What I did at Wiscon 45: a report

Windycon.pngWhat goes on at science fiction conventions? Here’s my report for Windycon 45, held earlier this month. This is a fan-run literary convention that focuses on books and authors rather than on TV and movie shows and stars. I prepared this report for the fanzine Alexiad.

Windycon 45
November 9 to 11, 2018
Westin Lombard Yorktown Center
Lombard, Illinois

Friday, November 9

Since the hotel is located out in the suburbs southwest of O’Hare Airport and highly inconvenient to mass transit, I talked my husband into dropping me off on his way to work. By coincidence, the ride coincided with Chicago’s first snowfall and took more than an hour. (A friend kindly gave me a ride home on Sunday.) The hotel provided a very early check-in, and the 14th floor offered a fine view as big snowflakes fell onto Yorktown Center’s mall roofs and parking lots. I relaxed in the room until things got busy in the late afternoon.

Registration went smoothly, and after chatting at some fan booths, I attended my first panel, “Flash Fiction for Fun and Profit,” which offered useful hints for how to write and sell very short stories. The next one, “And Now for Something Completely Different,” featured panelists who weren’t sure what to do with the topic: “A discussion of unique and unusual genres in science fiction, graphic novels, and comics.” Instead they talked about marketing categories and how nothing can be completely different and new, which isn’t really a problem. As one panelist pointed out, “You don’t go to a play by Shakespeare to find out how it ends.”

The opening ceremony at 7 p.m. introduced the convention’s theme, Unlikely Heros, and the guests of honor: Faith Hunter, author; Galen Dara, artist; Kevin Roche, costuming (also the outgoing Worldcon chair, sporting a giant zebra-striped mohawk); Jen Midkiff, music, Bobbi Armbruster, fan; Andrew Trembley, toastmaster; and additional guests including Mike Resnick, Alex and Phyllis Eisenstein, Eric Flint, and Jody Lynn Nye. The charity, an annual feature of Windycons, was the DuPage County Habitat for Humanity.

The convention featured a wide variety of panels, concerts, filking, children’s programming, video and board game rooms, book clubs, an ongoing LED kit workshop (learn to solder!), costuming workshops (make chain mail!) and a Masquerade costume contest. A Klingon Assault Group operated a jail-and-bail to raise funds for Habitat. The Royal Manticoran Navy, which is the Honor Harrington Fan Association, raffled off games and a Kindle to fund roof repairs for the Rantoul, Illinois, public library.

An 8 p.m. panel discussed “Evil Computers” and concluded that the real evil lay in malicious programmers. I wandered around for the next hour, then moderated a panel on “Science in the Kitchen.” We intentionally tiptoed around the issue of GMOs and instead talked about such topics as industrial versus home cooking, vat-grown meat, and urban hydroponics.

By then most organized activities were over, so it was time to roam from party to party on the top three floors of the hotel and eat, drink, and chat. The spacious con suite also served free beer and wine. I went to bed after midnight, but many people stayed up later.

Saturday, November 10

I spent Saturday morning in the Writer’s Workshop offering advice (sage, I hope) to up-and-coming authors. The three in my group had sound stories, although I recommended a clearer emotional focus.

In the Dealer’s Room, I bought a pair of earrings for myself and a shirt for my husband featuring the words “Still Flat, We Checked” embroidered over a NASA-style red, white, and blue meatball. Through sheer force of will, I tried to avoid buying a book or two, but eventually I came home with one. In the Art Show, I bid on a piece and took a selfie with the Tiki Dalek that Kevin Roche brought, a tropical beach version of the Doctor Who nemesis.

After a panel on “Villains, Monsters, and Motherhood,” I took a lunch break in the Con Suite, which was serving Chicago hot dogs with the traditional poppy-seed buns and all the “dragged through the garden” toppings, as well as ketchup for clueless out-of-town guests (an authentic Chicago hot dog does not use ketchup). In the line, I met a man who had attended every single Windycon since 1973. “It’s like family,” he said. That’s something a lot of other people said during the weekend, from con co-chair Daniel “gundo” Gunderson on down.

The committee for Chicago’s 2022 Worldcon bid met to ratify its bylaws, elect its board and officers, and review progress; a downtown hotel looks likely. I attended a couple of panels, “Which Witch Is Yours?” and “Heroes East vs. West.”

I also participated in a couple of panels. At “¿Cómo Estás? Translation Challenges,” we discussed odd differences between various languages. At “Animal Typecasting,” we compared real animals to the compliant and stereotypical animals often seen in media, the kind of misrepresentation that inspired some people who saw the film Pocahontas to get baby racoons as a pet, with disastrous results.

I attended the Writers and Donuts gathering to chat with other writers and eat donuts (provided by Richard Chwedyk), then it was time for the serious business of visiting and comparing parties. I met a 30-year-old woman who had been coming to Windycon her whole life: her parents met there, they brought her as an infant, and she met her husband there, so for her the con and her family are inseparable. The Chicago 2022 convention bid party’s entertainment included an origami sheet that could be folded (with a lot of complex steps) into a rocket (befitting the bid’s slogan, “Take to the Stars”), but even with my still being pretty sober and having experienced help, my wrinkled, misshapen rocket would have crashed at takeoff.

