Whisper Network Failure

(Warning: Long, possibly rambling, rather serious post ahead…)

There has been a discussion among various authors I know in the SF community about whisper networks recently–or maybe that’s a conversation that’s been going on for ages, and the whisper network only just reached me. Hard to tell, obviously.

Quick crash course in terms and examples:

Whisper networks, as I hear the term used, are basically the thing that a community or social group (i.e. SF fandom) uses to warn each other about missing stairs. (Christ, what a lot of jargon already…) Which is fine and good and a very valid community coping mechanism when, for whatever, reason, you can’t FIX the stair. There are plenty of people in SF fandom, for example, that cannot be “fixed”–they are what they are and they aren’t going away and whatever they are doing is either not illegal or not actionable and so a whisper network springs up to say “Hey, keep an eye out for Person X, and don’t be alone with them/engage them on-line/enter a business arrangement with them/whatever the particular issue is.”

For example, I am told that it was apparently well known that Isaac Asimov was a serial groper back in the day, nobody in power considered this “serious” (or they thought it was funny) and so the whisper network went around that you didn’t turn your back on him and you stayed out of arm’s reach or stuff would happen.

Which is really shitty, on one level, because nobody was fixing it, but people absolutely needed to be warned, so…whisper network to the attempted rescue.

The problem with this, of course, is that if you aren’t lucky/social/lucky/friends with somebody in the know/lucky, you don’t get the memo, and the next thing you know, you’re in the wrong elevator and there’s a hand on your ass, and if you’re even more unlucky, you say to someone “Dude! Person X grabbed my ass!” and they say “Oh, yeah, that’s just X, he does that. Didn’t anyone warn you?” and then not only did you just get your ass grabbed, you get made to feel like you’re stupid/unobservant/not even worthy of someone trying to warn you because no one cares what happens to you because you must suck.

Everybody with me so far? (Feel free to chime in in the comments if I am Getting Shit Wrong. This is being written fast and furious and my verbage is not as careful as it probably should be–if I say something stupid, point it out to me and I will correct if possible!)

I am a prime example of people who are failed by whisper networks. I have a wide circle of generally good friends in fandom who would totally jump in to save me if my car got a flat, but who honestly might not think to tell me that Person X is a missing stair, because they would assume that A) hey, I’m smart, I already know, and B) it’s such an awkward conversation to have, and C) everybody knows, don’t they?

And I am bad with names and bad with faces and while the vast majority of my fans are very good, once they figure this out, about saying “You know me from X,” so I can go “RIGHT! YES!” nobody in the history of the world is going to come up at a con and say “You know me from the time I grabbed your ass in an elevator.”

My entire connection to the whisper network is from pretty much two people who know me well enough to know that I don’t know and I have, I am afraid, already forgotten several of the names they told me, because I have a hard time processing stuff that’s not written down and so there is a non-zero chance that some day I will be squinting at a nametag and burst out with “Oh! You’re the ass-grabber! Right, I remember now!” and it will be awkward, although there is probably an argument to be made that in such case, I am a bumbling Nemesis of Social Consequences.

(Dealers and artists, let me add, are broadly the exception to this–the vast majority will be delighted to run down every person who comes by the table who is awesome or terrible–“Did you get the guy? With the thing? Oh god!” and “Yeah, don’t take his commission, he nit-picks for weeks,” but also “He is fantastic and I will introduce you tomorrow,” and “She is the sweetest person in creation, if I had fifty commissioners like her, I would be the happiest artist on the planet.” But you still have to show up where there are dealers and artists, which is not always feasible, and increasingly is much less connected to SF writer fandom, which is the pool I am slowly sliding into.)


At WindyCon–where I personally had no problems or complaints at all, let me say straight up–I was on a panel about social media. (This is what spawned the whole post, incidentally.) And the conversation turned to the whisper network, and Recent Events and the things that everybody knows.

At least two people literally said “Everybody knew…” about MZB and I still don’t know if they were being sarcastic and my body reading was just off, but I tensed up and wanted to scream because I didn’t know. And maybe everybody did know in nineteen-sixty-freaking-three, but a goodly percentage of those people have died or dropped out of fandom or moved off the grid because life sucks sometimes, and if you keep not mentioning it because why bother, everybody knows, eventually you are standing in a room where nobody knows except you and you don’t say anything because dude, everybody knows.

