May 28th, 2008

Wiscon 32, Friday

Georgie and I drove into Madison about Friday noon. It had been a good day for driving and we were not inconvenienced by the minimal construction along our route. Our timing was very good, and we checked in with both the Con and the hotel with no waiting. We were pleased to have a corner room on the eighth floor, which made getting to and from the sixth floor very convenient.

We walked around the Gathering and schmoozed with friends at the OddCon Cow Tipping booth and others. With Georgie's encouragement, I joined the "Show us Your Tats" exhibition, and displayed my "Illuminati" tattoo*. I was pleased by the laughs I got for my explanation of it**.

The first panel we went to was "Not Enough Octopusses," ("Octopodes", as one of the panelists pedantically insisted--). This was one of the curious cases in which the person who proposed the panel didn't get put on it, although she was available (which may have been due to the apparent pre-con meltdown of the programming database--). The panelists, Mia Molvray, Doselle Young, Tom La Farge, and Ruthanna Emrys, put together an entertaining panel on "alien aliens," which was well worth while, but some of us would have liked to hear a bit more on the possibilities of octopodes as resident aliens, specifically. As a friend said, "the more we learn about them, the weirder and cooler they are." I did get a very useful question out of this panel which recurred in different form throughout the weekend. "Does you plot really REQUIRE an alien (elf, king, type of villain, etc.)?"

We went out to dinner at Kabul with friends Tim Kozinski and Judy Seidl, then headed back for Opening Ceremonies. Had a pleasant time chatting with Liz Henry (LJ badgerbag) and others before things started. Co-ordinators Carrie Ferguson and Betsy Lundsden opened with the obligatory acknowlegments of guests and staff, and the WisCon tradition of showing how many in the audience are panelists (many!) and how many are new (also many). There was a lengthy lists of announcements and adjurations, done, as others have noted, in a welcoming manner. Both Betsy and Carrie stayed on stage when it was taken over by the Carl Brandon Society for a "WisCon Filksing" which was quite funny. Kudos especially for ringleader Nisi Shawl and her back-up singers for "Filk Music Ain't Got No Soul."

We then went to the panel on "Elves and Dwarves: Racism in Fantasy." Vito Excalibur, Janine Young, Carol Hightshoe, Alma Alexander and Elise Matthesen lead a rambling and vigorous discussion touching on the origin of racial tropes in modern fantasy ("It's all Tolkien's fault," said one.); whether or not fantasy races "stand in" for varieties of humans necessarily, or not; and whether or not it is honest to define an entire race/species based on one or two characteristics. Although it was a generally good and entertaining panel, I was a bit put off by a couple remarks. After excoriating Tolkien for having predominantly tall blonde elves, one of the authors on the panel smugly (and apparently seriously) remarked that in HER books she had a 'sub-race' of elves that had dark hair--. Excuse me? A sub-race? Am I a different 'sub-race' of humans from blondes if I am dark-haired? I found this a rather egregious example of exactly the kind of Dungeons and Dragons based pseudo speciation that the panel was mostly against--.

Afterward, we took a very short tour through the sixth floor, chatted a bit, and went to bed fairly early. I was pleased by the snacks served at the Speculative Literature Foundation/Serendib Press/Carl Brandon Society/et al party, which included Indian sweets and tropical fruits, which were some of the most unusual of the convention. Our con was off to a very good start.

*Apologies to friends who might just be discovering here for the first time that I have a tattoo. I've always considered it a private matter and wouldn't have shown it off here if I hadn't been encouraged.

** The tattoo says, "Illuminati." I've always considered myself an Illuminatus. However, the Illuminati are a secret society, yes? So, an Illuminatus should not have a tattoo declaring that he is one. Therefore, what better way to deny you are an Illuminatus than by having a tattoo that says you are one? Plus, the design is really cool.

Wiscon 32, Saturday

We started off Saturday with a stroll to the Square and croissants from L'Etoil's ground-floor cafe operation. Mmm, apple filled or marzipan filled croissants, plus pain au chocolat, it's hard to find better. If you haven't tried them you've missed a treat--. On second thought, never you mind, the line's long already--.

Next, Georgie was on the panel, "Is Reading a Choice that Closes Other Doors?" which was a deliberately contrarian topic for a literary-heavy convention. There was a very lively yet courteous discussion, lead by the panel, Betsy James, Georgie Schnobrich, Connie Toebe, Sue Blom and Beth Plutchak. A number of valid points were raised, including that reading takes up time that could be spent learning other skills, or interacting socially. Reading tends to drive out the oral tradition, and reliance on printed matter as a source of authority may supplant existing history, culture, and even language. I.e., if it is in a book, it must be important. Something that only old women know is therefore not important--. The panel was very well received, and I heard a considerable amount of interested discussion continuing as the audience left at the end.

