Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Report from Gaylaxicon 2005

July 04, 2005

Approaching Boston, the bus was delayed by holiday traffic, and the con organizers weren't kidding when they said that the walk from the Kendall Square T stop to the Hyatt Regency Hotel was long; the overstuffed weekend bag slung over my shoulder made it even longer. After trudging many boring blocks, I was relieved to see first Amesbury St., then the small but clearly identified courtyard of the hotel -- and writer-auctioneer Ellen Klages, just in from Ohio, snagging a porter to help unload her PT Cruiser. I hadn't seen Ellen in about seven years, but I recognized her and she recognized me and I finally believed that I really was in the right place.

While the hotel clerk searched for my name in the computer, I tried to orient myself to my surroundings. Irregularly pentagonal, the lobby was the base of a central atrium. On one side keyhole-shaped, glass-walled elevators rose past tiers of balconies, one per floor, and a huge U.S. flag that had to be about eight balconies long. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that many underground cities and starships in science fiction novels resemble the con hotels where their authors spend so many weekends. A few minutes later, I was ascending to the seventh floor, alternately fascinated by the people receding below and the cables visible through the glass ceiling above. After following the signs and fumbling with the card key, I finally found both my room and my roommates for the weekend, Billie Aul and her husband, Tim Smith. It was Billie who persuaded me to attend my first Gaylaxicon since 1996 and my first con, period, since 1998. (For which, many thanks!)

Registration accomplished and joined by their friend Paul, we cabbed it over to Central Square for dinner at Asmara, an Ethiopian restaurant. The restaurants of Martha's Vineyard are, to put it mildly, not especially diverse, even in summer when they're all open. Indian, Thai, Greek or Middle Eastern? Hah. Ethiopian? Hah hah. In other words, Asmara was a major treat. We ordered a sampler of vegetarian and meat dishes, which arrived artfully arranged on a big circular tray with plenty of flatbread to eat it all with.

Gaylaxicon 2005 officially began with the opening ceremonies, followed immediately by the presentation of the 2004 James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, which honors fantasy and science fiction that explores or expands ideas about gender. "The Tiptree" is one of the wonders of the modern literature. I was at WisCon 15 (1991) when it all began and was variously involved in the early years, mainly recommending books and then chairing the 1994 jury. Unfortunately, because its inspiration is feminist and its focus f/sf, too many modern literati have never heard of it.

The award ceremony demonstrated several of the characteristics that make the Tiptree great. Emceed by the aforementioned Ellen Klages, assisted by Debbie Notkin (Debbie chaired the very first Tiptree jury, and both she and Ellen are on the Motherboard), it was fun, funny, inspiring, and contagious. The 2004 award was presented to veteran U.S. sf writer Joe Haldeman for Camouflage and to Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo for Not Before Sundown (U.S. title: Troll: A Love Story).

Because the winners were announced earlier this year and because the Tiptree organization (informally known as the Secret Feminist Cabal) pays the winners' expenses to the award ceremony), both Joe and Johanna could be showered in person with prizes and accolades. The tangibles included an original work of art based on the winning book, gourmet-quality chocolate (a Tiptree tradition -- from its inception the award has been partially funded by bake sales organized by supporters in the U.S. and several other countries), a stunning tiara, and a check for $1,000. The accolades included a serenade by an ad hoc chorus of "Tips." Johanna's song was "Happy Trolls to You," and I can't remember the title of Joe's but it was based on the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies.

Both books had sold out in the dealers' room by the time I got there the next morning, so I'll report on them at a later date. You can find out more, lots more, about the Tiptree and about the 2004 winners and short-list titles at www.tiptree.org. All the winners and short- and long-listed titles from 1991 are on the site, most with annotations -- just in case you've run out of things to read, or you want to try something new.

I'm a morning person. Few science fiction people will admit this in public, so I won't identify the con-goers whom I saw out and about at 7 a.m. -- looking downright awake, I should add. Me, I set out from the hotel at 6:15, with the idea of finding a place to have breakfast that wasn't the hotel restaurant. After a pleasant stroll down Memorial Drive, watching the rippling light on the Charles River just to my left, and a return trip along the mostly residential blocks at the backside of MIT, I was still hungry. I wound up eating in the hotel restaurant.

