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WisCon report (long)


I had mixed feelings about WisCon.

I'll get to some of the high points later. First, the less-good stuff, mostly in the form of disappointments—events I'd have liked to have attended, people I'd have liked to have seen:

There were lots of people who I would've liked to have hung out with more. I kept seeing them in passing, but mostly not in a context where it made sense to sit and chat with them, or join them for lunch, or whatever. Most of them are folks who I don't know well, but who we've published stories by, and/or whose work I've liked in other contexts, and/or who I know from various online communities (hi, y'all!). There was one lunch in particular (or was it dinner?) with some of the OWW folks that I'd have liked to have attended, and was even invited to, but circumstances intervened.

There were several readings that I was disappointed to miss. I've found lately that readings are often among my favorite parts of a con; there are a lot of good writers out there, and many of them read well, and I've always liked reading aloud and listening to people read aloud. (I used to be wary of readings at cons, 'cause I attended a few, years ago, in which the readers weren't very good at reading aloud and/or hadn't picked especially good read-aloud material, and I'd be stuck in a room for an hour with three authors I'd never heard of and the two other people who came to the reading. A sparsely attended reading is very awkward to walk out of; I always feel like I'm personally insulting the readers by doing that.) But I often miss readings I'd like to attend; there was one that was scheduled opposite Eleanor Arnason's reading, for example, and much as I wanted to hear y'all read, I wanted to hear Eleanor more. That kept happening; for almost all the readings I wanted to attend, there was something else at the same time that I wanted to do more.

Similarly, I'm always a little disappointed not to make it to more panels. Of course, when I do attend panels I usually get restless or bored or annoyed and leave early anyway. I think that more than anything else, at cons I'm afflicted with grass-is-greener syndrome; I'm often sure that the panel next door is better, that the party down the hall is more fun, and it gets in the way of enjoying what I'm doing.

I didn't get enough sleep; sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. Saturday night I went to bed, exhausted, around 1ish, but didn't manage to sleep (despite all manner of nostrums) until about 4. (I'm pleased to report that Tuesday night, after coming home, I got plenty of sleep, and now, Wednesday morning, I feel more awake and rested than I have in quite a while.)

I heard about more panels than I attended, and I was a little bothered by some of what I heard. My first WisCon, a few years back, was amazing; the beyond-GLBT-101 panel was mind-expanding; people in panels and in the hallways were saying things I'd never heard anyone say, rich and complex conversations that were careful to avoid knee-jerk reactions or bashing anyone, that took different perspectives into account and didn't stop at simple answers. This year, I feel like both on and off the panels there was a lot of knee-jerk and doctrinaire argument, a lot of gratuitous conservative-bashing, not nearly as much awareness as I'd like of differences of opinion or belief. It felt to me like a lot of people were going with the easy answers. What I heard about the religion panel seemed particularly unfortunate in this regard; it sounds like the panel started and ended with the premise that all Christianity is (a) the same, and (b) loathesome. Panels shouldn't, imo, start out with the answers; they should pose questions, and possibly (sometimes) arrive at answers.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, by late Saturday night (while lying in bed trying unsuccessfully to sleep for three hours) I was thinking that maybe it was time for me to stop going to WisCon, or maybe to stop going to cons altogether. But Sunday was much better, and there were a lot of good things even before then. Some of the many highlights of the con:

As always, Ellen Klages was very entertaining as the auctioneer for the Tiptree auction. I'm always amazed that she not only does a combination of auction-running and standup improv comedy for several hours at a stretch at the con, but also (before the con) creates many fine works of art (usually related to fictional feminist superhero Space Babe) and donates them to the auction. She's amazing, and doesn't get nearly enough credit for her tireless work in support of the award. (Though even she engaged in a little gratuitous conservative-bashing that I thought was kinda inappropriate; there really are Republicans who sometimes attend WisCon, and I don't feel like driving them out of the community is a good plan.)

Speaking of the award, the awards ceremony was fun as always, but primarily notable (to me) for Matt Ruff's charming acceptance speech. I remarked afterward that sf awards should be given only to people who appreciate them and are charming in their acceptances; of course I don't really mean that, but it sure does make me approve more of the award recipient when they meet those criteria.

Unfortunately, the award ceremony started an earworm buzzing through my head, and it's still there four days later. Ruff's book that won the award is called Set This House in Order; every time I hear or read that title, a 1950s gospel song, "Atom Bomb," starts running through my head:

You know now everybody's worried about that atom bomb;

Well, nobody seem to worry about the day my Lord shall come.

