Convention Review

The 2017 Celsius 232

The 2017 literary festival of science fiction
Avilés, Spain, 19th - 22nd July 2017


The important thing to say from the start is that Celsius 232 (or Fahrenheit 451 as some would have it) is an annual, Spanish literary festival specialising in science fiction - it is NOT a convention as many convention-goers would define it. It is held in the coastal town of Avilés, in the Asturias region of northern Spain, and is sponsored by the town's authorities. It has no membership - one just turns up. This is its 6th year.

The event sprung from the Semana Negra [Black Week]), a long-running literary festival that is held in the nearby town of Gijón every July. In 2012 a change in local politics resulted in the event receiving lessening funds from the authorities and so in order to preserve the science fictional aspects of that festival, especially as one of their guests that year was George R. R. Martin, local translator Cristina Macía negotiated with the authorities in Avilés for a separate festival specialising in the genre of science fiction. Since then (2012), both festivals have continued to run and Celsius has continually grown.

Avilés is an industrial town with a working port, receiving both cargo ships and smaller cruise liners. Whilst much of the town is newer and has many high-rise blocks of apartments (which always seem so much better and more natural on the continent) it developed round an old town and the latter is very pleasant (though there is nothing wrong with the newer parts). The old town is completely pedestrianised with stone-paved streets, some of them arcaded, lined with old buildings in good repair, and has many street cafés and bars. As is common in Spain, the town takes a siesta in the afternoon when the temperatures are at their highest, though many of the café/bars remain open for drinks and sometimes light snacks. It reawakens in time for the evening and as a consequence the nightlife goes on well into the early hours! Not much English is spoken in the area so detailed communication could be a problem for those not speaking Spanish, though with good will on both sides I managed to get by when ordering drinks and meals (especially as most restaurants had some sort of English version of their menu). Being on the northern coast, the summer weather can be a little warmer than England but it is much cooler than inland (as some of the Spanish fans enthused) - and it can rain (so pack a brolly!).

It is not necessarily the easiest of places to get to as there are no major airports nearby. Asturias International Airport (also known as Oviedo airport - code OVD) is some ten miles away (but many miles from the town of Oviedo!). It is a small, rural airport and served by only a few airlines though it does have direct flights from London’s Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted airports. As well as reasonably priced taxis, there is a regular bus service into town. Personally, I flew into Bilbao, rented a car, and enjoyed two hundred miles of coastal, rural, and mountain scenery.

Being a festival, you simply arrived, collected a programme of events from Tourist Information, your hotel, or the like, or even read the huge poster in the town’s main square (the Plaza de España) in the heart of the old town, and decided what to go to. The larger talks, panels, and interviews were held in the auditorium of the Cultural Centre, just a couple of minutes walk from the main square, whilst the smaller ones were held in the large marquee erected by the entrance to the Centre. The marquee also housed several of the dealers, the rest being accommodated in very usable, lockable, wooden cabins specially erected in the small square outside, including the excellent Gigamesh bookstore from Barcelona. All-in-all, it was a very compact site.

The immediate area is blessed with many street café/bars and restaurants so there was much social life as people naturally congregated, enjoyed drinks, went for meals in ad-hoc groups, and generally just hung out. The main square was used in the later evening for showing movies on a giant, blow-up screen and, the evening weather being very pleasant, this was very enjoyable. I watched some of Guardians of the Galaxy and Alien ;  both had Spanish soundtracks and subtitles but I knew the plots anyway so this really did not matter. Although there were many chairs arranged in the centre of the square, I preferred to sit to one side in one of the street cafés and watch from there, a beer readily to hand.

Predictably, most of the programme was in Spanish and, like many Brits, I am genetically programmed to speak no other languages; equally predictably(!) most of the programme was therefore of little use or interest to me. However, there were a number of English-speaking guests and they gave their interviews and panels in English so I was provided with at least some items worth my while attending. The British guests were: Ian Watson (writer and Celsius committee member), Ian Whates (writer and publisher), Ian McDonald (writer), Pete Crowther (writer, editor, and publisher), Mike Carey (writer), Jasper Fforde (writer), Joe Abercrombie (writer and film editor), Lisa Tuttle (writer) (OK, American originally but now a long-term Brit), Rhianna Pratchett (journalist, video games and script writer), Keith Stuart (writer), Amy Alward (writer), and Jay Asher (writer). There were also guests from the USA: Ann Leckie (writer), Dave Grossman (writer and game developer), and Joe Hill (writer).

