Friday, November 16, 2018

Feminist Futures: Alanya to Alanya

Dossier: Duchamp, L. Timmel. Alanya to Alanya [Aqueduct Press, 2005]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: When the aliens came in 2076 they announced themselves with a worldwide message stating who they were (Marq'ssan from a distant world), why they came to Earth (to remake human society / culture into a more cooperative and peaceful society, just like the Marq'ssan), what they expected (each nation to provide three women to negotiate on behalf of the nations), and what the Marq'ssan were about to do (block all electronic signals and communication devices on the planet). Then, the Marq'ssan did exactly what they said and a worldwide blackout was in place. The reader experiences this through the eyes (third person perspective) of Kay Zeldin, a history professor in Seattle. The logical first thought was hackers. The second, when the extent of the blackout in Seattle became known, was terrorists. It was the only possible explanation because, after all, aliens aren't real and terrorists are. 

As the story progresses Kay Zeldin is constantly insulted by the members of the Executive, the true leaders of the world and of the United States government. Her former lover is the Executive in charge of all Security in the United States Robert Sedgwick and he recruits Zeldin to be one of the three US women to negotiate. Except that she is not to actually engage in any negotiation because she is not a member of the Executive Class nor is she male. Zeldin is to observe, report back, and let the men negotiate. From Sedgwick and the other Executives who appear in Alanya to Alanya there is a very strong anti-female / anti-feminist viewpoint and it is both insinuated and stated clearly that for Zeldin to be successful she needs to act more masculine and that no male would be subject to fits of emotion or compromise like a woman is.

Feminist Future Outside of a bit of over-the-top female-hating at the Executive level of government / society, Alanya to Alanya does not slap the reader in the face with feminist diatribe (or anti-feminist, which gets the point across just as well). The Sedgwick stuff, in particular, is difficult to read because of just how insulting and degrading it is to women. While it is certainly possible that such behavior exists in America in particular spheres of society (whether government or business), I sincerely hope that such behavior is extremely limited. The problem, I suspect, is that while the overt behavior is limited there is still a symptomatic hierarchy where men have the majority of the most powerful jobs and government positions and while they (we?) can point to examples of women who have achieved such power and position, those women can be used to demonstrate just how progressive they (we) are when, in fact, achieving said position may be more aberration than the general rule. What Alanya to Alanya does so well is make what may be hidden under the surface or flat out denied (yet remaining true) to be out front and over-obvious. 

Beyond this Executive level overt hatred which underlies the core of the story and creates the backdrop which is 2076 Earth, the rest of Alanya to Alanya interacts with that hatred but is not ruled by it. The Marq’ssan envision remaking Earth in the manner in which they were able to remake their homeworld: by completely changing their society. However, the challenge for the Marq’ssan is that on their homeworld they were able to impose changes from within. Their society changed. With Earth they are imposing their will on humanity and even though they strive to have humanity negotiate its own terms and the Marq’ssan just supervise, it is still an imposed change upon the ruling elite. That such a change is not necessarily a bad thing or wrong (unless one happens to be a member of said privileged elite) it would / will result in great social, economic, and political upheaval and the cost will not be cheap. 

Perhaps more than anything else, this is what L. Timmel Duchamp excels at with Alanya to Alanya: She gets that any social change will not come easy and even if the political / social structure of 2076 is an exaggerated dystopian vision of today, changing any entrenched political / social structure will be incredibly difficult and painful. Even if there are aliens with “magic” weapons that can safely turn anything into rubble, the problems caused by upheaval still have to be solved by the people on the ground: i.e. humans. Despite the opening riff with the message from the Marq’ssan and the various forays onto the Marq’ssan ship, Alanya to Alanya is a deeply human story that gets into how people interact and view each other based on gender. The aliens are only a quiet sideshow, the tool in which Duchamp uses to explore behavior and the repression (suppression?) of women.  

Hope for the Future: Alanya to Alanya is, ultimately, an optimistic novel. It's just that the optimism for a better, more equitable and peaceful future is imposed from the outside. Duchamp's suggestion with the Marq'ssan Cycle is that the United States will become more rigid, more dictatorial, not less. Through the narrative of Alanya to Alanya, Duchamp doesn't offer much hope that society changing on its own.

It is only through the alien intervention that real change becomes possible, though clearly the entrenched power structure will fight with everything it has to maintain the status quo. 

I have not read the fifth volume, Stretto, and so I don't know how Duchamp ends the Marq'ssan Cycle, but over the course of the first four volumes there is a measure of hope. There are growing pockets of peaceful and healthy societies that are not under the thumb of the aggressive Executive System. 

LegacyAqueduct Press was founded in 2004 by L. Timmel Duchamp. According to the mission statement, "Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction. We promise to bring our readers work that will stretch the imagination and stimulate thought." 

The work published by Aqueduct immediately began receiving critical acclaim, receiving Tiptree Honors, Lambda Award nominations, and the Philip K. Dick Award. Along with Gwyneth Jones' Philip K. Dick Aard winning novel Life, Alanya to Alanya was a foundational novel from Aqueduct Press. In many ways, the legacy of Alanya to Alanya is the legacy of Aqueduct Press. 

Alanya to Alanya does not seem to have the massively wide recognition one might hope, but it remains generally well regarded by those who have read it and the novel continues to pop up here and there as mentioned as an excellent feminist science fiction novel.

In Retrospect
L. Timmel Duchamp has created a compelling and mostly believable protagonist in Kay Zeldin. Zeldin is hyper-competent at what she does (historical analysis, seeking patterns, communication), but that which falls outside her sphere of ability she struggles with (anything physical). Zeldin’s journey through the invasion and her role as an agent of a government which hates her as much as it needs to use here is not only an interesting concept, but well executed by Duchamp. Most importantly Duchamp has written a highly readable and compelling narrative. Compelling is possibly the perfect word for Alanya to Alanya because most readers will feel compelled to keep going, to turn the page, to find out what happens next all the while being told a story which happens to be “challenging, feminist science fiction”. Alanya to Alanya works and works well enough that readers will want to seek out, run not walk, and grab a copy of the second volume of the Marq’ssan Cycle: Renegade.

One thing very notable about Alanya to Alanya, however, is that it is very heavy handed and occasionally didactic. While effective as a narrative tool, it may also be equally offputting to many readers. Because of this, Alanya to Alanya feels somewhat older than a novel only published thirteen years ago would or should. 

Duchamp is directly confronting the politics of misogyny and she is not pulling any punches in either the storytelling or the clear eyed vision of the underpinnings of that sexism and misogyny. Not many novels tackle the subject so openly or effectively. It is that openness that leads to Duchamp's heavy hand with the politics and the increasing societal dystopia. How comfortable a reader is with that heavy hand will generally determine how effective that readers finds Duchamp's storytelling. 


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 3/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 7/10

[Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier review.]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thursday Morning Superhero

We lost a legend earlier this week in the passing of Stan Lee. As someone who got into comics at an older age, I didn't appreciate fully what impact Lee had until I started reading older Marvel comics. Lee, along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others, provided the foundation for superhero comics that remains in place today.

It is mind boggling that his creative efforts gifted us Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, Black Panther, and The Avengers just to name a few. Despite the impact that he had, Lee still maintained his quirkiness and is one of the most endearing creators I've ever seen. From his silly cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, to the way he interacted with his fans at conventions. There was only one Stan Lee and the comic book industry is a little darker for having lost him.

