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.


Analytics

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]

Thursday Morning Superhero

If you are reading this in the morning then there is still time to help Cullen Bunn's latest kickstarter fund.  A Passage in Black is a horror anthology that sounds amazing and is under $1,000 from funding at the current time I am hammering away on my keyboard. Regardless of if it is funded or not by the time this posts, you should check it out and support an amazing looking project.


Pick of the Week:
Outer Darkness #1 - I am not sure what the hell I just read, but I enjoyed it and am looking forward to the second issue. John Layman is sticking with his biblical themes and is bringing the reader in to the Outer Darkness of space where there may or may not be the gnashing of teeth. Disgraced captain Joshua Rigg is forced back into the military service where he is leading a mission to retrieve something from the Outer Darkness. In my favorite scene in the book, Rigg is forced to feed the demon that powers the god engine in the ship a trio of criminals. One of the criminals pleases him and he has her reassigned as ensign as her skill set may come in handy.  I am very intrigued by this book and curious to see the role that gods and ghosts will play in this wild science fiction tale.

The Rest:
Dead Rabbit #2 - Now that Dead Rabbit is officially out of retirement, he recruits his old wheel man to help him with at least one score. With his wife's medical bills stacking up and little time to properly plan a job, Dead Rabbit decides to hit a bank he robbed 20 years prior. The terror on the bank manager's face tells us all we need to know about his reputation prior to his first retirement. The only problem with bringing in additional people to help you with your score is that you open up new pathways into anyone who wants to bring you down. I think Dead Rabbit is about to quickly learn why you don't want to upset people like Don Digirolamo.


Leviathan #3 - A comic about the biblical beast Leviathan penned by Layman and illustrated by Nick Pitarra is the hilariously entertaining gory mess that you would expect it to be. This issue brings in a priest who confronted Leviathan many years ago (in a nursery featuring Harry and the Henderson art on the wall!) and is fully aware of the threat that has been summoned by Goth Jimmy. This series has been a complete trip and is well worth your time and energy. Layman also doesn't hold back with his jabs at the current administration.




Star Wars Adventures: Destroyer Down #1 - Breaking from the Adventures mold a bit, this is a complete mini-series that tells the reader about a famous Star Destroyer from two different perspectives. One perspective is its life on Jakku, while the other is when it was in active duty for the Empire. On Jakku it is a fabled ship that was part of a legend and nothing more. A sand storm uncovers the supposedly haunted vessel and there is a race to salvage parts from the beast. I am down for any story that sheds more light on Rey and am enjoying a story in two different eras of the Star Wars universe that are intertwined.  Very excited to see where this is heading.




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

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Feminist Futures: Amazons!


Dossier: Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Amazons! [DAW, 1979]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary
Amazons! is a slim anthology from DAW books, collecting 13 tales of "Heroic Fantasy" with women protagonists. As that genre description suggests, most of the stories here are  secondary world fantasy, involving warriors of some form, although a couple do stretch the definition beyond that. The contributor list is formidable: Andre Norton, C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Megan Lindholm (better known now as Robin Hobb), and Elizbeth Lynn all put in appearances. There's even a contribution from Joanna Russ in which she compiles and speculates on the fantasy worldbuilding of Emily Bronte, and the queen of her fantasy childhood world of Gondal.

The editor of Amazons!, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, is known to me through her Tomoe Gozen series of novels, which are on my "must read someday" list. Through this anthology, I also learned that in the late 70s she was editor of a small press zine called Windhaven, which apparently printed both fiction and non-fiction from a feminist angle. I couldn't find any issues of Windhaven online in my admittedly short research attempts for this piece, but I'd love to know if any of it is still accessible to audiences of the intertubes. 

Feminist Future
Although most of its content isn't as overtly politicised as some of the other works of this period (or, indeed, from these authors), Salmonson makes it very clear in her introduction to the anthology as a whole, and to some of the individual pieces, that this work is very much situated in the context of feminist SFF and its concerns at the time. Her introduction, which reminded me of Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought", she notes the historical legacy of women warriors from cultures across our world, and the way in which these have been forgotten or overlooked by writers. In line with that, Amazons! feels primarily like a reclamation - using that legacy to re-situate women in the myths and archetypes that heroic fantasy builds on, and showcase the potential that these magical worlds have for telling stories beyond those of gruff half-naked murder-men. This is also the first fiction anthology I have read with a "further reading" section at the back, which feels very fitting: Joanna Russ' seminal How to Suppress Women's Writing was still a few years off at this point, but I have no doubt that the community represented here were already well aware of the cycles of erasure and lack of canonisation that disproportionately impacts women's work.

