Thoughts on Wiscon 33

It’s been a pretty eventful couple of weeks for me. Last week, we took a vacation to Cedar Campus and it was the first time that I actually had fun with Daniel there.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed my time up there before, but for the most part, Daniel didn’t seem to care too much about it until this year. Perhaps there is something about when a child turns five years old that suddenly, they become more interested in the world around them, instead of it always being me, Me, ME! So we had a nice vacation.

But before that, I got a chance to spend a single day at Wiscon. Well, technically, I started the night before, when I went to a reading by Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman. But from that one single day, I could tell something right away:

This is a con I need to go to. Permanently.

I got to sit in the same room with several other black female authors who all write speculative fiction. And they run the gamut too…from vampire stories to epic fantasy. Epic Fantasy!!! It was so nice to find peers who are like me.

I got to participate in a writer’s workshop moderated by Alaya Dawn Johnson, who gave me some great advice regarding Willow (and finally convinced me to ditch the prologue. Sigh…but it will be worth it). Plus, I got to hear her read the best kick-ass zombie story ever that will never make me look at macaroni and cheese the same way again.

I got to chat a bit with K. Tempest Bradford while she was at a dealer’s table, and I got her to sign her short story she did in Sybil’s Garage #8, "Élan Vital".

I got to have dinner with Tiptree Award winner Nisi Shawl and N.K. Jemisin. The former I had nearly embarrassed myself over by having a fangirlish conniption fit when I first met her Friday night.  The latter has a book, "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" coming out next year (yayyyy!!! black female epic fantasy writer!!!). She also wrote a wonderful essay on RaceFail I raved about on a post a few weeks ago…

I got to hang out with my book club, Beer and Marmalade, which was cool because I don’t get a chance to do that often outside our meetings. I was bummed, though, that I wasn’t able to go to their party on Sunday to see Geoff Ryman <>.

And finally, SHAPENOTE SINGING!!!

There was a distinct different feel to Wiscon than the Oddcon I attended last month. Oddcon was more laid back, more casual, more geared to science fiction and fantasy in general. With Wiscon, there were numerous deep topics being discussed that I would have loved to participate in. Not just feminist in nature, but some hard topics like discussing the whole RaceFail issue and religion in fiction. It was very cool to not be the only black person there–in fact, there were several black folk who seemed to show up just for the fun of it, rather than being on a panel or a writer or anything. I wished I had time to get to know them. But the same type of community that was present at Oddcon was also present at Wiscon. It was pretty easy to walk up and talk to anyone, and the authors I saw were very approachable and easy to talk to. I wish I had a chance to take Ellen Klages up on her offer to go out for a beer and talk about writing, but I just ran out of time. It will have to happen next year.

So sorry for the truncated report. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the deeply rooted tree that is Wiscon. But one thing is definite–I do plan to go next year. I may even find a way to finagle myself on a couple of panels.

Wiscon 34…ho!

Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

I made the decision to start reading more scifi/fantasy books by people of color (i.e. black people) about a week before I learned anything about RaceFail. In February’s issue of Ebony Magazine, they listed some books to read. I usually skip over it their selections, since they usually have romance and/or memories–stuff I’m not interested in, but then I read a blurb about "The Intuitionist", a story about the first black female Elevator Inspector caught in a political war in her department. Elevator Inspector? Now that intrigued me.

Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist. She is part of a new breed of Inspectors who can go into any elevator and inspect it just by intuition. This pits them against the Empiricists, who inspect elevators the hands-on way, and who scoff at the Intuitionists, calling their methods voodoo, touchy feely.

Then an elevator falls and crashes, an elevator Lila Mae inspected and cleared. Lila Mae, who is never wrong, finds herself caught between the two factions’. It’s election time to vote in a new chair, and the two candidates, one Empiricist, one Intuitionist, push and pull Lila Mae to concede to their wishes. There is also much about the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, who hidden blueprints to the perfect elevator, and it is up for Lila Mae to find them so she can clear her name.

There’s a lot packed in this relatively short book. Whitehead (I love this guy’s last name–he’s black–did he take it into account when he decided to become a writer?) puts the setting of the book in an alternate, but close mirror of the 1930s, where mobs easily kidnapped journalists and break their fingers so they won’t print certain stories. The story has a vague steampunk feel to it with all the focus on how elevators work and the different factions of the Inspectors. It treads in the shadow of speculative fiction, though as I got towards the end, I became hard-pressed to find it.

Told from Lila Mae’s point of view, the whole subject of race is also pulled into it. We see Lila Mae breaking barriers by becoming the first colored female Inspector, but her path to get there is hard–at the school where she learns about Elevators, the only place for her to live on campus is in a janitor’s closet in an abandoned gym. And the barriers are still very much present–there is a dramatic scene where Lila Mae goes to the Elevator Follies disguised as a waitress, and she sees two of her white coworkers in blackface doing a routine. She then sees the only other colored person, who had been invited to the Follies, cracking up alongside the others. She returns to the kitchen, who are all black women, and ponder how they remain silent, doing their chores knowing full well what was happening in the other room.

When the story doesn’t linger on the intricacies of elevator philosophy, it puts us squarely in Lila Mae’s conformed-to-standard shoes. This is not a woman who stands out. What defines her is her uniformity. Her apartment is sparse, her lifestyle built on routine, until her world is shaken. We then see her life, through present time and flashback, as she begins to change from someone who follows directions, to someone who truly follows her intuition.

Whitehead’s writing is circuitous. Weaving between Lila Mae’s predicament to her past, dipping into Fulton’s long winded theories about the perfect "black box", an elevator that would transcend itself, jumping to other characters like the polite but apathetic thugs Jim and John–Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little getting used to. At times, the information on elevators get a bit much–having Lila Mae go through an oral exam was torture for me, and probably her as well. But Whitehead also surprises by showing us a slices of the 30s and 40s you wouldn’t normally see. For instance, when Lila Mae get chased by Jim and John, she escapes by ducking into a Dime-a-Dance in progress. I never knew such things existed back then. But the way he uses the venue is wonderful and touching.

The ending, for me, is ambiguous as we learn Fulton’s history and the meaning behind his invention. It feels like I need to read it over again, just to read between the lines of the whole story. But it would be something I’d would to read again, maybe even buy and keep on my bookshelf a while. Not bad for a debut book. Three 1/2 elevator cabs out of five. And watch that first step–it’s a doozy.