For the English language items, typically the interviewer would rabbit on for ages in Spanish espousing his views on Life, The Universe, and Everything, at the end of which he would ask a question; the interpreter would privately translate the core of the ‘question’ for the interviewee but it had been decided as policy to save time by not publicly translating the ‘question’ into English. Thus, we would get an interesting answer to an unknown question; sometimes this worked, sometimes it was perplexing. After one answer from Mike Carey, his wife admitted that had it not been for a friendly member of the audience quietly translating the question for her she would have had no clue as to what her own husband was talking about. It also seemed that some of the interviewers needed to understand how to conduct an interview - one question at a time! After her first ‘question’ (really a verbal essay laced with questions), Rhianna Pratchett opened with, "Wow, that’s a lot of questions." The English replies were translated into Spanish; mostly this was by professional interpreter and fan Diego García Cruz and he was excellent – he translated not merely the words but the dynamics of the speaker and he did so with such great effect that not a nuance was missed.

You can see: Joe Abercrombie's interview on YouTube here.  Joe Hill's here;  Ann Leckie's here;  Ian Whates here; and Ian Watson's here.

If Celsius wishes, as they have said, to attract more English-speaking (i.e. foreign) visitors to their audiences then they will have to change their policy on translating the questions into English - a simple précis would do (and please do spare us the essay the Spanish had to endure!). The lack of understandable questions diminished the enjoyment of several of the English language items; this has been mentioned to Celsius and they have promised to take heed. They also need to speak to their interviewers and get them to understand that in an interview one should ask questions and then allow the interviewees to do the talking; they should not be using it as an excuse to present their own lengthy views of the world.

The auditorium of the Cultural Centre was often curtained-off halfway back, thus making two of its three doors non-operational and forcing late-arriving members of the audience to enter at the very front and walk across in the way of the others; definitely not a good idea. They would have been better off leaving the whole auditorium in use the entire time and thus allowing the audiences to naturally move to the front, as well as having all three doors available for entrance and egress. I can only assume that somebody wanted the auditorium to always feel full - maybe they thought that would make it cosier?

Also in the auditorium, I noticed one member of the committee consistently bolting shut one half of each pair of access doors. Despite myself and other members of the audience unbolting the doors she would always re-bolt them again; I mentioned this to Celsius and was told she would be spoken to but either it did not happen or she took no notice.  Why should this matter?  Firstly, it made it unnecessarily difficult for people to get in and out at the beginning and end of programme items, resulting in slow queues and an unnecessary tendency to a crush. Secondly – and very importantly – in the unlikely but terrible of event of, say a fire, these are the emergency exits!

On the last day there was a special lunch, an outdoor event that all could attend. It was advertised as being a Fabada Asturiana (a bean feast cooked in vast pans out on the street) but instead proved to be a buffet.  While there was plenty of food, spread evenly over a large number of trestle tables, there was very little choice; just lots of the same thing. I found myself with nothing other than small slices of Spanish omelette on bread (which is nice enough) and hard boiled eggs - not much of a meal. Apparently the change had been made by a certain member(s) of the committee without reference to the others and came as an unwelcome last-minute surprise (Ian Watson was still advertising the bean feast that morning); this has shades of some of the problems at last year’s Eurocon in Barcelona where it seemed that not all the committee were pulling together. (Incidentally, the change to a buffet was regarded as a mistake and I am assured that the bean feast will be restored next year.)

Outside of Celsius, I enjoyed the old town itself. It has very nice cobbled streets, interesting buildings and shops, a plethora of street cafés and bars, and was a joy to wander around. The restaurants were good; some could be expensive but, on the other hand, the fixed-price lunches and dinners could be excellent value. The Parque de Ferrerer nestles against the walls of the old town; it is the largest urban park in the area and proved a very pleasant place to stroll round when one fancied a bit of peace and quiet - and you only had to walk through the foyer of the Cultural Centre to get there. A mere ten minutes walk from the town square, the Centro Niemeyer provided a couple of interesting art galleries as well as a reasonable café; it was worth the visit if only for the modernistic, concrete architecture (a fit setting for an SF film!) designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect for Brasilia.

And so to the burning question - would I go again? Well, yes I would.

Whilst the Spanish programme had nothing to offer me and the English-speaking parts could have been handled a little better (and hopefully will be in future), the social life based round the street café/bars was excellent and the local fans were very friendly (and to my surprise many spoke at least some English), and I got to meet and enjoy drinks and meals with a number of the guests. The town was pleasant, the weather was warm but not too hot, and I really enjoyed myself - the whole experience was well worth repeating. Hmmm, perhaps I should start planning for next year.

Peter Tyers



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