Program Participation as Civil Disobedience

British comics writer Si Spurrier, inspired by Paul Cornell’s appeal for convention panel gender equality, surrendered his seat on a panel at the inaugural Super London Comic Con (February 25-26) reports James Bacon on Comic Buzz:

[Spurrier] sought out a female creator [Tammy Taylor] before hand, discussed it, and then not long before the panel, explained himself to the SLCC organisers and fellow panelists. In fairness, everyone seems to have been very cool, the crowd reaction as Si explained himself at the beginning and apologised for the disruption, was good, and the welcome for Tammy Taylor was superb.

Spurrier acted in response to the initiative Paul Cornell announced on his blog last month. Cornell declared:

I think there should be gender parity on every panel at every convention.  I’m after 50/50, all the time.  I want that in place as an expectation, as a rule.  Now, to make that happen, what really should be done is a ground-up examination of society, huge changes at the heart of things which would automatically lead to women being equally represented everywhere, not just on convention panels….

If I’m on, at any convention this year, a panel that doesn’t have a 50/50 gender split (I’ll settle for two out of five), I’ll hop off that panel, and find a woman to take my place.  

Spurrier took this step because he, too, worries about gender imbalance on panels at comics conventions:

A lot of people don’t think that’s a problem. The argument is that there simply aren’t many women working in the industry, so why should you expect them to be represented on panels? Which is… well, it’s a bloody lazy argument – there are loads of women working in comics – but, sure, okay, fine, let’s be blunt: there are fewer women working in mainstream superhero comics than men. True fakt.

Paul’s contention is this: if we comics-people want our industry to become a genuinely gender-blind place – that is to say, a place in which a professional is judged on his, her or its merits rather than the shape of their junk – then we need to do something about the elephant in the corner: the Where-Are-All-The-Women question.

Without suggesting America can’t furnish its own bad examples, it wouldn’t be surprising if Cornell and Spurrier have been influenced by dramatic news stories published in Britain over the past few years about extreme examples of gender disparity in the publishing field, such as the Guardian’s article ”British Fantasy Society admits ‘lazy sexism’ over male-only horror book” about a collection of 16 interviews with writers that neglected to pay any attention at all to the horror genre’s female authors.

Paul Cornell feels there’s a similar injustice in the makeup of convention panels. And he’s certainly right in thinking that a convention guest who’s in such great demand as he is has more clout to force a conversation and change the game than others do.

Civil Disobedience: Cornell’s chosen tactic means reneging on a program assignment made after he agreed to appear at a con, and then unilaterally drafting his own replacement. These acts are a type of civil disobedience, directed against the people who program sf conventions.

Cornell predicts,  

50/50 will be called, and is, all the following: ‘positive discrimination’; ‘tokenism’; ‘treating the symptom, not the cause’; ‘political correctness’.  Those words are just descriptions convention organisers are going to have to get used to, until the point, in a couple of decades, where 50/50 has become ‘the way things have always been’.

In saying 50/50 is something “convention organizers are going to have to get used to,” Cornell reveals his full understanding that controversy won’t arise from his goal of starting a ground-up examination of society that leads to equal representation of women everywhere – most fans already subscribe to the idea. It will come from his interfering with the prerogatives of conrunners.

Program organizers broker the assignment of people to panels which are intended to amuse fans, play to the participants’ strengths, and raise the profiles of those who benefit from publicity. Fans who put in hundreds of hours recruiting and communicating with pros and other volunteers, analyzing their responses, and tailoring their schedules, do not react with delight when their work is appropriated as a forum for someone to act out his agenda.

That being said, if it’s a source of controversy, I guess that’s too damn bad. We organizers are the people responsible if there are gender imbalanced panels. And weathering criticism is one of the requirements of doing this and, honestly, most any work for a convention.

My Own Lab Rat: Yes, I’m part of the establishment Cornell is rebelling against. I’ve run program at several Westercons and Loscons, and worked program at various levels for several Worldcons. My most recent assignment was organizing the 2010 Loscon program.

Do I need his wake-up call? I decided to put my latest opus to the test.

I consider myself someone who invests a lot of effort finding women participants. It may be the right thing to do but it’s also an easy choice — mixed panels are more interesting for me, so that’s my inclination when I create programming. My unscientific theory is that a mixed panel deters the male dominance games and posturing that bores my socks off, whether by actually modifying mens’ behavior, or through the intervention of women panelists who won’t accept being dominated by male participants. By avoiding what bores me I expect it’s more likely other fans will have a good time.