You better set your house in order 'cause he might be coming soon,

And he'll hit like an atom bomb when he come, when he come.

(If you want to hear the song, it's available on Talisman A Cappella's album After Silence, among other recordings.)

Another good thing was the food. I ended up going to a Laotian/Thai restaurant called Vientiane Palace three times over the course of the weekend, and took home leftovers twice, so they provided roughly five of my meals. Good thing their food was mighty tasty. Also very hot; if you go, and if you don't have a pretty high tolerance for heat (that's picante heat, not caliente heat), you should order either the Mild or the No Spicy option. Don't worry, No Spicy is plenty flavorful; just not hot. For calibration, note that Mary Anne almost never encounters food of any kind that's too hot for her, but the top end of this restaurant's heat range was almost too hot for her.

Let's see. I already mentioned the back rubs, but I didn't mention that I got a marriage proposal from one of the recipients. :) I noted that that would require more tickets than the back rubs. Since said recipient was rooming with the editor of the at-con newsletter, that exchange made it into the newsletter, much to my surprise and amusement. . . . Btw, y'all talk big, but none of the people who told me that they were coming to get a back rub from me at the Gathering actually did so. So for future reference, in most contexts if you sit down in front of me and present me with a back and a request (which almost nobody did outside of the Gathering), I'm happy to provide back rubs free of charge. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't also come to the Gathering to get back rubs; it's for a good cause.

On Sunday early afternoon, I finally had a free hour, so I wandered up to the childcare room. Karen M. had told me early in the weekend that the childcare people might need more adult volunteers to help out, and Susan G. and others had reminded me that it's not a good idea to treat WisCon as an event provided for the professionals by the fans; it's an egalitarian con, and the more attendees who volunteer to help out, the more smoothly it runs (and the less frazzled the people running it get). I used to volunteer at cons all the time; these days I tend to feel that I don't have time to do so, but underlying that feeling is a less-examined feeling that I don't have to volunteer, that I've paid my dues as a fan and now I'm a pro and above all that. I need to get over that idea.

Anyway, so with a certain amount of trepidation due to my lack of relevant experience and skills, Sunday morning I went up to the childcare room, and was told that they had plenty of adults at the time but expected it to get busy after lunch. So I came back at 1 p.m., and they said they still didn't actually need me and to come back in an hour. But I said I was busy in an hour, so they said sure, come on in. And I ended up spending an hour and a half playing Battleship with a seven-year-old, while I also attempted to interact with his four-year-old brother, who had a deck of Looney Tunes Go Fish cards. It was fun, and there were enough competent and presumably experienced-in-childcare adults in the room that I didn't feel like I was Solely Responsible For The Children's Well-Being or anything. And perhaps best of all for me, it gave me some downtime away from the con, where I could relax and not fret about things, where my most pressing worry was whether I should admonish the seven-year-old for cheating at Battleship or not.

I like kids, by and large, as long as I can give them back when we're done, and they often like me. I'm not really competent to be a Real Child-Care Provider, but maybe I'll make more of an effort to volunteer for this sort of thing again. (Maybe someday I'll even learn how to change diapers so I can be really useful; that'd be useful for babysitting friends' kids, too.) If not, though, I'll try to remember to volunteer for other things.

Sunday afternoon was the SH tea party, of course. My responsibilities this time around were limited; usually I spend a fair bit of time in the days leading up to the party helping Mary Anne make and put up posters, photocopy flyers, and buy and prepare food, not to mention sometimes trying to arrange for a space and for the hotel to provide tea and hot water. Plus setting up the site on my computer and setting up a wireless network so other laptops can view the site from my computer. But this time Karen secured the room and got the party on the official schedule (it's so cool that WisCon puts parties on the schedule!), plus ordering the tea and water and such from the hotel, and Susan and Matt dealt with the posters and flyers, and various people handled the food, and there was free wireless Internet access throughout the hotel (which, I should note, was totally cool and made me feel even fonder of the Madison Concourse than I already was based on the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff; yay Concourse!) so I didn't need to set up anything on my laptop. And the tea party was in function space rather than in M's and my room, so I didn't even have to clean up beforehand. So it was a lot more relaxing for me than usual. (Which probably means I should've done more to help with various aspects of setup and post-party cleanup; sorry about that, Susan and Karen.) Unfortunately, I didn't really talk much with anyone I didn't know; usually I try to meet people at the tea parties, both people who've submitted to us and people who've never heard of us before, but this time I did very little of that. But I did get to spend a little time playing with Pär and The Mighty Tot.

