It's been three years since my last review of WisCon and a Crazy Ivan is long overdue.
The capitol, adjacent to the conference hotel.
First some bullet points:
- WisCon still rocks.
- Madison still rocks.
- Ellen Klagess is still funny.
- Geoff Ryman can make it as an exotic dancer.
- I can still beat the night, whether I want to or not.
- Attendance from the deeply red, stunningly-polite state of Oklahoma is up by 400%!
- The WisCon pocket program has evolved a spine of steel, I shall refer to it by its scientific name of Programattus chordate.
I dragged an old college friend from Milwaukee to WisCon with me this year. He's an honest-to-goodness scientist and I usually introduced him like this: "This is my friend Chris, he studies supernovas. The VLA moves at his whim1."
I got in later than I wanted on Friday, checked into the Madison youth hostel—
I missed most of the gathering, and spent about an hour trying to get across the hotel lobby ("This is my friend Chris, he's discovered supernovas.") to get to P. chordata #35, "Warrior Women". Got in late. The conversation seemed to have drifted into the role of women in the military in modern and very recent times. The military, it appears, used to be willing to find a beard for its lesbian members, but this wasn't good enough for some folks. Someone mentioned that the Russians had women night-bomber pilots during WWII. Although a quick Google/Wiki search might prove me wrong, knowing what I do about Russia during WWII (which I know from reading about Russia during the Spanish Civil War) I'll be willing to bet that a more accurate description would be: In WWII, the Russians put their most disposable pilots into their most outdated planes to fly suicide night bombing raids. [Ed. note: They were a renowned and highly-decorated group called the "Night Witches".]
Anyway, what it kind of came down to was that while women have always performed well as pilots and soldiers, American society is generally unwilling to see images of DEAD women soldiers and women astronauts and pilots. Further, post WWII, the US was trying to define itself against rival Russia, and so, if Comrade Stalin had women pilots, we sure as hell weren't going to do it.
Growing fame ensure that Jennifer Pelland has to be ready to sign autographs anytime, anyplace.
Walked outside of that and ran into formidable writer Jennifer Pelland, who was not only being pestered for autographs, but pestered by people to get pictures of her signing autographs. Dinner was Indian food and good conversation. I introduced innocent people to the joys of aloo tika.
Got back to the con in time to see P. chordata #53, "Your Dad's SF". Panelists' hackles were raised by the premise of the panel—
Points made: If you write from your own personal "golden age" (12-14), then you're saying something.
- Science Fiction is being subsumed by "SF".
- The "future" is here, but it isn't easily distributed.
- David Levine who has a powerful presence for such a small-framed guy, scored a murmur of agreement when he commented that, "SF fans love anything science fictional, marketers love SF as a label."
- Science Fiction is not afraid of science, "SF" is. (An interesting example of this is that I can toss around the term VLA without defining it, confident that most of the science-fiction fans out there already know what it is.)
- Heavy-hitter Pat Murphy also scored the big affirmative when she noted that SF readers can read older SF without wondering where the cell phones are, but mainstream readers generally can't.
For future reference, a panelist named Chip Hitchcock, who is a regular attendee of WisCon, is an almost endless font of knowledge of SF history. It's like watching a true maestro at work.
I left "Your Dad's SF" and swung into P. chordata #60 (for those counting, that means there were 7 other panels happening somewhere around the convention), "Apes Who Pray". There was a remarkable sub-discussion about how the longer you are devoted to an idea, the more rigid you become about it, and the harder it is for you to change your mind. I find this to be fascinating because it seems to be at the root of not only a lot of religious opinions, but just about every major opinion—
There was also a by-the-numbers attempt to start up a discussion of how morality can exist without belief in a god that got spun into issues of how to effectively and efficiently deal with sociopaths—
At that point I gave into the many, many temptations of the party floor. Perhaps the less said about that the better ("This is my friend Chris, he studies Supernovas and the VLA moves at his command. Yeah, it's just like Contact. He and Jodi Foster had a torrid desert affair during the filming of that movie").
