Convention Review


The 2006 Eurocon - Ukraine

This year's Eurocon was the most Eastern venued to date and, among other things launched with two Ministers of State, was considered Kiev's most cultural event of the year.
Further to the Concat' Eurocon news coverage, here Jonathan provides a more personal and in-depth report.

 

Some 500 authors and fans from around a score of countries (together with a few hundred more visiting a simultaneously run international book fayre) gathered 13th - 16th April for the 2006 Eurocon. The Guest of Honour was author Harry Harrison (Ireland), and the author Andrzej Sapkowski (Poland). There were a number of Special Guests that included: the artist Sergey Poyarkov (Ukraine), and the SF editors, Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn from the US. The event was held at the Sportyvny Exhibition Centre close to the centre of Ukraine's capital Kiev.

Eurocons are nearly always markedly different from most US conventions and indeed are different from year to year depending on the nature of the hosting nation's SF community. As such Eurocon 2006 was typical: different and unique but with the commonalty of participants' enjoyment of SF. This year in particular one of the characteristics was the national and international geo-political context against which the event was set. It has only been a couple of years since Ukrainians voted in a government that looked more towards the west and away from its former protectorate Russia despite a significant proportion of the population with ties to the latter nation. Since then there has been both some internal tension and external pressure of which Russia temporarily cutting gas supplies to the Ukraine early in 2006 was a notable example.

So it was not entirely unsurprising that the convention's opening ceremony saw welcoming speeches from both Vyacheslav Kyrillenko Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, and Igor Likhovoi the Minister for Culture & Tourism, in a full hall complete with press and TV cameras from a number of stations. (8 covered the convention in all.) In this geo-political sense this Eurocon's atmosphere in part reflected that of the Polish Eurocon in 1991, Germany 1992 and Romania 1994. Likhovoi said that: 'SF can only be created by a free mind.' An aphorism shared by many free-minded souls in Europe irrespective of whether they are, or were, living in states where physical freedom and human rights have been wanting. Certainly the leading lights of Ukrainian SF were not slow to echo their nation's geo-political situation as exemplified by Marina and Sergey Daychenko who could probably be described as the country's leading SF author couple. They said that: 'The Eurocon [in Kiev] is an important symbol that the Ukraine really is a part of Europe,' and, 'this year the Eurocon; next year the European football championship.' Football adherents may consider this last an aspiration too far, but nobody present doubted the sincerity of view that holding the Eurocon in Kiev was something special. One newspaper subsequently reported that of the year so far the Eurocon was Kiev's most significant cultural event. On a more sombre note, tribute was paid to Stanislaw Lem and Robert Sheckley both recently lost to us and both of whom were much loved writers in Eastern Europe, and of course Sheckley had been Guest of Honour at the Ukraine's national convention last year. Marina and Sergey were clearly popular with Ukrainian fandom and delighted the audience by alternately translating each other in alternate languages so that the audience would not know who would translate whom next and in what language. Having initially been introduced by the Minister as the Ukraine's national SF treasures, the couple themselves paid tribute to the audience saying: 'Great authors exist because their readers exist. You are the national SF treasure.' It was then GoH Harry Harrison's turn to be introduced with a welcoming cheer from the audience. He commented that because he had been translated into so many languages that he must be a World treasure. Nobody disagreed, and the Kharkov 'Star Bridge' convention committee (from Eastern Ukraine) then awarded Harry its special award 'The Philosopher's Stone'. Harry thanked both Star Bridge and paid tribute to his own Russian agent Alexander Korzhenevski. Finally Special Guests Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn were welcomed. Their work as SF editors led them to being described as 'readers' protectors'.

International book fayre aside (it saw hundreds of others attending), of the 500 at the Eurocon the majority, as is always the Eurocon case, were from the hosting nation. The next most numerous delegation was Russian together with representatives from Georgia and Azerbajan. There were several Brits as well as a number of delegates from the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. 22 European countries were represented in all. In addition there was even an US citizen from Spain and a couple from the USA itself, of whom it has to be said had a remarkably Europhile attitude that was genuinely appreciated. The other non-European representation came from Israel. Helping these western visitors were 40 young language students who had especially been given time off of school on the basis that they were getting free tuition. (Such a system has worked well before at other Eurocons, most notably at Timisoara (1994).)

