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A Breath of Fresh Air: On Attending (Half of) the 2014 Tiptree Ceremony

It’s not often I trek into San Francisco on a whim, but this past weekend I made an exception. Late Friday afternoon, I saw an email notification from a fabulous local nerdy organization, SF in SF, noting that due to a congruence of unusual circumstances, one of the bestowals of the 2014 Tiptree Award would be taking place in San Francisco instead of at this year’s WisCon. The site of the ceremony would be Borderlands, maybe the most fabulous genre bookstore to have ever graced the earth; the awardee would be Jo Walton, for her novel My Real Children.

I love Borderlands, enough to have been one of the first 100 people to join their sponsorship program earlier this year when they nearly had to close because of the new SF minimum wage law (more about all that here; linked post first, then others from February and March 2015). And when I picked up My Real Children on vacation last year, I loved it so much I almost didn’t leave the hotel room (my review is here). So when I heard the two were going to come together in a glorious awards ceremony, I figured it was worth a chunk of my Sunday to experiment with being a Tiptree audience member.

I am so, so very glad I did.

For those new to the concept, here is how the Tiptree Award (named in honor of author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote her sci-fi novels as James Tiptree, Jr.) is described at tiptree.org:

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. (To read her speech go to PatMurphy.pdf.) Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The essence of the award is fundamentally in tune with the larger issues WisCon seems to be primarily concerned with — issues of representation in genre fiction, of rethinking what sci-fi and fantasy “should” be about, and of opening the genre to a wider fan base and helping underrepresented fans and creators feel like they’ve got a place in the crowd. In short, it touches on a lot of the same concerns that I raise in this space: I’ve described it to friends before as “a convention for sociologically-minded nerds.” I thought about making the pilgrimage to WisCon this year, and finally decided I had too much else going on to justify the expense of a semi-random trip to Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. But the presentation this weekend reaffirmed my commitment: maybe not next year, or the year after, but soon, I will be there. And I hope that someday I’ll be able to become a regular.

Here’s what I saw on Sunday.

Once everyone had gathered, most of us chittering over newly-purchased books to be signed, emcee and author Ellen Klages called up a friend of Jo Walton’s, Ada Palmer, to first give a reading from her new book Too Like the Lightning (which I will definitely be reading when it comes out next year — intrigue and mayhem and toy soldiers! toy soldiers who come to life!) and then to sing, with her colleague Lauren Schiller, a song called “Somebody Will.” Which pretty much embodied the essence of what it seems like WisCon-oriented genre writers are trying to do, and what I’ve talked about here more times than any other topic, and how I like to live my life: the idea that change is slow but inexorable, and that each of us has a role to play in making that change a reality even if it doesn’t change in our lifetimes, and that the important thing is to do what you can with heart. Which, among other things, is a central theme in My Real Children.

Once the song had been sung and the audience had collected ourselves and stopped sniffling, Klages sat down to interview Walton about her experience as a writer; I’m not sure if this interview is available on YouTube, but it was very refreshing to hear someone admit that all the Truths about Real Writing (you must write every day and never stop; you must never give away your creative work on the Internet; you must pick a genre and stick to it) hadn’t applied to her, and that somehow her books were still winning awards (and not only “feminist” awards, either; in case you missed it, Walton’s Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 2012). Walton also discussed how she’d written My Real Children to deliberately blur the boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and “women’s fiction,” which she defined as literature whose principal tensions derive from issues central to many women’s lives — marital relationships, children, balancing work and family, getting old — that are rarely addressed in genre fiction (regardless of whether the main character is a woman or a man). She talked about how she thought these things were particularly important to include in our field, since not only was no one writing about them, but (paraphrased) “they’re unlikely to go away in the future — and if they do, then that will be interesting and worth writing about!” It resonated with other conversations I’ve read about the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and reminded me why I fell so in love with Gabaldon’s Outlander books despite their flaws. And it felt so refreshing in the wake of all the angry rhetoric that’s been thrown down in fandom this year about what kinds of stories “deserve” to be told.

And then, once the interview was done, the Tiptree committee gave Jo Walton her prizes: besides a plaque, they included money, and chocolate, and a piece of specially commissioned art inspired by the subject of her book. Ellen Klages then explained that the Tiptree winner usually has rights to wear one of the Tiptree tiaras for the duration of the WisCon weekend, and that Walton did get those rights (even though she was the guest of honor at another convention that weekend, a Tiptree representative met her there with a “spare tiara”); but that because Walton had expressed concerns that wearing a tiara was more stereotypically “girly” than she really felt comfortable with for herself, the committee had gotten her a tiara hat pin instead, to wear on her fantastic broad-brimmed hat. I was surprised at how touching I found this, maybe just because it was evidence that the committee not only knew the author but had actually taken time to take her wishes into account.

And then, before cake (because there was cake, and we all got a piece), the committee and the audience sang Walton a song. Two songs, actually; a combined round, to the tunes of Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques, with the words changed so that the songs were about My Real Children. And as I sang, with gusto, and as I looked up to the front of the room and saw Jo Walton’s face light up, I thought: this is the community I want to be a part of.

I’ve read a lot about the people in the genre fiction community over the last few months, good, bad and ugly. I’ve read George RR Martin’s long explanations of how the culture at WorldCon has changed; I’ve seen other authors I like and respect wade into the fray and try to speak reasonably; I’ve considered the Hugo nominations and decided how I was going to vote on as much of the material as I was able to take in. And honestly, it’s all left me feeling a little uneasy about pursuing a career as a professional writer. I know that all groups of professionals have politics, that there’s no getting around that — but somehow, I thought that maybe there was a niche within genre fiction where nerds who felt the way I did about the world could just get together and hang out and talk about books and how they try to use them to create positive change in the world.

This weekend, I think I found that place. And if this ceremony said anything at all about the rest of WisCon, I may have to get a ticket for next year’s Memorial Day weekend this week. Because this whole event, from beginning to end, was food for my artist’s soul. Thanks to all who put it together, and I hope I’ll get to know you better soon.