WisCon 31 report


Wow, what a great time. I met tons of cool, smart people, bought the largest number of books ever in a three day period, went to awesome parties, and attended some really interesting panels. And the wiki workshop was, indeed, fine.

Many details behind the link…On Thursday, I arrived at the Madison airport not only on time, but early (I had traveled through Newark from Burlington). While waiting for the shuttle to the hotel, I had a conversation with a couple guys coming to their first WisCon and selling their magazine, Sibyl’s Garage. I didn’t talk with them again the rest of the weekend, but did see them in the halls a few times, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I checked my voicemail and learned that Laura was going to be getting in late due to hideous flight delays in Boston and Chicago. So I checked in to the room and began a period of wandering and waiting. I saw quite a few people, both authors and fans, that I recognized from previous conventions, but felt too shy to approach them. The exception was Liz Henry, the third member of the wiki “triumviraga”, who I eventually encountered in the elevator. She and her partner and young son were on their way out to A Room of One’s Own for some readings by the Guests of Honor, so we agreed to meet up later for a cabal when Laura had arrived.

Went to the hotel bar for a couple of drinks and dinner. Brought this laptop and browsed the web in between network interruptions (a theme that would continue for the rest of the weekend – I gathered from Bill Humphries that the wireless routers in the hotel didn’t have enough IP addresses for all the computers connecting to them). After dinner, I stopped by the second floor and picked up my convention registration packet. I was poring over it in the hotel room when a knock on the door announced Laura’s arrival. She was exhausted from her hideous day of travel, but we chatted for a while, and then she called Liz. It turned out that she, John and Milo and visiting Ian H. were in a room just two doors down the hall, so we went down there and lolled about on the beds chatting about various things, including plans for our workshop which was scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Some interesting gossip made me curious…

At last, it was time for bed. Friday is a light day for programming, since most people don’t arrive until afternoon, so I took the opportunity to sleep in until around 10:30. I joined Laura in the hotel dining room for some breakfast, and Liz showed up shortly after. We discussed the workshop some more while tapping and clicking away on our laptops. It amused me throughout the weekend to see us all computing away, practically cyborgs in our connection to technology.

After lunch, we went to the computing services center at the hotel to print out some bookmarks and a how-to guide from the wiki. We had many problems, both getting an internet connection on our laptops and getting to the wiki web site. By an unfortunate coincidence, for the past week, Dreamhost had been having a problem with the feministsf.org domain. The cause was unknown, and Laura was in the midst of a long series of back-and-forth emails with them, trying to resolve the problem. Frustrating! Particularly on WisCon weekend!

We eventually succeeded in getting some printouts of the appropriate material, and Laura and I went in search of a copy shop in downtown Madison. We wandered for some time before finding a place with self-serve copiers, then took turns making copies and cutting bookmarks to size while chatting. When we returned to the hotel, Laura went to the Green Room to prepare her Karen Axness panel material while I wandered through the Gathering, the four-hour icebreaker event that starts the convention. Many of the booths at the Gathering involved supernatural themes (palmistry, tarot card readings, crystals, tea leaves, etc.) that didn’t really float my boat, but I was fascinated by the belly dancing demonstration and the tattoo showing that immediately followed it. I thought Molly Keenan was an outstanding MC for the tattoo show (throughout the weekend, I was repeatedly impressed by people’s moderation and public speaking skills, abilities I have a lot of respect for, but decidedly lack myself). Some of the tattoos were really amazing, and the stories about them were variously touching, funny, and thought-provoking.

After the Gathering, Laura and I went out to Noodles & Co. for dinner. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a copy of The Onion, which is still available in hard-copy format for free in Madison, the town where it all began. The cover story, “Dog Breeders Issue Massive Recall Of ’07 Pugs”, still makes me laugh when I think of it.

Once we got back to the hotel, Laura introduced me to some new people, including (if I remember the timing right), Heather Whipple and Bill Humphries. Then it was time for the Opening Ceremonies. There was a very funny “newbie comes to her first WisCon” piece that was actually written by a newbie, who performed it along with Ellen Klages, Debbie Notkin, and representatives of Broad Universe, the Carl Brandon Society, and the Interstitial Arts Foundation. It was followed by an audience-rousing song (“The Rainbow Convention”), at the end of which both Guests of Honor received crowns.

After the Opening Ceremonies, discussion panels officially began for the weekend. I went to the 8:45 “Please Touch/Don’t Touch” meta panel that Liz was on. It got a little weird at times (Liz was put on the spot to talk about boundary issues for people in wheelchairs, and some people’s follow-up to what she said was wacky), but it was an interesting conversation nonetheless. Almost everyone seemed to agree that there was a hugging culture at WisCon that could become oppressive, and there was some discussion about why hugs might activate alarm bells for someone who wouldn’t be bothered by, for example, a handshake. Basic mechanical and psychological explanations were favored, but I was most interested in pursuing a cultural investigation. Maybe a future panel?

