Wiscon XXV

Wiscon 25 was held over Memorial Day weekend, May 25-28, 2001, at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. Wiscon is a convention focused on feminist issues in science fiction, and is the sponsor of the James Tiptree Award. This award is given annually to a novel or short story that explores issues of gender in science fiction.

We arrived shortly before noon on Friday, having spent the previous night with family in the Rockford area to get a jump on the travel time. After some difficulty finding a parking place, we got checked into the hotel and got our personal belongings into our sleeping room. Then we took the merchandise into the dealers' room. We got a couple of hotel carts, so we were able to get everything inside in record time.

Then we had to move the van into a long-term parking space. However, that turned out to be a little easier said than done, because we have a full-sized van and most of the local parking garages had too low a clearance to hold it. There simply didn't seem to be any surface lots at all, so we finally found a garage that claimed to have a full 7-foot clearance. We got in, but there was only about an inch of clearance between the ceiling beams and the roof of the van.

Once everything was into the dealers' room, we had to get our display set up before the customers started coming in. I also got my artwork up on the art show.

By the time we got everything arranged, it was time for my first panel, "Mars: the Soap Opera." I was the moderator, and the other panelists were Kathleen M. Massie-Ferch, Mary Pearlman and Todd Voros. We talked about various issues having to do with the problems of a long-term mission, including health factors, social cohesion of a diverse crew, privacy problems (both between the crew members and from the cameras that would doubtlessly be installed so that public interest could be maintained to keep the necessary support money flowing) and dealing with various disasters. Space is a harsh environment with no room for error, so there would have to be a system of protocols in place for handling all possible failure modes, and training that will turn off the judgement-train so that people don't need to think, just react. There was also discussion of how to deal with people who reach the limits of their endurance and simply snap. Also, there was some talk about problems of contaminating the Martian environment, and whether it was hubristic to try to go there. Some people argued that we might well end up irrevocably destroying, or at least obscuring, the very evidence that we were going there to seek. Fortunately, everyone was willing to see that there are two sides to all of these issues, and no easy answers with which to browbeat the opposition.

After my panel I made a quick visit to the con suite. Then I returned to the dealers' room to sit table until closing time.

After the dealers' room closed for the evening, we called in pizza for supper. Then we went down to the hot tub to soak out the aches of having dragged in so many books. At least this time the hot tub was good and hot.

In the evening we made the rounds of the parties. There was a Xena suite showing various episodes. There was also an Oof da party, dedicated to Scandinavian humor. We also visited the con suite before we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning came bright and early. We had leftover pizza for breakfast, then headed down to the dealers' room. However, the doors were still closed and locked, so we went across the hall to take a look at the art show. There were a lot of really nice pieces, but almost nothing had any bids.

By the time we were done, the dealers' room person had arrived and got the door opened. We went in and got our tables set up, then settled in to do business. Sales came in bursts, with a lot of slow time between them.

After the dealers' room closed for the night, we called in Chinese food for supper. Then we went down to the hot tub for a good soak.

In the evening we went to the con suite and sat around for a while. I messed around with some 3D puzzles and solved two of them. Then we made the rounds of the parties again. There were plenty of fun parties, and we ended up staying up later than we intended.

On Sunday we got up early and got breakfast in the green room. Then we went down to the dealers' room and opened our tables for business.

Then I got to attend one panel that I wasn't actually on, but that I really wanted to see because of my own foreign-language background. This was "What You Can (and Can't) Say in English and How This Affects SF" with Élisabeth Vonarburg, John Rezmerski, Lyn Paleo, Melodie Barker, Richard Chwedyk and Suzette Haden Elgin. This panel centered around the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity, namely, that language constrains perception in interesting and significant ways.

One of the most obvious ways is the existence of words that require lengthy paraphrases when translating into other languages. This can become a problem in translating poetry or other constrained forms. Also, English has lost the sense of most personal names -- they are simply handles by which we designate individuals. Even when a name (particularly a surname) is still a meaningful word, its use as a name divorces it from its lexical meaning. Many other cultures remain strongly aware of the underlying meanings of names, and give (or even change) them according to the individual's personality and accomplishments.

Suzette Haden Elgin talked extensively about how English is one of the best languages in which to lie, because one does not have to own up to a lot of meaning-elements, particularly in the written language. Much of the emotional content of English is in tone and body language, which vanishes completely in a written summary of a speech or conversation. English is a very deniable language.

They also discussed the difficulty of reforming language, even to deal with known problems. People very strongly resist major changes in their language, and persist in using older forms. Also, deliberate language reform contains the seeds of its own destruction, since one must necessarily talk about the words and forms that you want to remove from the language.

Finally, they touched upon the ways in which language has been handled in science fiction, particularly in the creation of alien worlds. Of necessity, every alien language has to have at least some of the elements found in human language, lest it become so incomprehensible as to be inaccessable to readers. A few writers have gone quite far afield, such as C. J. Cherryh with her T'ca, who have six brains and speak in a matrix of parallel processing. However, they have only a tiny role in her Chanur books, and it's quite probable that a book dealing primarily with them would be unreadable.