European fandom, fanzines and publications at the Eurocon
Of course the real raison d'être for Eurocons is for Eastern pros and fans to share each other's culture and, when we finally get around to it, their respective approaches to SF (not to mention to provide an SF showcase for non-Europeans). As is well known among European SF cognoscenti, other than English, the big language of SF (and indeed global SF economy) is Russian. And it is quite likely that since 1990 there are far more Russian-speaking writers and editors (importantly not just Russian nationals) making at least a significant proportion of their financial living from SF than there are in the West. Few Anglophone aficionados outside of Europe are aware of this because they do not travel to Eastern Europe and because the parity purchasing power of these eastern pros and semi-pros while excellent within the East is not when compared with Western currencies. This makes it nigh impossible for eastern writers to visit western cons. The Eurocon, especially eastern venued Eurocons, allows a discerning soul to part the east-west curtain to take a peek. There it can be seen that some Eastern fanzines are produced to high standards. For example, in production terms, the near bi-monthly, 160 page [Humpty Dumpty] from a Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) SF Society, could easily pass for an issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It publishes contributions from not just Russia but also the Ukraine, Belarus, and Estonia.

Meanwhile the professional SF magazine and semi-prozine front is a vista in itself. For the past two and a half years the Russian federation landscape has been dominated by [MIR Fantasy] (as it is sometimes known) or (more literally) [Fantastic/Fantasy World] with a monthly circulation of 31,500 that comparatively is a little under that of Analog and Asimov's SF but over that of F&SF and Realms of Fantasy. Its production standard is extremely high with each issue being full colour throughout, usually being over 140 A4 pages and printed on high quality, gloss art paper. As for content there is nothing exactly like it in the west. The closest analogue might be the British Isles' SFX magazine, though the latter is decidedly dominated by TV science fiction / sci fi, MIR has a better balance of SF and fantasy books (including a column on western Anglophone releases and western translated editions), films, gaming, anime, websites, latest PC & technology products, and even a little science. Furthermore, every now and then issues contain a DVD or alternatively a CD digital supplement. If the former then it is a film with all the usual DVD extras. If the latter, excerpts of new novels, new film trailers, walkthroughs for new PC games and electronic archive issues of the magazine itself. From information kindly provided by one of the editors, MIR's readership is 66% male and 65% are aged 16 -30, 92% read SF & F., 88% watch fantastic films and 30% are into gaming. Most of the readers are in the Moscow region and sales are also strong around St Petersburg. The rest of the circulation is spread diffusely across Russia with the vast Siberian region only attracting 4% (just under 1,000 copies) and the CIS nations getting 9%. MIR attracted quite a bit of interest at last year's Eurocon (providing, that is, those attending found it as it was rather submerged by the joint Worldcon). However then its editors did not feel confident enough to put it forward for a Eurocon Award. Had they it may well have won in 2005 but there was much (justified) support for the smaller Hungarian Galaktika [Galaxy] that had recently been resurrected. This year though MIR was put forward, with nominating support from a couple of countries (one of which was western) and it went on to win the 'Best Magazine'.

Russia, though, is a special case with its population of ~130 million (~250 million for all the former USSR nations). Europe mainly consists of, and the Eurocons mostly see delegates from, smaller nations even if their cumulative population are nearly three times that of Russia's, and it is here with the smaller countries that the diversity of publications is to be found. However it must be said that it is difficult to make direct comparisons with the west. Some nations (such as Britain, Sweden, France, and Poland) are able to support a few SF authors whose income largely, if not solely, comes from their writing. Others (such as Belgium and Romania) do not. Consequently the European dividing line between fanzine, semi-prozine and professional magazine is both blurred and somewhat of a moveable feast. The other confounding factor is that European economic and geopolitics have been so dynamic over the past one and a half decades, especially in the more Central and Eastern European nations, that there have been both SF winners and losers. As mentioned one winner was the return of Hungary's Galaktika [Galaxy]. Sadly one loser is one of the World's longest running fanzines (albeit in various incarnations), Romania's Anticipatia [Anticipation] that has not been in print recently and whose last appearances had been in diminutive dimensions. On the other hand Lumi Virtuale [Virtual Worlds], an annual 'semi-prozine' from Romania's capital Bucharest, has been produced for the past five years with author interviews and book reviews, while from that country's western end, Timisoara, the year has seen another issue of the rather sporadic, but long-lived, Helion [Alpha Particle] whose first issue of 2006 even has an article by John Clute. Meanwhile from Vilnius, Lithuania, Dorado Raganos [The Witches of Dorado] continues occasional publication. Though it is a self-professed fanzine, its fan-fiction has introduced some new writers who have gone on to appear in professionally published anthologies such as Geriausia Lietuvos Fantastika [The Best of Lithuanian SF & Fantasy] 1997-2002.

