What I Learned at WisCon 42: Science Fiction and Fantasy CAN Save the World

My notetaking kit for WisCon42. Always have extra pens. I have a second notebook in there, too! Just in case.

I almost couldn’t write this blog post because I started reading my WisCon42 notes instead. No, seriously. I not only have notes I took myself, but I have notes I took while listening to the rebriefings my daughters and I held to brief each other on panels that some of us missed.

You may be wondering why all my WisCon photos are words scrawled in a notebook. That’s because that’s pretty much all I saw at WisCon! We basically floated for four days in a sea of words and ideas and welcoming inclusivity. 


Okay, I used all caps but to be clear, nobody was actually shouting. That’s just my way of trying to express that we were constantly, at all times, navigating through a haze of love and acceptance and yes, sometimes even that, as awesome as it is, can get to be a lot if you’re a geeky hermit who doesn’t spend a lot of time around people. Full disclosure: I did flee to the Quiet Room once, and it was gloriously quiet. Previously I tried fleeing outside to walk around the block, but then I remembered that it was downtown Madison in late May and that I melt in the heat.

(As an aside, one of the reasons I insist that shadows are just as nice as sunshine is that our shadows don’t melt us and get in our eyes and burn our skin. Our shadows, our dark places, are cool and refreshing and I for one applaud them.)

20180608_234614532423651.jpgDoes it sound like I’m off topic? I so totally am not. Because the topic, as I’ve defined it, is, how science fiction and fantasy can save the world. And I invite you to look around at the world, especially at the U.S., and contemplate how divided we are, how cranky we are, how unwelcoming and intolerant our society is. And I’m telling you that if you walk out of the divided shouting match debate world into the we love you/we accept you as you are/and to prove it we will take care of your introverting needs by providing special spaces for you to recuperate as needed world, you will feel the difference as immediately as I did.

That’s nice, you say, but what does ANY of this have to do with science fiction and fantasy?

Okay, THIS: it’s that science fiction and fantasy writers are providing us with a vision for how we can live. (Or in some cases, how we’d be better off not living.) And I never realized how seriously writers are taking the responsibility of revisioning a better world for us (or warning us about dystopian possibilities) until I went to WisCon and sat through the following panels (if you’re curious about any of these, use the hashtags for the panels to find out what people said about them on social media–if you need to filter further, add #WisCon42):20180609_01591192848005.jpg

  • Where is My Luxury Gay Space Communism? (#LuxuryGaySpaceCommunism)
  • 2018 MidTerms, You’re Our Only Hope! (#2018Midterms)
  • Justice Demands Good Sex! (#JusticeDemandsGoodSex)
  • It’s Mx. Professional to You, Bub! (I went to this one vicariously via my daughter Emma’s briefing on it later.) (#MxProfessional)
  • The Subtle Dangers of AI (Again, this one came to me through Emma’s notes.) (#SubtleDangersofAI)
  • Spoon Management (#SpoonManagement)
  • Prison Abolition and Restorative Justice…In Space! (More thanks to Emma!) (#PrisonAbolitionInSpace)
  • What Does Justice Demand of Pedagogy? Workshop Toward the Praxis of Intersectional Justice (#JusticeDemandsPedagogy)
  • Mental Disability in Video Games (Vicariously through my youngest daughter, Sally) (#DisabilityVideoGames)
  • Social Justice and Rising Sea Levels (#SeaLevelJustice)
  • Love in the Time of Resistance: A Recs Panel (#RecsResistance)
  • Future of Fiction Formats (vicariously via Emma’s notes) (#FutureofFictionFormats)

20180608_2353161892324674.jpgThere were others that Emma and Sally briefed me on that have blurred together now…Tasha Yar…DS9…Archandroids and Janelle Monae…SO many panels. Here are some I didn’t make it to but really wished I could have:

Friday afternoon, while doing an afternoon tarot circle, I missed:

  • Redemption and Revenge: Antiheroines and Villainesses Taking Control (#Taking Control)
  • The Unglamorous Life: Depression and Creativity (#DepressionandCreativity)
  • Sentient Beasts and Where to Find Them (#SentientBeasts)

And then also missed, over the rest of the weekend:

  • Disabled as Guides for the Abled in the Country of Aging (#DisabledforAbledAging)
  • Where the F is All the F/F in Media? (#WhereTheFIsMediaFF)
  • Will the Truth Set Us Free? (#WillTruthSetUsFree)
  • Stigma and Neurotypicality (#NeurotypicalStigma)
  • No Fear: A Feminist Approach to Self Defense (#FeministSelfDefense)
  • Extras: Outsiders, Nonconformists, and Beyond (#ExtrasOutsiders)
  • Bodies in Space and At Rest (#BodiesinSpace)
  • Dead, Evil, and Clueless: Mothers and Step-Mothers in Fantasy & Science Fiction (#DeadEvilMothersinSFF)
  • Women, Practical Folk Knowledge, and Magic in Storytelling (#FolkMagicStorytelling)20180608_2348581382434616.jpg
  • Postcolonial Resistance (#PostcolonialResistance)
  • Odin Would Punch You in the Face, Or the Alt-Reich Doesn’t Know Anything About Real Scandinavian Mythology (#OdinWouldPunchYou)
  • Are They Really Going Out With Them? Dating and Relationshipping as a Nonbinary Trans Person (#ReallyWithThem)
  • Worldbuilding Justice and Injustice (#WorldbuildingJustice)
  • When An Alien and An Astronaut Love Each Other Very Much (#AlienAstronautLurve)
  • How to Find Diverse Indie Authors (#FindDiverseIndieAuthors)
  • Walking the WisCon Walk (#WalkingtheWisConWalk)
  • The Desire for Killable Bodies in SFF (#KillableBodiesinSFF)
  • Beyond S/He (#BeyondSHe) (Or did Emma brief me on this one? It’s all starting to blur together!)
  • 1% Futures, and How to Avoid Them (#Avoiding1Futures)
  • Found Family (#FoundFamily)
  • Uncommodifying Culture (#UncommodifyingCulture)
  • Smash the Patriarchy (#SmashthePatriarchy) –This one was author readings at Michelangelo’s that I was so sorry to miss!
  • Biology Breaks Binaries: More Wild Alien Sex (#BiologyBreaksBinaries)
  • Universal Basic Income: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? (#TimeforUBI)
  • Ghosts ‘n Gnostics (#GhostsnGnostics)
  • Reenchanting Your Muse, Or How to Write When the Thrill is Gone (#ReEnchantYourMuse)
  • Art and Writing as Tools of Resistance (#ArtWritingResistance)
  • Positive Representations of Masculinity (#PositiveMasculinity)

So that’s a lot of words and a lot of talking and SO much scribbling of notes in my notebook! But what did I actually learn from all this?

So first of all, I don’t have a comprehensive list of everything I’ve learned yet. I’m STILL digesting and DEFINITELY still working my way through recommended reading lists and going back through the hashtags above because yes, if a topic interests me enough, I do that.

But here’s what I find I have to be going on with:

  • My tribe is out there and they care and they are taking action. And that makes me happy. They are not just posting on Facebook. Even here in Wisconsin, even in farflung places like Arkansas, they are gathering and fomenting. If we don’t see them all the time, that may be because they’re introverting, but they are there, quietly changing stuff. Hurrah for that! And it’s working, because, just as an example, the pronoun thing–the Chicago Manual of Style is on board with the singular they/them at the very least. These changes are here. And more are on the way. If you’re not happy about that, quake, is all I can tell you, because this movement is unstoppable. (P.S. If you don’t think pronouns can change the world, you don’t understand language at all, bub. But don’t worry, there’s more here than pronouns. A lot more.)
  • There are still people out there who THINK and who look at DETAILS and who use their BRAINS! And who realize that a big part of making change is asking the right questions and carefully analyzing the answers. The first panel I went to, the one about luxury gay space communism, included several academics, one of whom was an economist, and they talked about the specifics of how policy gets worked out, with regard to why we charge fares for public transportation, for example. I was especially taken with economist Emma Humphries’ quotation — I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten who she was quoting — “If you do not measure it, you have no idea what you’re doing,” and her corresponding question, “what do we need to measure?” Several panelists made the thoughtful point that sometimes we measure the wrong things, and those measurements take us in directions we don’t want to go. Ms. Humphries countered with the point that measuring the right things, on the other hand, can be very useful. She suggested, what about the cost of being poor? what about the cost of cognition? what about the cost of being homeless? what about the cost of providing housing to the homeless versus the costs that arise when we don’t do so? And we learned about Salt Lake City’s apparently very successful experiment with giving apartments to the homeless. Other important questions that came up:
    •  What does it feel like when society is changed to make people feel safer?
    • Is precarity — a measure of precariousness — a product of artificial scarcity?
    • How is the practice of rent seeking, creating fees for making mistakes and increasing your opportunities to make financial mistakes (such as late payments), contributing to the growing divide between the wealthy and the precariate (those who live with precariousness)?
    • How is systematic oppression dividing people so that we don’t unite together against the system?
    • How can we amplify the voices of people on the ground? Versus the voices that are shared with us by the mainstream media?
    • How do we change how we think and talk about these things? (There was a reference here to George Lakoff but I didn’t catch what it was.)
    • How can we make a difference at the individual, local level?
    • How can we sneak all these questions and concepts painlessly into SFF novels for those of us who are too lazy for all the economic analysis? (Okay, nobody asked that out loud, that’s just a thought that popped into my head.)