Toward the end of the party, Ben R. and I finally got a chance to continue the Singularity discussion we'd started several times at a party the night before; I'd been mildly frustrated by the Singularity panel (several of the participants seemed to me to be taking a kind of knee-jerk Luddite view, though I think Ben convinced me later that they weren't really, they were just taking a stance opposed to the knee-jerk technophile utopian view), and I'd felt more like discussing it than like listening to people discuss it, so it was great to get a chance to do so. Various other people joined in (mostly Mary Anne and Diana), and we had a lovely, far-ranging, high-energy, fast-paced discussion. Listening to Ben talk about this stuff is like reading a Charlie Stross story—the amazingly cool ideas go by almost too fast to keep up with. Ben, if you're reading this, I really hope that at some point you'll put some of this stuff in fiction—or at least in a nonfiction article; I bet there are plenty of publications that would be interested in such an article, including, I suspect (though I can't speak for the articles department), SH.

Sunday night there were parties 'n' stuff, but I ended up hanging out in a hotel room with a bunch of fabulously cool people. It was exactly what I'd been hoping for but missing the whole con; this weekend I was dealing even less well with parties than I usually do, and one reason I left the karaoke party Saturday night even though it was attended by many people I wanted to talk with was that it was too loud and distracting for me to be able to carry on any sort of conversation. (I'm very disappointed to have missed Greg v. E.'s machine impressions.) I think this is a theme of my convention attendance in recent years; I've often had a much better time hanging out in a relatively quiet place with one to ten people I know and like than at any other convention activity. It's hard to arrange that, 'cause people always have stuff they want to do, and 'cause there are way more cool people I want to hang out with than can fit in a hotel room, but when it happens I like it, even though I always worry that someone is wandering around looking for us and feeling left out. (I've certainly had my share of times when I've wandered around a hotel looking for friends and been unable to find anyone; I sometimes think in such situations that they've all gone off to have fun together and left me out. So I feel bad about leaving out others in this kind of context.)

I ended up staying up 'til 4 a.m. again Sunday night. Monday morning I groggily wandered downstairs (we were on the third floor, just one floor up from most of the convention activity, which was great; it meant I could easily run up to our room using the stairs, avoiding the slow slow slow Concourse elevators, at any time) to attend a reading. It was supposed to be Chris Rowe, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant, with possibly the best title ever for a reading: "The Link Between Bourbon and Scotch." Sadly, Gavin had lost his voice, but thanks to Ben's quick thinking, Jim Munroe stepped in to start things off by reading the first page and a half of his novel. Then Rowe read "Bourbon Queens" (which I liked even more hearing him read it than I had reading it myself) and an excerpt from his new novel (which was excellent, and he read it well). Then Kelly read most of a story called something like "Zombie Contingency Plans," which was if anything even better than the last time I heard her read one of her stories. Zowie.

I finished off my time at the con by being on one last panel. The panel description had made it sound like it would be the standard sex-and-gender-in-sf panel, and it was at 1:00 p.m. on the Monday at the end of the con, and there were only two of us panelists signed up for it; I figured only one or two audience members would show up, and we might decide to cancel the panel in favor of hanging out in the lobby saying goodbye to people. (I had, I confess, considered not showing up for it at all, but my sense of duty compelled me to go.) Well, the moderator didn't show up, but Aaron Lichtov (one of the people who'd suggested the panel in the first place) had added himself to the panel earlier in the weekend, and about thirty or forty people showed up to be an audience. So we had a panel, and even though we were a little disorganized and unfocused, it went surprisingly well. A good audience, and we the panelists had done enough talking about this stuff in other contexts that (by unspoken agreement) we skipped past the basics and got into some pretty good stuff. As usual for such panels, we talked more about gender and sex issues in the real world than in sf (frankly, I think the real-world spectrum of gender possibilities is more interesting and broader than most of what's available in sf), but we covered some sf too. Aaron noted that there are six areas/factors that tend to get conflated under the umbrella terms gender and sex:

  • biology
  • assigned sex
  • gender identity
  • gender expression
  • sexual identity
  • sexual practice

I was amused that we ended up spending about twenty minutes discussing real-world bathroom issues (sparked by Raphael Carter's Renaming the Bathrooms); I ended up noting that there aren't enough sf stories that explore such issues in sfnal contexts.

