ESFS's 2007 meeting successfully enabled ESFS to totter along for another year, but is it fit for purpose in the 21st century?
Jonathan Cowie reports on what happened at this year's event and suggests some ways forward.
Warning -- Danger Will Robinson: Rant alert! Rant alert!
The down point of the 2007 Eurocon itself had nothing to do with the Eurocon organisers but was the European SF Society (ESFS) business meeting! Yet again (further to the 2006 ESFS business meeting in Kiev) it was conducted in an un-businesslike manner. There were, yet again, changes to the list of countries ESFS considers in Europe or the spelling thereof. These changes were not previously circulated, say on the internet, in the course of the preceding 16 months since the last Eurocon and so nobody had a chance to consider matters prior to their presentation at the meeting and the immediate vote. The vote was taken (passed unanimously but with one abstention from a lone, either very brave or lunatic, soul) and then the changes were posted on the wall for all to see. There was something about the order with which this happened and the near unanimity of the vote that hints at lack of fan concern for ESFS organization... (A 'let 'them' get on with it' attitude.) The worse thing is that the continual tinkering with the constitution is so unnecessary as there is already a Council for Europe listing of the nations in Europe that a) has international legal standing as European nations' governments formally sign up to the Council for Europe, and b) this body is the body that formally promotes international European cultural identity, diversity and heritage interests. This is particularly relevant as the Council of Europe exists to promote the cultural collective of European specialist groups such as ESFS. So why, oh why, does ESFS insist on its own European nation listing and what makes it think that (in the unlikely event of litigation which is a key reason of having statutes) that European courts will recognise the ESFS statute definition of Europe over the Council for Europe one? The whole annual tinkering of the statutes is a mess, unnecessary and (in the unlikely event of a legal question arising) utterly meaningless. The ESFS officers therefore need to get a grip as well as develop a sense of perspective.
In case you had not gathered it, Eurocons have evolved over the past three decades while their overarching administration through the ESFS has not. Eurocons are now annual (they used to be biennial) and Europe is now without the former east-west divide. We also have the internet and e-mail facilitating communication. Europe, Eurocons and European fan activity are all very different to what took place just a couple of decades ago. Now, in the past I have tried to change this and get ESFS fit for purpose in the 21st century. Years ago I suggested that it should take the best bits of the World SF Society (WSFS which loosely overseas the Worldcon and administers the Hugos) as well as develop to meet its own unique needs. However for one reason or another nothing happened. So I then decided to speak out more publicly. I did speak out at the 2005 Glasgow Eurocon business meeting but nothing happened. I did speak out more loudly at the Kiev 2006 ESFS business meeting but the best I got was an agreement to tout for suggestions for Eurocon running guidelines and then compile these (this I did). I have written up some of my concerns within last year's Eurocon report. Yet there remain fundamental problems from the top down and now I present my case more firmly. This in part is due to encouragement given me by a few individuals who at Denmark shared my concerns and who said that someone should really do something. Fair enough then: activate policy analysis mode. So what are the problems and what to do?
Starting from the top we have the ESFS officers. Now I do not -- indeed I am not going to -- personalise this citing names. I do personally know all the current officers and they are all well-meaning folk. They are what we biologists call 'good eggs'. (Embryologists might disagree with this last but I am sure you follow my drift.) One in particular has a good knowledge of European fandom and much of ESFS history. However servicing committees (minute-taking) is not included in this individual's strengths: would that ESFS have an officer responsible for archiving where this person's services might flourish. This individual has, though, done much to compile information for the re-vamped ESFS website. Another of the officers is especially an excellent front person on stage and brilliant at being the ESFS spokesperson at the awards ceremony, but this individual's strengths sadly do not include preparing for and chairing a committee meeting: would that ESFS have a Master of Ceremonies for the awards where this person's talent might flourish. The third officer routinely visits conventions in both western and eastern Europe which is of value as Europe, though technically unified, still has a socio-economic divide. This person has also done much to revamp the ESFS website. This person's talent does occasionally flourish but might be further encouraged to bloom. The fourth officer we only occasionally see and who knows what is this person's actual contribution to ESFS or why they stood and were allowed to stand again for another term as an ESFS officer? (This person is the enigma within the riddle underlying the metaphor that is ESFS.)
