't really spend a lot of time trying to define women or warrior, but just dove into the idea of women rising to physical confrontations. This panel also suffered from the combination of a weak moderator and an extremely chatty panel member. You had to be a warrior to get a word in edgewise.
The Tiptree auction was in full swing after that. Ellen Klages was in fine, fine, form. There was an incident of semi-forced cross-dressing. There were bidding wars. At one point Ellen could not actually auction off her own book, so they found the only person with a magnetic enough personality to do it. Sharyn November.
Afterward I caught Chris Hill (British, Book Reviewer, performer) in the hallway and forced him to perform.
Recipe # 2: How to Ensure That You Always Have a Panel to Talk on
Suggest a panel on appropriate cultural appropriation.
I confess that I actually didn't make it to this panel, but the internet buzz is all over it. Point. Counterpoint. And for the life of me I can't tell what side anybody comes down on. Is there a side? Is it appropriate that Siouxsie Sioux took her stage name from another culture? Or that it took me several years to learn that The Cult were British and not Native Americans? What is it with the British and the Indians, anyway? From Adam Ant to Johnny Rotten, they are totally into the First Nation.
Was it right for me to appropriate Chris Hill's wife Penny's great accent? Shivers!
More parties. I played "I Never" with a bunch of strangers for about an hour. I have lived a sheltered life. And I will wash my hands a lot more often now.
I had to hit the Con Suite to continue my unsavory relationship with that institution. Fell into a discussion with a recent m2f transsexual. Like I said last year, I'm down with the transgendered. This isn't always an easy thing to do where I'm from.
Recipe #3: How to Understand the TransGendered
Dotar Sojat: "Honestly, and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to. What's the best outcome? The best way your life could work out?"
Transgendered Individual: "I own a mirror. I see myself every day. I got into this too late to not look masculine. There are maybe ten people in the world who might find me attractive. This is a hard road. And I have to take it."
I have lived a life of great ease.
Slept in on Sunday. By sheer willpower I was able to catch the last 15 minutes of "Cruise, Flirt, Pick-Up and Other Sexual-Social Strategies."
See, you have to understand that this is a panel on flirting/hitting on/scoring with people at WisCon. And fifteen minutes was enough to throw every conversation, however brief, that I've had with a member of the opposite sex (and often the same sex) at WisCon into doubt. Were the ladies really interested in my views on gender and fiction and whatnot, or simply trying to get me back to the hostel to get all sweaty? Did it go totally over my head? Wouldn't be the first time. How many female panelists have I chatted with after a panel were wondering if I was about to put the moves on them?
I had lunch alone to consider these issues.
Okay, there is one knot of people that I can't quite figure out. I can't tell if they are an offshoot of the British base or a group of writers/agents or some kind of Clarion gang. All I know is that they are all twenty-something and rather clannish. I keep seeing them clogging up the hallways and the hotel lobby. I think what really makes them seem elitist is the clothing- the 'offhand casual' look that screams 'I spent a lot of money and time on this!' Or maybe not. Maybe I was just hung-over and suffering heat-stress from another sweaty night at the hostel.
I did get to chat with the editor of scrappy new British (!) speculative fiction magazine Farthing editor Wendy Bradley. She was too quick for me to get a sound file.
I loved SF/F in my youth, and that kind of nostalgia spurred me into the 'Writing for YA and Kids' panel. And into my yearly confrontation with my own inner demons.
Not to be a complainer, but as I get older I get more and more claustrophobic, and while WisCon does a great job of getting the right sized room for the right sized group, there is at least one panel every year in one of the smaller chambers on the second floor that fills to capacity. This was that panel. It didn't help that Sharyn November was there, and her presence spilled out into the first two rows.
I give props to this panel for being about more than Harry Potter. I can't tell what else they talked about because my handwritten notes on the panel are erratic and illegible. That's because after ten minutes I'm at panic station and the wig-out train is roundin' the bend. One thing I remember being brought up was that there is a bit of a gap in YA publishing when it comes to YA SF. There is a lot of fantasy, sure, and even horror (suspense), but SF? Not so much. Now, Star Trek books kind of fill that void a bit, but there is still a lot of void. There are problems with it, mainly in that it's hard to top Heinlien, or to do anything without being painfully derivative of him. I also got the impression that a lot of YA SF attempts fail because, in the end, they really dis technology, or they don't write at a computer savvy enough level so it doesn't connect with these kids today.
I fled that hellish chamber to the open spaces of "Coming Out", where I missed Kentucky Muslim confronting her own demons about Islam in today's world.
Hit the "Why Women Write About Gay Men" panel. The answer? The emotions, baby. It's all about the emotional connection. And the hot gay sex.
Got back from dinner in time to catch the guest of honor speeches. The room was packed to capacity. Great. But it had a big ceiling, and that helped. Jane Yolen's speech was very touching. When you write for a living, you write come rain or shine, good times or bad. You work on a children's book with your son, and the second book of another trilogy, and write heart-breaking poetry about your husband's terminal cancer all at the same time.
That's a hard act to follow, but Kate Wilhelm didn't get where she is today by shirking the tough stuff. She told a tale of opening her hands and making up a bedtime story for her granddaughter, and one night, her granddaughter decided that she didn't like the ending that she'd come up with, so she opened Kate's hands again and finished the story for her. Up beat, and a good way to wrap up the Guest of Honor speeches.
