Eurocon 97 -- Octocon

Jonathan Cowie


The 1997 European SF convention was held in October in the historic and opulent Dublin Castle, Ireland. The castle was the former seat of British power in Ireland and is currently an administrative and a ceremonial centre for the Irish Presidency (an election for which was to coincidentally take place a few days after the convention).

Octocon itself almost never happened. The organising committee on the day was in fact the fourth generation, and only stepped in to salvage the convention six weeks prior to the event: the previous committees had each burned themselves out for one reason or another, but mainly due to not realising how tough and professional a job convention running needs to be, especially if you are trying to co-ordinate fans and professionals across Europe. Led by the courageous, amiable and highly pneumatic Karen Bollard, the bail out committee did its very best to pick up the pieces left it...

Now before I go any further, and in case you were one of those stung by the committee's previous incarnations, let me assure you that the grievances many prospective (and past regular) Eurocon attendees had had were fully justified and the bail out committee did recognise this: they too shared your dismay (and disgust) at the way many fans were misinformed (if informed at all) or registrations processed (if processed at all). However Karen Bollard and her colleagues simply did not have the time, nor were they privy to all that went on in the preceding 18 months, to put right all the many wrongs. They simply had to knuckle down and pick up the pieces as best they could. They also had their own fair share of bad luck. For instance with one month to go the Guest of Honour, Robert Jordan, announced that he would not be attending. However the committee's bad luck was our good luck. Having lost a fantasy writer as principal guest, instead we gained a solid science fiction author in Harry Harrison. (For some reason the early committees had thought that the European SF convention was the European Fantasy & SF Convention. This is not so! While Eurocons may have a fantasy element, they should be first and foremost a science fiction event -- there are other international convention series (such as the World Fantasy Convention which coincidentally was being held in neighbouring England the following week)) that primarily deal with fantasy (but which may include an element of SF). Anyway, lucky old us, we had Harry.

OK. Enough of the griping. Giving the bail out committee a clean slate, what was the convention like?

Well given that it was a pick-up-the-pieces job, and the pieces were rather small. Given that the weather was fair-to-middling. Given that somewhere in Paris a French chef got a jippy tummy, or that some several thousand light rears away an electron was spiralling (they do that in magnetic fields you know) down into a singularity. Given all of this, and some more, the convention was in actually really rather good. Yes, it has to be said that those who failed to be dissuaded by Octocon's earlier committees' cock-ups, those who attended truly had a very good time.

Honest folks (especially those who originally planned to attend) it all went off rather well.

Personally, my good fortune began well before my arrival in Ireland. Though I had a confirmed flight booking from London's Heathrow, the airline had over-booked. 'Would I mind getting the next flight a couple of hours later?' I agreed, accepting the 50 compensation (so halving my travel bill) and putting up with the Business Class Lounge (with its free coffee, beer, and wine) for two hours. It is a hard life. The two hours sped by, not least due to a couple of my fellow travellers turning out to be American molecular biologists which provided the rare opportunity for an impromptu exchange of international science policy views.

Arriving in Dublin I was ripped off by the taxi driver from the airport -- travellers beware!

On the other hand I did not realise that I had arrived at my hotel when I had arrived... if you follow my drift. You see the Trinity Hotel at first seemed to be a just a two storey bar.. But lo, tucked behind and above this veritable cathedral for the fermented hop there was the hotel proper. Now I mention my hotel because the Octocon committee had contracted a conference organising firm to sort out their accommodation bookings. Now as my day job involves running the occasional scientific symposium I know that if one deals with the hotels directly you can save between 7% and 15% of your bill, all it takes is twenty minutes to phone around in advance, obtaining hotel telephone numbers from international directory enquires, to check prices and proximity to the convention venue. You get the picture... another 50 saved.

As for the convention itself, obviously given the rescue operation there were gaps. The European flavour was a tad muted and there were no multi-lingual services or programme items. There were no reel-to-reel films. The programme consisted of three principal streams of panels, though there was one semi-solo presentation -- the Guest of Honour speech, but even half of that was taken up by an interview conducted by Harry's bibliographer. As far as could be told, none of the panellists had been contacted by a moderator in advance of the convention, and a number of them did not feature who were advertised on the programme timetable due to participants failing to turn up for the weekend (cf. the previous committee's incarnations' efforts). As a result many of the panel discussions strayed drunkenly off their topic, wobbling around the points being made. However, given that everyone who made it to the convention were all too aware of its organisational history, allowances were given. Panel titles included: The mechanics of writing; Flesh for fantasy; Why does Dracula have to fight? ; Using someone else's characters; The science and art of translation; Nanotechnology -- Future machinery; Net fandom; and the intriguingly titled Why have 10 million Americans been rectally probed? . One of the three programme streams was devoted to the trials and tribulations of small press (predominantly fanzine and apa) activities, and there was a fourth stream of video films organised (as has been for a number of Eurocons) by Dave Lalley (but for once in his parental country).