A central theme in Lee's work is that of social justice and inclusion. Most of his characters were activists who were rampaging against what he considered the evils that were permeating society. Asked about the X-Men, Lee said "I wanted them to be diverse. The whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there's good in every person".

The impact of creating characters like Black Panther is detailed in an incredibly personal account that you should read by Jason Johnson.  Marvel initially had concerns that Black Panther would be affiliated with the political movement that shared the name. Lee fought for Black Panther to keep his name and his fight to make comics diverse brought new fans to comics and provided a much needed release for people that yearned for an escape.

Lee penned a monthly column entitled "Stan's Soapbox" and this entry from 1968 sums up what Lee meant to the comic book industry and how he created an empire built on celebrating diversity, understanding one another, and tolerance.

"Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them - to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hate - one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black me, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he's down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he's never seen - people he's never know - with equal venom. Now, we're not trying to say it's unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it's totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race - to despise an entire nation - to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God - a God who calls us ALL - His children. Pax et Justitia." - Stan


POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Feminist Futures: Herland

Dossier: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland [The Forerunner, 1915]

Filetype: Book (Originally Serialized)

Executive Summary: Three men — Vandyck, our narrator; Terry, a burly, brawling adventuring and conquesting-type; and Jeff, a milquetoast friend of theirs — are on an adventure in one of the remote parts of the world when they begin to hear rumors of a land populated entirely by women. On the return voyage, they concoct a plan to come back to the area secretly, and reconnoiter it by means of a small biplane. This they eventually do. During their flyover, they discover a geographically isolated plot of land apparently populated only by women, but the adventurers refuse to believe that the structures and systems they observed could have been built entirely by women. They decide there must be some corresponding society nearby exclusively of men, who do the designing and building and keep the race going through means of procreation.

Upon landing, the three men are immediately captured by a group of martial-looking women they nickname “the colonels,” and they awaken in some type of fortress prison, although in reality it seems more like a closely-watched dormitory than a prison. Over the next several months, the men are treated essentially like young children, being taught the language and basic fundamentals such as the history of this Herland society, in order to be able, ultimately, to communicate. Their spheres of contact with Herland are limited to their dormitory, tutors, and a guard of “colonels” to keep watch over them. The men attempt escape, and develop theories and plans, each in their own particular idiom. Terry dreams of conquering these women and making them his sex slaves, assuming they will willingly bow down to the sight of his raw masculinity. Jeff seems to worship the women as goddesses, ready to become subservient to them and their culture. Vandyck occupies the middle ground, dutifully reporting the comings and goings and trying to be a good sociologist.

Many months pass, filled with questions from the tutors about the larger world and its society, the answers to which the women find utterly befuddling. These questions center on gender roles and societal structures. Eventually, the men choose mates, and the six of them make an attempt at some type of physical relationships. However, when Terry attempts to force himself on his “wife,” it is determined that the men are not compatible with Herland. Terry is expelled, Vandyck and his “wife” Ellador accompany him back to the wider world, and Jeff stays behind.

Feminist Future: Coming from the tradition of 19th century utopias, Herland offers less in the way of a vision of a possible future society than a vision of how society might be written differently if given a fresh start. This is a vision of a world unto itself that never endured what might be considered the original sin of — to use a more modern term — toxic masculinity. We are shown a world that has almost no want, no crime, a focus on rationality and sustainability, untouched by testosterone-fueled competition and desires for dominance displays, and into this world is injected Terry, who personifies the worst of all of these qualities. The implication is that Herland is a speculative society that could have been, but not one that can be. While the wide world yet has Terrys in it, the utopian vision of Herland can never be realized.

Hope for the Future: In the world of the novel, the status quo remains essentially unchanged. Jeff stays behind with his pregnant wife Celis, so Herland will soon see its first non-virgin birth in two millennia (as long as it's not a Terry, they should be fine), and Terry, Vandyck, and Ellador head back to America, with some trepidation as to how Ellador will cope. But as a blueprint for how we might shape our actual, real-world society, Herland does present a number of guideposts for ways in which we might change our thinking and practices to achieve a more balanced and equitable world.

Legacy Largely forgotten for half a century, Herland was re-discovered during the second wave of feminist science fiction (published as a novel for the first time in only 1979), and has become something of a scholarly touchstone in the fields of both utopian/dystopian fiction, as well as feminist literary fiction.

In Retrospect: When read today, Herland evokes a complex blend of insight (“Wow, that’s an idea way ahead of its time!”), disappointment (“Damn, how are we still struggling with this 100 years later?”), and cringing (“No! Those are very backwards ideas about race!”). On the one hand, it is a radical thought experiment that is executed with a tremendous willingness to question first assumptions that underpin the society that helped produce it. The three men are broad archetypes, but rendered in such a way as to serve their didactic purposes. The women, however, are essentially all the same. They may have a few variations in basic temperament, but it’s hard to point at any actually compelling characters. The women of Herland are presented as a monolithic ideal. There is a lot of value in looking at the ideas assembled here, even today, as so many of these questions still need answers. While society has changed a great deal, there are still some fundamentals that have not evolved nearly as much as they should have, and Gilman’s ideas may not be directly applicable curatives, but they can certainly inform conversations that still need to be had in the 21st century.

Where the novel must get seriously dinged, though, is in one of the areas where many feminist works are accused of short-sightedness, and that is the area of intersectionality. Gilman’s personal views on race, from what I was able to glean from a little biographical probing, were abhorrent, and in keeping with many of the prevailing views of her time. Not H.P. Lovecraft bad, but certainly in the context of a writer who was willing to re-visit basic assumptions of how society is structured and organized, envisioning radically different power structures, the lack of vision when it comes to racial prejudices is indefensible. The other intersectional area in which omission is particularly glaring to today’s reader is sexuality. While Terry is held up for derision for his belief, essentially, that the sight of a “real man” would turn the women of Herland into subservient sex slaves, Gilman does seem to imply that all of the women are latent heterosexuals. There is, in fact, no indication of any kind of sexual drive or exploration of any kind. Sexual relationships between the women of Herland are not even hinted at, and quite the contrary, the idea of pairing off in any kind of romantic way is held up as a strictly masculine construction. Any sense of sexual gratification by one’s self or with another woman is utterly absent from Herland. Such an omission does more than invalidate entire groups of people, it also undermines core arguments of the text. In supposing that jealousy, desire, and romantic relationships are the province of destructive masculine drives, much of the foundation of Herland’s vision of a better possible world seem Pollyannia-ish at best, and exclusionary at worst.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 2/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6/10

Published by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer at nerds of a feather since 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Microreview [Books]: Redemption's Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Salvation's Fire by Justina Robson

Adrian Tchaikovsky and Justina Robson kick off an inventive, satisfying shared universe with a difficult past.

Oh hey, a shared universe! In books! Perhaps I'm not reading the right things, but this feels like a pretty rare occurrence, and aside from George R. R. Martin's Wildcards series (which I haven't read) and the occasional posthumous series continuation, I'm struggling to think of any intentional collaborations of this kind. Redemption's Blade and Salvation's Fire are a sequential pair which together open the "After the War" series. Redemption's Blade - and, I believe, the concept for the whole world - was written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is fast on his way to becoming one of my favourite authors; Salvation's Fire continues with Justina Robson, whose work I hadn't read before.