I'm not sure how, but at 3am I found myself in the hotel lobby where Tor assistant editor Liz Gorinsky held court (the unseelie court, I'm assuming) with a group of die-hards. Like the ancient myths of old, although I remember being drawn into the unseelie court, I don't remember anything that was actually discussed.
Saturday began with dragging myself to P. chordata #72, "War on Science". Conclusions were that neither party is above politicizing science, but the Bush/Cheney cabal certainly re-defined the art of it. Sub-questions and questions-that-man-was-not-meant-to-ask included: "Just how can you get the general population literate enough to even make decisions regarding science?" and "Should we even try to tilt that windmill, or just pull a Heinleinesque vision for the near-future that has a fat dumb an' happy populace ruled by a wise, voting citizenry?"
After that depressing panel, spirits were lifted by going to an Irish pub by the Capitol for lunch. Strongbow Cider can do wonders for your outlook.
My friend Chris, being a real scientist who has super-nova-powered abilities and skills, was on the "Keeping up with Science" panel. They listed out a number of laymen (and women, and trans)-friendly science magazines, then reminded the audience to watch out for the "Deceptive Title". For example, an article entitled "Quantum Teleportation" doesn't mean that we're teleporting things right now.
The panel also agreed that you need to get the science basics right (right number of planets, the fact that 80 degrees Celsius is not "Just like Miami Beach"). If you can get off to a plausible start, you can FTL or Wormhole it all you want, as long as you stay internally consistent with it. If you really are on your game, you can converse with scientists during the writing and craft a story that will be engaging to those same scientists when you are done and hopefully keep the conversation going.
Camille Alexa reads from her new collection Push of the Sky
I loaded up on items from the Tiptree bake sale. I wanted to dip my hands into the sticky soup of SF/F and this year I attended more readings. The first of which was at Michelangelo's Café for the "Cabinet of Curiosities" reading, including Austin Firebrand Jessica Reisman, Oklahoma rising star Jeanette Cheney, Oklahoma Janey-on-the-Brink writer Adrian Simmons (who finally publicly declared his not-so-secret chariot fetish), and then rounded up by Austin supastar Camille Alexa.
Live fiction, like live music, is in its own kind of class of entertainment. Especially when the readers are having to compete with the espresso machine in the next room. Also, in a remarkable bit of organization and advertising, the group had a collection of their work put together at Anthology Builder which they gave out (along with Chickasaw Chocolate) as prizes to the lucky attendees.
I had made a big talk of gathering people to go to a Korean restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. Turns out that I misread the map and it was beyond walking distance. Our group scrambled for a few minutes and then we went to a pub and ate outside. Included in our number was Leah Cutter, whose report from P. chordata #98, "Build a World", will ensure that I always eat clams with more respect in the future.
The Tiptree auction was well into full-swing by the time we got back. Guest of Honor Ellen Klages was doing the auctioneering again, and due to an accident, she was doing it from a wheelchair. This, in fact, did not take away from the situation, but added to it, giving it a patina akin to performance art. As bullet-pointed above, Geoff Ryman modeled one T-shirt and Jennifer Pelland stuffed dollar bills into his pants and a new trend was started.
Interestingly enough, I too have experienced the powerful high of a crush of people stuffing sweat-soaked greenbacks into my pants. It is likely that Mr. Ryman will have to try to refrain from the temptation to turn every public speaking event into a chance to make a cool $50. Trust me on this, Geoff, the secret is learning when both the right time and right place are!
Fearsome YA editor Sharyn November gave Klages a break and auctioned a bowling shirt with WisCon's unofficial mascot Space-Babe on it. Imagine her surprise when people crowded her clutching dollar bills.
The Siren's call of the Sixth floor and the parties it held was irresistible. "This is my friend Chris. He's a human supernova, just like that Liz Phair song."
The Tor party is always a swirl of fans/writers/editors/lackeys. An interesting fact: the room gets hot, yet Tor Editor Jim Frenkel wears a suit and never seems to sweat. Perhaps it is because he is doing bartender duty and thus hangs around all the ice?
