Thursday, June 15, 2017

WisCon 41: a sketchy report, with randomly placed photos

Aqueduct's editors and business manager

So Aqueduct went to WisCon again this year. Kath drove one car loaded with books, Tom and I another, and Arrate flew in, across the Atlantic, and we re-uned joyfully in Madison. Kath and Arrate arrived in time for the reception and reading at Room of One’s Own on Thursday evening, but Tom and I, having caught a few bad breaks, arrived later than planned, making it to Room only as things were winding down. 
Aqueduct in the Dealers Room

I spent the con as I usually do—talking with friends and acquaintances, attending panels and readings, making periodic appearances at Aqueduct’s table. I also participated in a panel and gave a reading. But one of the first things I did after the Dealers Room officially opened was to make a beeline for Dreamhaven’s table, where I hoped to find the first volume of Samuel R Delany’s journals, recently released in a handsome hard-bound edition by Wesleyan University Press. And yes, they had it! It’s a book of considerable heft, which is both good and bad. Good for obvious reasons, bad because it means I can’t read it in the bathtub. (Of course, if I had a tray to span the width of the tub, as I once did, and a book holder to go with it…)
Mary Anne Mohanraj, reading

On Friday afternoon I attended two panels. The first, Embracing Socialism, was offered by Mary Anne Mohanraj, Ian K. Hagemann, and Julia Schroeder (M). Julia said she only started thinking of herself as socialist during the 2008 election when Obama was frequently labeled a socialist by the right. (Which raises an interesting point about the work labels can sometimes do, don’t you think?) Ian identified himself as a longtime activist. His “socialism,” he said, was a result of years of watching Star Trek. Mary Anne noted that though she’d been an activist for years, she had not considered herself a socialist. But when she ran for the library board (which she did in the wake the 2016 general election), she was required to define her position on a range of issues, and soon she realized that economic issues are central to public library policies and politics.

Ian said that when talking about socialism, we need to remember what socialism actually is. Highways are socialized. (If they weren’t, everyone using them would constantly be having to paying tolls.) Parks are socialized. (Which made me think of how scarce public parks were when I lived in New Orleans, compared with the life-enhancing abundance of them in Seattle.) Police are socialized—“though badly.” (Which made me think of the constant scandal that is the Chicago Police Department—and then of how the notion that the police are there to “protect and serve” entire communities was new to me when I first encountered it in my high school civics class, since no one in my family ever called on the police for help because in their view, the only actually helpful things police ever did was to direct traffic during power outages and civil emergencies, or after a heavily attended event let out.) But we don’t have socialized health and human services (which is why most people living in the US are one serious illness away from bankruptcy). The Public school system is socialized—the “reason,” perhaps, that current Secretary of Education appears to be doing her utmost to destroy it. We need, Ian said, to articulate what is good about the socialized services we do have and then see where the argument breaks down for socialized health and social services.
An Aqueduct reading

Mary Anne noted that some cities have lovely libraries while others do not. Implementation of public library services is extremely variable—as with public schools and state colleges. She cited Roland Barthes on why the right is so much better at attractively mis-naming policies etc than is the left. And then she said “I think we have to talk about Bernie Sanders. He moved the Overton Window. (And Occupy Wall Street prepared us for Sanders, paving the way for ‘changing the conversation.’)” She suggested that this was the most valuable aspect of Sanders’ campaign. Ian then observed that the in the US the 1950s were “a cauldron for social and political change” because of the high income and capital gains taxes then in effect. People in the 1950s generally accepted the notion that costs and benefits of essential services are shared and collective, not individual. 
Nancy Jane Moore, reading

At which point, Julia asked the panelists to define neoliberalism. Ian said that he defined it as evil (eliciting gleeful responses from the audience). Audience members then offered some help, culminating in Dan Dexter’s assertion that neoliberalism rests on the total acceptance of capitalism’s ruling every sphere of life with mitigation of its worst effects “where possible,” such that some people can have clean water, decent health care, education, etc., while many, obviously cannot. An audience member recommended Gangs in America, which is about corporations. Another recommended the documentary The Healing of America by T.R. Reid. Another audience member, discussing Reid’s work, said that it considered three forms of socialized healthcare currently in existence—the single-payer model; the affordable healthcare model; and the taking-profitability-out-of-healthcare model. I’ll skip over most of the rest of the discussion, except for four comments particularly struck me: (1) from an audience member: Bernie put a face on democratic socialism—we need to define socialism as democratic socialism rather than totalitarian socialism; (2) Ian: Most people don’t know people who are hungry unless they’re one of them; to win the socialist argument, people need to understand statistics, since they have no other way to see what the facts and problems actually are; and (3) from an audience member: The left doesn’t do an abridged version of leftist values and politics; we need to develop abridged versions, reframed for popular consumption; and finally: someone noted that it should be pointed out, when discussing the merits of capitalism vs socialism, that capitalism has been proven to be a dismal, potentially catastrophic failure for serving human needs in the twenty-first century.
Lesley Hall, reading

