Wednesday, June 10, 2009

WisCon 33 Report-- Day 1

I'd hoped to be able to write a series of WisCon reports during the con this year, but though I began writing up a report on Friday while sipping a latte and munching a cheese Danish in Michelangelos early Saturday morning, I didn't get far before Tom hauled me away, to get on with the day. The next chance I had to open my laptop was Monday afternoon, and by then I was too exhausted to do more than download my email. Later that evening, on the plane, it was all I could do to start making a list of the zillion things I needed to accomplish before leaving on my next trip (to Sycamore Hill). So although I haven't been very good about blogging and haven't quite worked my way completely through that list yet, I've crossed off an impressive number of items and now think there's a good chance that I'll get most of them (though not I'm afraid all) done by Friday.

This year, for me, WisCon afforded the usual pleasures of allowing me to renew contacts, providing continual brief bursts of intense close encounters, and a lot of feminist stimulation, but also the frustration of seeing people friends and acquaintance only in passing in the hall (or elevator) and never quite managing to connect. If I remember correctly, last year's intruder denigrated WisCon as a "hug fest." So what's to ridicule? I wonder, thinking about how good those hugs actually felt. As has become the case since starting Aqueduct, some of the time I spent attending or participating in programming, some of the time doing Aqueduct business, and a lot of time in conversation. I did manage to make some new acquaintances this year, which matters to me. I have less time because of Aqueduct in actively pursuing them, though, which is not so good. I regret that there were quite a few people I'd have liked to spent time with who found me already occupied. (I haven't quite figured out how to manage my time at WisCon better.) And also? For all the riches of the reunions I did enjoy, I did miss several people who didn't make it to WisCon this year. But of course not everybody can attend WisCon every year (especially in years like this one).

So, to Friday. Day 1 of WisCon, Friday was fairly chaotic. I spent part of the day helping set up our tables in the Dealers Room and trying to run some specific errands, but every time I ventured out of the Dealers Room, even to use the rest room, it would usually take me at least twenty minutes to return because I just couldn't not talk to people I hadn't seen for an entire year. Similarly, at our table, I tried to be helpful to Kath and Tom, but because people were continually stopping to talk to me, I didn't really pull my weight as a team member. (WisCon, as Kathy Nash remarked to me, is like a huge family reunion.) But there was something wonderful about setting up, even so. When Kath and I clustered Aqueduct's Tiptree winner & Honor List books together at one end of the table, with appropriate gold and silver stickers on them, just seeing them in association tickled me pink. Not long after that, as the display of books on our tables took its final shape, I had one of those odd moments, of suddenly seeing our books-- all 42 of them-- and thinking Holy Shit! Did we really produce that many books in just five years? We're the Real Deal!

I did manage to attend two programming items on Friday: a panel at four and Andrea Hairston's paper at nine. The panel at four, titled "We Do the Work" featured Fred Schepartz (moderator), Eleanor Arnason, Chris Hill, Diana Sherman, and Mike Lowrey. In his opening statement, Fred announced that the panel was going to avoid discussing definitions, since the reason most panels on class at WisCon fail have usually failed is because they typically get bogged down in arguing definitions. The focus, he said, will be narrow-- specifically on the lack of portrayals of working class characters in science fiction and fantasy. He then asked panelists to characterize the status quo of working class characters in sf.

Eleanor: Chunks of society as we know it now tend not to be represented.
Diana: Blue-collar labor is repetitive and unexciting. Working class life is conceived of as a trap to be escaped.
Chris: The story about class in sf is usually about escape or the failure to escape (from working class existence).
Mike: One of the few working class occupations to appear is soldiering (a grunt can sometimes have the opportunity to break out.) Also: there's a bias against collective action.
Fred: Class is a taboo subject in the US

Q: Why are there so few working-class characters?
A. Authors feel audience wants escapism, and working-class characters aren't conducive to escapist pleasure.
Mike: Its difficult depicting labor struggles-- it's easier to focus on leaders rather than on the collective.

Fred: Will there be a working class in the future?
Mike: Who built the Death Star?
Andrea Hairston (from the audience): Robots
Mike: Who built the robots?
Andrea: Robots

Chris: Why is there an absence of blue-collar work in most sf narratives of the future? Because a wonderful future then looks delightful, since it doesn't show all the dirty boring tedious work, which if seen straight on, would spoil the delight.
Diana: Such top-down world-building creates thin narratives. World-building from the bottom up will create a richer, more foreign-feeling place than top-down created world.
Fred: How do we get writers to write working-class characters and get publishers to publish them?

At the end of the panel, panelists suggested authors and novels that do a good job depicting working-class characters, including several of Melissa Scott's novels and Rebecca Ore's Slow Funeral and her Becoming Alien series.

