Wiscon 20

Wiscon is the worldís only feminist science fiction convention, and proud of it. Iíd been meaning to go for years, and somehow never made plans in time, or didnít have the money, or didnít want to go to Wisconsin in February because I might be stranded halfway. For the twentieth anniversary, they pulled out all the stops--Ursula Le Guin was Guest of Honor, Judith Merrill was special guest, and all the past GoHs were invited back. They also moved the con to May, eliminating my travel worries (or so I thought). I waved goodbye to Disclave, cheerfully (thereís nothing wrong with it, but it hadnít really clicked for me the last couple of years), and bought tickets to Madison.

Wiscon 20 may have been the best convention Iíve been to; itís certainly in the top five. After 15 years in fandom, Iíve long since lost track of how many cons Iíve attended, though I remember the high points. None quite compared to this, though several came close, the Madison Corflu among them. I do like Madison, and Madison fandom, but thereís more going on. Iím not saying Wiscon was perfect, the Enchanted Convention, but it was a marvelous if exhausting weekend.

Getting there was a bit of a nuisance, for me and a lot of other attendees. OíHare Airport was fogged in Thursday and Friday; my plane sat on a runway in New York for almost two hours Thursday evening before taking off. By the time we got to Chicago, most of us were wondering whether our connecting flights had left without us. Mine hadnít--I even had time to get a bowl of soup in the airport--but it was sharing a gate with a canceled flight to South Bend, Indiana. Since I was flying Thursday night to get a discount, the delay was no big deal. I took a cab to the hotel, checked in, and sat in the bar with other people whoíd shown up early. By Saturday, when Le Guin read from her work in progress, "Changing Planes," which starts with the idea that a particular state of mind achieved only during airport delays allows interdimensional travel, she had a very appreciative audience of people who liked the idea that all that waiting time could somehow be put to use.

One of the things I liked about Wiscon was that it felt like a single community of people with common interests. Sometimes a con feels as though there are very different groups--the big names, mostly professional writers; the con committee, who are important, frazzled, and distant; and everyone else. Or, at a Worldcon, even if people arenít worrying about status, there are too many different interests thrown into one huge hall, and not enough time to explore. Wiscon was a lot more participatory, to the point where I had breakfast with someone Monday morning, because we both walked into the hotel restaurant at the same time, and only realized later that she has three science fiction novels in print. (She didnít bother to mention it.) Rather than decorating peopleís badges with multicolored ribbons to let us know who was important and what they were doing, Wiscon used badges in a few colors. Le Guin, Merrill, and the Coordinator (Jeanne Gomoll) had special bright blue badges. There were also colors for returning guests, program participants, and "native guides," con staff who could give directions in Madison. But a purple or yellow badge doesnít jump out and say "look at me" the way a fistful of colorful ribbons does. Program participants, as far as I can tell, were people who got in touch with the committee and said "Iíd like to be on programming." A lot were professional writers, but by no means all. The committee sent out a questionnaire, consisting of several pages of programming ideas with space next to them to express interest; having sent it back, I got a note saying "here are your panels." (I then spent a week rearranging part of my schedule by email, to avoid having to moderate a panel and be on an airplane at the same time.)

At least as important, the programming was deliberately set up to have more than one interesting thing happening at a time. This could be frustrating, as I stood in the hall trying desperately to decide between "On Being a Feminist Fan" and "Is Gender Real or a Fetish?" but it served a purpose: it kept the groups small enough that everyone got to participate, not just the three or four people sitting at the front of the room. Moderators were encouraged to call on the audience, and panelists knew ahead of time that we were supposed to be providing ideas to spark discussion, not making long speeches with time for one or two quick questions at the end, or talking only among ourselves.

It also seemed clear that Wiscon had several program items at once because they had more interesting ideas than could otherwise fit into the available time. At some cons, multi-track programming feels more like the results of negotiation between different interest groups, as if someone had said "if you get three hours for filk programming, we should get equal time for Internet panels" or "you want anime programming, fine. Hereís a room and some equipment, have fun and donít bother the rest of us." At Wiscon, it wasnít multi-track programming in that sense; there was no separation between topics other than the simple fact that you couldnít be in two rooms at once.

Friday morning I was sitting in the lobby, talking idly with Avedon Carol. Avedon off-handedly introduced me to Jessica Salmonson, who introduced me to Trina Robbins a few minutes later. That set the tone for the con, at least for me: rather than separating into cliques, everyone was eager to introduce their friends to each other. I had been feeling a bit at loose ends at that point, because I was traveling alone and nothing had started yet; that half hour of chat reassured me that I was in the right place, and that I was going to enjoy the weekend. After that, I was cheerfully ready to have a quick lunch with Sandra and Larry Taylor, and then go to A Room of Oneís Own by myself while they went back to work on the convention. (I got out of that bookstore for about $20, because I told myself Iíd buy the new Le Guin non-genre hardcover when I got back to New York, rather than carry it home; I could kick myself for this, because I havenít seen it here. Time for a deliberate search, I think.)