It was then that our happy time was interrupted, as friends found us with the bad news that a close friend from Milwaukee had died that morning. We managed to pull ourselves together with a walk through the Art Show, and consoled ourselves with excellent sweets from the Tiptree Bake Sale. We agreed that Animal would want the "show" to go on, so we put the best face on it we could and soldiered on. Admittedly, WisCon is so absorbing, it is easy to forget your troubles while you are there.

The next panel we went to was "Curious Boundaries of YA Fantasy," a very interesting and informative panel, featuring Mary Anne Mohanraj, Tamora Pierce, Alma Alexander, Sarah Beth Durst, and Sharyn November. The panelists fearlessly discussed the considerations of writing and publishing "Young Adult" fiction (and its subcategories) and how much sex, death, and violence they felt fit in. Excellent discussion with an involved and interested audience.

During the next time slot, we walked around the dealer's room and talked with the many friends we found there. Due to budget constraints we couldn't afford much, but made many notes for the future.

The panel on "What Can't We Forgive?" was pretty much pure fun, as panelists Steve Schwartz, Susan Palwick, Judith Moffet, Ian Hagemann, and Vylar Kaftan lead the audience in hauling out and stomping on various author's literary offenses, which ranged surprisingly far beyond the usual suspects of Card and Heinlein. This, however, was the second time I encountered casual references to "Tolkien's racism" taken as a given, which disturbs me, but I will have to do more research before putting up a challenge. It seems to me that a "black orc" is no more referential to Africans than a black dragon is, and that a brief reference to offstage "swarthy Southrons" does not necessarily a racist make. However, it's been a long while since last I reread "Lord of the Rings," and I may be remembering it through "rose-colored" glasses--.

Saturday dinner was our annual excursion to L'Etoile with our friend Maureen Kincaid Speller, and an excellent meal was had accompanied by excellent conversation. L'Etoile's new management since the retirement of Odessa Piper seems to have driven even further into the doctrine of local, sustainable cuisine, to the extent that, looking at the previous weeks' menu which had still been posted outside that morning, it was going to be debatable if we could find an entree we could eat as is, since almost everything seemed to contain asparagus (which neither of us like), cheese (which Georgie is allergic to), or morels (which I am allergic to). Fortunately, the updated menu contained a chicken entree, which both Maureen and I had and found delicious, and Georgie's choice of halibut was succulent as well. For desserts, Maureen went back to the Artisanal Cheese Selection, and Georgie and I had the Sticky Toffee Pudding.

On the way out we stopped to say hi to Debbie Notkin's party, who were there as usual. Delia Sherman confided to us that she and Ellen had also eaten there the night before. I was impressed, and Delia agreed with me that that was "hard core."

After dinner, we looked into the Tiptree Auction briefly, just in time to see Ellen Klages get abducted by "The Spider Women of Queso Grande." I thought Ellen was capable of putting up a better fight, but it must have been something about the Cheesehead hat the wicked women forced on her head that sapped her strength and allowed them to drag her away--.

At 10:30PM, Georgie had "Making 'War' on 'War' Part 2" which was intended to be a continuation of the very successful and interesting panel last year, on trying to replace war language as America's dominant metaphor. Audience attendance was disappointing, which may well have been due to the mislabeling of the time slot in the pocket program grid and the doorside rosters. (See reference to programming database meltdown above; the Pocket Program was labeled as "built from duct tape and coded on a hamster-powered Difference Engine.") Georgie Schnobrich as moderator worked hard to keep the energy level up, and Shweta Narayan provided a very useful matrix showing linguistic breakdown of connotation in war language (showing, for example, why it is propagandically preferable to have a "war on" something instead of a "war with" something). Sylvia Kelso provided some contrarian analysis, but possibly the best idea of the panel came from Ian Hagemann, with an economic "scarcity" examination of war goals which I think should be rigorously applied to all appeals to go to 'war' of any sort. A very good, thoughtful panel, and a pity more people did not get to it.

A quick pass through the parties and then to bed, as we had a big day scheduled for Sunday.

Wiscon 32, Sunday

We slept in a bit Sunday morning, so I missed the "Pullman/Lewis Smackdown," which I would have liked to have seen, and which was by other's accounts quite good. Instead, we had a leisurely start and Georgie had time to prepare for her panel on "Why Return A King (or Queen)?" The panel, with Georgie as moderator, included Chris Hill, Tamora Pierce, Sarah Monette, and P.C. Hodgell, playing to a large and enthusiastic audience. The panel ranged over topics from 'bread and butter' arguments, such as that if you write stories set in medieval Europe, kings are the default government; to the "ideals" of kingship, in which "God's anoited" is the just ruler who is above politics; plus side excursions into other mythic kings such as the Fisher King and the Summer King/Winter King ideas.

After the panel, we went out for a quick lunch with David Bratman. After fighting the clouds of dust the winds were whipping up from the State Street construction zone, we were a bit dismayed to find that our goal, Mediterranean Cafe, was closed Sundays. We fell back on Potbelly's Deli, which provided us with quite good hot sandwiches.