Loscon 2010 had 140 program participants — 91 men and 49 women. We ran 91 discussion panels. Thanks to Paul Cornell’s willingness to count 2-women-out-of-5-panelists as meeting the test I can say 37 of the panels were gender-balanced. That’s 40%. What a horrible percentage! Am I in denial? Or does that number tell me I wasn’t working hard enough? Not for the sake of achieving a number, but because there usually are women writers, editors, artists and fans capable and qualified to talk about any topic. I just have to find them and persuade them to come to the con.

Calm as that may sound, it’s also just an unforced self-criticism safely tucked away on my blog. It’s probable that on-site I (or any other conrunner) will be much more emotional upon learning Paul Cornell has just reshuffled my chosen panelists and cited my work as a bad example.

It may have been that mental picture of fans being blamed for the social injustice Cornell wants to overcome that led a commenter on Cornell’s blog to chastise him for taking this public:

[Why] would you not address the gender equality issue before the panel starts? If you know that the balance is uneven, show up anyway and then step down from the dais are you not just grandstanding under the pretense of calling attention to the problem?

Yet that is the one part I have no doubt about — Cornell is taking a stand to effect widespread change. Cornell’s first step is to take actions that change perceptions of women within the publishing industry by making them more visible at conventions through an object lesson that will be witnessed and talked about by other professionals and their fans. Cornell has to announce his policy publicly and act it out publicly. If he did nothing more than have a quiet conversation behind the scenes he might succeed in getting his own panels gender-balanced but who the hell would know, and how likely is it anyone else would profit from his example?

[Thanks to James Bacon for the story.]

John Hertz: Loscon XXXVII

By John Hertz (reprinted from Vanamonde 915): The Los Angeles local con is Loscon, held over the U.S. Thanksgiving Day weekend. Loscon XXXVII was November 26-28m 2010 at the L.A. Int’l Marriott Hotel: Author Guest of Honor, Emma Bull; Graphic Artist, Phil Foglio; Fans, Kim & Jordan Brown; attendance about 1,000; in the Art Show, sales $7,200 by 42 artists.

España Sheriff, Leigh Ann Hildebrand, and Jason Schachat hosted the Fanzine Lounge: following Geri Sullivan at the ’92 Worldcon there was a Fanzine Lounge by Day in a hotel “function room” (so Leibnizian) and a Fanzine Lounge by Night in a bedroom suite; I brought a few dozen recent zines for visitors to look at, and toys. Sam Chiang, Kate Morgenstern, and Brian O’Neill helped me build the Rotsler Award exhibit in the Art Show, honoring this year’s winner Stu Shiffman.

I chose three Classics of S-F: Fredric Brown, What Mad Universe (1949); Hal Clement, Mission of Gravity (1953); H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895); the Universe and Time discussions I led alone, for Gravity I was joined by Greg Benford. Time was far the oldest and most widely popular, but Gravity I guessed was our best loved, and its hour was fullest. Maybe, someone said afterwards, that was because you were with a Famous Pro. Maybe, I said, but I think he was there for the same reason I was, and you were. However the hour kept digressing to the influence of Gravity, from the more vital question, what about the book was so good? One Universe attender had happened upon the NESFA Press collection of Brown’s novels Martians and Madness (2002) in a used-book shop; on its cover an alien reads an issue of Astounding showing the great Kelly Freas picture for Martians, Go Home (1955), by which artistic license (Kelly’s cover was for the 1976 Ballantine printing, nor had Martians been in Astounding) Bob Eggleton got to paint a cover with one of Kelly’s best images, what fun. Time, we observed, expatiated little its fictional technology, a mark of good s-f; also of all three the strange minds it met were interacted with least.

On Friday night Bull, and Will Shetterly, came to Regency Dancing. On Saturday afternoon I led a tour of the Art Show, asking as I do What’s happening in this artwork? How does the artist show us? On Sunday from 1 a.m. till dawn Becky Thomson, Tom Veal, and I hosted the Prime Time Party, with good food, drink, conversation. The final event of a con is the Dead Dog Party (customarily hosted by the current con committee, or next year’s; until the last dog is –), but there wasn’t one. At 2 a.m. on Monday the Fanzine Lounge at Night was going strong as I left.