After the panel, I went up to the 6th floor for the weekend’s first round of parties. Liz and Laura introduced me to several people, including the really fun and smart Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders. I also chatted briefly with Laura and Pat Murphy, who used to work together in San Francisco. Fun! I ended my party evening at the Carl Brandon Society gathering, hosted by Candra Gill. She announced a musical contest (come up with a playlist of three songs relating to science fiction and people of color) that I thought was cool and wanted to enter. I didn’t have a chance to win any prizes because I took too long to go upstairs and fetch my iPod, but it was fun anyway listening to other people’s mixes. (For the record, my three songs were “Inertia Creeps” by Massive Attack; “Chaiyya Chaiyya Bollywood Joint” by A.R. Rahman and Panjabi MC; and the Firefly theme song performed by Sonny Rhodes).

The next morning Laura got up early to visit the Farmer’s Market and prepare for her 10AM panel. I lay insensate until she came back and offered me some of her “cheesy bread” – yum! I’m sorry I never got to the market, because Madison has a really big and awesome one compared to Burlington. As with many other things, I found myself saying, “Maybe next year.”

At 10:00, I went to the “Genre Tokenism Today: The New Octavia” panel. The general theme was that, now that Octavia Butler is sadly gone, many people are asking, “Who’s the new Octavia?” This question has a lot of problematic aspects, and the panelists took them on with energy. Once again, I was impressed with the moderation (this time by Nora Jemison), and the discussion was really interesting. Some notes taken by Liz Henry are available on the Feminist SF Wiki at the above link.

After the panel, I took my first turn through the Dealers Room and came away with several books, including the second Firefly Official Companion. I looked it over while eating lunch solo in the hotel café. Then it was on to the next round of panels. I was torn between “Foremothers of Today’s Feminist SF” and “Why Is the Universe So Damn White?” In the end, I went with the latter, because I realized that discussion of visual media is what really gets me excited these days, and this panel had interesting connections to some online discussions I’ve read lately.

I think I chose well. The panel was entertaining and cathartic. Having questionable treatment of race in everything from Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to Firefly called out in a clear and funny way was really rewarding. Some highlights for me were Naamen’s observations about the treatment of the Geminese in BSG (he called them “the planet of black fundies”), and Wendy’s phrase “the Epcot phenomenon” to describe something that’s annoyed me for ages in a lot of shows: the encapsulization of an entire culture into a small village or handful of individuals and the assumption that This Is It, or might as well be. As if! The blinders of privileged westerners (other cultures are theme parks that exist for our amusement or edification; they “all look the same”, etc.) and the false simplicity of hierarchy (“take me to your leader”) are ridiculously obvious when this comes up as a plot element, yet it still happens on a regular basis. Ugh.

A lot of props were given to Doctor Who and Torchwood, but alas, I seem to be allergic to the former and haven’t had a chance to see the latter yet. I’ll look out for it in the coming months. Once again, notes for this panel (somewhat lame and abbreviated because I took them) are available behind the link.

I was tempted by the “Cultural Appropriation” panel that followed, but I realized that the wiki workshop was coming up soon, so decided to take a break from programming to prepare. Laura had the same idea, and we hung out in the bar with our laptops while she ate some late lunch.

At a bit before 4:00 we headed over to the Caucus Room and found a number of people already gathered for the workshop. Yikes! Particularly yikes because the projector we had reserved was missing. I went to look for it, and almost immediately encountered Rhianna, who was wheeling the projector cart back toward our room. Whew. The workshop went fairly well, given the lack of detailed coordination on the part of the triumviraga. We explained some stuff, helped some people make edits to the wiki, and chatted with various folks, including Jesse the K and Revena of The Hathor Legacy.

Afterward, I think Laura, Liz and I were all a bit tired, because we ended up back in room 736 chatting and relaxing with our laptops. I entered my new books into LibraryThing, and we compared who had the most books in common with us. We talked about going to see the Tiptree Auction, and I felt a strong desire for the Ellen Klages Experience, but… inertia won out in the end. We even ordered room service!

At 10:30, Liz and I went to the “Criticism: Beyond Slamming and Mythologizing” panel. Maybe I was a little out of it, or maybe this panel rambled a bit from its topic. It seemed like it was asking “what is criticism” rather than “what is good and bad criticism”. Oh well – it was still interesting. Liz wrote up some notes that are available behind the link.

After that, more parties. This time the main attractions were the Tor party and the Small Beer party. I actually don’t remember much from that evening, or maybe the memories are blurring into those of Sunday night. In any case, I know I drank some beer and Liz and I agreed to Tempest’s proposal of a hideously early meeting with the Feminist SF Blog cabal the next morning in the Governors Club.