Hope for the FutureAs an anthology, there's obviously no one worldview being portrayed here. However, the dominant theme of the anthology is one of triumph, and almost every story ends in an unambiguous (though not necessarily simple) victory for the worthy hero who has put themselves out there to achieve it. There are only a couple of stories where this victory is predominantly against "the patriarchy", such as "the Woman of the White Waste" by T.J. Morgan; more often, any struggles that women face by virtue of being women are secondary to the main plot.  It's not all happy endings, however: some stories, like Cherryh's "The Dreamstone", are tinged with tragedy (although I understand Cherryh updated the ending of this story in later printings), or "Morrien's Bitch" by Janet Fox.

LegacyI read Amazons! in 2018, sandwiched between the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon, a trilogy about a sheepfarmer's daughter who finds her calling as a warrior, and Redemption's Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky, in which a woman veteran seeks restoration after killing the renegade demigod who took her entire world to war. In that context, the legacy of Amazons! - and, perhaps more importantly, the writers in it and the movement it represents - is one that has made a huge difference to the range and depth of well-crafted woman-centred fantasy narratives out there to discover. Reading the anthology has definitely piqued my interest in the stories that prefaced full novels, namely "The Dreamstone" - which started the Ealdwold series - and "Bones for Dulath" by Megan Lindholm, which was the first appearance of Ki and Vandrien (although neither is a work that the authors are primarily known for now). 

It's also important to note that this is likely the first major SFF anthology edited by a trans person. While this doesn't really affect the content, I think being aware of the position that trans and queer authors have played in the genre - and particularly in the feminist SF of this era, which often feels a bit "heterosexuals and binary lesbians only" in its focus - is very important to counter the erasure and objections to "exceptionalism" that queer voices still face in genre today.

In Retrospect
Basically, it's hard not to believe that Amazons! is a victim of the genre's own progression since the point at which it was written. While the stories still hold up, for the most part what makes them radical is the presence of women protagonists, rather than any inherent message in the stories themselves. Salmonson specifically notes in the introduction to Tanith Lee's stories that she had passed up more "message heavy" submissions when she felt these detracted from the story, because "the depiction of strong women in heroic fantasy (or any other art) is, in and of itself, so innately political to our male-dominant society that any additional polemic is redundant". While I follow the logic, I don't think this was as true in 1979 as Salmonson believed (this is a very white lineup of authors and there's no overt recognition of intersectionality between gender, race and other marginalisations which were just as salient then as now). 

Moreover, I certainly don't think that its true any more: I could probably fill a library with books about "Strong Female Characters" who spend their time getting rescued and/or undermined despite their expertise, and take time out of their limited third person narratives to describe how their breasts feel at random moments. An anthology of stories which just happens to be about women - especially when most of those women happen to be straight and white - isn't inherently radical now in the way Amazons! was intended, and while that description does a disservice to the intent that clearly went into this volume, it's a sad fact that the impact of the stories themselves has been largely lost in the intervening years.

That's not to say there isn't still relevance here, and areas where concerns authors were raising in 1979 are still with us today. This is particularly the case for perhaps the most morally ambiguous, and interesting, story of the bunch: "The Rape Patrol" by Michelle Belling. This is effectively an urban fantasy about a group of vigilante women who hunt down men who have committed crimes like rape and assault, and dispense their own violent justice upon them, before disappearing back into their regular lives. "The Rape Patrol is uncompromising and strongly resonated as a tale of holding men accountable for gender based violence in the face of systems that fail to do so - a story which most of us will find all too familiar.

As a whole, Amazons! is, I think, a book we should know about, whose overall message and design resonates across the ages, even where its specific content has not retained its radical intent. It's a book I'd love to see back in print, at least as an e-book, and one that I'd recommend picking up if it crosses your path. If nothing else, you'll have a diverting evening with a series of kickass women to look forward to - and lots of further reading to follow up on once you get to the end.

Analytics

For its time: 4/5
Read today: 2.5/5
Wollstonecraft Meter: 6.5/10



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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Microreview [Book]: The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The long-awaited sequel to Dickinson's brutal tale of economic intrigue is a difficult but worthy instalment.