In all of this discussion, one of my favorite things was moderator Victor Raymond’s response to a question asked by someone in the audience. After hearing the question, he responded, “That’s a lot of concept per square sentence!” TBH, this whole panel was a lot of concept per square sentence! Anyway, back to stuff I learned at WisCon–and I’m not going to break down every panel I went to, at least not in this blog post, much as I wish I could, because, that’s a lot of notes. But some further overall lessons:

  • In changemaking, there is a role for people who envision the future and write about it. We can make change without being out there in the streets every day, although I strongly believe that marches and protests are important too. But we don’t all have the spoons for that all the time–and we don’t have to. We can help each other envision the Way Things Should Be. When you’re making a change, the first, most powerful step is setting your intention. Writers, artists, visionaries, are far from helpless, even those who are disabled or who live a solitary hermit-like life. The visions that we create seep out into the rest of the world and inspire them. (Some would say corrupt them–oh well, you say tomato, I say tomahto.) When people of different races and cultures can get along well, and negotiate their differences, and even nourish each other with their differences, in an imaginary scifi world, and readers accept that while reading the book, they continue to be able to accept such things after they finish reading and close the book. Or at least they get a little closer to such acceptance.
  • What happens at the micro level affects what happens at the macro level–it isn’t always just the other way around. For example–I know I said I wouldn’t dissect every panel here, and I won’t, but–let’s consider Love in the Time of Resistance and Justice Demands Good Sex! Think about the power dynamics in a relationship. They’re different in every relationship, of course, but they also mirror a lot of what goes on in society. But what if we can, by changing our relationships, by envisioning good sex, cause society itself to mirror our micro-level changes? You’re skeptical, I can feel that, but remember that the micro-level violence of every time someone does something terrible to someone else is affecting us at the macro level every day–such events structure our national discourse and push us to change things at both levels. What if GOOD micro level events — like good sex, for example — can affect the macro level just as much as negative events can? Just think about that for a minute.
  • This leads into a quote that came up in What Does Justice Demand of Pedagogy?, in which two professors talked about how to help students, particularly young white middle class college students, make connections about race.  The quote, from Grace Lee Boggs, is “You can transform yourself to transform the world.” Well, that kind of transformation is what happens when you connect across cultural barriers. Part of this panel was spent discussing the book, Emergent Strategy, by adrienne marie brown, which I have just started to read since leaving WisCon but would already strongly recommend. What I love about this book (so far) and about this panel was this very emphasis on raising awareness about race and culture one person at a time. Because that’s really how we have to do this work, ultimately. Of course policy changes are necessary too–desegregating schools, for example, the protection of civil rights, ending voter suppression, prosecuting hate crimes–all of that matters, a lot. But in the end, all of that policy work is for naught if we don’t also do the hard individual work of making connections and building understanding. This IS the micro level affecting the macro level. One of the panelists, Laura Crystal Porterfield, a woman of color teaching mostly rural white students, talked about how part of her teaching has involved letting her students know when their attitudes hurt her personally. She talked about how that entails being vulnerable in ways that are not typical in most classrooms. It involves managing the teacher-student distance in a very careful, thoughtful way, and though I am not a teacher, I honestly see her approach as relevant to everything we do. Parents teach, writers teach, but even more, humans living in society teach each other how to be with each other in ways that are constructive, peaceful, and loving — or not. We can be rigid and distant with each other, or we can manage the distance in ways that let us pick appropriate times and places to let a little vulnerability through, enough vulnerability to let others understand what needs to be understood. Because the things that make us angry, make us angry because they hurt. 

Maybe it sounds like I just went away and spent a weekend in a utopian peace bubble. And maybe I did. But that utopian peace bubble wasn’t even there at one point in time. It was envisioned and manifested right into existence. Just as one example: LGBTQ people weren’t openly LGBTQ when I was younger (I’m turning 50 this year). Now not only are they often beautifully and fantastically out and visible and present, but they’ve changed the whole format of how we talk about gender. They’ve moved us from a binary gender model to a model of gender fluidity along a spectrum. They’ve changed the entire terms of the argument. They’ve changed the rules. And that is POWER.

Likewise, the work being done by Black Lives Matter, the work being done around the #MeToo dialogue, the work being done by immigration activists, the work being done by disabled activists–this is all changing the rules. Slowly but surely. Trump was elected by people who want him to change the rules back. And it’s not working. Because we’ve moved on, and nobody wants to go back. I see a lot of courage and determination out there.

I think we can do this. But I think it’s not going to happen by us going out and punching Nazis (satisfying though that may be). It’s not going to happen by shouting people down (though sometimes yeah, we kind of have to, just as sometimes, we have to resort to physical techniques to keep people safe). It’s going to happen as our entire discourse gets changed by writers and artists and filmmakers, and it’s going to happen bit by little bit as we change how we talk and what we dream about. It’s going to happen as subtly as the rise of sea levels and just as unstoppably. Nazis can fight back against punches. But they can’t very well fight against a rising flood of egalitarian influences that seep like water into their very dreams. 

I’m writing in circles, and in many ways this post would be a more accurate depiction of WisCon if it were a mindmap instead of a linear narrative. But I’m a writer, and so a linear narrative, one word at a time, is what you’re getting. I hope it makes some sense! 🙂





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