Immediately after “Embracing Socialism,” I attended 10,000 Feminisms, 10,000 Feminist SFs. This panel was moderated by Julia Day, with Jackie Gross (aka LadyJax) and Lauren Lacey as panelists. This panel was of particular interest me as a publisher of feminist sf. From the beginning, I’ve been aware of the looseness of the term and the broad spectrum of works that can be so classified—and that was at a time (2004) when a lot of people believed feminist sf was over, years before we began to see certain sectors of the mainstream claiming feminism for their own purposes. Rather than discussing this aspect of the subject, though, the panelists focused on recommending a rich array of different kinds of feminist sf works. Julia began by asking the panelists to talk about both the best and the worst titles of feminist sf they’d encountered. Lauren’s reply focused on a work she particularly disliked, viz Sheri Tepper’s Beauty. Feminist sf needs to ask, she said, what stories do we keep? Which do we remake? What do we throw out? Beauty reinscribes the power roles as traditionally told without attemption to reinvigorate the fairy tale. Jackie Gross recalled Daughters of the Coral Dawn as a poorly written work by an author, Katherine V. Forrest, who wrote a work she loved: “Dreams and Swords.” I was delighted that Jackie spoke often about the importance of the small press for feminist sf in the 70s and 80s, mentioning Naiad Press, Daughters, Crossing Press’s anthologies (to which I myself contributed a couple of stories), Firebrand Books—and since I was seated in the audience, under no pressure at all to remember, I mentally added several more to the list; and Jackie also spoke often, throughout the panel, about the importance, pre-internet, of feminist bookstores in making small-press feminist sf accessible (summoning up memories of my visits to feminist bookstores in cities I was merely passing through, each time snatching up books that would otherwise simply be known to me later by reputation, so hard would they soon be to find).

The panelists also discussed feminist narratives that are neither utopian nor dystopian, and Jackie observed that the entry point for each reader is crucial. She suggested that the dystopias we have now tend to use the dystopian form as a background to clichéd narratives rather than as an examination of the structures and conditions themselves. She also commented on the difference between reading The Handmaid’s Tale at the time it first appeared (1983) and now. In a recent re-reading, she said, she asked what happened had to the people of color who aren’t there. Jackie also talked about finding feminist sf in unexpected places, for instances in a Steve Barnes work in which a guy on the run encounters Motherland. When an audience member asked about new feminist sf, the panel launched into a series of book (and publisher) recs. My last note on the panel is a remark that Jackie spoke a great deal about the need to go outside the mainstream press to find the feminist narratives we need. Everyone who reads this blog will not be surprised to read that to that I uttered a silent Amen.
Therese Pieczynski, reading