It's been three long, interesting years between the release of Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant and its fair to say this long-awaited sequel, in which the Traitor becomes the Monster, has been one of my most anticipated releases of the year. The Traitor Baru Cormorant blew me away when I read it in 2015: I was still relatively new to modern adult SFF, and at the time I didn't realise that it was possible to capture this type of political and economic intrigue in fantasy. Baru's journey from island prodigy to rebel leader was immensely satisfying, as was the fact she was doing it all as a civil servant. Then, like all books, it ended, and as anyone who has read it will sympathise, it ended like that. I lost hours of sleep. If you haven't read the book and don't know what I'm referring to, let me warn you not to look for queer happy endings in this otherwise magnificent book and send you away to do what you will.

The Monster Baru Cormorant starts with a new perspective on that very scene: (really, this is your final spoiler warning) the death of Tain Hu, Baru's Aurdwynni lover, as part of her induction into the inner circle of the Empire of Falcrest (also known as the Masquerade), aka the imperial power that conquered her childhood home and ruined her life. This outwardly heartless act turns out to be the key to putting Baru beyond the empire's plans for her: the empire's elite "cryptarchs" are selected not just for their value, but for having a particular person or secret that the empire can blackmail them with and keep them in line. By refusing to beg for Tain Hu's life as she is executed (a decision which Tain Hu herself made and insisted Baru agree to), Baru becomes one of Falcrest's very few "unbound" cryptarchs, a position which unsettles and impresses the other cryptarchs around her. Her promotion also throws her into a world where, perversely, everyone is now aware of secrets she had previously guarded on pain of death, just as her peers are now open about their own secrets. In Falcresti terms, Baru is a "tribadist" -- that's "lesbian" to you and me -- a sexuality subject to severe punishment in a society that values its version of heteronormativity above all else. To make matters even more interesting, a head injury at the very end of Traitor has left Baru with dextral hemineglect, a neural condition where she is effectively "blind" and cannot pick up signals or exercise full control over the right side of her brain.

I wish I could say I had time for a reread of Book 1 before diving in to The Monster Baru Cormorant, but life is what it is and I ended up returning to Falcrest without the opportunity to refresh my memory on what had come before. Luckily, there's a slow start as Baru is inducted as a cryptarch and adjusts to her new normal in the relative comfort of the Elided Keep, which means there are enough reminders about her two-faced plan to bring Aurdwynn to the brink of victory to jump in without previous events fresh in one's mind (this recap will also help). That said, the first section of this book was far from my favourite. Perhaps it's the weird nicknames, which makes everyone sound like they should be bit players in a Warhammer 40,000 Imperium fic, and which seems out of place in Falcrest's otherwise deliberately sterile culture.

Or maybe it's the sterility itself that's the problem here. The Masquerade is a compelling villain, representing a creeping totalitarianism clothed in civilising influence, but up close it's by far the least interesting culture in Dickinson's otherwise vibrant world. Most of the time this is a feature, not a bug: by making the empire clinical and soulless when it isn't actively employing sexual violence and lobotomies to control its populations, we can't help but root more desperately for the generally more benevolent, or at least more human, cultures that risk being wiped off the map. However, it means that the scenes where Baru -- now, in a move which I really can't take seriously, calling herself "Agonist" (luckily Dickinson doesn't push this too hard) -- is getting to grips with her new role feel a little devoid of anything except relentless, unpleasant political scheming.

Luckily, it doesn't take long before Baru and some of her fellow cryptarchs, including a new-ish "friend" called Apparitor (snort) and Baru's old enemy Xate Yawa (who also now has a silly nickname that I've deliberately forgotten and refuse to look up), are sent off to the known world's remaining superpower, a federation of states called Oriati Mbo. Having subdued Aurdwynn's civil war, conquering the Mbo is next on Falcrest's to-do list, and rogue navy captains and awkward Mbo involvement in Aurdwynn notwithstanding, they'd like to do it without descending into all-out war. Unfortunately, hot in pursuit of Baru and co is Tain Shir, Tain Hu's cousin and former prodigy of Cairdine Farrier, the same older cryptarch who trained up Baru. Tain Shir, having heard of the execution of her cousin, has taken it upon herself to hunt her down and show her the "error" of treating people as disposable elements of her plans. Baru herself responds to this with a combination of intense grief and a sense of sunk cost fallacy: she has to succeed, because the woman she loves has died to make it happen. Interspersed with Baru's adventure on the high seas, Dickinson also weaves in the past and the present of a prince of the Mbo, a non-binary "laman" called Tau-indi. Tau provides a window into the culture of their people (which is much more interesting than Falcrest, because everything in this world is), and on meeting with Baru becomes the token cinnamon roll in a story that's otherwise teeming with vipers.