Of course it must not be forgotten that this year's Eurocon host nation itself, naturally, has its own SF publications. Here currently (2006) in the Ukraine there is much attention given to a comparatively new Ukrainian periodical [Reality of Science Fiction] that was launched in 2003 and which has a print run of just a few thousand but which provides a valuable outlet for Ukrainian authors' short stories. It has an F&SF production quality and is available on newsstands in Ukraine's major cities with a cover price equivalent to US$1.2¢ (£0.66p) whereas is over US$4 (£2.25): this gives you an idea of the purchasing price parity differential between East and West.

The need for an outlet for Ukrainian SF is not a trivial point. Though the Ukraine is the latest country to break close ties with Russia (meaning that up to recently Russia dominated most activities including publishing), it is effectively a bilingual nation with nearly all the population speaking both Ukrainian and Russian. So getting SF professionally published actually in the Ukrainian language within the Ukraine has in the past been difficult, though matters are now slowly getting a little better. Prior to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin wall, if you wanted to write professionally you had to belong to the Writers Association of the Ukraine. However the Association did not consider SF as a serious genre, furthermore the Association was closely tied to the communist party. So potential writers had to be inventive, such as trying to get published in popular science/propaganda magazines. Needless to say SF conventions also were few prior to 1990 and that did not help. Today Ukrainian writers still have problems. For example, the Ukranian writer Sergey Slyusarenko has had several short stories published but only recently his first novel [Tactile Senesations]. However this was through a Russian publishing house that distributed his book in Russia in Russian. No bulk copies were sent to the Ukraine. Fortunately though, this year Slyusarenko was one of those to receive a Eurocon Encouragement Award and it is hoped that this will prompt an Ukrainian publishing house to produce an Ukrainian edition.

The programme
East-west interaction aside, one of the key components to a Eurocon, indeed any convention, is the programme. The 2006 Eurocon managed to run three parallel programme streams together with a stream of some items by stands in the book fayre. These were nearly all focussed on SF in its written form and largely in Russian or Ukrainian. Fortunately for foreign visitors English translation was available for a fair proportion of these and, where they were not, translators were around to provide a one-to-one service. One of the Ukrainian only items was a fascinating meeting on Ukrainian science publishing that demonstrated that the nation's academic community was trying to establish a Ukrainian language resource to replace that which had formerly been Russian language dominated.

Elsewhere in the programme my own two science talks ran foul of lack of translation in the Russian language programme sheet as well as audiovisual aid problems (the first time this has happened with a continental Eurocon and, indeed, over a quarter of a century a Eurocon outside of a joint Worldcon). Nonetheless the audience (though small) was enthusiastic with many questions. Again on the science side there was also a fascinating programme item by the Ukrainians on Chernobyl that included a Q&A session with the Deputy Mayor of Pripyat (the now desolate town in the reactor's shadow), and the premiere of a documentary marking the 20th anniversary that was to take place a fortnight later.