Sunday, November 11

I learned my Art Show bid was outbid, which was sort of okay, since it was a charity auction item and the funds went to Habitat for Humanity. At the panel “The Sequel Is Finally Here!” Eric Flint provided his usual phlegmatic and wise commentary. (I ought to buy one of his books and see if I like his writing as much as I like him.) “Fantasy Chicago” discussed the weird things in the city, including (semi)secret tunnels between buildings, ghosts, and some very odd museums.

I was supposed to be a panelist on “Autonomous Cars: awesome or awful?” but the moderator didn’t show up and, to my surprise, things took a loud, contentious turn even before the panel started. So I proclaimed myself moderator and spent the hour using the classroom management skills I learned teaching teenagers to smooth out the debate, making order and fun out of chaos and yelling. Both the panelist and the audience were evenly and deeply split between feasible versus unfeasible, safe versus unsafe, and an improvement versus an impoverishment to people’s lives.

It was almost time to go home. At the closing ceremony, gundo announced that through various means, more than $1,700 had been raised for Habitat for Humanity. Galen Dara, whose art decorated the program book and Windycon website, won Best in Show in the Art Show. Party awards were selected by popular vote: Best Food and Snacks, Royal Manticoran Navy; Best Alcoholic Drink, Bar Fleet; Best Non-Alcoholic Drink, Bar Fleet; and Best Party, Moulin Rouge.

From what I could tell, everything had gone smoothly. I had fun, met interesting people, learned new things, drank tasty drinks, sold a couple copies of my book, and relaxed.

Next year’s Windycon will be November 15 to 17, again at the Westin Lombard, with the theme Space Opera. Guests of honor are Elizabeth Moon, author; Mitchell Bently, artist; Chris Barkley, fan; Harp Twins, music; and Lee Martindale, toastmistress.

World War I meant change

The Meaning of the First World WarThe Meaning of the First World War by René Albrecht-Carrié

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since this brief book was originally written for the 50th anniversary of World War I, it is in itself a historical artifact. But more than that makes it worthwhile.

Albrecht-Carrié does not try to place blame for the start of the war. Instead, “the little Eurasian peninsula that was Europe, which had conquered the world and was its powerhouse, contained too much energy and power for the narrowness of its confines. The very process of imperial activity had simultaneously furnished occasion for clashes and crises and served the function of safety valve for the overflowing energy of Europe. There was, in 1914, no more room in the world for fresh conquests.” (Page 43)

In other words, in addition to poor leadership, bad diplomacy, pent-up need for social change, and an inability to understand the new nature of warfare – what another author has labeled “sleepwalking” – the thrust of history itself pushed Europe toward a crisis that left few good outcomes, although they were possible. Poor choices meant they did not happen.

Once war began – and the book does not examine the military campaign with any depth, only the political considerations around it – all these factors caused greater change than anyone expected: politically, geographically, economically, militarily, and socially. Russia, for example, became Marxist. The United States had to get involved and become a superpower. France and Britain were bled dry. And, in the end, true peace was impossible because there were too many problems to solve. The meaning of the war could be summed up in one word, “change.”

Then World War I led directly to World War II, which solidified those changes.

Albrecht-Carrié ends the book attempting to assess the situation of Europe and the world fifty years after the start of World War I. He tries to understand what will happen with the bold and hopeful agreements that we now know led to the European Union, which at the 100th anniversary of the start of the war faces its own crisis. He also tries to imagine how the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union will go, and how the United States and Europe will finally relate.

In that way, the book ends with as much tension as it starts, a useful reminder to our time that the decades past were not as rosy and easy as we might remember. In 1964, he wrote:

“No one should be surprised to find that our time is beset by deep uncertainty and bedeviling confusion. The scientific and technical explosion is no less a source of stress than the population explosion, and the current state of literature and arts is apt expression of the search for an answer to unresolved dilemmas. But on whatever clouded course we may be launched, no one now thinks of going back to the days of 1939, let alone those of pre-1914. The First World War was a great break with the past. That is its fundamental meaning.” (Page 172)

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Where to find me at Windycon

From November 9 to 11, I’ll be attending Windycon 45, Chicago’s oldest science fiction convention. It’s a literary-based event (the guests of honor are authors, filk musicians, artists, cosplayers, and fans), with children’s programming, games, anime, panels on all sorts of topics during the day, and parties at night. Usually more than a thousand people attend.

My schedule:

Friday, 10 to 11 p.m. panel. Science in the Kitchen: How science is changing the way we eat.

Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, Writers Workshop. We’ll critique short stories and chapters of novels. Preregistration required.

Saturday, 4 to 5 p.m. panel. ¿Como Estás? Translation Challenges: What are the challenges in translating your work to other languages?

Saturday, 8 to 9 p.m. panel. Animal Typecasting: Hollywood and authors typecast all the time. Why are reptiles almost always the villain? A discussion about different animals and how they are typecast.