The series is set in a multi-species fantasy world which is dealing with the aftermath of a demigod's warmongering. The Kinslayer was defeated at the battle of Bladno, a battle Celestaine remembers all too well - she was there, dispatching his giant dragon-thing and helping to bring him down. Now the world is full of the kind of horrors that only a demigod on the warpath can inflict, and Celestaine and her pals are driven to try to make things just slightly better, one quest at a time. And it's definitely quest-driven fantasy that's on the menu here: there's no political post-conflict reconstruction going on here, no leaders arising from the ashes or chosen ones returning to their rightful thrones. There's just people doing their best, in the absence of much else to occupy them.

The fantasy world here is probably best described as "Legend of Zelda except society makes sense". Humans share their world not with Tolkien-issue elves and dwarves but with the (formerly) winged Aethani, the water-dwelling Shelliac, forests full of ethereal Draeyads (some of which are now eternally on fire), some spider people (a Tchaikovsky special!), and most prominently, the Yorughans. The Yorughans are After the War's "always chaotic evil" race, subterranean dwellers who were brought out and conscripted into service by the Kinslayer and whose members now have rather a lot to do to rehabilitate their species (not least because, actually, many of them actually quite enjoyed serving in the war, service to evil aside). Celestaine's two closest travelling companions, Heno and Nedham, are both Yorughan, and bring a pair of interesting, sceptical and frequently funny perspectives to her human outlook on the world. Also present are several of the Guardians, ageless beings created by the Gods who are now basically the only divinity left after Kinslayer (himself a Guardian) severed the Gods from the world as part of his campaign. Despite their divine origins, most of the Guardians are pretty human in their motivations and emotions: because of the war, it's only the less heroic of the group that have even survived, meaning that most bring a blend of cowardice and self-preservation to the table (nowhere more obviously than Deffo, "The Undefeated", who maintained his title through the war by hiding as a badger). Taken as a whole, everything feels brilliantly lived-in and the sense of both ancient and recent history really lifts the worldbuilding to another level.

Celestaine is a compelling main character, although she's got more going for her in Redemption's Blade, where the plot is driven by her desire to make amends for one of the war's greatest atrocities, than in Salvation's Fire, where she ends up being more of a passenger on a trip belonging more to other characters. This is a shame, because Salvation's Fire introduces some cracking supporting characters, including the Bride of Kinslayer, who skirts close to being a fantasy manic pixie dream girl but ends up something much more interesting and dangerous, likely due to the influence of youngster Kula; there's also Tricky, a Guardian who appears to represent change and chaos as manifested in a gloriously snarky middle-aged woman, and whose interactions with returning bard Ralas were a constant highlight (and a ship I gave my blessing to). That said, Redemption's Blade gives us the fabulously amoral duo of Dr Catt and Fisher, who also haven't met a scene they couldn't steal. There's a real RPG-esque element to the character interactions in both books, which take as given that the characters will get together and stay together, using their different classes - sorry, character traits - to complete their various missions.

As I guess you'd expect from a shared universe set-up, the plot of each book is self-contained, although character relationships do change and grow between books and we can assume that the set-up for a future Book 3 will continue that trend. As noted above, Celestaine is very much the driving force for Redemption's Blade: she's seeking Kinslayer's magic crown, which she has promised to Amkulyah, prince of the Aethani, in order to return the power of flight to his people. The crown itself is, of course, an effective tool to encourage the characters to travel and showcase some of Tchaikovsky's worldbuilding, as well as setting Celestaine and co. up for deeper questions on survival and reparations - with a world that's been ruined so badly, how can this one thing even begin to make a difference? Naturally, Tchaikovsky doesn't let his characters off easy with an artefact that can simply undo the past, and this nuanced payoff ultimately benefits the journey the characters go on to a far greater extent.

Salvation's Fire, in contrast, takes longer to set up, and when it hits it's more the story of Lysandra, Kinslayer's manufactured bride. After being discovered by Kula (who has some mysteries going on herself), Lysandra provides the impetus for a trip across the ocean to find the ethereal plane the gods have disappeared to. Unfortunately, despite my love for Lysandra herself, this doesn't work as well as Redemption's Blade for the simple reason that Lysandra isn't a character with relateable, well-explained motivations, to us or to the other characters, and it feels like our returning characters end up following her more from lack of better things to do. Luckily, there's enough going on here in terms of the new characters and continued strong worldbuilding to smooth this over, and it all comes together in similarly nuanced fashion. From an RPG player's sense, it also just felt that we were too early in the characters' journey with us for them to be travelling into a parallel dimension to resurrect the Gods, and I don't think this plot brings the weight of the world's history to bear in quite as successful a way as its predecessor.

Ultimately, this is the kind of heroic fantasy one reads for one purpose only: heroic characters doing awesome things. While Redemption's Blade and Salvation's Fire deliver a slightly inconsistent experience in that regard, the strengths of each volume still speak for themselves. Tchaikovsky and Robson both manage to walk a line between capitalising on satisfying heroic fantasy tropes and giving their characters moments of glory we can root for, while still making their post-conflict world dark and complicated and lacking in any easy ways forward. Its as deep as it needs to be, and the change in authors brings a fresh new take which outweighs the continuity niggles especially where some of the character growth is concerned. I'm hopeful that there are more adventures in store with Celestaine, Heno, Nedham and the crew, that I can come back to and scratch that heroic fantasy itch in a brilliantly inventive world.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Worldbuilding that delivers on every level (even the one involving giant spiders and voidcrabs); +1 Bursting with excellent characters across both volumes.

Penalties: -1 Salvation's Fire's plot doesn't quite come together as well as its predecessor

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

References: Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Redemption's Blade [Solaris, 2018]

                            Robson, Justina. Salvation's Fire [Solaris, 2018]

Monday, November 12, 2018

Feminist Futures: A History of Wiscon

"A History of WisCon" was originally published on the website of SF3 (The Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy & Science Fiction). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. The only changes made to the original essay are the use of bold for section headers, the centering of the title / byline, and the capitalization of the C in the title for consistency with the rest of the essay. 

A History of WisCon
By Jeanne Gomoll

WisCon’s longevity as a niche convention, the remarkable continuity provided by convention committees (or “concoms”) containing several members who have worked throughout WisCon’s history, and the perseverance of its feminist mission has inspired several scholars to look for an explanation for the success of this unusual convention. More than likely, several factors are responsible: (1) WisCon’s roots in the publication of Janus, (2) the coincidental birth of WisCon during the “second wave” of the women’s movement, (3) the existence of a large community of writers and readers whose interests were not being served by other, more traditional conventions; (4) contributions of specific individuals who cared passionately about WisCon’s mission and devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to it, and (5) the infusion of new energy and the periodic re-invention of WisCon caused by such events as the announcement of the Tiptree Award in 1991, and the celebration of WisCon 20 in 1996.

