Convention Review


A Decade of Eurocons

It has been a decade since the last Eurocon was held in Great Britain,
and that was Glasgow 1995 which just happened also to be a Worldcon.
So now we are back in Glasgow for 2005 it is arguably appropriate to take stock and
see how the Eurocons have fared between then and the present.
Jonathan Cowie reviews the Eurocon decade.

The original draft of this article was originally written
with the 2005 European Worldcon in mind.

The European SF Society (ESFS) and the Eurocons face a continual challenge. Fandom within the various European nations very much has its own identity and largely (with just a few notable exceptions) a separate existence. This is because, unlike North America, there are language differences between nearly all of Europe's constituent states not to mention a half a century of western-Soviet bloc divide. On one hand this is one of the very reasons why Eurocons can be exciting - you get to glimpse a new dimension to the genre and fandom - while on the other it leads to obvious hurdles.

The year following Glasgow 1995 saw the Eurocon in the former Soviet country of Lithuania. Just as Glasgow was a Eurocon combined with a Worldcon, so Vilnius 1996 Eurocon was combined with Balticon (the convention of the Baltic Sea states) and this was the first time that the Balticon and Eurocon had combined. Despite a shaky start (the main GoH had apparently not been told by his agent that he had been booked for the con) the convention had a sound programme with a number of items in English as well as Lithuanian and convention literature in both languages. Indeed the programme book contained a useful summary of the history of Lithuanian SF as well as a list of SF societies. Unfortunately room signs and programme change notices were not multi-lingual. Fortunately there were many cafes and bars nearby so foreign visitors had a good time. The success of the first ex-Soviet state Eurocon is down to the dedication of a handful of Lithuanian fans including Gediminas Beresnevicius.

Glasgow '95 also saw bids for the 1997 Eurocon (bids are done two years in advance though a marker can be placed earlier still). Here the Irish bid won for Dublin. This was the first time the Irish had held the Eurocon. Irish fandom was then embryonic but they had already held a number of 'Octocons' (which have continued to the present). If Lithuania had obvious problems due to international politics and history, the Dublin Eurocon was not spared its own difficulties. One almost complete committee change later, plus a new GoH, and the event was on. Much is owed to Karen Bollard for pulling everything together just a couple of months before the event and to Harry Harrison for stepping in at the last minute as a replacement for one of the GoHs.

The event itself was held in historic Dublin Castle, which features a palace as well as a conference centre, and so Dublin 1997 probably holds the record as the most opulently venued Eurocon. Other authors present included: Robert Rankin, Joe Haldeman, Dianne Duane and Peter Morwood. There were five programme streams: main, alternative, cinematic & media; small press; and a workshop / kaffeklatsch stream. In terms of Eurocon fan representation, other than the Brits the only contingent there in force were the Germans presenting a bid for Dortmund in 1999. They won.

Rare for Eurocons these days, 1998 was a fallow year. Two years earlier there had been tentative bids for 1998 at the Lithuania Eurocon from Slovakia, Spain, and France, but none was sufficiently advanced to formally commit. Spain was probably the strongest but not strong enough. So there was no Eurocon in 1998.

Germany's Dortmund 1999 was a huge Eurocon success on many counts, and it was arguably the Eurocon star of the late 1990s. With over 600 attending, it was more than double the size of Dublin 1996. It was also incredibly international, both in the national, European and transatlantic senses. International in a 'national' sense? No, not an oxymoron because Germany itself had a few years earlier been re-unified from two separate states with the fall of the Berlin wall. This was the first Eurocon in which Eastern and Western Germans could both help out with the organising. Also being held on the main body continental Europe (as opposed to Europe's islands, the Scandinavian or Iberian peninsulas) meant that the convention was easy to get to by surface from many European countries including eastern Europe. Following Glasgow '95, it was a return to asking those you met where they were from and sorting out which language in which to talk with some conversations rippling around tables as some poignancy or other was translated to neighbours.