After that panel, I returned to the dealers' room to cover the tables for a while so that my husband could take a break. Then I had two heavily political panels in the afternoon. The discussions were quite intense, and after one, the moderator thanked all the participants for not getting at each other's throats.

The first was "Conservative Feminism: Realistic or Contradiction in Terms" with Joan Haran, Hope Rennie and Susan Marie Groppi. We started by a discussion of what was meant by conservatism in US political culture -- how it could mean either economic conservatism (get the government out of my pocket) or social conservatism, which often involved traditionalism, a lack of sympathy for difference and rigid, restrictive role structures. At the same time, "feminism" has also been used in very restrictive ways to include only one's own set of beliefs about gender and exclude others.

This led to a discussion about the various theories on how systems of gender-based power heirarchy develop -- whether they are biologically based or culturally constructed, and what should be done about them. The discussion then led into the problem of the proper boundaries between the family and the community, and how to best balance values in a diverse society. What norms should be enforced by law, and which should be left to the discretion of those involved. I pointed out that multiculturalism is in many ways a luxury of modern post-industrial wealth, and that most societies don't have the resources to give minorities a lot of slack to follow their own practices instead of assimilating.

The discussion kept coming back to the issue of abortion and the different interpretaions placed upon it. We even had disagreements as to whether the question of fetal personhood is relevant to the debate. Some feminists have seen abortion as an imposition of male authority upon a female body, and led one woman to become anti-choice even as she considered herself a feminist. Others argued that leaving a woman no options except to continue an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy is essentially dehumanizing, and that freedom of choice must be backed by legislation.

After that, I went to my last panel, "US Politics: Fantasy, Horror, or Science Fiction" with Joe Weinberg, Cynthia Clay, Michael J. Lowrey and Tom Porter. This was primarily about the 2000 election, but ended up covering a wide range of political topics and showing just how politically aware fans are. Someone noted that third parties are ignored by the mainstream press, and thus are treated as effectively being fantasies. This is in spite of third parties spending enormous amounts of time, effort and money just to get on the ballot.

Someone else brought up the Elián Gonzales case and the political power of the Cuban exile population. They are very conservative and somewhat racist. However, the other side is not so simple either. By Cuban law, the state, not the parents, hold custody of all children. Elián's father was an absentee parent even before his mother's ill-fated flight, and now that the boy has been returned (supposedly for the sake of reuniting a family), he is in a state residential school and his father sees him only occassionally, when some bureaucrat gives permission. Given this, it was almost certainly in his best interests to stay in the US. The behavior of the Clinton administration, sending US Army forces with weapons of war to seize the boy, alienated the traditionally Democratic-voting Cuban population so that they voted for Bush.

Someone else mentioned an attempted coup against FDR which failed only because the Marine general the plotters wanted as the new junta head refused. He held firm to his oath as an officer and would not violate the Constitution he'd sworn to uphold. LaFollette's hearings subsequently revealed the details of this failed plot.

This led to discussion of how ideas of "good government" are often linked to oppressive measures. Efforts to get "well-educated" voters often end up excluding racial and economic minorities. Attacks on corruption often end up becoming attacks on the working class, and particularly on their efforts to better themselves.

In the end, we agreed that there is no one single way to deal with the nation's problems. An enormous country like the US requires multiple approaches to transform its society.

After that I went back to the dealers' room to help close up for the night. Then we went out to an Italian place for supper with some people I'd met on a panel. However, they needed to go to another event right afterward, and I didn't realize that I needed to get my salad eaten promptly because the servers were waiting for everyone to finish their salads before bringing the main course. I ended up not able to get my entire main course eaten because of having to eat so fast, and took the rest back with me.

After supper, we went to the hot tub for one last good soak. Then we went upstairs and made the rounds of the final parties. At one of them I got into a long discussion about psychic vampirism, emotional parasitism and other abusive relationships. After the parties, we called it a night and headed up to our room.

On Monday it was time to pack up our personal belongings and get them cleared out of our room. That meant loading them on our handcart and hauling them several blocks down to the parking garage where we had put the van. I flinched when I saw just how little clearance we had.

After that, we went down to the green room one last time to have breakfast before heading down to the dealers' room and opening our tables. I also got my unsold art off the art show and discovered that I'd sold an additional piece beyond the ones I'd seen bids on previously.

After that, we packed up our unsold merchandise to load out. When we were actually ready to load, my husband went over to the garage and retrieved the van. Although he was able to safely clear the roof beams, he bumped the exit gate on the way out. However, on the plus side, they didn't have anyone working the booth, so we didn't have to pay for having parked there. That little savings helped make a rather unsuccessful convention less so.

Once we had everything down and loaded into the van, we decided not to even bother going back up to the con suite, since we were in a limited-time loading zone. We just hopped in the van and headed out of Madison. However, that proved a little easier said than done, since there was a massive traffic jam on the Interstate. When we heard on the CB that the traffic snarl ran all the way to the Illinois state line, we got off the Interstate and took US 51 down to Rockford in order to re-connect with I-39 and take it down to US 30, so that we could get to my folks' place and stay the night before continuing to Indianapolis and home.

Copyright 2012 by Leigh Kimmel

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Last updated October 21, 2012.