WisCon’s roots in the fanzine Janus

Janus had a profound influence upon WisCon. Indeed, Janus 7 (Vol. 3, No. 1) was published as the program book for WisCon 1 and Janus 11 (Vol. 4, No. 1) contained WisCon 2’s program book. Archivists who searched for lists of early convention committees could sometimes find only program book staff lists. The same people who had lavished most of their spare time on Janus began to pour their energies into the creation of a different kind of convention, though at first the fanzine and convention overlapped. They brought the interests and political concerns to the convention that had made Janus a different kind of fanzine.
One of the first conventions attended by most Madstf members was Mid-Americon, the annual world science fiction convention held on Labor Day weekend in 1976 in Kansas City. Madstf members Hank and Lesleigh Luttrell were veteran fanzine publishers and fans; they lent their mailing list to Janus editors, informed the group that their publication was properly called a “fanzine,” or fan-published-‘zine, and encouraged group members to attend conventions in order to meet some of the people who had been writing letters of comment to Janus. The group also depended on the Luttrells’ advice during the first years of WisCon, since the couple had been involved in several convention concoms, including the 1969 World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis. Many Madstf members attended Mid-Americon, including Gomoll and Bogstad.
Although Wood’s panel was scheduled in an inconvenient and hard-to-find room, the standing-room-only audience overflowed into the hallway outside and convened afterward in an adjacent lounge for what turned out to be a defining moment for the many women who found one another in that place. Victoria Vayne proposed that everyone keep in contact by forming an APA (amateur press association) and suggested that it be named A Women’s APA. This anthology of letters, essays and responses has been published monthly ever since, and succeeded in creating a network of women and men interested in the world-changing powers of feminism and feminist science fiction. Bogstad and Gomoll joined A Women’s APA and also began discussing a dream convention with many panels of interest to feminists, about a convention that might resemble a familiar SF convention but also include scholarly and literary conversation about feminist ideas and the ways in which the new women writers were using them in their work.
Janus published WisCon reports and GoH speeches; WisCon programs were based upon articles and ideas explored in Janus. But gradually WisCon absorbed more and more of the Madison group’s energy. Janus and eventually Aurora‘s publication became more sporadic. WisCon, however, never faltered: from its start in 1977 it was produced annually by a growing concom that still includes several of the original planners who worked on WisCon 1, 30 years earlier.

WisCon Sites: From UW-Madison facilities to the Concourse Hotel

Madstf had published Janus on a shoestring budget. The University of Wisconsin provided some funds in the form of aid to official UW student groups. Individual Madstf members donated funds. Receipts were stored in a shoebox. The sixth and seventh issue of Janus, were printed on an offset press, replacing the old mimeograph, and the printer, Brian Yokum, allowed the group to invade his print shop after hours and do bindery work for Janus in order to reduce the printing charges.
In addition, there was the drawback of weather. Until WisCon 19 when WisCon’s dates changed to the Memorial Day weekend, WisCon weekend fell in late February or early March, which in Wisconsin, are still considered part of blizzard season. Relying upon University facilities meant that WisCon attendees were sometimes forced to walk in extremely cold weather in order to commute from their sleeping rooms to the convention center. Until WisCon 19, when WisCon moved to late May, WisCon planners allotted a certain percentage of revenue each year to a “blizzard fund,” to cover themselves in the eventuality that WisCon would one day coincide with a plane and traffic-stopping storm. As it turned out, the convention was never shut down by a blizzard, although a bad storm hit town during WisCon 4 in 1980 and forced WisCon attendees to navigate extremely hazardous, icy sidewalks and brave sub-zero temperatures between the Center and Lowell Hall.
In 1982 Martin and Karen Jones took over the reigns from Jan Bogstad and co-chaired WisCon 6. That year the convention ended its agreement with the UW-Extension. WisCon 6 and 7 were held at the Inn on the Park on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison where convention events and sleeping rooms were housed under one roof.
Another advantage of becoming independent of the University was that WisCon was able to take over maintenance of its membership database. Previously the UW-Extension had registered WisCon attendees and was unable to separate WisCon registration information from data generated by its other programs. Thus, in 1982, WisCon began keeping track of its attendees as well as taking control of its own budget.
Between 1982 and 1995, WisCon’s location shifted between downtown and suburban locations. WisCon 6 and 7 (1982 and 1983) were held downtown at the Inn on the Park. In 1984 WisCon 8 moved two blocks down the side of the Capitol Square to the much larger Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club and remained there through WisCon 11 in 1987. At that time, new Concourse management bluntly informed the convention’s hotel liaison that it did not consider WisCon to be a suitable customer, i.e. WisCon attendees did not resemble the up-scale, government and corporate clientele it desired. However, WisCon had grown too large to return to the smaller downtown hotel, the Inn on the Park, and was forced to move to an outlying hotel on the southeast fringes of Madison. Thus WisCons 12 through 16 took place at the Holiday Inn Southeast, a sprawling, somewhat decrepit, 2-story hotel, with just one fast food restaurant within walking distance. Some attendees missed the accessible bookstores and restaurants available at the convention’s downtown locations. Other attendees appreciated the abundance of free parking and the suburban hotel’s pet-friendly policy. WisCon did return one year to the downtown Concourse Hotel in 1993 for WisCon 17, but was again refused a contract for the next year. WisCon 18 moved back, once again, to the Holiday Inn Southeast in 1994.
Despite the several rejections, many committee members continued to prefer a downtown location and believed that the Concourse facilities provided the best match for its convention. WisCon 19 finally did return to the Concourse Hotel and has been located there ever since. In 1995, WisCon negotiated a contract with the new management of the Concourse Hotel and developed an excellent, mutually appreciative working relationship, so positive and enduring that 11 years later WisCon 30 imposed an attendance limit of 1,000 rather than even considering a move to a larger hotel. WisCon attendees have also appreciated the Concourse’s central location, its layout and the staff’s friendly attitude toward members. WisCon surveys have recorded many attendees who declared the Concourse to be the “perfect convention hotel.”

