From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Not Your Father’s Sci-Fi Convention: WisCon 33

WisCon, “the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world,” celebrated its 33rd year May 22-25, 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s not the usual con atmosphere – there is no costume contest, there are no panels packed with actors, and you can go all weekend without seeing a single movie trailer. It’s also not quite the other end of the spectrum – while it’s a very literature-oriented con, it’s far more casual than a standard academic consortium (one of this year’s most popular events was the Not Another F#cking Race Panel, during which cyborg genitals were discussed with gusto). But for the thousand genre fans who drag their carry-ons to this lakeside town every year, it’s exactly what they’re looking for.

WisCon is built around a core of programming that takes advantage of a long weekend, a captive audience, and more than a dozen locations; from 8:30AM until long after midnight, attendees can choose from nine or ten offerings both within the hotel and at bookstores and coffeehouses in Madison’s city center. The programming also caters to a wide variety of interests: unofficial programming tracks this year tackled technology, gender politics, The Middleman, cultural appropriation, and the business of publishing.

The problem with so much programming (besides having to be awake at 8:30 for anything) is, of course, having to pick and choose. If you wanted to talk about Gender Roles in YA Science Fiction and Fantasy and listen to Guest of Honor Geoff Ryman read, you were out of luck. You had to give the cold shoulder to six panels, even at 10:30pm, just to make the What Gender is your Roomba? Panel. (The cringeworthy answer, according to the mod’s informal poll of con attendees: female, because it does domestic duties. Oh, WISCON.)

Many of the panels were places of fierce debate, though there are a few worthy yet unfortunately-titled panels every year that seem to be tautological, no matter how deep the actual discussions might go. This year that sampling included:

  • Is Terry Pratchett Feminist? (Sure, as long as the ladies are old. Who wants coffee?)
  • What, No Rapture? (That’s between you and your doctor.)
  • Your Friend Academia (Now, now; academia is nobody’s friend.)
  • Synopsis: A Necessary Evil? (Long story short: yes. Get it? Because it’s a synop – oh, never mind.)
  • Dealing With Your Male Answer Syndrome (Too…many…jokes…)

Besides programming, WisCon is also known as a proving ground for emerging genre writers; readings are stacked up in fours throughout the day, and this year’s WisCon reader might be next year’s Guests of Honor. This year, the GoH author honors went to Ellen Klages, longtime Tiptree auctioneer and writer of painstakingly researched fiction, and Geoff Ryman, who celebrated the honor with a modern dance performance at the Tiptree auction.

The Tiptree Award, which was instituted “to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society,” is jurored by volunteers; they are locked in a tower room and have to spin a pile of books into gold, after which time they may knock three times to be released from their imprisonment to bestow the award. This year’s shortlist included works by Christopher Barzak, Ekaterina Sedia, and Ursula K. LeGuin; the award was a tie this year, and went to Patrick Ness’s YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, and Nisi Shawl’s short story collection Filter House.

Of course, the evenings aren’t all speeches and applause; late-night partygoers encountered everything from a Dr. Horrible Sing-Along party to a just-as-horrible-as-it-sounds bacontini, a concoction of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Cheez Whiz, and shelf-safe bacon offered at the party hosted by the Scribe Literary Agency, presumably as a warning against all that is wrong in the world. Not that it stopped writer M.K. Hobson and countless others from agreeing to actually drink it. (Clearly, by Sunday, con madness had set in.)

Long story short: I will be back next year, and so should you. (Bring your own bacon.)

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For those who want to get the dirt on something in particular, detailed notes on panels and parties are being posted to WisCon’s LiveJournal Community by various attendees.

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