Back at the hotel, we made rendesvous plans with co-conspirators Tracy Benton and Bill Bodden, and sallyed forth for the great Fancy Dress Party Grocery Shopping Expedition, which occupied the early part of the afternoon.

We got back in plenty of time for my panel, "On the Lifespan of Genres," moderated by Benjamin Rosenbaum. Joining me on the panel were Eleanor Arnason, Helen Keeble, and Steve Silver, filling in for absent Darja Malcolm-Clarke. The panelists were generally dismissive of John Barnes' premise, set forth in his "Helix" column, that genres have an inherent lifespan of about seventy years, after which they are "undead," but for different reasons. Eleanor provided some formal definitions of "genre" which sparked discussion as to whether the term was being used incorrectly, and if so, how. Steve Silver put his encyclopedic knowlege of SF publishing history and dates to good use, showing that Barnes' definition of SF as a genre having a starting point of 1927 (the "Amazing" era) was arguable at best. I showed how the resticted lifespan arguement was invalid when applied to any other genre, such as the Western story, let alone major art forms such as opera and the symphony. We had a good audience and a lot of participation, and I was very pleased with the panel.

After that, Bill and I went out to fetch the half-barrel of Capital Amber beer I had on reserve, and the party setup began in earnest.

This year's theme was "Fantastic Academe," and we had encouraged people to attend as graduates or faculty of schools they had, or would like to have had, attended. Georgie decorated the walls with school crests: Hogwarts, Miskatonic, Transylvania Polygnostic (from the "Girl Genius" comic), Pratchett's "Unseen University," and "Saganami Island," the space academy of the Honor Harrington universe.

The food theme was "Classic Wisconsin Graduation Party," honoring Maureen Kincaid Speller's matriculation from the University of Kent. Total surprise was obtained when Maureen first saw her smiling visage adorning the cake, and she was thrilled with the glitzy gown Tracy had made for her. If there was cake, there had to be ice cream, and there was. There was also the aforementioned bheer, cranberry-orange punch (popular recipe available on Tracy's journal "replyhazy"), cheese and sausage (natch), "taco dip" and chips, and cocktail franks in barbecue sauce.

Of course we costumed, and Tracy and Bill were quite spectacular in coordinating emebellished lab coats as members of the Transylvania Polygnostic faculty. Georgie was very 19th century elegant as "Headmistress of the Ladies' Academy of Grace Adieu." I had had Tracy make me a set of current doctoral regalia in my persona as "Sagramor the Sagacious," a long-lived sorceror who started his academic career at Oxford in 1208 and has collected schools and degrees up to Wisconsin 1979 (my own real class). We had some other good costumes show up, and were pleased to the extent other people dressed up for the evening even if not costuming.

The party went very well and we were pleased by it. Food and punch held out well. I had thought we had over bought the beer a bit, but got a last rush of thirsty fans after midnight; turns out there had been some very popular Dr. Who and "Galactica" panels that ran very late, and by the time the attendees got up to the sixth floor, other rooms were either out of beer or closed up for the night. When word went out that we had plenty of beer left, we were instantly popular! Things finally ran down shortly before two AM when we gave "last call" to the ten or so people left and closed up, at which time we may have been the last party open, even the con suite having closed due to the con contagion having taken a toll on their volunteers.

Wiscon 32, Monday

After putting the party to bed, *BOTH* Georgie and I had 8:30AM Monday panels. Groan!

Mine was, "How Much Is Too Much?" I was on with moderator Sarah Monette, Catherynne Valente, and Elissa Malcohn, and we had a surprisingly good audience for that day and hour. Sarah brought in a pre-sliced raspberry Kringle (a Danish-Wisconsin pastry) as a "reward" for those who showed up.

The panel was mostly in agreement that mentioning evil-isms isn your work is not an endorsment. Typically, they are there as a plot obstacle to be over come, or to provide background expanation for the milieu the work is written in. There was a good discussion on the integrity of art in this context, the writing of real live yet not too-seductive villains, and other related topics with enthusiastic audience participation.

Georgie's panel was "Embarrassing Foremothers!" which looked at the down-sides of some proto-feminists. The panel was Georgie and Karen Moore due to the absence of a third panelist, but, as usual at WisCon, the audience filled in, and to Georgie's list of Les Preciuses, Carrie Nation, and Margaret Sanger, added women such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who was not only a suffragette, but a bona fide bomb-thrower as well. She reported that it was an interesting and fun discussion.

Our duties done, we spent the rest of the morning clearing out our room, registering for next year's WisCon (33!), saying good-bye, and standing in line to make hotel reservations for next time. On the way out of town I dropped of the beer barrel and collected my deposit, finishing the con business.

We had a good drive back home, and got mostly unpacked before going out to our traditional post-con dinner, burgers and custard at Kopp's. Then home and soon to bed, another successful WisCon in the can.

Next year's GoH's have been announced as Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman. Talk about a dynamic duo--.