My only other programme contribution came through being asked at the last minute to moderate a panel on European fandom. Fortunately the panellists -- Bridget Wilkinson (England) and Olav Christiansen (Denmark) -- were knowledgeable and experienced on the topic.   Questions included:   How to make contacts in European fandom? (Olav - be at a Eurocon and then run a Eurocon. Bridget - use the internet to make contact);   What are the big obstacles in Eurocon fandom? (Olav - getting other people to undertake fanac and deliver. Bridget - getting information and funds);   What would you suggest be done to improve ESFS? (Olav - Eurocon has got an image problem. Bridget - There are problems of perception and different language (especially considered problematic by the Brits);   What is the average age of European fans? (Olav - TV media fans are younger than book fans. Bridget - the recent Tolkein event at Aston University had a lot of young people attend and fandom in Poland is much younger than fandom in Britain.);   How many people attend Eurocons? (Fincons can be bigger than European Worldcons (3-4k), Eurocons are generally between 300 up to occasionally 7,000, the 2001 Eurocon had less than 200, which is about the size of the French national convention.)

The programme had a good spread of types of item. However it has to be said that there were substantial gaps in each programme stream and the programme booklet was thin with little information for visitors to the Ukraine (or Ukrainians on visitors other than the guests) as to who was whom, what they had done etc. (and so of potential interest). This was all probably in part due the convention ended up being held after the general election which meant that promised sponsorship dried up. Nonetheless there was enough going on during the day for everyone to be occupied.

As mentioned Harry Harrison was hugely popular, but other than four or five programme items little was seen of him. Such was the media interest that he spent a considerable amount of time taking part in TV and radio programmes away from the convention. The Special Guests, Eileen Gunn and Ellen Datlow similarly had an enjoyable time. However they (as were the foreign participants) were a little perplexed at not being asked to contribute solo programme items. They did though participate in some panels.

Programming in the evening was light. Furthermore many of the local fans seemed to vanish early in the evening so leaving foreign visitors to their own devices. This was not too much of a problem as there were enough form a sufficient range of countries for there to be a continuing Eurocon atmosphere into the small hours and translators were available to help with finding restaurants and placing orders. Though everyone had a good time it was a void that was commented on by nearly all of the foreign delegates. With non-Ukrainian/Russian visitors largely on their own in the evenings it did provide the opportunity for these fans to share other European news and mark occasions with a toast. One such was for the 10th anniversary of Imants Belogrivs' Latvian SF publishing house Hekate. This was later on recognised through a Eurocon Award for Best Publisher, of which Imants said that Hekate was 'the last man standing' (after the film) since, one by one, all the other specialist SF/F publishing house in Latvia have ceased. (This category was one of just two of the Eurocon Awards that had significant support from outside the nominee's nation.) Another landmark was the launch, timed to coincide with four SF conventions taking place worldwide over the Easter weekend, by the Concatenation.org of the free-access selection of the Nature's SF short stories.

News throughout the convention was given by a daily full colour, bi-lingual broadsheet that owed as much to its compilers as to industrial sponsorship and which, in terms of presentation, had a decidedly professional look.

European SF Society matters
The European SF Society business meeting was something else and a continuation of a recent trend. There were no minutes (let alone detailed ones) from the last meeting in Glasgow and if there had, and these had been posted on the web a couple of months after Glasgow, there would have been meaningful developments concerning some areas of debate including: the ESFS constitution, the Moscow Eurocon bid for 2008, and whether Israel should be allowed to join ESFS. As it happened only one copy of the constitution and the proposed changes were available at the first meeting and these were blue-tacked to the wall after the start of the meeting necessitating those wishing to inspect these to squeeze past a long table.   The amendments included the list of countries eligible for ESFS representation, to which one person objected (as at Glasgow) suggesting that ESFS simply needed to track the member nations of the European Council (an older and broader body than the European Union set up to disseminate European culture). This proposal would have made life easy, future-proofing the ESFS constitution. For example, the 1990s saw much national change within Europe that included the re-unification of Germany and the splitting of the former Yugoslavia as well as Czechoslovakia. Each of these changes altered the list of countries that are currently individually cited on the ESFS constitution. However largely because the first ESFS business meeting at Kiev dragged on (and on) the changes were passed. Kazakhstan, to the surprise of not a few, was also allowed representation for the meeting with its long-term status to be determined the following year.