[Editor’s Note: Congratulations to John for being selected as next year’s Loscon Fan GoH.]

Loscon Blinked

During Loscon 37’s “Delphic Oracle” game show Todd McCaffrey posed questions and the panelists built answers, each contributing one word in turn.

David Gerrold had just added the word “illuminate” when the hotel power failed. Everyone was plunged into darkness for a few seconds til the emergency lights came on.

Fellow panelist Tadao Tomomatsu, impressed by this special effect, immediately stood, bowed and salaamed David with outstretched hands.

Regular power was soon restored.

Putting in a Good Word for the Philistines

Just checking in from Loscon, where I organized the program. Serendipity plays a considerable role in this job — when I looked at the Aussiecon 4 schedule I saw they had a presentation from someone who had done archeological work on the Philistines and the subject intrigued me enought to try and figure out how to make it into a panel, though I never got very far trying to brainstorm that idea. Then, lo and behold, Dr. Hitchcock herself contacted me to say she was going to be in LA at Thanksgiving. Great! So we’ll have her Aussiecon presentation here Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in the – Houston room (at the LAX Marriott):

In the Wake of the Sea People, in the Footsteps of Goliath: The Bar-Ilan and University of Melbourne Excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath

Dr. Hitchcock writes: “To be a ‘Philistine’ has entered our language to mean uncouth or barbaric, a perception deeply situated in Biblical thought. Just as the Greeks described non-Greek neighbors as ‘Barbarians,’ so too did the Biblical writers describe people settled along the southern coast of the Levant in derogatory terms. My presentation will discuss the Aegean and Cypriot origin of the Philistines, who were reputed to be among the Sea People wreaking havoc in the Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (ca. 1180 BC). I will present recent results from the archaeological excavations at the Philistine site at Tell es-Safi/Gath (Israel), the city associated with Goliath in the Bible.  The archaeological remains of the Philistines reveal them to be a socially and economically advanced, technologically innovative (iron production), artistically sophisticated (decorated Mycenaean-Greek style pottery), and cosmopolitan culture that positively influenced the surrounding region.”

Lost: My Mind

Kaja and Phil Foglio

Phil Foglio is a Loscon 37 Guest of Honor. Now famed for his Girl Genius online comic, he came to early prominence as the artist who partnered with Robert Asprin in 1976 to create “The Capture”, a very funny graphic story presented at cons in slide show form that became the first faannish production ever nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo.  

Even though it’s Phil’s pro work that Loscon is focusing on, this was the reason I remembered “The Capture” today. Or tried to.

I don’t know if I’ve seen it again since 1976 when I sat in a darkened ballroom at MidAmeriCon while the images flashed by and Robert Asprin narrated. Or so I almost remember.

And that afternoon the hilarity and excitement built as the audience repeatedly and ever more loudly filled in the comic line that drives the story, which is….  Which is…

I thought I was losing my mind. How could I remember sitting in that ballroom and not remember the joke?

I thought — Man, I’m embarrassing myself here. What if fans found out this happened to me?

Just thank goodness that we have the internet. I knew Google would save me because it can always find the answer even when my question is wrong.

Except not today.

You know the joke about trying to look something up in the dictionary that you don’t know how to spell? It’s like that. If you misremember the catchphrase as being “no such thing as ____” there isn’t a search engine in the world that can help you.

Originally I expected Google or Bing to return the answer if I merely searched Foglio and “The Capture”, but that was too general for them to work with. That search returned a lot of websites that know a coloring book was made from the show art, or that Robert Asprin shared credit, but provide very little detail about “The Capture” itself, not even the iconic tagline. Nor is there a Wikipedia article about “The Capture”, only a reference to it on a disambiguation page, and another in the article about Foglio himself, “The Capture” formatted as one of those pathetic red-colored links Wikipedia uses when it wishes somebody would write an article about the thing, except nobody does because they’re annoyed that the last entry they did had 17 warning labels slapped on it by the Wiki guardians for bad formatting, lack of citations and halitosis.     

So I recommend that if you ever find yourself in a situation where Google and Bing have failed – and with the onset of increasing age who won’t? – you should do what I did.

Ask Craig Miller.

He’ll know.