How did I end up talking to Camille Alexia outside the elevators in the lobby until 3am? I don't rightly know, but it happened.
Chris, a real scientist, anchors the panel in reality.
Sunday, Chris ("He is connected to the VLA cybernetically as we speak.") added real science gravitas to P. chordata #159, "Keeping the S in SF", while I observed the DIY underbelly of publishing back at Michelangelo's for P. chordata #169, "Small Press Strikes Back". I am coming to believe that there is a vitality to a live reading that is equal to, yet distinct from, the experience of reading oneself. Eric Vogt's tale of lone man on an asteroid and the AI that (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) psychologically abuses him almost made people cry.
We retreated next door for lunch. Excuse me, brunch. Is it okay if I dislike the word brunch? Because I really do. I made up for it through my love for martinis.
We got back to the hotel when panels were well underway. I ventured up to the dark recesses of the sixth floor panel rooms for P. chordata #182, "Gender Roles in SF". It was packed! The heat was astounding. No conclusions were reached, although that may not have been the point. You know that scene in that movie Hero, where the candles in the Emperor's throne room move to the invisible breezes of people's chi? That's what any given panel with Sharyn November is like. Depending on her opinion, the audience either leans forward, or shies away.
P. chordata #202, "Book Clubs", brought the issues of how to either create an SF/F book club, or bring SF/F into the more mundane book clubs that clutter our fair cities. There is always the classic technique of using SF to slide in under the radar and discuss hot-button contemporary issues under the guise of "the future" or "the mutants". Further, souvenir books from conventions can be pillaged for prospective reading lists. Slip a little of the ol' Carl Brandon Society or Tiptree shortlist into an unsuspecting reading group today! Want to really take it to the next level? Work in some short story anthologies or go for the triple damage score of graphic novels. Thursday at Borders will never be the same for the lucky few who survive.
Tragically, I was unable to stay for more of that action, I had a date with P. chordata #204, "Historical Fiction and Social Justice".
Historical fiction is problematic because, well, people in the past were generally unrepentant ignorant assholes. However, as GoH Ellen Klages pointed out, the further back in time you go, the less the modern reader knows and the more you can get away with. This was followed by several warnings from both her and the panel itself not to overdo it.
There was an entire sub-discussion on historically-unrecorded slang, especially in the queasy realm of shame. Apparently, unless you were a gynecologist, you couldn't use the word "flower" in polite company until 1951.
P. chordata #210, "Utopias are Hard", was a remarkable panel. Utopias and dystopias are like kissing cousins. Sometimes (The Day of the Comet), the drugs make the utopia possible. Sometimes (Brave New World), the drugs make the dystopia possible. Someone brought up that as much as we want to believe that "nurture" wins the nature vs. nurture argument, sometimes that just isn't the case. Sociopaths wander the earth, like tarantulas that walk like men, eager to gum up the works of any major societal change. Perhaps most fascinating of all was the idea that near-utopias in the real world (some would argue the Amish communities, or the pot-fueled denizens of Freetown in Copenhagen) are almost like enclaves or even reservations—
Was he poking the safety patrol, or was it the shirt?
I worked off some bad Karma by helping set up some of the parties on the sixth floor. It was good for the soul.
WisCon's last panel for me was P. chordata #226, "Writers and Platforms". I don't know...platforms sound pretty dangerous to me. The Internet seems like a place that neither forgets nor forgives. Moderator Mary Robinette Kowal was late, but dressed so sharply that we gave her a pass on it.
From there, it was one last trip to the bar ("This is my heterosexual life-companion Chris. He is a super-scientist and drives a Chevy Nova.") where we talked a bit with GoH Geoff Ryman before finally saying our goodbyes and heading out. Monday's raft of sweet, sweet panels would not be mine to experience this time around.
Naturally, we took a wrong turn and ended up driving all the way around Lake Menendoza (or whatever it is) and took the scenic, rural, route back to Milwaukee.
Good times. Good times.