The panelists had much more to say than I jotted down. (I recorded it, so I might eventually have a verbatim transcript of it to offer.) At one point during the discussion, Andrea and I had a brief whispered exchange about how working-class people and characters are less visible as such if they are female or non-white. Waitresses, secretaries, housecleaners are often not perceived as "working class." I thought this panel was unusually successful, but for me it would have been even more interesting if race and gender had been more fully incorporated into the discussion. In retrospect, I think also it might have been interesting if this panel had directly followed Andrea's paper. Of course the audience for both programming items wasn't identical, but it would have been really interesting to follow up some of the insights in Andrea's paper in the discussion of "We Do the Work."

After "We Do the Work," I returned briefly to the Dealers room to check on Tom and Kath, then ran off to have dinner with Liz H. (Much exciting Aqueduct talk, plus feminist stimulation, all quite wonderful.) When I got back, I collected Tom and at about five to nine swept him off to Conference 3. There Andrea Hairston presented a bona fide academic paper, but because she is a superb performer, she delivered it with great drama and verve, as if she were telling a fabulous, spellbinding tale (which she was!), wowing everyone present, even those suspicious of all things academic. (Andrea, when an audience member expressed pity at her being an academic, unapologetically declared she was glad to be an academic.)Her paper was titled "Romance of the Robot: From R.U.R. & Metropolis to Wall-E. She opened by declaring that fictions about robots address the "primal problem of distributing wealth." Stories about robots have forcefully challenged the dehumanization of the worker. She gave a wonderful overview of Karel Kapek's play R.U.R., which was extremely popular" following its 1921 premiere in Prague and was translated into English almost immediately and premiered in NYC in 1922. R.U.R. helped inspire Fritz Lang and Thea Harbou's Metropolis. Helena, in R.U.R., Andrea said, is a fabulous, unforgettable character.

And so to Wall-E, a Chaplin clown-figure. "Wall-E's gender is very much in the eye of the beholder," Andrea startled me by declaring. She then quoted Kate Bornstein's review, which reads Wall-E as a dyke who falls in love with Eve. Eve may be "the round one with the feminine acronym," but she fires off deadly missiles on cue and at first seems oblivious to the gentle Wall-E, who spots a plant growing in the middle of a dumpsite of humanity's non-biodegradable debris, which it is Wall-E's job to compact and tidy up. I'm afraid that at this point I became so caught up in Andrea's performance, so carried away by the tale she was telling, that I stopped taking notes, except at one point to scribble "Realist narrative takes the fantastic as an alternate world." Which reminds me that Andrea discussed how the fantastic can serve realist narrative ends through creating an alternate world that reveals the otherwise unseen, unaddressed social relations and reality of the everyday world we live in.

Because her co-presenter, Rosalyn Berne, did not appear, after she delivered the paper Andrea spent the extra time remaining in conversation with the audience, in a discussion that included talk about the uses of "anti-realism" in the theatre, how Bertold Brecht, though a "brilliant organizer," had appropriated the plays of his lovers, women he treated abominably, about Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, about Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed.

I apologize for offering such a disjointed set of points that doesn't begin to convey the powerful sense the paper made to me. I hope to get to read the paper soon. (Aqueduct will eventually be publishing a collection of Andrea's essays; I'm assuming this will be one of them. I'm also hoping it might find its way into the next volume of the WisCon Chronicles...)

After the time allotted to the slot had expired, Tom and I went up to the sixth floor and spent some time in conversation with Nisi S., Eileen G, and John B.-- as well as with Lynne T., an archivist from Northern Illinois University who is interested in acquiring the papers of writers like Nisi and me. (I had visions of clearing out the many boxes of mss of the Marq'ssan Cycle dating from the 1980s, including the first version of Reneagde, which I substantially rewrote a few months after first drafting it... I've managed to resist throwing them out several times, but mainly because they're stored in cupboards in the attic that we never open.)

And finally, we fled the sixth floor and went up to bed, where Tom immediately fell asleep while I read about ten pages of C.J. Cherryh's Regenesis, to try to rid my head of the buzz that naturally resulted from hours of feminist stimulation. And after a bit, I did actually manage to sleep.

ETA: Josh has sent me links to two more posts on the excellent "We Do the Work Panel": Badgerbag's is here, and Mary Read the Pirate Queen's is here.


Foxessa said...

Thanks for these reports.

I always look forward to new posts on this site.

I hope you all don't feel insulted or that I intend anything negative by saying how much this site's civilized discourse is appreciated.

Love, C.

Timmi Duchamp said...

You're welcome!