The second business meeting saw a surreptitious amendment of the ESFS nation list as three errors had been found. (This change, according to the previous day's constitution amendments, should have been subject to ratification at the 2007 Eurocon: surely a record for one of the shortest times between introducing a constitution change and breaking it.) Most of the time was spent on voting on the Eurocon bids for 2008. Here there were four bids: Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. The latter bid was a surprise and nobody knew whether it was serious as no one came to speak to it. (Apparently, word has it, that it stemmed from a proposal floated on a Romanian SF website.) The Czechs put forward an interesting bid save that the convention they envisaged was very gaming and media SF dominated (nothing wrong with that to reflect local interest) but it had no discernable literary SF content (an essential element for most Eurocon regulars). The Hungarians put forward a very strong bid and reminded everyone that 2008 would be the 20th anniversary of Hungary's first and only Eurocon. The Russians re-presented their bid from Glasgow 2005, however the concerns raised there were not fully addressed. This was not the Russians fault as no official record of that meeting was ever circulated. It was a strong bid for their first Eurocon and much sponsorship was promised if the event was held before the end of April and the likely date for the Russian general elections. In short it was effectively a race between Russia and Hungary. The result from the official ESFS delegate vote ended up as a draw and so the votes from everyone else attending the business meeting came into play. With the number of far eastern Europeans in the room compared to western, Russia won the day. Some of the Hungarians were more than a little dissatisfied as the ESFS rules were not clearly explained, but they kept this to themselves accepting the situation with good grace. And so it will be Moscow for 2008 and the promise of a vodka-rich convention -- for Russian fandom is known to party by far the hardest of all convention-running nations.

Looking further into the future there is a promise of an Italian bid as they placed a pre-bid marker in Glasgow. It has been many years since Italy ran a Eurocon and of course the Eurocon has its founding roots in Italy. There is also the possibility of a Spanish Eurocon and one interestingly run jointly with Portugal: such a dual-national Eurocon would be a first. Meanwhile next year it is Denmark (details on www.eurocon2007.dk).

The one thing that the business meeting did show was that -- with a dynamic Europe, and a developing European fandom with no shortage of Eurocon bids -- there is a growing disparity between European SF Society management and its ability to meet 21st century demands as it potentially might.   In theory ESFS should be somewhat analogous to the World SF Society but as it stands such a comparison would arguably be more than a little strained.   Giving the officer positions proper job descriptions, keeping more detailed records of the business meetings than the single sheet record at present (especially with regard to Eurocon individual bid concerns), and promptly informing via the website of ESFS matters between Eurocons, would all greatly help. Having said this much praise goes to the two souls (from Ireland/Netherlands and Italy) largely behind the ESFS website www.esfs.info who gamely put up what is given them, as well as another of the officers (a long-standing English one) for assisting with compiling the material that is there. This is ESFS's major development of the past decade, but which sadly such progress has not been reflected elsewhere in the Society.

All this is not to decry the excellent efforts of past officers whose hard work has given us a great heritage.   But ESFS was established back when the Eurocon was biennial and fan travel between nations was far more expensive (in real terms) let alone physically difficult between east and western Europe.   Europe has since changed, and ESFS now needs a quantum change too. Fortunately none of this was of concern to the Kiev Eurocon organizers on the day: they were busy ensuring that the 2006 Eurocon was a success. ESFS's management should though be an interest for all those regularly attending Eurocons and who wish to see its stature within the SF calendar grow. Concat regulars can be assured that I will continue to watch and report on this particular ball.

The 2006 Eurocon Awards were also voted on and presented -- details here.

Eurocon and Kiev overall view and beyond...
Meanwhile turning from the ESFS dimension and back to the 2006 Eurocon itself, how did Kiev 2006 rate?   Well, with good European representation, a programme with some decided highlights, political and media interest, much fan socializing and lively if chaotic ESFS business meetings, it was certainly a dynamic and notable affair. All too soon the end was upon us.

However the end of the convention was not the end of the convention!   Following a day's site seeing (and here the Pechersk Lavra - Caves Monastery are Kiev's 'must see') the committee arranged a day coach trip for over a score of fans and writers to Chernobyl. This took much advance organising for security reasons but was a memorable experience: both frightening and fascinating. Everyone gained something (including a well-above-background dose). The people running the tour are an outfit loosely associated with the Chernobyl area (some of its staff used to live in Pripyat the town that serviced Chernobyl). If you ever get the chance to get a score or more together to visit the site then contact www.pripyat.com.