Well, maybe they knew all that and were saying it ironically, because I would like to think that, and I am just humorless about this topic and not everybody you meet has body language while sitting in a chair that I can read with flawless accuracy. Because I grew up on Sword & Sorceress and it really kind of mattered to me a LOT but there’s Being A Fan Of Problematic Things and then there’s this. ‘Problematic things’ to me is enjoying Baby, It’s Cold Outside, and doesn’t come anywhere near this shit.


That’s not the bit that spawned the post. That bit I have not yet processed and may go to my grave not processing and even if I process it, I still might not talk about it in public, because there are living victims out there and that’s way more important than my bullshit.

The bit that spawned the post was five minutes later.

The bit was when somebody was explaining the whisper network, and saying “We all got told not to get in an elevator with–well–certain authors–or we’d get groped–”

Author X,*” muttered someone in the front row, not quite under her breath.

“Author X?” I said out loud, more startled than I probably should have been. “Seriously?”

“No, it was Author Y,” said someone else.

“I thought Y was just a drunk.”

“No, X was the drunk, Y was just annoying.”

“Look, they were both gropers,” said someone else, exasperated.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said, displaying my awesome professional panelist demeanor, and dropped my head in my hands. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Was this true?

I don’t know. How could I? I’ve never met either of them. I’ve never had anyone come up and say “Yeah, avoid X,” or even “Avoid Y because you’re his type,” (although I have heard that is a thing.) All we have are rumors, and the occasional acid statement “Oh yeah, he’s a great guy to hang around with. If you’re male.” and frankly, I am lucky as hell to have gotten that much. I don’t know if it’s not true. I’d probably stay out of elevators with them, though, and in that regard, the whisper network has done its work well.

I don’t think this was a conversation unique to this panel or this con. I suspect variations on this go on everywhere, whenever you get chunks of fandom together. (Hell, if anything I’d say it was a tribute to Windycon feeling safe enough for people to say this out loud.)

There are too many of us. Maybe fandom got too big, or maybe it just got too fragmented. We are ten thousand little circles that talk to each other, mostly in person, sometimes not at all. (Hell, I know of at least one problem in the local scene, but I couldn’t tell you his name if my life depended on it. I knew it for the two days when I was reporting him, now I’m reduced to vague physical descriptions and hand-waving, because my brain can retain shocking amounts of bird fieldmarks and the Latin names of plants and is absolute shit for other things. If I ever meet him again, sans certain context clues, I will walk right by without realizing that Angry Bald Man once had to be deployed to keep him away from a dealer at another convention. But hey, if there’s a Virginia Rail perched on his head, I’ll be able to ID that sucker cold.)

Well, I got this far rambling. If I were a good and sensible columnist, I would provide some thoughtful solutions for how to make things better, but I’m not and I can’t because I don’t know.

Really smart, canny, kind people, who understand other people on a level that I kinda don’t, have been beating their heads against this for ages, and the best anyone can seem to come up with is that we need to get the whisper network working better and louder, while we are trying desperately to fix missing stairs.

Maybe there isn’t a fix. Maybe this is just a function of what happens when you get a bunch of people together in groups–certain people who can milk the system of courtesies and politenesses and benefits of the doubt, a system that is flawed, but nevertheless allows a hundred humans to get into a closed metal tube for six hours and then all disembark alive at the other end, which the primatologists tell us is not something you can expect chimps to do.

Anyway. that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s discouraging and I don’t know the answers, but there it is.

*They said a real name. I know it. Probably you know it. For various reasons, some of which will be obvious in another few sentences, but also including the fact that I don’t know if it’s true because I’m not in the goddamn whisper network, we will be using pseudonyms.**

**Sadly, for all I know there’s a dozen people in the audience who know, from those remote clues, who was under discussion. Which is sad. And I don’t want to name names because I’m afraid of the potential backlash, and that’s maybe sadder. But I can’t police this space as tightly as I need to, and I don’t know if I can keep it safe from a really dedicated troll onslaught, and as is the entire point of my post, the whisper network is fucked up. So, err, please don’t name names here, if you think you know them, because I don’t know and can’t deal right now.


I was the Toastmaster for WIndycon 41! It was awesome. I mastered a lot of toast. That toast didn’t know what hit it.

Also, I was made to talk in public, but that seems to have gone pretty well. Nobody threw things at me. I will never be an improv actor or stand-up comic, but with a friendly crowd hoping that Opening Ceremonies will not run four hours long, I am generally capable of being funny without being malicious and keeping a running commentary going, which is 95% of the job. The other 5% is reading little scraps of paper that people keep handing you with desperately vital announcements on them, usually written in somewhat cramped cursive that you are puzzling out while trying to talk.