My panel notes from then on became a great deal sparser, until finally I stopped taking them at all. The panel “Fandom and Fascism,” featuring Alexis Lothian, Julia Schroeder, and Megan Condis (M) met in a room with too few chairs to accommodate everyone attending. Megan began by noting that when Trump started to interact with (and retweet) gamergaters, she was shocked into realizing that it is necessary to pay attention to questions about what right-wingers are getting out of associating with gamers, who have largely been non-respectable. She said she then came to see that Trump et al are using gamergaters as a means of shedding their old-fashioned images and dressing up racism, sexism etc as cool and hip. Alexis: There’s no laying a claim that gamers are an “oppressed minority” (as some have liked to see themselves)—the language of social justice is being appropriated and adapted to their purposes. “Fascism has always had a fandom,” she noted, and cited the example of Britain in the 1930s. And: The pleasures to be found in fascism [in cosplay etc) are often enjoyed by people who identify themselves as anti-fascist.  Julia: The word “Nazi” is no longer taken seriously in the media. (After which followed a discussion of some of the many ways “nazi” gets slung around, diluting its power as a designation.) Megan: The (HBO/HULU) Handmaid’s Tale is both horrifying and banal. The villains look like ordinary Americans. Julia: The humanization of the other [I think she meant of villains in narratives] is taken to the extreme—we have to make the bad guys real persons—but certain levels of evil shouldn’t be empathized with. Alexis: We need to look at who it is who gets humanized by fandom. [Which concurs with my thought, about how the usual stereotyped “others” so often figure as one-dimensional “bad guys” in the mainstream, and how it’s only when the villain is a straight white male do most narratives bother to humanize them.] An audience member, Wendy Rose, asked: “Is it a trend that oppressors are given understanding and sympathy rather than intolerance?” My notes on Alexis’s response here are not quite legible, except for this “…as if oppressions are all equivalent and work the same way.” Julia: The media take the attitude that every opinion is valuable and acceptable. You can see this in the Harry Potter and Star Wars fandoms: niceness at all costs. Ocala Wings from the audience: We have a fandom of patriotism and a fandom of Trump—the media has been publishing his every tweet. From the audience: What does it mean for fandom that its narratives/characters are so protean that fans who are alt-right see one thing while fans who are leftist see something entirely different? Alexis: She’s struck by the desire to detach Nazis and other fascist iconography from Nazism and fascism—generating meaning shifts—and the desire to separate iconography from politics and its history. “Fandom,” she suggested, “has the capacity for erotic engagement with fucked-up things.” My last note goes to an audience member’s comment: The alt-right treats power structures as interchangeable.

Kiini Ibura Salaam, reading, with Andrea Hairston

Those were the panels I attended on Friday. I attended several more on Saturday and Sunday, but took few notes. The “Sort of” panel, moderated by Susan Ramirez with Lee Blauerstein, W.L. Bolm, Nicole Fadellin, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and Nisi Shawl offered much to think about; Kiini’s “Identity is a created box with boundaries that people kill to preserve” and Nisi’s “Becoming/being “sort of” comes from the outside” demanded to be quoted in my notes. “Borders, Boundaries, and Liminal Spaces” with Julia Starkey moderating, featuring Julia Rios, Isabel Schecter, and Anna-Marie McLemore [subbing for Amal El-Mohtar], and the Speculative Fiction in Translation panel with Rachel Cordasco, Sue Burke, and our own Arrate, at which Rachel provided an amazing list of work in translation published in the last year—and which sent me to Small Beer Press’s table to purchase a new Angelica Gorodischer title in translation. During the “Border, Boundaries, and Liminal Spaces” panel, Julia Starkey clued us in on Amal’s experience traveling from Toronto to the US to be a GoH at this very WisCon—of being detained on Canadian soil by the US Border Patrol, a degrading experience, that she said Amal had noted would have been a great deal worse had her skin been as dark, say, as her brother’s. Oh, I almost forgot! On Saturday evening, I attended a jam-packed panel that attracted too many attendees to fit into the room—titled “The Myth of the Career,” discussing the doom of the gig economy, featuring Richard Dutcher, B.C. Holmes, Victor Raymond, Jessie Sarber, and moderator Rachel Kronick. This panel evoked heavy, intense audience participation and could easily have gone on for hours. It could have been subtitled “Neoliberalism bites.” 
An Aqueduct reading
Eleanor Arnason, reading

And finally, the readings: Aqueduct’s two official readings, as another offered by more Aqueductistas. On Saturday afternoon  Kiini Ibura Salaam, Andrea Hairston, Pan Morigan, and Sheree Renee Thomas gave beautiful, powerful readings.

Andrea Hairston, reading
Andrea Hairston, Pan Morigan, & Sheree Renee Thomas
And on Sunday, two Aqueduct readings took place back-to-back, with Cynthia Ward, Beth Plutchak, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and myself featured in the first session and Eleanor Arnason, Lesley Hall, Nancy Jane Moore, and Therese Pieczynski in the second. A good time, I promise you, was had by all. 
Beth Plutchak
Cynthia Ward, reading

I could report much, much more, but this post already feels far too long. Please do also check out Aqueductista Claire Light’s  At the World’s Preeminent Feminist Speculative Fiction Convention. Because, yes, everyone’s WisCon is different. 

L. Timmel Duchamp, talking



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