Last weekend I drove to Madison, Wisconsin, for Wiscon, one of the best SF conventions in the Midwest. My travel companions were four young women, and the two-hour drive from Chicago was filled with enthusiastic discussions of My Little Pony, how to cook kale, the most satisfactory sexual positions, and who that hot-looking agent was. When I wasn’t driving I sat in the back and kept my mouth shut.
You can learn a lot about life by keeping your mouth shut. For example, I learned I definitely need to check out My Little Pony.
I learned some important stuff at Wiscon, too. Wiscon has some pretty heavy panels, with titles like Intersectionality and Feminist Community, Dogmatic Rationalism, and Performing Katniss in Print and On Screen: Gender Performativity and Deconstructing Reality TV in The Hunger Games.
No, I didn’t learn what any of those things meant. The first thing I learned at Wiscon was: Don’t volunteer to be on panels. It’s like picking my teeth with a golf club — it’s painful, and it makes me look stupid.
But the second thing I learned was: Wiscon has the best reading program on the continent. And if you’re not listening to talented authors reading their work, you’re wasting your precious hours here on Planet Earth.
So I packed my hours with as many readings as I could. At the last two Wiscons I simply followed the brilliant C.S.E. Cooney — the Queen of Wiscon, and her most gifted reader-poet — as readings seemed to spontaneously spring forth wherever she wandered. But this year she was in Ottawa giving a command performance at the most prestigious venue in the country, Canada’s National Art Centre, so we were forced to rely on our own devices. When there weren’t any readings, my driving companions and I simply created our own. In the process we were introduced to some of the hottest new writers on the fantasy scene, and several really terrific new, upcoming, or wholly undiscovered SF and fantasy novels.
Below is a list of the best of the best.
The first reading of the con for me was The Sisterhood of the Traveling Corset, featuring Tiffany Trent, Franny Billingsley, Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer.
Ellen and Caroline read an excerpt from “The Vital Importance of the Superficial,” an absolutely hypnotic tale that will appear in the upcoming Terri Windling – Ellen Datlow anthology, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells. A young nobleman goes to extraordinary lengths to recover a peculiar key left at the scene of a disastrous party… and soon discovers that he’s not the only one in hot pursuit of it.
Ellen and Caroline read their respective parts of this joint epistolary story with pitch-perfect accents and comic timing, and had the audience eating out of the palm of their hand.
Franny Billingsley read an excerpt from Chime, an enthralling tale of witches, spirits who haunt the marshes, mysterious Old Ones, and a brave heroine named Briony with a dangerous secret.
But my favorite tale from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Corset was Tiffany Trent’s The Unnaturalists.
Set in an alternate London where magical creatures are preserved in museums, The Unnaturalists follows plucky young Vespa Nyx, who is happily cataloging unnatural creatures in her father’s museum until she becomes involved in Syrus Reed’s attempts to free his Tinker family, who have been captured to be refinery slaves.
Funny, fast-paced, and packed with lively characters, Tiffany Trent’s novel captured my attention immediately.
The Unnaturalists will be released in hardcover from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers on August 14.
By Friday evening we were definitely in the mood for more readings. We gathered a small crowd in my hotel room at midnight, where the audience was treated to an excerpt from an upcoming sword & sorcery novella from Forrest Aguirre, featuring a botched theft, a relentless band of assassins, and an aspiring (and cheerfully incompetent) pair of young thieves. Next, Chicago author and blogger Angeli Primlani read a pair of hard-hitting blog posts.
Patty Templeton read a fresh excerpt from her novel in progress, a haunted historical. The scene she read — involving Abraham Lincoln in a duel-off between the rifles of William Winchester and the Henry Repeating Rifle on the White House lawn — was packed with fascinating historical detail, and Patty good-naturedly fielded half a dozen questions on her research as soon as she was done.
But the highlight of the midnight reading was a total surprise: part of the opening chapter of an unpublished YA novel by Jenny Seay, which followed the adventures of a young female wrestler.
Packed with crisp dialog, terrific characters, and all the color and behind-the-scenes action of pro wrestling, Jenny’s novel was totally engrossing. I expect big things from this one.
Saturday was packed with more great programming, starting with the Exotic Worlds reading at the Michelangelo cafe.
Brad Beaulieu read a gripping scene from his novel The Straits of Galahesh, the popular follow-up to his breakthrough first novel, The Winds of Khalakovo, both from Night Shade Press, and Chicago author Holly McDowell read a surprising and powerful excerpt from King Solomon’s Wives, a serial novel coming this year from Coliloquy.