WisCon Guests of Honor

WisCon has historically encouraged all attendees to nominate guests of honor, but has reserved voting rights for those who work on concoms. With a couple exceptions, all WisCon’s guests of honor were chosen by the previous year’s concom. Many WisCon decisions have been made on this basis: the group’s unwritten philosophy has been that, in order to survive, a volunteer organization must be run democratically, empowering those who do the work with the right to make decisions.
Not surprisingly, the percentage of women guests chosen as WisCon guests of honor, as compared to male guests, has exceeded any other convention’s record. This reflects a deliberate choice on the part of the early concoms who considered it WisCon’s mission to address the meager celebration of women in the field of science fiction. In view of the fact that WisCon was able to bill itself through most of its history as the world’s only feminist science fiction convention, WisCon concoms have persisted in their preference for women guests of honor.
The list of those honored by WisCon over the years includes a remarkable list of science fiction authors, artists, editors and fans.
WisCon 1, Katherine MacLean, Amanda Bankier
WisCon 2, Vonda N. McIntyre, Susan Wood
WisCon 3, Suzy McKee Charnas, John Varley, Gina Clarke
WisCon 4, Joan D. Vinge, David Hartwell, Beverly DeWeese, Octavia Butler
WisCon 5, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Don & Elsie Wollheim, Buck & Juanita Coulson, Catherine McClenahand, Steven Vincent Johnson
WisCon 6, Terry Carr, Suzette Haden Elgin
WisCon 7, Marta Randall, Lee Killough
WisCon 8, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Jessica Amanda Salmonson
WisCon 9, Lisa Tuttle, Alicia Austin
WisCon 10, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzette Haden Elgin
WisCon 11, Connie Willis, Samuel Delany, Avedon Carol
WisCon 12, R. A. MacAvoy, George R. R. Martin, Stu Shiffman
WisCon 13, Gardner Dozois, Pat Cadigan
WisCon 14, Iain Banks, Emma Bull
WisCon 15, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargent
WisCon 16, Howard Waldrop, Trina Robbins
WisCon 17, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Lois McMaster Bujold
WisCon 18, Karen Joy Fowler, Melinda Snodgrass, Jim Frenkel
WisCon 19, Barbara Hambly, Sharyn McCrumb, Nicola Griffith
WisCon 20, Ursula K. Le Guin. Special guest: Judith Merril
WisCon 21, Melissa Scott, Susanna Sturgis
WisCon 22, Sheri Tepper, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner
WisCon 23, Terri Windling, Mary Doria Russell
WisCon 24, Charles de Lint, Jeanne Gomoll
WisCon 25, Nancy Kress, Elisabeth Vonarburg
WisCon 26, Nalo Hopkinson, Nina Kiriki Hoffman
WisCon 28, Patricia McKillip, Eleanor Arnason
WisCon 29, Gwyneth Jones, Robin McKinley
WisCon 30, Kate Wilhelm, Jane Yolen
WisCon 1 scheduled a mere 10 panels in 2 days, and only three events were specifically described as feminist or concerned with the writing of women SF authors: Gomoll’s panel “Alice through the Looking Glass of SF: the Feminist SF Panel,” Bogstad’s panel “Political Issues in Science Fiction,” and the Guest of Honor speeches delivered by Katherine MacLean and Bankier.
The number of programs related to women and SF greatly increased at WisCon 2. Guest of Honor Wood wrote an article, “People’s Programming,” for the combination program book/Janus (Vol. 4, No. 1) about the sad state of such programming at conventions; in it she proposed a list of actions that might improve the situation. Fulfilling one of Wood’s proposals, WisCon designated a room for “general discussion (and retreat) for women and their friends … who wish to meet and talk with other persons about sexual roles in SF, in fandom and in society.” (Janus, Vol 4., No. 1, p. 14) WisCon was not able to close the room to men for legal reasons, but the room nonetheless became defacto women-only space. Another room in the dorm, Lowell Hall, was designated as a women’s APA suite during the evening. One of the panels presented in 1978 was “Will the real James Tiptree, Jr. please stand up!” Rumors of Tiptree’s real identity had been circulating that year and Gomoll send an invitation to Tiptree suggesting that “he” attend WisCon 2. She received a postcard reply saying that he did not normally attend SF conventions, but that if he did, he would prefer to attend WisCon above all others. Other panels presented at WisCon 2 were: “Feminism: to grasp the power to name ourselves. Science fiction: to grasp the power to name our future,” “Sex and gender in science fiction,” “Children’s role models in juvenile SF,” “Racism & science fiction workshop,” “Women in Fandom,” in addition, of course, to guest of honor interviews with McIntyre and Wood.
Thereafter, a significant percentage of WisCon programming was devoted to feminist ideas, women authors or women’s writing. Gomoll and Bogstad met privately sometime during those first few years of WisCon, outside of concom deliberations, and pledged that they would strive to maintain a minimum of 25% specifically-feminist programs at future WisCons. There were years when the percentage of feminist or women-related programs may have fallen beneath this goal, especially in those years when those doing the work were less committed to feminist programming, but WisCon never mirrored most other conventions which were only willing to schedule a single, pro-forma “Women in SF” panel. WisCon committees reveled in the fact that WisCon was perceived as such a divergent convention. After WisCon 1 or 2, some Midwest SF fans showed their disdain for WisCon’s women- and homosexual-friendly programming by calling WisCon “Pervertcon” in a fanzine letter column. Fairly frequently critics, who have never attended WisCon, accused WisCon of barring men from attending. The program book published for WisCon 3 included a comic strip drawn by Richard Bruning lampooning this assumption, following a foolish character who decides to cross-dress in order to sneak into WisCon.
Of course, WisCon has always been more kinds of programming than explicitly feminist panels. A broad range of programs has generally been offered on the topics of class, race, politics, science fiction, fantasy, the craft and business of writing, science, and SF media. During the first 19 years of WisCon the program also included such traditional SF convention items as a masquerade, role-playing games, and a film program. These were gradually dropped because there were no concom members interested in running them and because the events were peripheral to WisCon’s mission.
The U.S. backlash against feminism in the mid- and late-1980s was mirrored in the dampening of enthusiasm and less optimistic attitudes of WisCon programs in the same time period. As it became clear that feminists would have to re-fight the battle for choice and that the Equal Rights Amendment was probably doomed, science fiction written by women in the previous decade was subtlety attacked by fans of cyberpunk fiction, which was the hot new thing at the time. 1970s SF was called boring by these critics at the same time that 1970s feminists were being called selfish by mainstream critics. It was much less fun for WisCon program planners to fight a rear-guard action against attempts to re-write history than it had been in those exciting earlier times when it seemed that organizing a feminist convention, joining a women’s apa or participating in a consciousness raising group would surely change the world in no time.
Thus, Guest of Honor Pat Murphy’s announcement of the James Tiptree Jr. Award in her 1991 speech at WisCon 15, occurred in the nick of time; her announcement invigorated and galvanized the audience and rekindled the energies of several concom members who had begun drifting away from WisCon planning. Authors Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler conceived of the Tiptree as an award for works of science fiction and fantasy that explore and expand gender. Murphy grinned and pointed out that all the other SF awards were named after men, so it was ironically appropriate to name this award after a woman’s male pseudonym. Then she laughed and proclaimed that the Tiptree would be funded by bake sales. The audience rose in a standing ovation, cheering the idea, the humor of it, and also, perhaps, the sense that WisCon’s mission had been renewed. Several WisCon concom members volunteered to help raise money for the new award. Hope Kiefer and Karen Babich ran the first bake sale; Gomoll and Martin published a Tiptree cookbook and Laura Spiess named it. Tracy Benton and Gomoll designed a Tiptree quilt and Elspeth Krisor began directing its construction by more than 65 people, many of whom received their quilt pieces ready to sew in the mail. (The quilt took more than 10 years to complete and was finally unveiled at WisCon 30.) Gomoll and Martin presented a check to Murphy at WisCon 16 for $1,000, representing income from the cookbook, The Bakery Men Don’t See. Eleanor Arnason and Gwyneth Jones accepted the first Tiptree Awards, checks and chocolate typewriters for their novels Woman of the Iron Country and White Queen. The second Tiptree Award ceremony also took place in WisCon. Maureen McHugh was honored for her novel, China Mountain Zhang at WisCon 17 in 1993. Gomoll began editing a second cookbook that year to raise funds for the award. It was titled Her Smoke Rose up from Supper.
In the same year that McHugh won the Tiptree Award, Gomoll coordinated the panel of judges reading for the next year’s Tiptree Award. She subsequently joined the Tiptree Motherboard as one of the organization’s officers. In spite of the enormous popularity of the Tiptree Award among WisCon attendees, Gomoll recommended that the Tiptree Award ceremony should occasionally travel to different conventions to involve more people, but also to disentangle Tiptree’s identity from WisCon’s. The Tiptree Award seemed to be the more vital organization at the time. WisCon 18’s concom contained fewer “old guard” members than any previous WisCon committee and WisCon seemed to be in the process of losing touch with its feminist mission, and in fact the programming emphasis was obviously shifting more toward film and television SF and mystery fiction. Gomoll and others felt that it was important for the Tiptree Award’s survival that it maintain an existence independent from WisCon.
As it turned out, WisCon did not loose sight of its feminist mission. The Tiptree Award actually reinvigorated WisCon planners and in return, WisCon gave the Tiptree Award its support and a home base during the award’s crucial start-up years. Interestingly, neither the award nor WisCon as a feminist SF convention may have survived without the other.
Over the years, several Tiptree-related events were transformed into essential WisCon traditions that were scheduled even during those years that the ceremony was hosted by another convention. According to a WisCon 29 survey, the Tiptree bake sale was attended by more people than any other WisCon program. Hundreds of dollars worth of home-made, donated cookies, brownies, and slices of pie and pieces of cake were purchased and gobbled up by WisCon attendees. Collage artist Freddie Baer designed and sent limited runs of beautiful silk-screened Tiptree t-shirts to WisCon every year. The shirts tended to sell out within minutes of their appearance on the sales table. But probably the most popular program brought to WisCon by the Tiptree Award was the Tiptree Auction. Author, artist and comedian Ellen Klages staged the first auction almost accidentally in Boston in 1994, when the award ceremony was hosted by Readercon. It was such a popular and hilarious success there that she brought it to WisCon in 1995; it became a hugely popular annual event for WisCon and the Tiptree Award’s most successful fund-raising event. Klages has sold her own hair, a hand-knitted uterus, Alice Sheldon’s annotated textbooks, novels autographed by Le Guin, Butler and Russ, as well as many items of Klages’ own creation. She has organized the Dance of the Founding Mothers, and been paid not to sing or do a wretched Scottish accent. She has taken off parts of her costume and sold them to the highest bidder. Wisely, WisCon has not attempted to program against the very popular auction. All proceeds from the bake sale, t-shirts, and auction are donated to the Tiptree Award and fund the award and the publication of an annual anthology containing essays and fiction from Tiptree shortlists.