Once again, it's interesting to see Baru's status as an "economic savant" played out in Dickinson's well-realised world, where her toybox is the economics of empire and conquest. Now that we're past all the twisty betrayal stuff, Baru's motivations and actions are generally more straightforward and limited in scope: she spends most of the book in situations where she doesn't have the power to for kind of machinations that brought down Aurdwynn. I spent a lot of time musing on the way that Dickinson portrays political change and the impact that the cryptarchs have: Baru herself, and her mentors in this book, seem to conceptualise politics as a "great game", to the point where the cryptarchs literally have a strategy game designed to model their own world that they use to consider scenarios to bring down Oriati Mbo. In the real world, of course, the causes of political change are complex and can be modelled only in statistical probabilities, if at all - there is no way to trace causes of political change in the way that a strategy game allows. Ultimately, the narrative recognises this as well , and it becomes even more clear in this volume that Baru's ability to manipulate political situations is actually more a talent at coming up with a plausible move in any given circumstance, rather than having power over long-term outcomes. Where The Traitor Baru Cormorant was about the shock of seeing a character turn their extensive powers towards unforgivable goals in the name of protecting something even more valuable, The Monster Baru Cormorant is about watching that character come up against the limits of their own power, and what it means for someone whose reason for existence is so singularly focused towards overcoming that limit.

Whether this book will work for you, of course, very much depends on how much time you have for this particular character study, especially given the grimdark fantasy backdrop Dickinson sets it in. If you read The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and maintained sympathy for Essun and the awful choices she makes in response to a world that wants to destroy her, Baru's journey may well appeal along the same lines. Interestingly, what I think sets Baru apart from Essun is her ambition, a trait which female characters (and real human people) are disproportionately punished for having. Baru is setting out to secure the survival of her people and their culture, where Essun simply wants to exist freely; does the fact that Baru's atrocities are in pursuit of that wider goal, rather than pure self-preservation, contribute to her "monstrousness"? It's a compelling question, if you buy in to what Dickinson is doing here: but this is definitely not a book for everyone. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which is honestly an enormous disappointment in a book that was so long in coming! The acknowledgements assure me that the end of Baru's journey is already written, but I am somewhat nervous about the lack of publishing date.

If The Monster Baru Cormorant lacks the "wow" factor I found in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, that's probably a reflection of where I am as a reader rather than the quality of this book. Readers who enjoyed the first will find a worthy continuation of Baru's awful adventures, with more of the same political scheming and cultural clashes that made the first book so outstanding. At the end, I feel like this review could ramble for another 5,000 words about different elements of this book (gender! hemineglect! Tau! The Lloysdanes! Xate Yawa's schemes! The Cancrioth!), and perhaps that's the best stamp of approval I can give a book like this: I'm not sure I agree with every choice it makes, but it makes me want to sit and reread and unpick it more. I'll be scheduling a full series reread before the final instalment for sure, and I can't wait to see how Baru's mission ends.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +0 no, you don't ACTUALLY get a bonus for avoiding more tragic queer deaths. +1 dense political worldbuilding which left me with a lot to think about.

Penalties: -0 I'm not penalising Baru for being an "unlikeable" female character with ambition either, no matter how reprehensible her means of achieving it are; -1 the slow start and cliffhanger ending make this a frustrating volume from a storytelling point of view.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

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.

Reference: Dickinson, Seth The Monster Baru Cormorant [Tor, 2018]

Frankenstein at 200: What Monstrosity Looks Like

One might have been forgiven, in 1966, for thinking, "Welp, that's the end of Frankenstein, right there." It was in that year, you see, that the world got Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. In this, um, "movie," notorious outlaw Jesse James escapes down to Mexico, where the only doctor in town, and the inhabitant of the ancient castle in the village — you know, one of those great ancient, European-style castles that tiny Mexican villages are always known for — is Doctor Frankenstein's granddaughter. Not daughter, but that's the least of our worries. Jesse's traveling with his only surviving gang member, Hank, who's hurt. When Maria Frankenstein, the "doctor," sends Jesse out into the village to get medicine for Hank, she takes the opportunity to chop out Hank's brain, give him a new one, and turn him into a beefy kill-machine. Even when compared to its awful, awful companion film Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, produced by the same company in the same year, this movie is stunningly incompetent. Words simply fail.