Now please do not think the above harsh. It is not. It is simply a statement that is arguably fact. As said, all the officers are good, well-meaning folk and ESFS does successfully totter on from year to year. Don't get me wrong, ESFS totters well and is a wonderful toddler. What it does not do is to develop or walk tall! ESFS over a quarter of a century on, needs to show signs of growing up a bit. Meanwhile the rest of the world goes on and Europe and fandom evolves. What the ESFS officers are, are square pegs in round holes. If you don't believe me then consider this. One of the officers is the ESFS Treasurer yet ESFS has no membership or funds or cash flow! Do you begin to see the problem?
I should point out that the whole question of ESFS activities, evolution, vision, what it stands for are not just my concerns. A number of people have expressed their worries to me but equally many of these folk only go to a Eurocon only once in a while when it is in or near a country to their own, so they really do not see it their place (considering themselves partial outsiders), or are motivated, to actually do anything about it. This is possibly why there is the 'let them get on with it' attitude. Yet this does not stop there being a problem or comments being made: the back of the room snickering in 2006 was a little embarrassing. Now that blogging is increasing to a level where a number of European fans have blogs we are also beginning to see comments on-line. Here is one such comment relating to this year's Eurocon from partialrecall.blogspot.com.
"And then there were the Eurocon awards, plus a bunch of others. The problem with these award ceremonies is that there are way too many categories of awards nobody really cares about given to people most haven't heard of. This means the ceremony itself should be made much more entertaining to generate interest. Also I think the whole awards would benefit from a complete rethinking. Take, for example, the "best author" category: what's the point of having a dozen nominees for the award from different European countries-published only in their own language, so that it's impossible for the voters to read any of their works? The result now is that most end up voting for their neighbors and buddies whose names they might at least recognize. Ben and I cornered Mr. "Five Cheeks Bally," current chairman of ESFS, with our thoughts, and he agreed everything may not be running as well as it should, but I'm not sure he really got it how broken the system looks from a relative outsider's (I've taken part in some of the ESFS proceedings in 2003, 2005, and now this year) standpoint."
To give you a feel of the practical problems take the ESFS award nominations and the problems alluded to in the above blog comment. The award nominations and voting are protracted affairs with nominations made of people and works largely unknown outside of the country nominating them. Surely this undermines the Eurocon Awards' value? The list for each award category seems to get longer each year and leads for a very lengthy meeting, and so not surprisingly this year the business meeting over ran (again!). This also means that the merit of each nomination cannot be truly informed hence appreciated. So what to do?
Looking at the artist category first. Can we take it as read that all those artists nominated are good artists so please, nominators, do not tell us this. If someone is serious about nominating an artist then why not make it mandatory that specifically half a dozen examples of their work be printed on A4 (for standardization's sake) and displayed in the convention's art exhibition. The ESFS officers could then give the ESFS national delegates a scorecard at the start of the convention so that they can see the exhibition and rank the pictures. (The picture groupings could even be anonymous so that the delegates were more likely to rank talent than by artist or nation.) This exhibition could even be a feature of the Eurocon itself. Now when ESFS began this would have been impossible, but these days with e-mail it is easy-peasy to obtain copyright permission from an artist to scan and print out a standard-sized, A4 colour copy of the artist's work. With regards to 'Best Promoter' the officers might be given written notification in advance of the convention of nominations and reasons why they are nominated. Only those who actually promote SF across European nations (as opposed to within European nations) should be eligible: after all this is the European SF Award for 'Promotion' we are taking about and not a general SF promotion award or an award for a 'nice' person who has done 'something' for SF or given (as has happened) because it fits in with local SF politics. What happens every year is that we waste the best part of an hour with nominations (of no doubt worthy people in other areas of SF activity) who actually do not promote across European national borders or if they do it is incidental to their work (as opposed to a deliberate act). The next stage is that the ESFS meeting weeds these weak nominations out, but it all takes time. If this were done prior to the Eurocon then it would save everyone an awful lot of valuable at-the-Eurocon time. (Incidentally this weeding out is now what happens with Britain's annual Fantastic Film amateur competition and it works very well.) Again with 'Best Magazine' being an SF magazine published in Europe probably is too loose a reason for nomination. Regularly covering news of SF in other European nations might be better reason, publishing material in more than one European language might be another, actively promoting the ESFS community might be yet another... You follow my drift. A group of us on Saturday night (none of them ESFS officers alas) did sit down and go through the ESFS Awards and decided that guidelines could be drawn up so as to prevent pointless nominations and foster the identification of true European excellence; though we had to admit we were stumped as to the kind of thing that might be given for guidelines for the 'best author' category. One way (and this is just a very tentative off-the-top-of-the-head notion you understand) might be for the number of novel fan-voted (as opposed to juried) awards an individual has received be included with nomination information where the number of voting fans is greater than 100 for each award cited. Just a thought.