WisCon 20 and Beyond

WisCon 20 was the first WisCon to have been planned over the course of two years (the second was WisCon 30, also chaired by Gomoll). Together, the WisCon 19 and 20 concoms elected Ursula Le Guin to be WisCon 20’s GoH by acclamation and plans were begun to raise money to bring as many previous guests of honor to WisCon 20 as possible. The new WisCon 19 and 20 concoms introduced innovations that changed the course of all future WisCons. As it turned out, the new concoms rediscovered their enthusiasm for the original goals of WisCon in the course of planning WisCon 20, and forged new traditions that would energize a larger new membership. The “final hurrah” proved to be a mirage.
The new electronic programming process had the advantage of making it possible to involve many more non-local attendees in programming which was especially useful at WisCon 20 with its record attendance. It quickly became clear that Guest of Honor Ursula Le Guin, Special Guest Judith Merril, and the 25 returning former guests would attract more attendees than had ever been registered before. In response, the concom decided to impose a membership cap of 850 people, fearing that the committee and hotel might be overwhelmed by larger numbers. (The cap was reached on the first day of WisCon 20. At-the-door memberships were cut off a short time after registration opened.) Nearly everyone who asked to participate on programming was placed on panels and the result was a truly exciting program. However, with so many “pros” and academics signed up, some local WisCon attendees and even some longtime concom members did not feel welcome or “qualified” to participate on panels. After WisCon 20, local fans and concom members no longer dominated the schedule; in fact, many familiar names disappeared from the program altogether. WisCon continued to request program ideas from its members and to schedule any attendee that wished to participate on panels. The finalized programs were almost entirely the result of a democratic process: Participants essentially “voted” on panels by choosing which panels they wanted to join; those panels which attracted no interest were dropped. Nevertheless, the concom frequently needed to dispel mistaken assumptions that only SF professionals were welcome to participate on programming or that the committee showed favoritism to professionals. Another change wrought by WisCon 20 was that general concom meetings no longer featured animated discussions of panel ideas; such discussions and decisions were delegated almost entirely to the programming committee. While these changes proved helpful in dealing with a larger convention and more complex program, it is true that some good things were lost as a result of the changes.
Hope Kiefer ran WisCon 20’s hospitality suite and transformed what had formerly been a lounge with snacks and beverages into a place where attendees could relax and eat complete meals, open 18 hours a day. Many families and individuals who attended the convention on limited budgets appreciated the savings made possible by Kiefer’s hospitality suite. Almost all U.S. conventions fund a hospitality suite and stock it with snacks and beverages that are free to all members, but WisCon’s hospitality suite probably ranks among the best of them in terms of providing a variety of both healthy and decadent foods and beverages to its members.
Other traditional WisCon attractions were adjusted for the large anticipated attendance of WisCon 20. The art show was expanded to include a Tiptree auction display. The dealers’ room was redesigned to shoehorn in as many tables for booksellers and artists as possible. After its move back to the Concourse hotel, parties came under the supervision of the concom because of a wonderful resource offered to the convention, at no cost, by the Hotel. Prior to WisCon 20, anyone who wanted to throw a party reserved and paid for a room large enough for their party and then crossed their fingers that their room would not be located next door to anyone who objected to noise late at night. For WisCon 20, all eight parlors on the hotel’s 6th floor were given to WisCon free of charge. The hospitality suite, Tiptree bake sale room, and child care were assigned to three of these parlors. The other five parlors functioned as daytime program spaces and were offered to groups and individuals for open parties in the evening. As a result, the entire floor transformed every night into one very large party space. WisCon planners found it advantageous to restrict parties to a single floor because it reduced the noise complaints. But the set-up created some new difficulties when it came to assigning sleeping rooms on the sixth floor. Eventually hotel liaison Scott Custis developed an excellent system: the Concourse handed over complete control of all rooms on the sixth floor to WisCon; Custis then assigned those rooms to WisCon members who had requested the use of party rooms, smokers (since 6th floor rooms were the only spaces in the hotel in which smoking was allowed), and late registrants. The system resulted in very few noise complaints and a very happy hotel staff who subsequently recommended the system to other large conventions held at the Concourse.
Just as WisCon 20 marked the end of the time when local Madison fans populated most WisCon panels, it also marked the beginning of the end of WisCon committees staffed primarily with local fans. Some of the same local fans who had grown reluctant to sign up for panels also began retiring from the concom. In addition, some of the volunteers who had stepped forward to work on WisCon 20 had done so as a one-time project and were not interested in continuing to work on subsequent WisCons.
During this same time period, WisCon grew in length from 3 to 4 days. Its membership grew from 500 in 1995 to 1,000 in 2006, and the number of programs stayed high. Starting with WisCon and continuing through the next few years, several new ambitious programs were added: a writers’ workshop, an academic track, the Gathering, a thematic reading track, and increasingly sophisticated web-based communication systems.
Developing good communications among such a large committee scattered all over the world has presented a challenge to WisCon which had formerly relied upon monthly face-to-face meetings. Concom members learned to rely heavily upon email and web-based communications, both among concom members and with WisCon members. Telephone conference technology began to be used more often to allow small groups to communicate in focused project meetings.
A two-day retreat was held in September 2003 for all interested WisCon concom members to brainstorm about some of the challenges facing a growing WisCon, including that of communications. 24 people attended. The decision to limit WisCon’s attendance to 1,000 and to encourage the establishment of other WisCon-like conventions in other cities emerged from a long discussion of the implications of WisCon’s growing size. The attendees affirmed WisCon’s central feminist focus and talked about ways to strengthen WisCon’s core mission and communicate it to attendees. They also discussed the frequent and varied perception held by many attendees that other attendees have been unfairly privileged. WisCon continues to work on some of these problems.

