Such is life in the 21st Century Midwest. The long view on a cultural milieu in which I (partly) grew up, is not why I'm here, though. I'm here to be a major geek by attending the annual feminist science fiction convention, Wiscon, until recently the only of its kind, and still the largest and preeminent. Here's where our nation's smartest and most enlightened nerds exclude the lesser media (games, television, films and comic books) in favor of literature and raise science fiction to a literary endeavor. Here's where, supposedly, our geekelite wrangle the free reflection of the identity politics of the day through fantastical and futuristic fictions. And here's where the cheese really hits the fan.
I started my Wiscon experience having my palms read by a woman whose heavy cleavage was liberally bedecked with chest hair. No, San Francisco, she's not a transsexual on hormones. This was, presumably, a naturally occurring phenomenon, and one, I dare to suspect, more commonly occurring than we know. What makes this Wiscon is that she was wearing a low-cut top and baring cleavage. The (to urban hipsters) scary and (to urban hipster haters) refreshing thing about geeks at all, and about smart Wiscon nerds in especial, is the Dare To Be Ugly ethos. You've never seen so many unkempt beards (yes, there are men at a feminist sci-fi convention), unwashed pony tails (especially those topped by balding domes), elastic-banded waists, and too-fast, nervous elevator talk in one place before. (Well, you haven't. I have.) My condescending tone aside though, this is a place where looks really don't matter, dress really doesn't matter, your understanding of fashions -- be they textile or literary -- doesn't matter. What matters is what of that stuff between your ears you can put on the table, and how nice and friendly you can be doing it. It's not the pretty society, but it is, in the abstract, the ideal one. You go, nerds and nerdlets!
Thus far I've attended panels and heard papers on The Colonial expressed in science fiction (and was told by a man claiming American Indian ancestry that my criticism of whites who "go native" was a projection of 21st Century ideas onto the 18th); The expression of honor in "Star Trek"; and Our Love/Hate Relationship with Fashion Dolls (including Barbie.) Later today I will take in Buddhism and Taoism in Science Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy as a Teaching Tool, and probably yet another reading. And tonight I'll attend my third round of parties on the sixth floor of the hotel. Yep, it's a convention; the only thing I need to complete the experience is a hot tubbing moment.
For those nerds isolated out in the "mainstream" world, where realism, and especially gritty urban realism, is the height of literary legitimacy, conventions such as these are essential to maintaining healthy self-esteem and a community of the like-minded. But even within a gathering of outcasts such as Wiscon, there are minorities. My most meaningful event so far was my attendance at the Carl Brandon Society panel. The Carl Brandon Society (named after the fictional African American sci-fi fan invented by white writer Terry Carr) is a newly-incorporated collective of speculative fiction writers of color first convened at Wiscon in 1999. Thus far their only programs aside from gatherings at Wiscon have been a website with a national events calendar, a very useful annual bibliography, and a listserv: i.e. all virtual. Gettin' ambitious now, Carl Brandon is planning more substantial, in-person activities which necessitate money, and is therefore instituting membership.
Only about 10 or 11 people attended the panel. The base of anger, stubbornness, and consciouness of self in a contrary space, that underlies all ethnic-specific endeavors, appeared at its odd moments to contradict the language of togetherness all ethnic-specific endeavors must adopt. I felt very much at home suddenly. Later that day, when explaining what the Carl Brandon Society was to an English fashion photographer (himself rather out of place at Wiscon), he laughed at me and said, "I have more color than you do! I want to be a person of color too!" I laughed, but felt even more powerfully after that how little headway the Hyphen Magazines of the world have made. Look here at how many ways there are to exclude and to simplify people. Look here at how equally important it is to ally yourself and to maintain your integrity as an individual. I hope that's what I'm doing here.