By the way, while on the subject of the 'Best Writer' category, I must answer the worthy point raise in the blog quote above as to the value of the ESFS Awards. This relates to ESFS having a vision of where it wants to be and how it is seen. A value of the 'Best Writer' award might well be (and it could become this with a little effort if ESFS had vision) something that professional commercial editors might look to when they were seeking new blood (as far as the editor's country was concerned) worthy of translation and publishing! In short the award could promote SF novel writers from one country to another.
Finally at this year's ESFS business meeting came the news that all the ESFS officers' terms of office were up. This came as a surprise to everyone else who was not an officer. Not surprisingly nobody had considered standing, no explanation was given as to who does what. It was a proverbial stitch-up. When questioned about this one officer (who used to be a politician in local government by the way) said that it was possible for folk to collect the minutes of meetings over the years (joke), check these with the ESFS statutes and then work out that at Denmark there would be an officers' election... Does this sound familiar? You bet...Yes, it is reminiscent of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent's house is about to be demolished to make way for a new road. When the bulldozers arrive in front of Arthur's house he complains to the official in charge. You may recall that the exchange went like this...
Official: "But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."
Arthur: "Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything."
Official: "But the plans were on display..."
Arthur: "On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
Official: "That's the display department."
Arthur: "With a torch."
Official: "Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
Arthur: "So had the stairs."
Official: "But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
Arthur: "Yes, I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard."
The thing, as The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy makes plain, is that such behaviour can only really be trumped by similar machiavellian behaviour.
Here then is more from The Guide:-
"This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition..."
"There's no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you have had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now."
All right. I am sure you get the point. If ESFS does not evolve then it will become marginalized and over-run by someone else's by-pass, and there will be no fan body speaking up for European SF. Now I for one want European SF to flourish and I to be able to read the very best books, see the best films, and enjoy the best artwork, from outside of my country and meet the most charming and enthusiastic fans from elsewhere in Europe (and beyond). I also want to know where the best websites are for news among the various European groupings be they Scandinavian, former-Sov-Bloc, Central European and so forth. Finally, and I think I speak for all of us who work at the centre of Concatenation, I want to know who are the real promoters of SF in various countries so that we can approach them for specialist genre information... Presumably (future) Eurocon organisers would also like to know such people?
However there was good news at the 2007 ESFS business meeting. (Yes, really!) The draft guidelines for how to organise a Eurocon that arose out of feedback initiated at last year's ESFS business meeting were welcomed by the Italian 2009 Eurocon bid. (These guidelines were compiled by someone not distant from this con report's author and who is not themselves an ESFS officer, but someone at the base of the Euro-fan food chain.) The Italians said that the draft guidelines were very useful. This and other discussion at the ESFS business meeting means that the guidelines will now apparently be tweaked before approved at next year's meeting in Moscow.
The bottom line for all of this is that maybe ESFS needs to draw up a suite of non-binding guidelines for a handful of areas of ESFS activity. This is not to burden ESFS but to liberate it from having to partially re-invent the wheel each year and to ensure that there is a base standard (to which people can refer). It has to be remembered that unlike any series of conventions within a country that has a reasonably established constituency of attendees and organisers each and every year; Eurocons are different. Eurocons hardly ever return to the same country within a decade and often see first-time Eurocon organisers put on the event. The same thing goes with those attending. The numbers who actually attend even one in three Eurocons in a decade are probably only a couple of score even though each individual Eurocon sees a few hundred attend. In all these senses the Eurocon is different from the Worldcon and it makes it harder for there to be continuation.
As part of these proposed ESFS guidelines we do urgently need to look at the ESFS officer posts and define some sort of minimal job description. My personal feeling (and what do I know?) is that the job descriptions should overlap to allow the officers a certain leeway in who does what but with the Chair agreeing with his colleagues at the officers' annual closed meeting who does what the coming year. (This itself would be an item in the Chair's job description.) These decisions then need minuting so that next year folk can see whether each officer has done their job.
Finally ESFS needs a sense of vision. It needs to know where it is heading and a loose five year plan would be in order.