WisCon’s Accomplishments

In 1991, former WisCon guests Murphy and Fowler realized that no award for feminist science fiction existed, so they invented one. WisCon proudly supports The James Tiptree, Jr. Award and continues to explore ways to deepen its partnership with the Tiptree motherboard. WisCon shares with the Tiptree organization the desire to promote and celebrate the works of writers who challenge assumptions of gender and sex.
In 2001, WisCon nurtured the formation of The Carl Brandon Society (CBS), founded specifically to promote knowledge about works of science fiction, fantasy, horror and magical realism by people of color. In 2006 CBS presented two awards at WisCon 30 to honor writers and themes of color in science fiction. The 2005/06 CBS Parallax Award, recognizing works of speculative fiction by writers of color, was awarded to 47, by Walter Mosley. The 2005/06 CBS Kindred Award, recognizing works of speculative fiction that explore or expand the conversation on race and ethnicity, was awarded to Stormwitch, by Susan Vaught.
In 2006, Guests of honor Jane Yolen and Kate Wilhelm were joined by 37 former WisCon guests for a gigantic and hugely successful celebration of 30 years of WisCon and feminist SF. The Wisconsin Humanities Council presented a major grant which helped pay for travel and housing expenses for some returning guests. In addition, WisCon received grants and donations from dozens of individuals and groups, including its partners, SF3, the Tiptree Award, and Broad Universe, among others. The celebration began on Wednesday, May 24, with a panel discussion on the UW-Madison campus hosted by the Center for the Humanities, entitled “A Feminist Utopia in Madison? Global Communities, Science Fiction and Women,” and ended on Wednesday night, May 29, as the final party of the weekend wound down. It was an exhausting, thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime event that included a telephone interview of Russ by Delany, more than 100 readings by guests of honor, returning guests and other attending writers, scholarly papers, amusing panels, contentious discussions, and WisCon’s largest dessert salon ever followed by two Award ceremonies (Tiptree and CBS).

WisCon’s Future

Several differences between the two largest WisCons cast light upon the future of WisCon. WisCon 20 was initially conceived of as a possible capstone of the convention’s feminist SF tradition. WisCon 30 was never conceived of as any kind of last hurrah; it was instead planned with the assumption that lessons learned at WisCon 30 (especially lessons of scale) would need to be applied at future WisCons. The concom assumed that WisCons would continue happening. Furthermore, WisCon 30 actually attracted many more new volunteers than WisCon 20 did, and it lost fewer to attrition. The high energy levels exhibited by WisCon 31 planners after completing the exhausting project that was WisCon 30 seems to predict a dynamic future for the gathering place of the feminist SF community.
This essay was originally published in 2008. WisCon will celebrate its 43rd year in 2019.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Feminist Futures: The Gate to Women's Country

Dossier: Tepper, Sheri S. The Gate to Women's Country [Doubleday, 1988]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Set some 300 years into a post apocalyptic future following an event called "The Convulsion", women live walled away in "Women's Country" while men are segregated into militaristic garrisons outside the walls of the city. Male children are raised by their mothers until the age of 5, at which point they are given to their fathers to be trained up as Warriors. They can later choose to stay as a Warrior or to return to Women's Country. Unsurprisingly there is quite a bit of social pressure for the men to remain Warriors and not be deemed a "coward". They talk of honor a whole lot.

The Gate to Women's Country is told in three parts and is focused on a woman named Stavia, daughter to one of the Councilwomen of Marthatown. The flashback is the driving force of the novel, which is Stavia's coming of age story and the reader's main entry into learning about the political and social reality of Women's Country. 

In the present day, Stavia's son repudiated her at the time he had the opportunity to return to Women's Country. Tepper does return to the older Stavia's storyline throughout the novel, but the heart of it really is younger Stavia as she learns both who she is as well as the truth behind Women's Country. This happens through her interactions with Chernon, a young Warrior interested in her and the journey this takes Stavia on. This is, of course, a gross reduction of the novel.

The third art of The Gate to Women's Country is both the most resonant and the most baffling. Tepper has re-written The Trojan Women, a Greek tragedy written by Euripides (here I thank the internet for this data point) as Iphigenia at Ilium and runs the reader through a production of that play and Stavia's performance . The beats of the tragedy mirror many of the beats of The Gate to Women's Country. It is through this performance that the emotional heart of the novel comes through.


Feminist Future: After an apocalypse caused by men, women have taken control and view the violent tendencies of men as something biological that needs to be controlled and bred out of the species. There is a particular biological essentialist view of civilization here that Tepper is working towards, which is interesting if, I think completely wrong. The addition of the religious patriarchal hillbilly zealotry late in the novel is Tepper's attempt to show that if left unchecked by women's power, men will invariably revert to a bestial form of civilization. 

Despite initial appearances, women are the true power in The Gate to Women's Country. Tepper posits a ruined future where women are the only real hope for a better civilization, a more equitable civilization (though one where women still have political dominion), but in order to realize that better civilization, women are working through eugenics, through selective breeding, through manipulating the social order to create a palatable future.


Hope for the FutureThe hope for the future presented in The Gate to Women's Country is Women's Country itself, and it is a deeply uncomfortable one. The women of the Council are working towards making a better future, but they are doing so through a process of selective breeding in the hopes that generations down the line, violent tendencies will be bred out of men and there will be an opportunity for Women's Country to be the pure utopia it presents itself as. 

This is...troubling, to say the least. 

It does offer hope that men will be the almost equals of women, but it is also through subjugation. Whether for women or even just for me, if given the option between Women's Country and the garrisons of the men outside of the walls, the option that presents the greatest hope for a future worth living is still that of Women's Country. The future offered by the men of the garrison or the men of the Holylanders down south is not one that I would want any part of and it is certainly not one that women would want a part of.

Legacy: The Gate to Women's Country was on the longlist for the Locus Award for Best SF Novel. It is frequently named among the most important feminist science fiction novels. It is often listed as one of Tepper's finest novels, though the criticism of the ideas presented by Women's Country are noting that they are strongly out of fashion and offensive (assuming they were properly ever in fashion to begin with).

In Retrospect: I'm not sure The Gate to Women's Country is exceptionally well written, but it is compelling to read and is increasingly so the further into the novel readers get. The Gate to Women's Country is ambitious and I think Tepper mostly succeeds at hitting the mark she was aiming for, but a lot of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. 

I get the concept of men messing up so badly that women are able to take organizational control of society (and that there will be more rural bands of humanity that have gone so far into a quasi biblical patriarchy that all I can do is shudder when reading those chapters), but the set up makes less sense than it should. Women and "cowardly" / civilized men behind the walls. Savage / Warrior men outside, fighting the battles and being manly men who embody a disgusting view of masculinity. They generally only interact on the twice annual Carnivals where the men can meet up with and mate with whichever woman is willing so as to make more babies and restock the population of warriors or the women of Women's Country. It's a weird set up that makes even less sense with the revelation that the whole system is engineered by the women to actually breed less violent men who will be compliant and choose the way of life of the women despite masculine indoctrination. 

