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Charlie Jane Anders, G. Willow Wilson

  • A Room of One's Own 315 West Gorham Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

Two standout contemporary speculative fiction writers kick off WisCon. Info

Anders (left) and Wilson.

Anders (left) and Wilson.

The annual WisCon, which marks its 43rd edition over Memorial Day weekend at the Madison Concourse Hotel, bills itself accurately as a "a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention," while accomplishing much more. The convention's panel discussions, workshops, social gatherings, and celebration of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award offer attendees myriad windows into sci-fi's ability to help us imagine different ways of living and to empower marginalized people of all kinds. The WisCon schedule is less about celebrating any one author than it is about highly participatory programming, but things customarily kick off on Thursday night at A Room of One's Own with readings from a couple guests of honor. This year, they're both writers I'd heartily recommend catching up on: Charlie Jane Anders and G. Willow Wilson.

Wilson's two novels so far, 2012's Alif The Unseen and this year's The Bird King, and her comics writing, including the 2007 Vertigo graphic novel Cairo, deftly interweave the magic and lore of the Islamic world with the political realities that drive her stories. In Alif The Unseen and Cairo, that means modern authoritarianism and ethnic tensions. In The Bird King, it means the Spanish Inquisition coming to swallow up a sultanate in decline. In all three, Wilson's protagonists form alliances with the jinn, supernatural creatures whose ethics and physics intersect with those of human beings in slippery and morally complex ways. Rather than dazzle or thrill by themselves, Wilson's jinn characters tend to shed light on the empathetic depth of her human characters. Alif The Unseen brings in yet another complex layer: The title character is a young hacker who runs afoul of the digital surveillance state, and Wilson turns his frenzied bouts of coding into elegant, otherworldly battles. As Alif confronts a malevolent intelligence official known ominously as The Hand, he also grapples with how to reconcile faith with the digital age, the torments of young love, and his conflicted identity as a person of mixed Arab and Indian ancestry. (Speaking of complex identities, one supporting character in Alif is, like Wilson, an American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.) The balance here of literary sophistication and solid genre-fiction momentum make Alif an astonishingly well-realized debut novel. The Bird King's tale of a royal concubine and a mapmaker on the run from a ruthless Inquisitor feels a bit subtler on the surface, but it's just as rewarding.

Anders' latest novel, this year's The City In The Middle Of The Night, takes place on January, a forbidding planet to which humans have imported their nationalistic rivalries (along with a heavy bit of denial about same) and tendency toward cruelty and conformism. Half of January always faces an overpowering sun and half remains in perpetual darkness, and human cities exist uneasily along the midway points. In one, Xiosphant, society runs on a strictly enforced cycle of sleeping and waking, an arcane currency system, and a sort of terrified regard for time itself. Police forces dump a young student, Sophie, on the "night" side of the planet to starve or freeze to death, but she survives the execution and forms a bond with an intelligent race of creatures native to the planet. This touches off a series of spartan, far-flung adventures and revolutions, but Anders winds them up into a taut structure, balancing Sophie's perspective with that of a hard-bitten smuggler named mouth. While not set on earth, The City In The Middle Of The Night shares some of the climate-crisis themes of Anders' 2016 novel All The Birds In The Sky, and both novels revolve around the stormy evolution of youthful friendships. The two novels are quite different beasts—Birds a bit more of a bizarro magic-laced fairy tale and City more of a spectacularly dark sci-fi journey. That just means that Anders, like Wilson, is a versatile storyteller who hopefully still has much to give the world of science fiction and fantasy. —Scott Gordon