The high point of the con for me was the performance based on Le Guinís novel Always Coming Home. It was a combination of dance, singing, chanting, and staged reading. I got involved almost by accident: the program participant questionnaire asked for people interested in helping with the performance. I checked that off, because I love the book enough that I couldnít say no to the chance to put even a piece of it on stage. I thought that all the performers were going to be Madison people, and that they were rehearsing before the con.

I soon received email from Larry Taylor containing a tentative script. I told him that yes, I was interested. A shorter version of the script was followed by the text of "what they wore," to give participants at least a general idea of appropriate clothing. It was pretty flexible, but I was glad of the reminder that I should pack something other than t-shirts and jeans. All together, we had a general leftover hippie look: lots of loose, comfortable clothing, much of it with a Latin American flavor.

The final script, as edited by Jae Leslie Adams, consisted of two main parts: a greatly abridged version of Stone Tellingís story, which is the longest narrative in the novel, and "A Hole in the Air," a shorter piece about a man from that future world who finds himself in a world much like ours, but colored by Kesh myth. The Stone Telling part was divided into nine pieces, and exactly nine women who wanted to read pieces showed up at the first rehearsal Friday evening. We each told Larry which piece or pieces we were interested in, and everyone got something she wanted. It felt like a good omen.

Le Guin came to the rehearsal, gave us hints on pronunciation of the non-English words in the text, and told us we should make small changes if it would help the text read better, because spoken and written story telling are different though related arts. With that in mind, most of us put in contractions here and there, and I broke up a few sentences that were too long to read aloud on one breath. It was still definitely Le Guinís text, but I felt much more comfortable within it after making those small changes.

Jim Frenkel told me after the first run-through that I was reading too fast (this comes from being a New Yorker). I thought about the problem for a while, then took my copy of the script to the jacuzzi Sunday morning and rehearsed there: itís easy to do and say things slowly while soaking in hot water, and the slower reading speed stayed with me when I got up on stage that night.

"A Hole in the Air" was read by three men who stood at one side of the stage, reading alternating sentences, while two dancers acted out the story. The alternation worked quite well, making the story seem like a traditional tale, being told by people whose myth it was. I was very impressed by the dancersí ability to quickly show us a man being run over by a car, dying, and getting up again.

I was narrator number 6, taking a short piece but one which contains one of my favorite moments from the novel. The only disadvantage of reading late was that I was too nervous to really enjoy the first half of the performance. When I was done with my piece, some people applauded, so I was reassured walking back to my seat, and able to enjoy the rest of the show. In between the pieces of that story, there was singing, in Kesh: I kept feeling as if the meaning of the songs was almost in reach, despite the unfamiliarity. The singers and dancers hadnít rehearsed with the narrators, so much of the performance was new to us as well as to the audience. The show ended as it had begun, with all the performers on stage, doing the long singing "heya" chant from the book; at the end, we moved into the audience and encouraged them to join us. Only a few people did--itís a bit daunting if youíve never done such a thing before--but it was obvious at the end that they had enjoyed the show and weíd done a good job. Le Guin thanked us for doing the show; we thanked her for making it possible and got her to autograph our programs. Several people came up and told me how much theyíd liked it. Between that praise and the experience of the performance itself, I walked around with a manic grin for about 20 minutes; Iím not about to take up acting as a career or even major hobby, but the energy is very different from writing, and very attractive. After a while I pulled myself together enough to get a pizza in the hotel bar (a 7:00 rehearsal call for a 9:00 show doesnít leave room for dinner), and went to the Minneapolis in í73 party. Geri Sullivan and Jeff Schalles did an excellent job, as usual: good food and drink, music, people to talk to and room to talk to them in. In between a long conversation with Lisa Freitag and explaining the Minneapolis in í73 Worldcon bid to someone who seemed thoroughly confused when I gave him a 1973 penny for his membership, I danced a bit, and Geri put on a baboon mask and picked imaginary insects off my arm and ate them with relish.

Saturday afternoon I decided to postpone lunch so I could go to Judith Merrill and Ursula Le Guinís Guest of Honor presentations and Le Guinís reading right afterwards. Merrill read from her memoir in progress, which I look forward to reading when she finishes it; this section was largely about her relationship with Theodore Sturgeon. Le Guin, after telling us that she hadnít planned to give a speech, and then had thought of something she wanted to say at the last minute and asked Jeanne to fit it in, gave a short but interesting talk, combining politics and what itís like to be getting old in a society that considers old people aliens. "Earth people," she has noticed, "spend a lot of time thinking about things like sex and bungee jumping." I enjoyed the talks and the reading, but as I was wandering down State Street with Lucy Sussex at a quarter after two, trying to find some place we wanted to have lunch, I thought about the meals I hadnít really eaten, the sleep Iíd missed, and the length of the con, from Thursday arrival through the holiday Monday, and realized that I had better treat this Wiscon like a Worldcon. The international flavor helped: there was a noticeable Australian presence, including Lucy; I talked to people from Japan, Britain, and France; and the map showed attendees from China and Denmark. Also like a Worldcon, there were more people I wanted to talk to than time, especially since everyone else was trying to catch up with lots of people. Wiscon didnít really feel like a Worldcon, though: a modern Worldcon wouldnít have a membership limit of 800, or decide that it didnít need an art show or masquerade, and an old-time Worldcon would have laughed at the idea of feminist science fiction. One did, in fact: Wiscon in many ways grew out of MidAmericon, the 1976 Worldcon, where there was one feminist panel, and one panel mocking it, and a few women and men decided that there ought to be a whole convention to discuss these things. Wiscon may not be a feminist utopia, but the idea that a Worldcon could be a coherent group of fans, informed by feminism and interested in talking about books and ideas, is a utopian vision.