It was fun and I was fairly lightly scheduled and didn’t do a dealer’s table, so it all worked very well. Got to see many great friends, drink with some of them, hang out with lots of authors (many of whom are also friends), be on panels that were occasionally contentious and eat ghost pepper ice cream. I regretted one of those decisions very much.

Kevin was inducted as a member of Dorsai Irregulars, a con security group that he’s been working with for a few years, so my booth babe is now lost to me forever and Taliabear will probably be stuck helping me man tables until we are old. (And if any of you from Security comes after HER, swear to god, I will cut you.)

If you are unfamiliar with any of these people or with how con security functions, just assume Kevin won a lifetime achievement award for “Most Likely To Run Toward The Sound Of Vomiting.”* The award is shaped like a hat. Anyway, I’m proud.

As is usually the case after a weekend of extroversion, I slept for approximately fourteen hours today and plan to do so again tomorrow. Lotta fun, would do it again, need nap now.

*This is 20% of con security. 40% is giving directions, 20% is checking badges and managing signing lines, and the other 20% of classified.

Achievement Unlocked: London & Berlin

We are back from the wilds of Europe!

…wow. That was pretty awesome.

So much happened that I feel like I have no chance of talking about all of it. It was Kevin’s first trip out of North America, so it was awesome to be able to take him there, and it was only my second as an adult. Loncon was actually fantastic, and there is just no comparison to the Worldcon in San Antonio. And Eurofurence was amazing and I had so much fun. They took very good care of us.

Since I have absolutely no way of breaking down everything, here is a partial list of interesting things I did or discovered or saw or thought or whatever.

1. It is super weird to take the Tube in London and see all the station names and know that they are attached to places that you’ve read about. I never disbelieved in Hyde Park or the Tower of London, you understand, but it existed in my head in bookspace rather than realspace and thus on some level was lumped with Narnia and Pern and New York and other questionably existent places.

2. The ravens at the Tower of London are enormous.

3. I got to meet Terri Windling and talk to her for awhile and tell her that the Wood Wife is one of my great comfort reads and that was really wonderful. Also Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman and Amal El-motar and Terese Nielsen Hayden and SO MANY OTHER AWESOME PEOPLE. And a bunch of them knew I existed! What’s up with that? How did they know that? These are real people with names on books! I draw honey badgers on the internet! How is this my life, again?

4. Aardvarks are much bigger than I thought they were. They’re like the size of pigs. Holy mackerel.

5. I still vaguely regret not buying the T-shirt with the Underground logo that said “Mind The Gap” on it.

6. Crosswalk signs in Berlin are very strange.

7. The British Museum goes on forever. Every single Brit I spoke to about it uttered some variation on “Oh, yeah, that’s where we keep all the stuff we stole!”

7a. We spent about two hours at the British Museum and it pretty much destroyed our sense of age. You walk in and look at paintings painted when our country hadn’t been founded yet, you think “Old.” Then you go down and there’s the Rosetta Stone and statuary from 1500 BC and you go “Really old.” And then you wander into the room where they’ve got ancient Chinese jade and there are pieces from 5000 BC and you go “These were really old when they were carving those statues downstairs.” And then you go through another room and another room and hey, look, it’s artifacts from Jericho. And those were ancient when the jade pieces were carved.

Kevin sort of gave up at that point and started clutching his head and heading for the gift shop. Unfortunately for us, on the far side of the gift shop was a library with stuffed hoopoes. Great! And also hand axes, which were dated at something like 400,000 BC, and at that point you are standing on a fractional sliver of the vast sweep of human history and you realize that if civilization were pounded into dust tomorrow, it would be the eradication of an exceedingly brief anomaly.

And then you go buy a hot dog stuffed into a hollowed-out baguette, because really, what else can you do?

8. Hot dogs stuffed into hollowed-out baguettes are awesome.

9. Both hotels, in London and Berlin, did these massive breakfasts like they expected we were preparing for a nine-day siege.

10. The Brandenburg Gate is amazing and I am a terrible person because all I could think for a minute on seeing it was “Hey! I built that in Civ 5!”

11. It is very surreal to walk through Berlin and keep seeing this meandering double line of bricks. It’s where the wall was. Every now and again that realization would kind of grab me by the throat. That happened in my lifetime. I watched that wall come down on TV as a kid. And here I am, many thousands of miles and over two decades away from being that kid and I am actually standing here staring at the place where the wall was and a whole city that has basically put itself together in the aftermath and things grind in my head between real and unreal.