I picked up some good tips on self-publishing at the 9 a.m. Alternative Publishing panel, then headed off to the first panel I was on: Gender Biases Among SF Editors, Publishers, and Reviewers. This evolved to include a discussion of the dearth of reviews generally and of how the Web can be used effectively to publicize good out-of-the-mainstream books. My next panel, GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) Literary Awards, covered the pros and cons of awards in general and the awards that are of particular interest to gay and lesbian (etc.) readers, writers, and publishers, among them the Tiptree, the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards (for more about this, read on), the Lambda Literary Awards, and a couple of other independent press awards that have categories for GLBT literature.

The Spectrum Awards presentation followed, and I was overjoyed when the best novel prize went to Laurie J. Marks for Earth Logic. Two years ago I was on the Spectrum jury that named as best novel Marks's Fire Logic, a stupendously good fantasy novel whether or not you're interested in lesbian or gay literature. The competition that year was fierce: the finalists included The Fall of the Kings, by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman; Solitaire, by Kelley Eskridge; and Dance for the Ivory Madonna, by Don Sakers (which I just finished rereading, and it's every bit as good as I remembered it). I picked up Earth Logic in the dealers' room and promise to report on it before long. (Laurie is nearly done with Water Logic, and the projected Earth Logic will conclude the tetralogy.) Next came a panel discussion of Tiptree Award History and Process, with panelists Margaret McBride and Cecilia Tan from the 2004 jury, Ellen Klages, Debbie Notkin, Jeff Smith (a former juror, current Motherboard member, and literary trustee of the James Tiptree [Alice Sheldon] estate), and yours truly.

Dinner followed, then the masquerade, and after that a panel discussion on "What Makes It GLBT?" In characteristic sfnal fashion, this grew out of an e-mail discussion over the last month or so among Billie Aul, Don Sakers, sf writer Melissa Scott, and me. This in turn grew out of an ongoing conversation between Don and Billie, which in turn grew out of some correspondence Billie and I had in the wake of the 2003 Spectrum jury deliberations, in which Don's novel Dance for the Ivory Madonna was a top contender. Confronted with several top contenders, we jurors fell back on the award criteria, which specify "significant, positive GLBT content." This Ivory Madonna has, but it isn't as front and center as in several of that year's other finalists. So does a work have to emphasize gay characters or gay themes (e.g., coming out, homophobia, HIV/AIDS) to be gay lit? Does it have to be written by a gay author? Do gay (and lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) writers bring something to our work that transcends character, theme, plot, and subject matter? Juror Donna Simone coined the word "meta-gay" to describe this "something," and by happy coincidence Donna came to Gaylaxicon 2005 and was roped into our little conspiracy. Melissa wasn't able to attend, but we'll catch up with her later. The discussion was exhilarating and, needless to say, to be continued, in whatever forums, small or large, we can create for it.

Both my Sunday morning panels, Embracing Difference and Writing Gay Characters, are similarly open-ended subjects. Falling asleep the previous night, I thought that "embracing difference" had to be like embracing a porcupine: if it didn't prickle, your embrace was pretty weak. We managed to push beyond the platitudes and to diversify our ideas of what diversity is, and so consider whether it's a worthy ideal, or even a possibility, in all circumstances. One of my favorite rants these days is about how for many progressives, feminists, and liberals these days "diversity" includes people of other colors, genders, sexual identities, etc., etc., but not Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people who live in "red states." Without doubt I'll be ranting in this bloggery in subsequent weeks and months, so I'll leave it at that.

After extended lunching and kibitzing I headed out around 3 p.m., though the con doesn't officially end till tonight, with the traditional Dead Dog Party/Dance and watching Boston's July 4th fireworks display from the hotel's top-floor ballroom. I splurged on a cab so I wouldn't have to schlep my suitcase, by now several books heavier, back up Vassar St. to Kendall Square. Caught the 4 p.m. bus out of South Station and the 6:15 p.m. ferry out of Woods Hole. Collected Rhodry (and a beer and some conversation around the kitchen table) from the Lobdells' and settled back into my apartment. Great weekend all around. It won't be another seven years before my next sf con: I've buckled down to serious scheming about how to get myself to WisCon 30 next Memorial Day weekend.

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