Opening up the thin yellow paperback I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard of WisCon before (an annual SF convention held in Madison, Wisconsin, for you other un-enlightened souls), but the fact that the con is strongly associated with feminism and multiculturalism had somehow gone in one ear and out the other. (Perhaps I've been spending too much time in my own private Middle Earth of late.) I've never attended a WisCon, but having read the essays, presentation transcripts, and Guest of Honor speeches compiled in The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 2: Provocative essays on feminism, race, revolution and the future, I think a trip to Madison will soon be in order.
Edited by writers L. Timmel Duchamp (The Marq'ssan Cycle) and Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies and Others), The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 2 (hereafter referred to as WCC2 for the sake of brevity) is a discussion of some of the issues which were discussed during and after the 2007 WisCon (number 31). It was, by all accounts, a memorable gathering: Kelly Link of Magic for Beginners fame and YA author Laurie Marks (the Elemental Logic series) were the guests of honor. A panel entitled "Romance of the Revolution," designed to discuss the concept of the Revolution in science fiction writing, turned explosive when panelists seemingly dismissed a number of historical revolutions involving people of color. Somewhere between these two extremes the works collected in WCC2 remind science fiction fans of why a genre largely concerned with space aliens and distant planets offers such a compelling view into our own little blue sphere.
Any sf fan who has ever gone up against academia knows that the genre of Asimov and Bradbury is often dismissed as fluff by minds who favor more Joycean ramblings. Reading the essays assembled by Duchamp and Gunn, I was reminded of the absurdity of this stance. There's no fluff here—only a series of impassioned and intellectually sophisticated observations of human nature and a slowly imploding society.
"I am less inclined to accept ignorance as an excuse for racism, no matter how well intentioned. Because racism is institutionalized, people must make an effort to combat it and that includes recognizing areas of ignorance and working to erase those areas."
—K. Joyce Tsai, from "On the "Romance of the Revolution" Panel at Wiscon 31 (p. 68)
"Though wizened grownups may accept the Churchillian aphorism that our system is the worst one except for the known alternatives, why shouldn't we keep striving towards undiscovered improvements in the collective happiness? Perhaps not so much radical political change, as a regime change of our collective consciousness? When you learn that your mind dedicates an individual neuron to the recognition of each celebrity, you can't help but want to wipe some of it clean."
—Chris Nakashima Brown, from "Science Fiction in the Year Zero" (p. 83)
"As for the insidious operations of institutionalized racism in panel discourse ... one voice (or even two) will not necessarily suffice to make the whites on the panel drop the View From Nowhere. Still, I think it's worth wondering whether Paul would have lectured about India in that particular way if an Indian woman had been a panelist, or if Chris would have lobbed his Pol-Pot grenade into the audience if a Cambodian or Cambodian-American woman had been seated beside him. Consciousness is the most effective remedy to institutionalized racism or sexism."
—L. Timmel Duchamp, from "Whose Romance? Whose Revolution?" (p. 103)
These quotes represent only a few of the fiery observations to be found in the pages of WCC2. All three are authored by attendees of the "Romance of the Revolution" panel. Whatever one's feelings about the panel itself the verve and eloquence of the language here is to be admired—a breath of fresh air to fans of a genre that must always struggle for relevance and respectability on the wider literary stage. In this year, when Barack Obama's historic run for the American Presidency has once more brought race to the center stage of American politics, one feels grateful that these issues are being discussed in a format other than the soundbite—and by minds capable of deep thought and feeling. In their respective essays, Tsai, Brown and Duchamp present a revealing microcosm of the racial debate. Brown—a self described "middle-class white boy"—speaks the all-inclusive rock-and-roll language of utopia, while Tsai, a woman of color, and Duchamp, a white woman, grapple head on with the issues of race and gender, keenly aware that we have farther to go. All three works are thoughtful and well-written—but it is telling that Brown's discussion of revolution cites only white male cultural figures (William Gibson, Neo of the Matrix trilogy, Edgar Rice Burroughs) as revolutionary prototypes. His rage against the media-strip-mall machine is brilliant ("Every time I go to the mall, I make a point of imagining it as a post-apocalyptic ruin") but perhaps revealing in what it leaves out.
Race and revolution weren't the only topics at WisCon 31. Another Duchamp essay, "Creating "the second self': performance, gender and authorship," discusses the work of Alice B. Sheldon, whose science fiction tales became famous under the nom de plume "James Tiptree, Jr.," and why respected female sf authors, such as Ursula K. Le Guin have felt the need to write in the male voice. And Catherynne M. Valente's deconstructionist essay on the role of female power in some of Western literature's most beloved children's tales ("Follow the Yellow Brick Road: katabasis and the female hero in Alice and Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, and The Nutcracker") is a brauva performance, comparing the trials of Dorothy, Alice and Clara (or Marie, depending on the version) to those of Persephone, Inanna and Ereshkigal.
An ongoing series of short essays in which various authors and Con attendees respond to the question "What do you think the cutting-edge political issues at WisCon will be in ten years?" feel filler-like, more of interest to regular participants of the Con than a general audience, as does Mark Rich's tone poem "Reflections on WisCon 31, 2007" (although attendees of Worldcon will certainly recognize the terrain). But there are few false steps here. Tom La Farge's moving essay "Multimindedness" uses his participation in the "Just how smart are animals anyway?" panel to propose a new way of approaching identity issues. Nisi Shawl discusses the strange penchant of WisConians to construct crowns (and what it means to the Con's spirit of inclusiveness) in "Because We Are All So Royal." And a series of mini essays assembled by Rachel Swirsky, "How to Deal with Racist and Sexist Material in Workshop," presents advice (and anecdotes ranging from hilarious to horrifying) on that topic from a variety of writers.
Of course, many people will be checking out WCC2 because WisCon's 2007 Guests of Honor were Kelly Link and Laurie Marks. They will not be disappointed. WCC2 is bookended by two exchanges between Link and Marks. "Logic and Loving Books" showcases two major talents rapping on their influences and story ideas as they engage in a circular interview. But it is the transcript of Link and Marks' acceptance speech, "Asbestos Pants: An Epistolary Performance," that will make non-WisConians want to get in on next year's action and regular attendees long for an encore. Told as an exchange of letters between the two authors the "speech" showcases Link and Marks at their zany, witty best—musing on everything from Dancing With the Stars to Tolkien's use to giant eagles.
"Do you think the con committee would be willing to send in giant eagles to carry us off at the end of the speech?" Link wonders. "Is there a metaphor in here for how readers are suspended by narrative?"
By assembling a collection of writings both relevant and revealing The WisCon Chronicles can't help but carry you away.
Hannah Strom-Martin's short story "Father Pena's Last Dance" will be published in the 2009 Halloween issue of Realms of Fantasy.
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