Curious George space watch, caseAt the end of the con, I pre-registered for next year, and this time I even made hotel room reservations a year in advance, something that had never occurred to me that one could do. Cool beans.

Curious George space watch, insideSo that's most of my WisCon. But there was one other cool thing, in fact one of the coolest things about the weekend: Karen gave me a present that she'd been meaning to give me for a while. See photos. It's also engraved on the back ("To Jed, Notorious Style Monkey"), but I couldn't get a photo of that to come out well.

I carried it around with me all weekend, and consulted it frequently, and handed it around to various people to be admired (which it was). I'm very pleased with it. Thanks, Karen!


This is unrelated but similar to your comment about the conservative attacking. One of the things that deeply troubles me about the (Quaker) Meeting that I've started attending here is that I feel it is deliberately exclusionary, and that this is directly opposite the nature of a Quaker Meeting. And I've talked with people at the meeting and outside about it, and they have very good answers, and yet it still bothers me to that point that even though I'll be living in the Beacon Hill Friends House, I'm going to at least try Cambridge Friends meeting to see if it's more to my liking.

I suppose one of the reasons it hurts me so much is not just that people are theoretically excluded but that *I* am excluded, despite being born and raised a Quaker.

So far as Wiscon was concerned, I did notice that just about *everyone* was attacking politics, but I didn't think of it as exclusionary (probably because I share similar beliefs) so much as preaching to the choir/beating a dead horse. I'd end up feeling this way at college too--it's not the sort of thing that would change anyone's mind, and it just starts getting annoying after a while. "Yes, Bush sucks. Yes, he really sucks. Could we find something else to talk about?"

But it wasn't beating a dead horse... because I'm a member of that 'evil other group', and I felt ostracized. I'm all for considerate discourse and I've had some wonderful and truly enlightening discussions with liberal, Democratic friends. I know it can be done. That's why I'm so disappointed this was not the level if dialogue at the convention. I was expecting more, frankly. :/

The religion panel was really particularly awful--and now, after Celia's comment, I fell compelled to mention the audience member who identified himself as a Quaker and went on to talk about how Quakers are trying to reclaim Christian theology from the putrid, festering, evil, corrupt, and did-we-mention-evil form it's taken in mainstream Christianity. And all I could think was, I've _never_ heard a Quaker speak so disrespectfully about someone else's faith.

I've got a whole set of theories about the problem (the WisCon panel problem in the context of a larger social problem), theories worked out mostly through long conversations with Matt (who gets even more worked up about the problem than I do), but the theories continue to not be succintly articulated. Something about there being so much anger on the part of both the liberals and the conservatives, so much anger that it's effectively broken the political discourse in this country. And so many other things get sucked in to the vortex of awful--the right has politicized religion and patriotism, for example, so people on the left have the same reaction to religious belief or affection for America that they have to conservative political positions. (I don't mean to say that the left hasn't politicized anything in a similar fashion, just that it's easier for me to see the examples this way--I'm sure there are similar examples on the other side.)

Whatever the causes, the very real (and very troubling) effect is that there's no room left for actual dialogue, no room for respecting other people's positions, and no room for moderate voices.

Thanks for voicing this concern, guys. Sometimes I wonder if I'm alone in get
ting people to talk about (and hopefully accept) their differences.

I didn't mean to say that I thought it wasn't bad with the beating the dead horse comment, sorry if it came through that way, but rather that I thought it was *really* bad if I shared the same beliefs, and still found it to be too much.

It annoys me because by and large, it's an area where nothing will be resolved--it's one of those topics where I'm not suddenly going to convert all the 'evil' people over to the 'good' side via a well-placed snide comment, or even a carefully planned arguement, and so I usually try and avoid conversations like that. I had a conservative friend in college who my roommate would get into *huge* long arguements with over the need for the military, for example, and neither of them were ever going to budge from their position, and I'd finally have to basically give them time outs and make all conversations about X off limits because it just upsets everyone and nothing changes. If someone is going are going to leave the 'evil' side, it's going to be something *they* decide, from the inside out, and thus I usually try to make my position known, and then leave it alone. I do get into bad discussions from time to time, but they always end up upseting me so much that I'm working on backing down and walking away before I get to that point.