Once Craig reminded me about gremlins I could get any search engine to fill in the rest, just like a bank that’s always ready to lend money to people who don’t need it. “Gremlins do not exist!” is everywhere on the internet. Armed with the correct catchphrase it is no trouble at all to find thousands of references, including the concise description I will use as a closing quote, written by Jerry Pournelle as part of a reminiscence about the late Kelly Freas:  

Kelly was the “star” of a famous science fiction skit called “The Capture”, based on the premise that a World Science Fiction Convention was held on a cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle, and the inevitable happened: all the passengers were taken aboard an alien spaceship. The skit was done as a series of reports by the alien expedition commander. Most of the reports received advice from headquarters that “Gremlins do not exist,” although it was clear from what was going on with the detainees that perhaps there was a gremlin among them. It would be no favor to Robert Asprin and Phil Foglio who created this remarkable presentation to try to summarize it, and I don’t suppose it was recorded, which is all our loss.

Loscon GoH in Crosswords

Emma Bull, one of Loscon 37’s guests of honor, was featured in the LA Times crossword puzzle on November 17.

Her first name was the answer to the following clue:

37 Down: “Bone Dance” sci-fi author Bull (four letters)

Science fictional references crop up in the puzzles with some regularlity and I became intrigued to know who writes them and does he or she have a connection with fandom?

Fred Piscop constructed the November 17 puzzle. By all accounts he’s a star in the world of puzzle-writing, though without any direct connection to fandom that I’ve been able to research so far:

Fred Piscop is from Bellmore, New York.  A graduate of Cornell, he took up puzzling full-time in 1995 after being laid off as a computer tech support specialist for a defense contractor.  When he’s not puzzling, he plays keyboards in a rock band, samples microbrews, and collects spelling errors in comic strips.

[Thanks to Steven H Silver for the story.]

John Hertz: Classics of SF at Loscon 37

By John Hertz: We’ll do three Classics of SF discussions at Loscon XXXVII, one book each.  You’ll be welcome to join in.  Each book is well known in our field, worth re-reading or reading for a first time now.

Our working definition is, “A classic is a story which survives its time” – there are classics in other media too, but these happen to be stories – “which, after the currents change which might have buoyed it, is seen to be valuable in itself.”  If you have a better definition, bring it.

Fredric Brown
What Mad Universe (1949)

Let us enjoy this wonderful book.  What are its best moments?  Seeing the run-down Space Girl in the criminals’ bar after the dazzling Betty Hadley has explained the costume?  Realizing that a man who can write will always be able to earn his way – maybe?  Discovering why things are so strange?

Hal Clement
Mission of Gravity (1953)

Called a perfect hard-SF novel by many thoughtful readers, this is a remarkable character study – of its alien protagonists, for whom the human visitors we so sympathize with are the author’s foils. He was active as both fan and pro. The title is typical of his puns.

H.G. Wells
The Time Machine (1895)

Of our three classics, this is far the oldest – and best known outside our field: why?  The title is one of those brilliant coinages which, once uttered, seem so obvious they pass into everyone’s use.  We in fact see only two times; the more gripping is narrated in a way which, upon reflection, is quite suspect.  And the Time Traveller never returns for lunch.

Loscon 37 takes place Thanksgiving weekend, from Friday, November 26 through Sunday, November 28 at the LAX Marriott.

Heinlein Society and Biographer at Loscon 37

I’m putting together the program for Loscon 37, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend (Fri-Sun) in Los Angeles at the LAX Marriott. Over 75 writers, artists, editors, filmmakers, and (of course!) fans have already agreed to participate. This post launches a series of highlights I hope will make you interested in coming to the con.

William Patterson Jr., author of the new biography Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve, will speak about the Dean of Science Fiction on a panel at Loscon.

He’ll be joined by Dr. Robert James of whom Patterson says, “He’s the authority on Leslyn Heinlein and at the Heinlein centennial interviewed the last surviving Heinlein relative who knew Heinlein’s first wife, Elinor Curry. He’s one of the main people I leaned on for help while writing the book.”

And the Heinlein Society, led by new President Mike Sheffield, will hold its annual membership meeting on Saturday at Loscon. Mike writes:

Anyone is welcome to attend. We’re a non-profit, so all our business is a matter of public record. Only Heinlein Society members can vote on the board positions that are up for re-election, of course. But the official business will probably not fill the entire time slot, and we’re looking forward to having people ask questions get to know us during the remaining time.

Update 09/30/2010: Corrected to Dr. Robert James.