The Germans did go to great lengths to ensure that nearly all the programme items featuring non-Germans had English translation and only a small proportion of items were solely in German. Indeed, as might be expected with German efficiency, nearly everything ran to schedule. The dealers' room though not as large as a Worldcon, certainly rivalled, if not exceeded, that normally found at a UK Eastercon. The only down point for the dealers was that, being in a non-secure area, their stands had to be manned from early morning through to mid-evening each day: cover arrangements between a number of stand owners were soon made. In addition to books, models, clothing and artwork were also sold in considerable quantity. Dortmund also saw Guests of Honour: Brian Aldiss (UK), Harry Harrison (US/UK), Roger MacBride Allen (US), Josef Nesvadba (Czech), Terry Pratchett (UK) and Ian Watson (UK). In addition there were a score of special guests with significant social and programme contribution from both professionals and SF personalities from over a dozen countries. Sam Lundwell (Sw), Diane Duane and Peter Morwood (Ir) among others made a significant mark. Acknowledgement must be given to Beluga Post as the hard-working convention 'chairwhale'. With fond memories of the 1994 Timisoara Eurocon (one of the more spectacular Eurocons that touched the entire city if not nation), Romania won the bid for 2001 in Calarasi.

Poland 2000 was held in the seaside town of Gydinia near Gdansk. Attendance was again around 600 but it was more of a Polish national convention with a few other Europeans in the mix, but no less fun for it. Nonetheless the non-Polish contingent was very thin on the ground, sufficiently so to list. There was only one German, two Belgians, three Norwegians, and a small number came from Eastern Europe. Most of the usual Eurocon suspects were there, Aahvid Engholm from Sweden, Frank Beckers from Belgium, Pascal Docummon from Switzerland, Alex Vasilkovsky from the Ukraine, and Bridget Wilkinson and Jim Walker from the UK. Other Brits included: Martin Hoare, Paul Dormer, Ken Slater, Martin Easterbrook and Margaret Austin. There were also a few Romanians championing their Eurocon to be held the next year including Alexandru Mironov.

Poland 2000 had a full programme of talks, films, panels, computer games, art show and live role playing games in the woods off site. Almost everything took place on time in the advertised place. There were some Euro-fandom panels and some items were translated into English. Poles owe Piotr Cholewa much for maintaining their country's profile at many of the decade's Eurocons as well as for his part in organising the 2000 convention.

Romania 2001 was a complete change of tempo not only for Eurocons, but many other conventions. Romania, as mentioned had previously run the 1994 Eurocon (Timisoara) mega-happening and indeed that event not only saw around a thousand formal attendees but also literally scores of thousands attend the convention's laser-lit rock concert in the city square (so probably holding the World record for the largest attended SF convention programme item!). However 2001 was very different, but no less an experience. It was originally bid to be held in a new hotel in Calarasi, a border town with Bulgaria near the Danube, and there was rumour that Bulgaria might run a complementary convention a couple of miles away on their side of the river in Silistra. That would have been a tremendous achievement. Alas the main convention organiser tragically died the previous year and so plans changed. Instead the convention merged with the SF and science camp, Atlantykron, that is held each summer on a small island just inside the Danube World Heritage Biosphere Reserve and in the shadow of the 2,000 year old remains of a cliff top Roman fortress. Atlantykron itself usually lasts two weeks but this time had the Eurocon was tagged onto the end. This basically meant that the camp was a little longer than usual and also got half a dozen foreign guests and a couple of foreign fans. Most of the Romanians plus one Roberto Quaglia (It) and a couple of the guests, camped with over a hundred Romanians on the small wooded island together with a generator, science tent, video screens and light and sound systems. Two barges provided additional operations space and the Romanian river police had a launch that served as coast guard for those swimming and security (not that any was required). The 2001 Guests of Honour were Norman Spinrad (US/Fr), and Joe Haldeman (US). Special Guests were Ion Hobana (Ro), Barry Shavrin (a UK science TV producer), David Anderson (of the US Time Travel Research Center) and myself. The guests and a couple of Romanians from the other end of the country stayed in a hotel 12.5 (20 kilometres) miles away and were bussed in each day and then had a short five minute boat journey. The only downside for the campers was that the basic hygiene facilities had been miscalculated so that if you had to go you went en naturel. This provided a stark contrast when set against the science tent with its computers radio-linked (we were told - appropriately Clarkean for 2001 - by satellite) to the internet, and meteorological equipment. Finally, the night skies away from any urban lights and industrialization were clear with a dazzling Milky Way meandering over the Danube below. The 2001 experience was completed, not just with the internet connection from the heart of the wild but, one night when space station Freedom's orbit took it overhead. The programme was somewhat of a moveable feast, for once few minded, largely due to the heat. Because of the sound system it was possible to sit in a hammock with a cool breeze off the Danube and listen to the programme yards away in a glade. Unfortunately there was not a quorate number of European countries represented at the ESFS business meeting and so the Eurocon Awards were not presented that year.