It was indeed hideous getting up, but the gold-plated marble elevator to the Governors Club was a hoot, and once there everything was free and posh. We (Laura, Liz, Tempest, Janet L, and I, with Andrea H joining in later) had a good talk about new people to invite and/or add as blog authors. More perspectives! More cool peeps!

Then most of us rushed off for the 10AM panels. I went to “The President Wears Prada”, a discussion about the “dark side” of woman politicians. On a humorous note, at the beginning several of the panelists said they wouldn’t be able to identify Prada clothing if their lives depended on it. Some impressive political wonkery followed, but unfortunately, the panel was almost entirely lacking in SF content. I kept waiting for mention of Laura Roslyn! That would have to wait till later.

I had lunch in the hotel bar, then headed to the “Male Allies” panel at 1:00. How interesting that this was the most emotional panel I attended! At least two of the panelists became choked up in the course of discussion, and of course so did I. (Most people wouldn’t guess it, but I’m a big softy whenever anyone else starts crying.) They said some cool stuff that I sketchily summarized behind the link.

After that came my favorite panel of the weekend: “Battlestar Galactica: The Debate” (about whether the show is pro-feminist or not). It turned out not to be a debate so much as a smaller than average discussion, because none of the participants knew what position they were supposed to take and weren’t particularly interested in taking a stand either way. But damn! they all knew the show backward and forward, and they were really intelligent and FUNNY about it! I had never seen her or read any of her books before this panel, but I came away a big fan of Lyda Morehouse, who was perhaps the best moderator in a string of good ones. And Annalee and Jef had some great insights. Notes by Laura are linked.

Next was a talk by Ellen Kushner about her Riverside novels. I think Ellen is cool as all get out, so I was really excited for this presentation. She talked about the history of the three books and several stories in the series, and was really thoughtful and funny in a way that occasionally had me wondering, “Did she really just say that?” And afterward she signed my Small Beer hardcover of The Privilege of the Sword. Nice. Some notes are here.

Afterward, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, so I bought some more books in the dealers room, and wandered out into the town to look for some dinner. I was just thinking, “I have no idea where I’m going,” when I ran into Laura and Annalee. Laura had just had dinner, and offered me the leftover Chinese food she was carrying in a plastic bag. Yay! So we all went back to the hotel and ended up in our room chatting with Liz and Charlie while waiting for the ticketed Dessert Salon to start.

At 7:30 we headed down to the second floor for the salon, which had already developed an amazing line which I think we unintentionally cut. Each person at the salon got TWO delicious desserts. I picked the Flourless Chocolate Decadence Cake and the Strawberries Dipped in Chocolate. Liz, John, Laura, Annalee, Charlie and I ended up at a table with Carol Emshwiller, Timmi Duchamp, and Andrea Hairston as well as several other folks. We had some quality chat, and then it was time for the Guest of Honor speeches and presentations.

Normally the Guests of Honor deliver their speeches in succession, but Laurie Marks and Kelly Link put together a really cool epistolary GoH speech that involved them taking turns reading aloud and throwing objects out into the audience. It was long, and full of digressions and poetic observations and humor when I wasn’t expecting it. I loved it.

Afterwards, the Tiptree Awards were handed out to Catherynne Valente, Shelley Jackson, and Julie Phillips. I got choked up when Shelley Jackson read her short and powerful valediction of mutants. “This is my kind of gathering,” I thought. “These are my people.” When everyone had read their piece and received their gifts, various other people got on stage and led the room in a performance of the Tiptree song, to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. (Lyrics here.)

Then it was time for MORE PARTIES! I hung out mostly at the Endicott Studio/Interstitial Arts party (chocolate truffles and coffee drinks!) and the Wyrdsmiths party (beer!), though I visited the Doctor Who/Torchwood and LiveJournal parties, too. Tempest brought me to her room to pick up some book swap items, and I had a great time poring over the “dragon porn” book with John K and Beth B and showing it off to various and sundry for the rest of the evening. At one point, Laura went to fetch Lyda Morehouse, and a number of us fan-mobbed her and her sock monkey. Too bad she had already sold her box of books earlier in the evening.

And then… alas… it was bedtime. The next morning, I didn’t even have time to eat breakfast before the rush of packing and dealing with my piles of books and checking out of the room. I had about 15 minutes of relaxation in the lobby with Laura, Liz, John, and Milo before being summoned to my taxi. It all felt precipitous and less than ideal. But… the spirit of WisCon will continue throughout the year. And I am definitely going back next year.

Further reading: Laura’s “live blogging” on the Feminist SF Blog.

About the author

Janice Dawley

Outdoorsy TV addict, artistic computer geek, loner who loves people.



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