This Wiscon let me combine the best parts of being a neofan--the delight in all the new things, all the people and conversations and new ideas--with the pleasure of having been around long enough that people know me, want to see me, and ask me to be involved (or accept my offers). Fifteen years ago, the person running the convention newsletter wouldnít have asked me to write something for him with a deadline of an hour and a half; fifteen years ago, if I had been asked, I would either have had the sense to refuse, or made a botch of it. Now, I can do it: run out, get a sandwich, and sit down in front of the computer. On little sleep and that short notice, I did make Andy Hooper promise not to print what I gave him if it stank; he and Carrie Root reassured me that it w ouldnít, but they did promise. (Itís difficult to tell someone youíre not going to print what you asked them to write, and I wanted him to feel he could do that if he needed to, rather than embarrassing us both by printing it if he didnít like it.) Days later, rereading my short contribution, I concluded that they were right: it wasnít deathless prose by any means, but it didnít stink. I canít judge my own writing immediately: I need enough distance to see it without too much distortion from what I meant to write.

The first panel I was on was Friday evening, on "If parenting is so important, why is nobody willing to do it?" I had surprised the other panelists before the con even started: it hadnít occurred to them that someone without children of her own would be interested in the subject. I was aware of that when I volunteered, but I felt that part of the point of the panel was to break down some of the barriers between parents and non-parents. The discussion was lively and interesting, bringing up some of what both parents and children need from the larger society, including ways of building bridges between them and people who arenít raising children--those who have finished, those who havenít yet started, and those who have chosen not to--and I hope someone took notes; if thereís a way to be on a panel and keep good notes, I havenít found it yet.

I was on two panels Monday morning: one was about the limits and essential impossibility of the Prime Directive, and related questions of cultural and technological contamination, more from an anthropological than a science fictional perspective. One of the panelists was Janet Laffler, an anthropologist who was able to tell us a bit about how working anthropologists are handling these issues now. The obvious point that most science fiction avoids--certainly, original Star Trek with its 1960s-style enlightened technological empire never mentioned this--is that thereís not that much difference in effect between the Prime Directive, 18th-century mercantilist control over what industries the colonies are allowed to have, and the current concern over technology transfer and industrial espionage. The difference, perhaps, is that most governments today are slightly franker about the self-interest involved, and thereís no one society that is clearly ahead of everyone else. Moderating this one was easy: the panelists all seemed to have enough to say, nobody wanted to ride off on a hobbyhorse, and there was time to fit everything, and everyone, in.

The second Monday panel, which I volunteered for at the last minute to fill a spot, was on body modification and terraforming, starting from the observation that a few years ago there were a lot of novels about plugging things into the human brain and otherwise altering ourselves, and the current hot topic is terraforming Mars. I was hooked by the line "the brain is willing to pierce other parts of the body, but we donít get a lot of brain piercings." Iím not sure thatís inherently true--I suspect that as soon as someone offers flashy brain surgery, memory improvement or artificial personalities, instant genius or an implant that will make you fluent in Japanese, people will be buying it, probably the same people as go to surgeons to cure near-sightedness because they donít want to wear glasses. The paired topics of terraforming and brain modification fit oddly together, but I think we did a good job with both, despite a couple of audience members who kept wanting to convince everyone that we start terraforming Mars next Tuesday, which wasnít what the panel was supposed to be about. (The only good argument I can think of for such a project is that, if weíre going to make major changes to a planetary ecology, Iíd rather it not be Earthís, since we donít have a spare habitable planet.) Hereís where I really wish Iíd taken notes: there were good things said about the relationship between our ideas of self, body, and environment, but I donít remember now what they were. I do have a note of something Willie Baird said, during the discussion of terraforming: "Weíre talking about power as if we had it, but I think the human race is more like an enormous amoeba."

I should mention here that it was not the fault of Steve Swartz or anyone else on the concom that I was on two panels the last morning of the con: it was my own idea, and I enjoyed doing it. And yes, I did attend and enjoy a lot of programming I wasnít on, but I spent more time thinking about the ones where I knew I had to have something to say when I walked into the room. I have a solitary reference in my notebook to "homovestite," which someone introduced during a panel and defined as a person who exclusively or compulsively wears the clothing of their own sex. Not a concept we use much--it applies to the great majority of American men, and the current definition of acceptable clothing for women is loose enough that itís hard for a woman to be perceived as cross-dressing, even if sheís wearing pants, a manís shirt, and shoes purchased in the boysí department--but the word appealed to me.

Copyright 1996 Vicki Rosenzweig

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