Finally, it has to be said that the Ukrainian fans putting on a Eurocon was in itself both a landmark event in its own national SF community's history as well as that for Eurocons'. Not only was it the furthest east a Eurocon has ever been held but, to run such an event so soon after the country's own political hiatus, was truly remarkable. Ukraine in particular owes much to the con's committee: Mikhail Litvinyuk (Chair), Medvin Exhibition company's head Edvin Zadorozhny, Vitaly Kvitka, Anastasia Zazirna, Tatiana Kokhanovska, Mikhail Nazarenko, Dmitri Mozhaev, Natalya Gradovaya, Marina Komissarenko and many, many more. All worked extremely hard but one, Boris Sidyuk, arguably deserves a special mention. He has long been considered by Ukrainian fandom to be the nation's unofficial SF ambassador, and indeed has also been associated with a number of Ukrainian natcons. Not only, as did the others, he work tirelessly on several fronts throughout the convention but without him undoubtedly this year's Eurocon would not nearly have been so European. If you wish to get in touch with Ukrainian fandom (or perhaps send books for review in Ukrainian zines) then you can get in touch with him through www.eurocon.kiev.ua. It should also be noted that he and his enthusiastic wife produced the convention newsletter.

The 2007 Eurocon will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Guests include author Anne McCaffrey and space artist David Hardy. In 2008 its Moscow's turn in Russia. Given Russian fandom's reputation I wonder whether my hepatic system will be up to it. Only one way to find out.

Jonathan Cowie

 

Details of the 2006 Eurocon Awards can be found on the summer '06 science fiction news page.

This article owes thanks for comments and information fans from half a dozen countries. However, to protect the innocent, be assured that any views expressed above should be considered solely my own. Special citation is however deserved to go to Boris Sidyuk for correcting errors in an early draft relating to SF and fandom in the (former) Sov-Bloc, as well as Bridget Wilkinson for subsequently spending time explaining some of the ESFS background (Bridget is a veritable font of Eurocon history.)

I also need to thank Alexandra (Sasha) Lakhno, my translator, without whom I would not have been able to interact with so many (I do not speak either Ukrainian or Russian) and who also helped me obtain medicine for the rather nasty fluey cold I caught my first day that nearly wiped me out and unfortunately detracted in my ability to participate and enjoy as effectively as I'd want. (The mucus on Ridley Scott's Alien was nothing compared... (too much information perhaps.)) Thanks again goes to Boris for helping out at the police station after I had been pick-pocketed. Fortunately it was the last night (and that might have been a casual factor). Still mustn't grumble as Thomas Mielke lost something far more valuable, his copy of the poster that promoted the first Eurocon in 1972 that disappeared from the display on the final day but which is reproduced in the afore-linked article. It should, of course, be noted that neither of these mishaps had anything to do with the 2006 Eurocon committee and every convention has its little hiccoughs.

Then there is Alexander (Corven) Teneriov-Didkovski, an Ukranian, fan who kindly spent some time briefing me on Ukrainian SF and fandom (cheers), and an unknown fan from Zhitomir (80 miles west of Kiev) unexpectedly gave me a box of chocs following my two science talks: I have on many occasions had beer and coffee after talks, sometimes the occasional meal and even nights on the town, but chocs, this was a first. The 3-D and colour relief map of the Ukraine that formed the inside lid makes for a nice decoration and an appropriate memento in my study.   Anastasia Zazirna also got the con off to a good start by meeting us at the airport.   Future Eurocon organisers note: To-and-from airport guides really are a great help especially for the many of us from western Europe who not only do not speak the language but are not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. My thanks also to fans from the Ukraine, Latvia, Russia and Romania for copies of their publications and help in translation with their perusal. Finally a huge thank you to whoever it was on the committee that organised the Chernobyl trip, as well as to the folk from Pripyat.com who ran it. Everyone who went is bound to remember the day for the rest of their lives!

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


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