2002 and the former Czechoslovakia saw the Eurocon remain in Eastern Europe. Prior to the early 1990s there was a clear attempt to try to alternate the Eurocon between Eastern and Western Europe. These days, though, while there is some regard given to this, it is the strength of the proposed bid and its European commitment to attracting SF and fans from many countries, that tend to be more influencing factors at the ESFS business meetings. The 2002 Eurocon was held in the small town of Chotebor about 60 miles (100 km) south-east of Prague but the convention organisers had arranged for a three-day tourist session in Prague beforehand for those that want it. A number of Eurocons do arrange for some of the local fans to act as guides for foreign fans a day or two in advance of the Eurocons. This not only adds to the visitor experience but also helps with orientation and enables the organisers having the some visiting participants on hand to further integrate the programme. The Convention itself was simultaneously the Eurocon, Parcon (the Czech national Con) and Avalcon (the Con organised by the local science fiction club, Avalon). In addition they were running Animecon, Babylon 5 Con, Discworld Con, Gamecon, Star Trek Con and StarWars Con. So something for everyone. The Con took place in four different buildings, but fortunately they were all within 100 metres on the same street. In fact the street was actually closed to traffic for the duration of the Con, which allowed the various Jedi and Highlanders, etc. to have sword fights whenever they wanted. The foreign guests of authors and artists complemented the convention's cinematic and media dimensions. They included George R. R. Martin (US) , Robert Holdstock and Jim Burns (UK), Myra Cakan (De), Kyril Bulycov (Ru), and Andrei Sapkowski (Po). With 800 people present, including around 100 'foreigners' (i.e. non Czechs or Slovaks). These were mostly Poles but there were also Latvians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Danes, etc., and even a couple of Israelis. The programme kicked off with a well-prepared opening ceremony. There were some excellent panels, including a talk on Asian and African SF, and the anime stream seemed to cover the spectrum of that sub-genre. Many of the items ran more or less on time.

The 2003 Eurocon, Turku, Finland, saw a return to the seaside: Turku being on the Baltic coast some 85 miles (136 km) west of the capital Helsinki. The convention itself was based around Finland's annual national convention and was the 10th such event. Its GoHs were Michael Swanwick, Steve Sansweet, and Boris Hurtta. As with a number of eastern European Eurocons the event relied on state and other sponsorship, but unlike many was also open to anyone who happened along, so ascertaining numbers was difficult. However there were parallel programme streams and items that covered both book and visual SF in a variety of mediums, all satisfactorily organised to Finncon standards.