(and hopefully that didn't end up sounding even worse than it did before I started explaining it.)

And Susan, oh my god thank heavens I decided the religion panel sounded too potentially scary. There is a very strong Christian based branch of Quakerism, and that's fine, I allow it to exist. ;) But I was raised in the most liberal of the yearly meetings in the US, I think, so the idea of excluding people who aren't Christian--either implicitly such as my current meeting's informational sheets which all use Christocentric wording, or explicitly in the case of him--just upsets me terribly.

Jed, I think you should propose a panel on this very topic for next year's Wiscon. That might be the best way to get a dialogue about dialogue going.

The religion panel was really particularly awful...

Y'know, I was doing some mocking of panel names/descriptions before the con, but it was the good-natured sort of mocking. Slightly tactless descriptions, typos in the grammar panel write-up, that sort of thing. But the descrip. of that religious panel...wowza. I thought about going just to point out that statements like "Organized religion is mightily implicated in forming/maintaining rape culture" probably weren't going to help create much of a dialogue, but it all just seemed too terrifying. Scary stuff.

(I always feel like I'm going to come off the wrong way when I say things like that, seem smug and self-congratulatory. 's not how I mean it at all. I'd hoped the panel wasn't how I thought it would be.)

So that's me seconding Alan's suggestion.

Oy. And I'd hoped to remember to mention that I'd wanted to chat with you, but never quite managed it. Next year at Monkeycon!

Yes, definitely next year at MonkeyCon.

When I saw the title of the religion panel I sniggered a bit but decided not to go simply because I thought it was either going to be a big fight or something like what is being described here. Panel description aside, the title alone was devisive and inflammatory.

Alan proposed exactly what I was going to propose. A panel on this would be a good start. Getting your take of things out into the open. There might be several people who attended who had no clue this was going on. i certainly didn't. but I was attending all the wrong panels.

Another thing might be to talk about this in the wiscon LJ community. or whatever bulletin boards wisconites gather on. Maybe the BU mailing list? I dunno. But I do think this is something that needs to be addressed.

I also agree with Celia about the whole "you're never going to change their minds so just don't start an argument" thing.

That's me chiming on the chorus of yes, this is a great idea for a panel and I'd definitely come to it.

I'm in. In fact, if we can all still remember this by programming-suggestion time next year, I'll volunteer to be on the panel and maybe even moderate it.

Ditto. I didn't go to the panel for the same reasons Tempest mentioned, not that I'm very religious at all, but it seemed extremely one-sided from the description.

And Jed, it was excellent meeting you, even if it was just out in the hall for two minutes. It would have been nice to talk more, but that's how it goes sometimes.

Thanks for all the comments!

Was pleased to meet you, too, Jason, and Janet too. And yes, would've been nice to talk more—and with you, too, Hannah! and all the rest of y'all as well. Never enough time. Definitely next year at MonkeyCon.

If I manage to fill in and return my WisCon 28 Survey form before the deadline, I'll suggest a panel about—oh, about constructive dialogue, and about inclusivity, and about not insulting/alienating members of the community. But I'm not really sure that a panel is the best way to address this stuff. I hear that there's already a discussion going on on the BU mailing list; I'm hoping that'll help too.

I already wrote on my form, in the suggest-panels-for-the-future blank, that I'd like to see a religion panel that doesn't set out to demonize religion; I'll add some further comments to that. I urge y'all to make your thoughts known as well; if you don't have a survey form, or already returned yours, I bet there's someone on the concom we could contact. Maybe we could even get a PDF version of the survey form that people could print out and return, dunno.

Jed, do you mind if I mention your post on the WisCon LJ community? The discussion on the BU list as refers specifically to WisCon has been, if I understand correctly, terminated.

Yup, feel free to link to this post from anywhere that seems relevant. Btw, I'm working on further remarks about the general issue, but not ready to post 'em yet; when I do, it'll be in a new entry rather than in this comment thread.

As W28 program chair, I am reading this avidly, and I would very much appreciate any emails sent my way with details about issues that people had, so that I can fix any problems for next year. I will keep any names named in confidence if you email them to me. (Please don't post names here.)

I'm only one person, and since I cleverly scheduled oodles of things to go to at any given time, this means that I missed both good stuff and problems, and I need people to tell me about it.

Betsy, I just want to say thank you, because it's awesome that you care enough to ask about this.

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