I should have seen the ending of Holly’s brief scene coming — all the clues were there, just like the finest mystery novels — but it still managed to blindside me. A very impressive performance.
LaShawn M. Wanak read a tight and powerful excerpt from one of her latest works in progress, and Michael R. Underwood read a funny and fast-paced scene from his debut novel Geekomancy, to be published as an e-book by Pocket Star on July 10, 2012.
But the performance that really grabbed me was Derek Silver’s terrific sample of his unpublished steampunk novel, A Fever and Clockwork.
Featuring devastating water-guns, sinister drug dealers, brain beetles, and a very tough protagonist with nothing to lose, Derek’s novel opened with a bang and never slowed down. By the time his 10 minutes were up and Derek put down his manuscript, the sounds of close combat were still ringing in the room, something nasty had burrowed into his protagonist’s head, and I’d lost track of the body count.
If there’s an agent out there looking to make a name for herself, looking up Derek Silver might make a great first step.
I couldn’t linger afterwards to chat up the Exotic Worlds readers however, much as I wanted to. I had to book to make it to the next reading: Demons and Others Monsters, across the street and one floor up in the Madison Concourse Hotel.
Stacy Thieszen opened this one, with a thoughtful story titled simple “Apple,” about a woman who becomes convinced that the owl who arrives in her home contains the soul of her dead husband… until larger creatures begin to arrive.
As far as I know “Apple” is currently unpublished, but I don’t expect that situation to last long.
Lisa Blauersouth read a brief piece with an unexpected monster and a nice twist, and Carrie L. Ferguson continued the theme with a surprising and tense reading that delivered some fine chills.
The Demons and Others Monsters reading had two real highlights for me. The first came from Theo Nicole Lorenz, who gave us a complete short story of a small boy with two mothers and the restless ghost of a dinosaur in his room.
Theo’s young hero was brave, resourceful, and surprisingly sensitive to just what a dinosaur ghost might most want. The closing line of this story may have been the most effective single line I heard at Wiscon. A marvelous short story from beginning to end.
The second highlight came from Kat Beyer, who read from her upcoming novel The Demon Catchers of Milan. The brief section she read — featuring a young demon catcher being stalked by a supernatural entity during her training in Italy, her first date with a suave Satanist, and a cliffhanger ending — captivated me immediately.
The Demon Catchers of Milan will be released in hardcover from EgmontUSA on August 28, 2012. It is her first novel, and she’s already at work on the sequel.
Less than half an hour later my butt was in a chair again, this time for The Wild Ones reading featuring Rose Lemberg, Shira Lipkin, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Patty Templeton.
Shira Lipkin’s novel excerpt packed a lot of punch — it was raw, graphic, and intensely emotional. It followed a woman’s attempts to rediscover the secret of traveling to the magical world she discovered in her youth… but since she first journeyed there to escape during a horrific childhood rape, that voyage of discovery is filled with perilous memories — and perhaps even greater dangers.
Rose Lemberg read two poems, one of them a potent tribute to the members of her family who were “disappeared” in Stalinist Russia by men who visited only at night. Like Shra’s contribution, Rose’s poems were spare and devastating in their impact.
I’d never met Alex Dally MacFarlane before, but I got to spend some time with her after her reading and was very impressed. Her story “Feed Me The Bones Of Our Saints” — featuring a woman who talks to foxes, strange bones, and a hostile desert kingdom — moved in unexpected directions, and captivated the audience. It is due in Strange Horizons in July.
Later Alex captivated me and my traveling companions with tales of her travels through India, Singapore, and farther places. This is a woman with an enormous drive and literary ambition, and I’m sure she’ll go far.
But the brass ring for The Wild Ones reading was snared by Patty Templeton, who read a second installment from her novel of 19th Century ghosts, Sarah Winchester, and the Winchester Mystery House.
I’ve heard several chapters from this work in progress over the past two years, each more tantalizing than the last. But with this latest — featuring an unsuspecting young man, a traveling medicine man, a horrific death, and the ghost of a mule — she completely cemented my attention. It was hands down the most captivating reading of the convention, and one of the best fiction readings I’ve ever heard.
That wrapped it up for Saturday — and good thing too, because everything after Patty’s reading would have been anticlimactic.
But there were still plenty of good things to look forward to on Sunday, starting with the Young is a Relative Term morning reading featuring William Alexander, Ellen Klages, Delia Sherman, and Nancy Werlin.