Now, as said, all this is not to increase ESFS bureaucracy but to simplify matters. First, the ESFS constitution needs time-proofing especially with regards to the definitions of Europe. This way we do not have this ridiculous tinkering of the list of nationalities. It also puts to rest questions such as Israel wanting to host a Eurocon that took place in 2005 and earlier years, or the Kazakhstan issue that arose in 2006 (whatever happened to the Chair's decision over that and will it come back to haunt ESFS in Moscow 2008?). As said the constitution also needs to re-define the ESFS officers and outline (in the broadest sense) their duties and this would not be difficult. Second, the guidelines for various aspects of ESFS activities can be quite simple. (The most detailed and complex guidelines are for running the Eurocon itself and, as said above, these have already been drafted and apparently have proven useful to one (winning) Eurocon bid.) Remember guidelines are just that, 'guidelines'. They are non-binding so folk can disregard them if they wish. They question then becomes of how to establish this transformation of ESFS making it fit for purpose in the 21st century?
One way forward would be to establish some sort of ESFS advisory council to review ESFS practices and provide options for vision. (WSFS already has something vaguely analogous to this but its version is more to do with keeping the WSFS navel in order and not in determining WSFS vision.) This ESFS advisory council might:-
1) only provide advice and so its conclusions and the various options it recommends would not be binding.
2) the ESFS officers need to appoint this council. No officer (apart from one designated solely for liaison purposes) should be on this council to avoid conflict of interest. It needs to be at least three or four people strong (so as to provide a balanced view) but no more than 10 strong (so as not to be unwieldy). It also need to have one of its members to actively lead it.
3) the appointments to this working party need to be made quickly.
4) the advice arising needs to be available on the internet at least two months before the next Eurocon (May 2008).
5) The ESFS officers need to use these two months to consider their formal response and give this at the aforesaid Eurocon to ensure that there is meaningful progress within one Eurocon year.
6) At this Eurocon the ESFS business meeting needs to:-
a) inform the advisory council of what it has accepted, rejected or accepted subject to further
b) give the advisory council its tasks for the next year.
c) ensure that these are properly minuted and the minutes posted on the ESFS site.
The good news is that the ESFS officers have just agreed that some sort of advisory review group does need to be established but what and how were not discussed. It is because this last, and so as not to let matters slip (especially as Eurocon was in the autumn this year and Moscow is in the Spring next year so leaving less than a year), I have written this perspective on this year's ESFS business meeting and outlined the core issues at stake.
So where will all this take us and where should ESFS be aiming to go? Well I have a dream of a brave future... First, I would like Eurocons have a base standard from which individual Eurocons can strive for excellence as they see fit. Second, I would like to see the ESFS business meetings run more efficiently so we can spend less time re-inventing the wheel and trivia and more time on issues of concern and nominations of true European SF excellence. Third, I would like to see a suite of guidance that enables those running Eurocons and ESFS have an easier life. Fourth, I would like a broader body (not just four people who do little between Eurocons) get involved in doing stuff for ESFS. This would not only help make ESFS more democratic and transparent but if each of these people undertook just one (no more than one) small project for ESFS each year then each year then ESFS would have made several achievements that currently we do not have. (Archiving the past award wins and redevelopment of the website being the only apparent achievements (but good ones) of the past four years; though of course I stand to be corrected.) The test, I believe, will come with the next European venued Worldcon that is also a Eurocon. What we do not want is what happened with the Glasgow Eurocon-Worldcon 2005: there was little at that event that said it was a Eurocon and the ESFS contribution to the overall event sucked. The next time there is a European Worldcon -- and we can all be certain that there will be a next time -- surely we want it to be a Worldcon which is remembered for being a Eurocon! If ESFS is to have a hope of doing that then it really, really, needs to shape up.
Over to you folks.
Here endeth my rant.
If you are a Eurocon fan you may want to bookmark this page's address. Because this is only of interest to ESFS types this article is only linked from the 2007 Eurocon report. This article is not listed in any of Concatenation's main indexes.
Jonathan is now resting for a while in a home for the semi-bewildered. We all wish him well and hope he will be out next year otherwise he may not make Moscow. No flowers are requested but apparently chocolates would be nice.
Note: An advance, draft copy of this article was sent to the ESFS Chair (and a few others) a couple of month's prior to posting this page. This was done both as a courtesy and so as to ensure that corrections could be made in the event of any error or unintentional offence being created. The facts are therefore as accurately presented as possible, though of course the opinions expressed are only opinion.
Update: Since this article was drafted a quite separate 'complaints committee' of over a dozen European fans (none connected with this article's author or Concatenation) has submitted (December 2007) a formal complaint to ESFS as to the way this year's awards were run. Also, apparently an article has appeared in Mir Fantastika [Fantasy World] magazine on the artificiality of SF awards generally and the Eurocon Award was cited as one example (of a number).
For details of future major SF conventions check out the diary page which is updated each New Year.
[Up: Convention Reviews Index | Home Page: Concatenation]
[Updated: 08.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]