A highlight of WisCon is the awards ceremony. There are three awards that are given out under WisCon's umbrella. The James Tiptree Award, given to a work that best explores or expands gender roles, and the recently introduced pair of awards from the Carl Brandon Society - the Parallax (given to works created by a person of color) and the Kindred Award (given to works by an author of any ethnicity that deals with issues of race and ethnicity). As new kid on the block, the Carl Brandon Society got to go first:
Winner of the first Parallax award was Walter Mosley for his novel 47.
Winner of the first Kindred award was Susan Vaught for Stormwitch.
Recipe for a standing ovation
Nervously take the microphone and tell a brief story of a young misfit girl whose eternal blackness of adolescence is illuminated by a handful of Octavia Butler books offered by a librarian, segue into the difficult life of a young adult whose only happiness comes from writing speculative fiction, finish by saying that speculative fiction can save a person's life twice and that you're honored to sign the award check and donate it back to the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship (administrated by the Carl Brandon Society).
That was a hard act to follow, but the Tiptree award tried its best. There was fierce debate over the short list, but the winner was clear-cut. As already mentioned, Geoff Ryman took it home with Air: Or Have Not Have. What was not mentioned was that Mr. Ryman wore his victory tiara for most of the next two days. And, since he's about eight feet tall to begin with, he really stuck out.
How do you follow all that up? With a panel called "Mars Needs Women" (program item 241 for those playing at home). I really hadn't noticed that very few women write about Mars. Flew right under my radar, to be honest.
And then? Part. Tees. Someone even recognized my IROSF pen name. The smallest of small beans fame! I wandered the sixth floor initiating and ingratiating myself into various conversations. The travel bar made its appearance. The blend of single malt scotches (which is a long dull story that I'm leaving out) was a hit. Although it did bring one aficionado to nearly the point of tears. Lighten up, man.
Eventually the scent of curry drew me to the other end of the hall and I caught the tail end of Mary Ann Mohanraj's Speculative Literature Foundation/Bodies in Motion release party. As it was the tail end of the party, my masculine musculature was appropriated to help move everything down. So...I got some karma points there.
Again I discovered too late that a lot of action was actually taking place on the 2nd floor. Nerds Dancing! What's next, snakes on a plane?
The last thing I remember was a group of us who stayed at the hostel wandering back in the dead of night.
Slept late, very late. Dragged up and managed to catch the last bit of 'Is the U.S. a Dictatorship Yet?' panel. People are worried. I'm worried. Few answers.
Next was the sign out. A massive book signing. It was also my only chance to see Ursula K. Le Guin. Was it wrong not to have made more of an effort to get to one of her readings/panels? Did I miss a chance to see her heal the sick? One couldn't help but see her at the signout- she was the one with the line of people that split the room in half (and yes, it was a big room). Long lines were also by the guests of honor, and the past year's guests of honor. Chip Delany, George Zebrowski, and Pamela Sargent also had good sized lines. Not that it's a contest or anything.
After the sign out had wound down I heard a strange sound - my first thought was that it was a cell phone with an annoying ring tone, but then I realized that it was coming from the far end of the room. The "Le Guin" corner, as I had come to call it. Her line was gone, but there were two fans singing to her. Whoa. I didn't get a sound file since I didn't want to ruin a tender moment... or to make a painfully awkward moment even more bizarre.
What's awkward is approaching someone whose name you don't even know to get them to quote from a movie. Call me a smooooth operator!
Tearing Down the Walls and Windows was not nearly so smooth. The black market in SF/F suffers. Most sf/f is fairly liberal, but most black readers are fairly conservative. "Science" is something that is often construed as "hard" by minorities, thus it is often avoided. I have a note: Welcome Space? I'm not even sure what it means... maybe that they don't feel welcome at conventions? In the industry? I missed that part. I did notice that there is often a circular argument- the black people are always in a knot so the white folks don't go try to break in vs. the white folks are in a massive wave and so the black folks don't try to break in. What's to be done? Ingratiate myself into any knot of non-whites I see? But most of them are women and I worry (especially in light of the flirtation panel) that I'd be misconstrued as some kind of interracial horn-dog.
I hit the "Heroine Addiction" panel in time to hear it reach a hen-pecking crescendo re: Princesses. They apparently missed the FT panel from Friday. I had to share my views on the greatest Princess EVAH! Princess Elspeth from 1981's Dragonslayer. The entire second half of the movie hinges on her decision to rig the lottery. That is strength! That is power! I'm quoting from Conan because I don't remember the dialog in Dragonslayer!
Speaking of which, let me present another moment of male bonding at WisCon.
Dotar Sojat: "You may contemplate this on the tree of woe."
Absolute (male) stranger: "Crucify him."
After that it was all over, but for the Dead Cow party. My relationship with the con suite entered the "afterglow" stage as I helped break down/move a bunch of stuff. And then I spent about 10 hours at the Dead Cow party. Due to bad weather in Chicago, WisCon kind of rose from its own ashes as people started filtering back in from the road. Long discussions about writing, Xena, Flash, Slash, Slash (from Guns 'n Roses) Slash (Slash/Axl), Slash/Flash (Flash the superhero/Slash from Guns 'n Roses) debated whether Krull was a good movie or not, ditto Beastmaster.
Final words on WisCon 30? For those who missed it, let me put it into guyspeak: "Dude, you missed out."