Using Sci-Fi to Change the World
Every year in late May, several thousand people descend on Madison, Wis., to create an alternate universe. Some want to build a galaxy-size civilization packed with humans and aliens who build massive halo worlds orbiting stars. Others are obsessed with what they'll do when what remains of humanity is left to survive in the barren landscape left after Earth has been destroyed by nukes, pollution, epidemics, nanotech wipeouts, or some combination of all four. Still others live parts of their lives as if there were a special world for wizards hidden in the folds of our own reality.
They come to Madison for WisCon, a science-fiction convention unlike most I've ever attended. Sure, the participants are all interested in the same alien worlds as the thronging crowds that go to the popular Atlanta event Dragon*Con or the media circus known as Comic-Con. But they rarely carry light sabers or argue about continuity errors in Babylon 5. Instead, they carry armloads of books and want to talk politics.
WisCon is the United States' only feminist sci-fi convention, but since it was founded more than two decades ago, the event has grown to be much more than that. Feminism is still a strong component of the con, and many panels are devoted to the work of women writers or issues like sexism in comic books. But the con is also devoted to progressive politics, antiracism, and the ways speculative literature can change the future. This year there was a terrific panel about the fake multiculturalism of Star Trek and Heroes, as well as a discussion about geopolitical themes in experimental writer Timmel Duchamp's five-novel, near-future Marq'ssan series.
While most science fiction cons feature things like sneak-preview footage of the next special effects blockbuster or appearances by the cast of Joss "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Whedon's new series Dollhouse, WisCon's highlights run toward the bookish. We all crammed inside one of the hotel meeting rooms to be part of a tea party thrown by the critically-acclaimed indie SF Web zine Strange Horizons, then later we listened to several lightning readings at a stately beer bash thrown by old school SF book publisher Tor.
One of the highlights of the con was a chance to drink absinthe in a strangely windowless suite with the editors of alternative publisher Small Beer Press, whose authors include the award-winning Kelly Link and Carol Emschwiller. You genuinely imagine yourself on a spaceship in that windowless room -- or maybe in some subterranean demon realm -- with everybody talking about alternate realities, AIs gone wild, and why Iron Maiden is the best band ever. (What? You don't think there will be 1980s metal in the demon realm?)
Jim Munroe, Canadian master of DIY publishing and filmmaking, was at WisCon talking about literary zombies and ways that anarchists can learn to organize their time better, while guest of honor Maureen McHugh gave a speech about how interactive online storytelling represents the future of science fiction -- and fiction in general. Science fiction erotica writer/publisher Cecilia Tan told everybody about her latest passion: writing Harry Potter fan fiction about the forbidden love between Draco and Snape. Many of today's most popular writers, like bestseller Naomi Novik, got their start writing fan fiction. Some continue to do it under fake names because they just can't give it up.
Perhaps the best part of WisCon is getting a chance to hang out with thousands of people who believe that writing and reading books can change the world for the better. Luckily, nobody there is humorless enough to forget that sometimes escapist fantasy is just an escape. WisCon attendees simply haven't given up hope that tomorrow might be radically better than today. They are passionate about the idea that science fiction and fantasy are the imaginative wing of progressive politics. In Madison, among groups of dreamers, I was forcefully reminded that before we remake the world, we must first model it in our own minds.