It's just that Tepper's prose itself is one of the novel's biggest problems. This is the first of her novels which I've read, so I don't know if her writing normally clunks if you read it too fast or if this is abnormal for her style. But it is Tepper's prose that causes the novel to drag in the early going and barely gets out of the way later on when we're fully invested in Stavia's story (assuming we lasted that long). 

The Gate to Women's Country is over the top. I've been thinking about how I react to a novel going all in on an idea when I don't quite connect to it and my counterpoint is a novel like L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya, which also features overt and in your face sexism as well as striking a didactic narrative tone. Despite that, Alanya to Alanya is more personally engaging from the start than The Gate to Women's Country. Something about how Tepper uses the bold strokes she created this future with rings hollow. For me, as a reader, it doesn't work the way it should.

The Gate to Women's Country has a reputation for being among the great works of feminist science fiction, and it may have been at the time, but now thirty years after it was first published, The Gate to Women's Country does not quite hold up to that legacy. Its importance to the canon of science fiction is not in question. The Gate to Women's Country has earned that importance. Its reputation as a novel that remains great today is, however, very much in question.


For its time: 4/5
Read today:2/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Micro(?)review [video game]: Assassin's Creed Odyssey by Ubisoft (developer)

Blood on the Sand

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (ACO) is a role-playing game. I know I said it was moving in this direction with last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, but this entry in the series is as much of a RPG as The Witcher 3. But where Origins last year pushed Assassin’s Creed further into RPG territory and further away from the focus of assassinations, ACO takes this series even further from its roots. In fact, this entry may as well be an entirely different franchise.

In ACO, you can select from the start whether you want to play as Kassandra (woman) or Alexios (man). Either way, you are a Spartan in exile, a descendant of Leonidas himself, during the Peloponnesian War. In the broad game world, Sparta and Athens are at each other’s throats. In the story’s winding path, you learn more about your destiny and how the Cult of Kosmos is attempting to leverage your bloodline to control the world.

This game is enormous, and I could spend hundreds of words describing just the game. Instead, I’ll sum it by saying this is a third person character RPG in a historical setting. Even though killing people isn’t your only course of action, most missions are resolved with murder and there are four different power structures to be murdered: the Cult of Kosmos, a seemingly endless string of mercenaries, an arena full of champions, and the national leadership of the Greek states. This may sound like a lot and it is; each of those is a different tweak on the game.

The cult is hunted through finding clues, usually by killing other cultists, sometimes through sidequests. Hunting the cult is some of the most fun this game has and it ties deepest into the main plot. While most cultists are just a name, some are given personality and character, and there are some genuinely surprising reveals.

The mercenaries hunt you when you’ve committed crimes, usually murder, sometimes theft or destruction of property. They’re an endless stream of difficult enemies with unique qualities (“takes less assassination damage”, “has a wolf companion”) in a way that sort of makes it like the Nemesis system in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, except this is far less fleshed out. It’s one of the game’s biggest missed opportunities. With any amount of personality ascribed to these mercenaries, it might have added something significant to the mindless murder, but instead it’s just another long chain of bodies.

The arena, by comparison to the rest, is fairly simple; fight waves of enemies in an arena and then kill their champion boss. The fights aren’t particularly different from what you do in the game world, but they do take place in an arena full of obstacles to avoid and exploit. There’s a story to this arena that’s worth seeing to the end, but that’s about it.

The least fun of these are the nation takeovers. You have to first lower national threat levels by infiltrating forts and destroying supplies, stealing their war chest, and killing their leadership. Then you can take to the battlefield in a mass combat scenario that’s a lot less fun than it sounds. It’s just a lot of the same combat except with more enemies on screen, and most of them are occupied in fighting other nameless soldiers that are on your side, until one of the two nations wins. Your influence is in killing enemy captains and heroes, which are just the same enemies except with more hitpoints. If you were on the winning side, you get a big reward of gear. If you were on the losing side, you still get some gear. It ultimately does not matter whether Athens or Sparta controls a region, so it’s really just another lost opportunity but maybe it’s commentary on the game world.

I highlight these power structures because they’re the vast majority of the game, and where it loses the most Assassin’s Creed flavor. The focus of these power structures is mostly built on killing the people at the top, which is what you’d expect an assassin to do, but you’re not playing an assassin. The word “assassin” might not ever be used in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Where Origins reduced the functionality of the “single-button murder” that was a staple of the series, it’s almost entirely removed in ACO. No longer does catching somebody by surprise and pressing the murder button kill them outright. For most non-fodder enemies, it only takes a large chunk off of their health. The satisfaction I derived from this game was looking out over an enemy infested fort, sneaking around to kill all of the fodder stealthily, and then getting the drop on the cultist, national leader, general I was there to kill and fighting them without backup because I killed all their backup. This is a formula Ubisoft has been building on since Far Cry 2. It’s still fun, but Assassin’s Creed used to make sneaking in and just killing that one target without engaging in mass murder feasible.

Another major change is the addition of dialog options. Sometimes, you can talk your way out of bad situations. None of these are influenced by your character’s stats, which are solely focused on how easily you can kill someone, so the choice of dialog often feels like a guessing game. ACO doesn’t pretend that these choices are particularly meaningful, except that at six points in the main plot they can influence which of the nine conclusions the story reaches. Even then, the results are largely the same but who comes to the end with you changes.

This is emblematic of ACO. It presents the illusion of choice, but there’s really not much choice at all. Your choices don’t have far reaching consequences for being a story largely centered around your character’s special bloodline. The game world is wide open but it’s a static thing. Killing one nation’s leader just results in another filling in their place. Killing one mercenary moves you up the ladder, but another mercenary fills in behind you. Random name, random traits, no personality. The only murders that count are those against the Cult of Kosmos, but even half of those are just faceless people. I found two of the last ones just sitting alone in the woods. It seems that as Assassin’s Creed has opened up the world over the course of the series, it has reduced the player’s impact on it. Prior games were more linear affairs that could do things like jump 20 years in the future, or kill major characters and show the impacts of those deaths. In ACO, no one’s death means anything. By the end of the game, my character’s actions have had no meaningful impact on the game’s world. Maybe it’s a direct contradiction of the game’s “chosen one” story, or maybe it’s commentary on the meta narrative of the series, which is that all of this is largely meaningless because this world has been simulated to completion. Ancient aliens solved all of this long ago and humanity is just going through the motions. The ones who thought they could change things were wrong.

In this Assassin’s Creed game, you are not an assassin, you’re not part of a group of assassins, and you hardly assassinate anyone. In most aspects, this game and Origins before it are unlike any others in the series, and they benefit from it in some ways, but calling them “Assassin’s Creed” is a misnomer. The game is still historical tourism, with appearances by famous Greeks such as Socrates, Leonidas, Herodotus, and Pericles, among others, but it’s otherwise an entirely different animal from the series that came before Origins. I look back on the 70ish hours I’ve spent in the game, and I enjoyed my time playing it, but it’s a sort of hollow enjoyment. This is a popcorn game, tasty but void of nutrition or substance.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 it's a huge, beautiful, open world full of things to do

Penalties: -2 you spend the whole game being told how important you are, but your actions don't make any meaningful impact on the game world

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Ubisoft (developer). Assassin's Creed Odyssey [Ubisoft, 2018]