I arrived too late to hear Nancy Werlin’s contribution, which I regret. But I did catch William Alexander’s performance of a chapter from his debut novel Goblin Secrets, and was wholeheartedly impressed.
Performance is definitely the right word. William is a natural reader, with a clear talent for theatre, and his subject matter — a goblin troop visiting a small town who lure a young boy onto the stage to portray a giant (and for more mysterious reasons) — gave him lots of opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Goblin Secrets is fun, surprisingly complex, and terrifically fast paced. I was glad I was able to buy a copy before I left the convention.
Delia Sherman — another fine performer — read from her Norton Award winning novel The Freedom Maze, the tale of thirteen-year-old Sophie, who finds a peculiar maze outside her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou — and a very strange ghost.
Set in the 1960s, The Freedom Maze has some splendid dialog and more than one elegant twist. This is another title I quickly added to my purchase list.
Every reading had at least one real standout, and with Young is a Relative Term, it was Ellen Klages. I bought one of Ellen’s first published short stories — “A Taste of Summer” for Black Gate 3 in 2002 — and since then I’ve followed her meteoric career with real interest.
But I hadn’t heard Ellen read since the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal a decade ago, when she read an unpublished story called “The Green Glass Sea” — and later complained to me that she couldn’t find a home for it, because it wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. She later turned it into the bestselling novel of the same title, which was a finalist for the Caudill and won numerous YA awards.
So I had high expectations for Ellen’s story, and I was not disappointed. She read “Goodnight Moons,” from Life on Mars, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
The tale of a woman who discovers an unplanned pregnancy on the first manned trip to Mars – a pregnancy she’s prevented from terminating due to immediate worldwide publicity and the obvious public relations consequences thereof – ”Goodnight Moons” is a punch to the gut.
It is both a new story and a very, very old one, and it brought home the cold reality of every pioneer mother who found herself alone on the frontier in a fresh and startling way.
Ellen was holding back tears by the end of her reading, and she was by no means the only one. One of the highlights of the entire convention for me — and a story that sparked a very lively lunch debate with my traveling companions.
My final reading at Wiscon 2012 was Sunday afternoon at 1:00 pm: Things that Go Clank, Twinkle, and Squish in the Night. Here author F.J. Bergmann hosted a rapid-fire reading of flash fiction by Speculative Technologies, a Madison-based group of science fiction, fantasy and horrors writers.
Speculative Technologies has published a flash fiction anthology of surprising quality, Tendrils & Tentacles, and its contributors took turns entertaining the audience with their contributions.
Readers included F.J. Bergmann, Benjamin Billman, Breanna Billman, Dan Dysan, and Julie Fitzpatrick.
A small number of Speculative Technologies members who didn’t make it into the anthology also read, which added to the variety of the proceedings.
Most impressive of these was Anaea Lay, who entertained us with the opening of Sentient Domain, an unpublished novel set in a gorgeously baroque far future where a woman who is not what she seems visits a sleepy space port… and quickly runs afoul of a subtle trap for careless spies.
And that was a wrap. We gathered our things, said our goodbyes, and the five of us crammed into Katie’s minivan for the drive back to Chicago.
Wiscon continued for at least one more day, into Memorial Day, but I had a family waiting in St. Charles and my traveling companions all had their own commitments. It was a shame to miss the last 24 hours of a great convention, but there was no doubt we’d gotten our money’s worth.
I don’t want to give the impression that Wiscon is just about readings — far from it, in fact. My thick pocket program listed 256 separate panels, parties, presentations, and special events in nearly a dozen different tracks — and that’s not even including the Gathering, Dealer’s Room, Art Show, Writer’s Workshops, Con Suite, Tiptree Auction, Green Room, and other friendly places for writers and fans to gather and talk. Wiscon is nothing if not rich in variety, and I wish I’d had more time to sample it all.
But I don’t regret a single moment I sat listening to some of the finest up-and-coming writers SF and fantasy has to offer. I left Wiscon convinced that genre publishing is alive and well, and attracting some of the best talent in its history.
Just as importantly, I left with the vivid sense that SF and fantasy writers share a tremendously friendly community, with those brilliant young writers sharing ideas, supporting each other, and working hard to mutually promote great work. That’s something you’ll see at every good SF convention, but Wiscon demonstrates it better than most.
The Wiscon website is here. I hope you’ll join us next year.