Sunday, 1 to 2 p.m. panel. Autonomous Cars: More and more, our cars are becoming automated. Is this new technology awesome or awful?

If you’re there, say hi!

An unlikely election night in Madrid a decade ago

In 2008, I was living in Spain. What was election night like far from home? Patriotic, for starters. And long, very long. Being six time zones east of Washington, DC, made November 4 last almost until dawn. This is an article I wrote about that night for Guidepost, the official magazine of The American Club of Madrid. Tomorrow’s election, ten years later and here in Chicago, will be very different.

“In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope,” Senator Barack Obama said in a much-quoted speech given in New Hampshire during the primaries. “Yes we can.” Full of hope, we crowded into the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid for the election night party on November 4.

Like everything else about the campaign, enthusiasm exceeded expectations. The party’s organizer, Democrats Abroad Spain, had hoped for 2,000 people at the event, which started at 11 p.m. But Obamamania had taken hold in Madrid, and far more wanted to attend. Lines several blocks long formed outside the entrance.

Inside, results trickled in. At 1 a.m., Obama got his first victory: Vermont, with three electoral votes. Everyone cheered wildly. But Kentucky, with 8 votes, had gone for McCain. A few voices booed. Then we kept waiting.

People had come ready for a patriotic party. Many were dressed in red, white and blue, sported Obama t-shirts and buttons, had the campaign logo painted on their face, or carried placards or American flags. Several men wore American flag ties. One woman sparkled in a star-spangled sequined vest.

Live music and televised results on big screens filled the ground floor of the building. The band Guns ‘N’ Butter had people dancing when the Salón de Columnas on the fourth floor opened up at 1 a.m. It was showing CNN’s election night special report on three large screens. That’s where my husband and I wound up, sharing maps and tidbits of geopolitical wisdom with old and new friends as we watched the results with undivided attention. The room was soon packed to overflowing.

At 1:30 a.m., we screamed as Obama took the lead in Florida, a sign of a possible national victory. By 2 a.m., some people were already exhausted and lay on the floor around the TV screens as the lead grew to 77-34 electoral votes. At 2:15 a.m., CNN called Ohio for Obama — great news. By 3:10 a.m., the crowd began thinning out, since the outcome was becoming clear. At 3:20 a.m., my friends and I studied a map and did the math, then considered buying a bottle of cava, Spain’s answer to champaign. But we didn’t dare celebrate, not until the final results were in. Probability wasn’t good enough. We had to be sure. We kept waiting.

As 5 a.m. neared, everyone got on their feet. The polls closed on the West Coast, and, immediately, CNN projected victory for Obama! We screamed. We hugged. Ten minutes later, we were still screaming. Yes we can. Si se puede. O-ba-ma!

We watched as Senator John McCain gave a gracious concession speech. “Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship on this, the greatest nation on Earth. Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country.”

We gave him warm applause. Singer Angie Herna took the stage and microphone and led us in a heartfelt “America the Beautiful.”

And though was already 6 a.m., no one would leave until President-Elect Obama spoke. Finally, he took the podium in Grant Park, Chicago.

“I was never the likeliest candidate for this office,” he said. “Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

A woman near me, who had painted little American flags on her fingernails, wept. My eyes were wet, too.

And so we all finally left into cold pre-dawn darkness. An unlikely candidate, an unlikely story, and hope. We can change America and the world. Yes we can.

A true ghost story

Since it’s Halloween, let me tell you a true story about a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I want to believe in this one. It happened quite a few years back when I was living in Milwaukee and I went to visit a friend’s house in the Bay View neighborhood.

I didn’t know the house was haunted. I simply said the big, colorful framed poster hanging at the top of the stairs looked lovely, especially in that spot.

“Do you want to know why it’s there?” My friend was eager to tell me. She and her family had moved into the house not long ago, and they had decided that the space at the top of the stairs seemed like a natural place for art, which it was.

So they hung up a picture. It fell down. They put it up again. It fell down the stairs and broke. They tried another picture, carefully securing it to the wall, and it, too, fell down the stairs and broke. They couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

Then one day they were talking with an elderly neighbor who had lived next door all his life. He listened to their story and sighed sadly. Decades earlier, the family in that house had a teenage son who was gay, which in those days was a terrible taboo, so he had committed suicide by throwing himself down the stairs. Ever since then, things fell down the stairs for no reason — or perhaps because the boy was still there in spirit.

My friend and her family decided to try an experiment. They bought the most beautiful gay rights poster they could find, put it in a nice frame, and hung it at the top of the stairs hoping the boy might understand that things had changed.

“And it’s still there!” she said. “I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but maybe we helped his spirit rest in peace.”

Now, I knew the neighborhood. The street in front of that house was built over an underground stream, Deer Creek. Maybe, when heavy trucks went past, they made the ground shake and the movement somehow focused on that stairway.

Or maybe there was a troubled spirit in that house, a forlorn teenage boy who had lived there many years ago. And possibly, if he had been born decades later, he would have lived in peace with himself and still be alive.