12. I just don’t get currywurst.

13. The European way of living with WWII is a lot different than the American one. A very nice German woman in London gave me directions to an old Templar church, which she said was the best in London. “Of course, we blew out all the stained glass in the Blitz,” she said cheerfully. “Pity we didn’t get [German train station],” muttered her (British) friend. “Yeah,” said the German woman, “if you had, we could have built something that actually worked.”

There is no possible response an American can make to any of this, beyond smiling and nodding. This is a far greater culture shock than little things like lack of public restrooms.

14. There is a near-total lack of public restrooms.

15. German coffee is mediocre. British cream is amazing. I am told that German beer is basically the greatest thing ever.

16. The British version of Indian cuisine lives up to all the hype and is incredible.

17. You can sell alcohol at a dealer’s table in Berlin. We were seated next to the schnapps dealer. One of them spoke very good English and helped me navigate a phone tree to figure out where my laptop had gone to (answer: left on plane flying into Berlin) and the other spoke virtually no English. He and Kevin, with a mutual vocabulary of perhaps ten words, managed to have several lengthy discussions of techno music. Apparently “oontz” is universal.

18. Losing my laptop was very stressful, but I tried to make the best of it. “We will go in early on Monday,” I said, “and check with lost & found. I am sure the airport is run with typical German efficiency!”

“….No,” said one of our German hosts sadly.

Despite this, after a lengthy wait in a line full of increasingly angry people, I got into the Lost & Found and said “I left my messenger bag on this flight, it had a laptop–”

“Brown leather, Macbook Air. Wait here.” Two minutes later, I was reunited with my laptop. So that was nice.

19. There is this moment where you are standing in an electronica dance party full of furries and somebody hands you a straw and you are drinking Cuba Libres out of a gallon bucket with a group of fursuiters and you think “How is this my life, again?”

20. When the con sends a limo to pick you up that is made out of five Trabbis welded together and the limo driver is explaining that these cars are made primarily out of pressed wool and incidentally, that’s the Reichstaag over there and you think “How is this my life, again?”

21. I would love to go back.

MythCon & Other Awesomeness

Back from Mythcon! Which was fantastic!

Seriously, if you told me I’d enjoy an academic conference that much, I…well, I am generally too polite to call anyone a liar to their face, but I would have been deeply skeptical. But it was awesome! (Collaborative Beowulf readings. Who knew?* Also there is something deeply surreal about being in a room where everybody else can recite the opening to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.)

It was a great honor to be able to present the Mythopoeic Award (“The Golem and the Jinni” won) and I’m trying to get the text of my speech edited to post here–it’s the usual thing where you write the speech and then you spend the hours beforehand scribbling margin notes and cutting bits, so what I wrote is not exactly what I said. Will try and badger it a little closer and then will put it up here. (I mean, it’s mostly about the revelation about Aslan being Jesus, and some of you have heard variations on it before, but there’s also a lot about how I wanted to be Smaug when I grew up. Anyway, everybody laughed–a lot–which is what I ask for in a speech and they did not repo my Aslan statue, so it’s all good.)

Also, while I was gone, we cracked 500 copies sold of Toad Words! (We’re actually closing in on 600, at the time of this writing!) And how cool izzat?

And my ARCs of Castle Hangnail arrived and oh my god, it’s finally a real book. That one seemed to take forever–it’s the witch book–although it was actually a pretty fast turnaround as these things go.


(I’ll try to do a giveaway or something–AFTER I get back!)

Now I get basically two and a half days to prep for London. Madness! Bunnies!

*The organizer laid out the Anglo Saxon version and the translation and asked people to come up and read if they were moved to do so. Kevin said “Oh my god, it’s English major altar call!” And it totally was. And it was pretty darn awesome. The con-chair is apparently an authority on the subject, judging by the young man who read in the original language, then collapsed in his chair behind us, panting “I read for Drout and he didn’t throw me out of the room!” as if he’d just won a gold medal. It was pretty delightful.

Site Update!

Hi gang, Kevin here. I know I don’t post here often (and, I admit, Ursula doesn’t often enough, but I digress…)

I’ve made an update to the site today, namely a new FAQ Page! It’s a lot prettier and easier to update, and I hope you like it.

Also, Ursula and I are preparing for DucKon 2011, where she will be Artist GoH, and our annual trip to Pittsburgh for AnthroCon! We are, as always, excited to hang out with friends and fans at both conventions, and hope to see you there.