WisCon 39 Musings

In my last post, I promised to talk about WisCon 39. Personal stuff came up last week after the con, but I am now able to follow through. I’ll hit a few highlights, panels and events that made a particular impression, but feel free to jump around and read whichever sections catch your interest.

Little-Known Goddesses (Panel)

This panel was chock full of interesting female deities, both ones I thought I knew, and ones I’d never heard of. I wish I could give more specific examples, but tragically I lost my notes later in the night, misplacing them in a sleep-deprived fugue. One interesting point I recall was the discussion of goddesses (and deities in general) who represent both sides (or a spectrum) of a concept, such as a goddess of both life and death, or of both disease and healing.

The panel discussed goddesses from various different cultures, but I was disappointed by the lack of pre-Columbian New World deities. (I would have liked to learn more about Coatlicue, for instance.) This was no fault of the panelists, as they were each speaking to the religious traditions which they were most familiar with, and had a lot of interesting knowledge to share.

Though some audience members chimed in with questions or comments, I valiantly refrained from interrupting and derailing the panel with a soliloquy about Amaterasu and the possible matriarchal roots of Shinto.

Cultural Literacy or Cultural Appropriation? (Panel)

As a writer who tends to draw a lot of inspiration from non-Western cultures, this question is one I’ve considered often. The key takeaway from this panel was: respect. It’s perhaps reductive and naive of me to throw that word out and expect everyone to interpret it correctly (I don’t really expect that), but that’s what the consensus seemed to boil down to. Artistic expression is a kind of conversation, and whenever you enter into conversation with another culture, it needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and it needs to be done with respect.

Scientific Utopianism in the Work of Kim Stanley Robinson (Panel)

The very un-naive optimism of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s writing is one of the (many) things that makes it so compelling. Utopianism, in this context, is not the end goal, but the process: a continuous striving to build a better future. Many of Robinson’s characters are scientists who are also at the forefront of social, political, economic, and cultural change, very different and far more interesting than the apolitical walking lab-coats or politically destructive “mad scientists” that frequently show up in science fiction. Robinson portrays the ethical application of science as the way forward for humanity, but never oversimplifies it into a silver bullet for the world’s problems, a vision very much in keeping with my own worldview.

Science-Compatible Religion in Fiction (Panel)

This panel was interesting, but not what I was expecting or hoping it would be. From the title and description, I thought it would be an exploration of various science-compatible religions in various works of fiction, how and why certain examples work (or don’t), and what qualities of a (fictional) religion make it compatible with science. The panel began with a few examples, notably the “five gods” religion of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series. But rather than delving into details, the panel turned instead to various other topics, such as the relative science-compatibility of non-fictional religions (each panelist enumerating how they thought their own paradigm was or was not science-compatible), as well as whether science was itself just another religion (!). So, as I mentioned, while the discussion was interesting, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

Kim Stanley Robinson Guest of Honor Reading

This totally blew me away. Robinson’s reading was a bit of a multimedia experience (experiment?). For about forty minutes, in the dark, he read the thoughts of a quantum AI on a generational spaceship traveling close to the speed of light, while a prerecorded track played underneath. The recording consisted of an ebb and flow of voices, variously reciting the names of stars (as if charting their passage), or echoing lines from the text, or preempting lines Robinson hadn’t read yet. When the lights came on, most of the audience were tongue-tied (I certainly was), and it took a moment before any hands went up to comment or question.

When the Q&A portion ended and everyone got up to leave, I noticed a few people filing up to the front to ask for signatures. Since I’d been lugging around a big hardbound copy of The Years of Rice and Salt waiting for exactly this kind of opportunity, I joined the small line. I was glad for the chance to speak with Robinson, however briefly, and delighted to learn that of the nearly twenty novels he’s written, The Years of Rice and Salt is his personal favorite.

Communism Was Just a Red Herring! (Panel)

Despite the punny title, this panel was very well-reasoned and thought provoking. Most of the panelists agreed that there is merit in Marx’s writing, if you divorce them from the Stalinism, Maosim, and the various revolutions which tried (and failed) to put his ideas into practice in a way he never intended. Kim Stanley Robinson was a panelist on this one, and I thought he summed things up quite well (paraphrased): Marx was an excellent historian of political economics, but once he started predicting what would (or should) happen next, he moved into the territory of science fiction, and like most science fiction writers his predictions were deeply flawed.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed WisCon, and I’m glad there is a sci-fi convention with such a strong focus on diversity. I doubt it will become a regular thing for me, because of the expense and hassle involved in attending a non-local convention, but it was definitely worthwhile to get out to Madison and see what it was all about.

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