My own panels included 'Is "Is SF dead?" dead?' which was meant to be primarily about why some say that science fiction is running out of ideas and areas in which to develop. This was the first programme item of the convention and fellow panellist Diane Duane (SF and fantasy author), Robert Rankin (SF humour writer) and Mike Simpson (SFX magazine editor) and I (in my capacity as an SF-loving scientist) struggled to inject life and meaning into the topic which we effectively answered in the first 15 minutes. It was a bad omen when the committee told us that the conference hall owners did not like us smoking and drinking alcohol on stage (apparently we found out that they thought we were giving the impression of having too good a time???? (I think they thought the convention was meant to be a serious cultural affair, which of course it was but that does not preclude having serious fun also.)). However the real problem was that we could not get the audience to ask questions, or if they did they were tangential. I found out later in the convention that the audience loved us being put on the spot and were enjoying our being forced to perform.

The second panel I was involved in faired much better and, such was the enthusiasm, it over-ran by a few minutes (it could have gone on for another half hour easily). SF author Jim White, and medics and para-medics Grania Davis, Stephen Davis and Declan Fox, and I (wearing my UK bioscience (including biomedicine) policy analyst hat) were set the task of exploring The future of medicine. The audience really cooked. In brief, our conclusions were that the World's population would always receive two tiers of health care (split between rich and poor across the globe), that the nature of medicine would change both due to technology and due to the nature of the changing World population, and that the health wants and needs divide would continue to grow. In between which we had heated excursions into areas such as complementary medicine, and emerging diseases from HIV to multi-strain antibiotic resistant pathogens.

Then there were the humorous moments. These were numerous especially as Robert Rankin and Harry Harrison were on good form: one instance though came from Joe (Forever War) Haldeman. He recounted how he was in hospital in Vietnam during the war. There everyone was drinking beer and smoking organics while watching reel-to-reel films. One day when they were all taking the Michael out of John Wayne's The Green Beret (with all its soldier smartly dressed and with Vietnam helpers sacrificing themselves) when the hospital got attacked. Under such circumstances soldiers on the wards are not given arms until the very end, so all Joe and his comrades could do was to dive to the ground, with a few cans, and continue watching the movie --- well the stoned projectionist was game -- with real tracers flying across the screen. This is the only way to watch The Green Beret Joe proclaimed (Festival of Fantastic Films to note).

Dublin Castle which dates from 1204 was, for the convention, an inspired choice of venue. The conference centre took up the basement and ground floors of a sixth of the castle. Indeed it was fortunate that only 400-450 turned up (compared to the usual Eurocon size of 1,000 plus) as though the halls could comfortably accommodate us, the bar and coffee area would have been severely stretched had the convention been much bigger. The rest of the castle was a working administrative and ceremonial centre, guided tours of which were available to tourists and (at a special 50% discount rate to the convention). It was a veritable treasure of Irish (and British) history, providing a more traditional cultural counterweight to the convention's science fiction.

Dublin itself was lively, cosmopolitan and expensive (central London prices), but a good city for a Eurocon. The people were in the main very friendly, often above and beyond that needed to cultivate tourists. There was plenty for book buffs to do outside the convention. With over 900 pubs in the city there was no shortage of places to go for a pint. I had a go at Guinness (Ireland's most famous brew). I was not sure I liked it so had five pints over the course of my first night (in the cause of science you understand) to ensure statistical validity. One pub for literati is Sinnott's in South King Street which has over 200 portraits of Irish writers, and not to be missed is the Literary Pub Crawl starting from The Duke in Duke Street at 7.30 sharp and costing 6 (excluding your own beer). The crawl features actors performing from the works of writers while you visit various literary pubs.

The down side of Dublin is that it is frequently congested with traffic. Also as with any city, there is the occasional architectural or planning disaster -- fortunately quite rare in the city. Of interest to our Romanian friends, Dubliners regularly award what they call the 'Nicolae Causcescu' award for bad new developments.

As for the 1997 Octocon European SF convention, while the less said about the early organisers the better, Karen Bollard's last minute bail out team more than acquitted themselves honourably. They did as good a salvage job as can be expected and can hold their heads up high at any future Eurocon; I hope that they make it to the next Eurocon (in Dortmund, Germany 1999). Indeed I hope that the Dortmund team will invite them to give a presentation on how to organise a Eurocon because these people should know having been baptised by fire. In fact this is such an award-winning an idea we'll invite them to produce a piece for this web site and especially how they came to design one of the most discreet but useful of convention badges.

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