The following year saw the Eurocon move from north-west to south-east Europe and Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for Eurocon 2004. The Con was held in the City House of Culture in the centre of Plovdiv, a rather tired Communist period building, but with two excellent pavement cafes immediately outside that served as the social focus for the event. There were three parallel programme streams of panels and lectures, but only one of these had a fair proportion in English with the other two (focussing on Bulgarian SF and game-playing respectively) solely in Bulgarian. There were however separate film screenings and some of these were sub-titled. In addition in other buildings there were literary SF and art exhibitions. As with a good Eurocon, there were SF personalities and authors from a range of countries. Included were: Robert Sheckley (US), ESFS veteran Roberto Quaglia (It), Ian Watson (UK), Andrzej Saprowski (Po), Erik Simon (De), Gilles Francescano (Fr), and Patrick Gyger (Sws). (Sheckley and Watson being veterans of the Eastern European venued International Weeks of SF in 1999 and 2003 respectively.) The 2004 Eurocon distinguished itself for having an astronaut as a special guest and a letter of welcome from the Bulgarian President. Both of these were firsts for a Eurocon.

And so we come to Glasgow 2005 called Interaction. This convention and Glasgow 1995 has benefited from the support of many fans but not least one Vince Docherty. So, ten years and it is full circle with a Eurocon combined with a Worldcon. You are here so you do not need to be told that European Worldcons arguably have a greater balance of attendees from both sides of the Atlantic as well as a higher number from non-Anglophone countries. It was up to us SF folk to make the most of this opportunity and engage with many fans whose individual cultural take on SF differ greatly from its global image. At Glasgow 2005 there were strong bids for 2007 from Denmark and Ireland. The Danes won.  We also have Kiev, Ukraine, in 2006 to which we can look forward. This Eurocon has an international spread of GoHs and special guests and is being run alongside a film fest and a computer gaming convention. The convention, as some Eurocons do, is also organising some tourist activity the day before the Eurocon proper. As the most eastern Eurocon to date it promises to be a remarkable chapter in the on-going Eurocon adventure.

As for the future, the European SF Society is going to have to evolve. It has come far from its original days in 1972 and the first (Italian) Eurocon. Back then Europe was very different and a divided continent. These days the old divisions have gone even though economic, social, and cultural differences remain. The European SF Society's organization has also hardly changed and even has the original officer post of Treasurer even though it has had no real money for which to account. These days there is also the internet and e-mail communication and so the very real possibility exists of creating a virtual cyberspace network of those actively involved in European-level SF activities. Finally, interest in running Eurocons and Euroconferences has never been greater. Not only has the 1990s seen Eurocons become annual rather than bi-ennual but the European SF Society's 2005 business meeting saw two strong bids for a Eurocon in 2007 (Ireland and Denmark - the latter won) and two markers put down for 2008 (Italy and Russia) and even 2009 saw a tentative marker placed by the Hungarians. Meanwhile the Israelis want to get involved and some Romanians are muttering about organising a 3rd International Week of Science and Science Fiction (ventures for which Concatenation has in the past supported and so its own folk will probably soon have to consider its position). Nurturing so much interest and fostering enthusiasm for Eurocons among the broader SF community presents real challenges for the European SF Society: it really is going to have to evolve.

Finally, no review of the Eurocon decade would be complete without a mention to some of the good folk who have helped provide Eurocon continuation. Roelof Goudriaan is the cyberspace master who has dutifully maintained the European SF Society's website over much of the decade. The site has recently moved to www.esfs.info/index.html and now maintained by Roberto Quaglia. Also over the decade Bridget Wilkinson has done much communicating of news, especially in the 1990s with her newsletter Fans Across the World from which she is currently taking a (hopefully temporary?) break. (It looks like this may well return either at later this year or early next.) Finally due credit must be given to Roberto Quaglia who has been a tremendous character and SF personality at many Eurocons and International Weeks of SF, not to mention as an occasional SF writer in both Italy and Romania. Not only is he an excellent master of ceremonies (or toastmaster) but he has introduced a number of western authors (some via the International Weeks of SF) to Eastern Europe. There are of course a legion of others, too many to cite, who have done so much for individual events for whom I, and I am certain most other Eurocon attendees, are most grateful.

See you in Kiev.

Jonathan Cowie

 

For details of future major SF conventions check out the diary page which is updated each New Year.


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