If it were a piece of literature or a cultural icon any less durable than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, it would have seemed like the gas tank was entirely empty at that point. The book was 150 years old, after all, and James Whale's iconic films were both over thirty years old, and had been followed by over a decade's worth of increasingly dubious sequels and spin-offs that saw Frankenstein's monster paired with several members of the Frankenstein family tree, the Wolfman a few times, Dracula, Abbott and Costello, and...at some point, who could even keep track? So when you've got fly-by-night, drive-in movie producers putting Frankenstein's heirs in the Old West, it would sure seem like the creative well was dry, and the world might have had its fill of Frankenstein movies.

And yet.

You may recall Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe's recent turn in Victor Frankenstein. Or you might recall the stage play Frankenstein with Sherlock Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller. Or, unfortunate soul, you may recall the film I, Frankenstein in which the creature gets caught up in the, um, ancient war between...*checks notes*...I guess gargoyles and demons? And there were in the 1990s Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, which featured time travel, and Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which featured Branagh and Academy Award-winning screen icon Robert DeNiro wrestling naked in some type of amniotic goo. The point is, if the world should one day tire of reincarnating Mary Shelley's creature, it will be a long, long time hence.

But Shelley's work has invited re-interpretation ever since its original publication 200 years ago — even by Shelley herself. The book first achieved prominence not upon its initial, anonymous publication, but upon its first adaptation to the stage, in 1823. The success of the stage play led to the publication of the second edition of the novel that same year, and the first time Mary Shelley was credited as the author. In 1831, Shelley herself radically altered the text, and published a new version of the book, which takes much of the blame for the events in the novel away from Victor Frankenstein and attributes it rather to fate. There is something primal in Shelley's story, something fundamental that has found continued resonance with the human spirit even through the seismic upheavals in culture, society, and technology that have taken place over the last two centuries.

Shelley's original version of the text carried this epigraph, taken from Milton's Paradise Lost:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Guillermo del Toro has called Frankenstein the ultimate teenage novel, a book forever echoing familiar adolescent feelings like, "I didn't ask to be born," and "How can the people who gave me life not understand me at all?" That is an apt observation, and almost certainly contributes to the book's longevity. And it can't be ignored that Shelley wrote the novel when she was a teenager, herself. But baked into del Toro's observation is a perspective, and it is the Creature's. Del Toro's implicitly suggesting that the reader does and should identify with the Creature, and it is the "monster" who is the point-of-view character. I feel the same way, which is something I discussed in the first installment of this series.

But I also feel that the lessons of the novel, or the cautions and warnings baked into it, extend far beyond one's adolescence and are lessons we must continually re-examine and re-visit on a societal level, specifically because of the cultural and technological upheavals that have led from Shelley's youth to our present. We have accrued greater power over life and death than ever could have been imagined in even the most outlandish speculations of 1818. The casualties of World War I 100 years later could scarcely have been imagined, let alone the notion that organ transplants would one day become routine medical practice. The "horror" of Shelley's imaginings — pillaging corpses for their organs to put into another body — has now saved countless lives. And, unless I am consumed by flame and if I die with my driver's license on me, one day part of me will live on in someone else. Hopefully it's a good part...

As long as humankind is faced with the question of "Though we can do this thing, should we do this thing?" I believe Frankenstein will stay with us, constantly re-invented and re-imagined for our times and our contemporary struggles. And, sure, for crappy movies here and there that are just trying to get mileage from the name. But Mary Shelley seemed to believe that Victor Frankenstein was the guilty party, and his creation Frankenstein's first victim. That's how I read it, anyway, sitting here 200 years later. And that remains instructive. What are the ramifications of our decisions? Our technologies? Our innovations? What might the human cost be? What constitutes "acceptable losses" in the pursuit of knowledge?

But maybe none of this applies to you. I doubt it applies to me. I am neither a creator of technologies nor a wielder of great power. So the thing that I take away from Frankenstein, and the thing that maybe we all need to be reminded of more than anything else, is that those who are different from us are no less human, and we all, in fact, have an obligation to one another. This is not, I think, a lesson we will ever fully learn, and if we need Mary Shelley's Creature to remind us of this from time to time, then long may he live.

Published by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer for nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, songwriter, and longtime Franken-fan.