Ian Hunter reports on the 2011 Fantasycon in Brighton.
Fantasycon 2011 will probably be remembered as one of the best run and best attended events in the history of the convention, especially as it coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the British Fantasy Society, but it will also be remembered for other things, but more of that later – stay tuned, you have been teased.
On the plus side it was taking place in Brighton, not Nottingham which had been its home for several years, so goodbye to great Indian Restaurants like the “MemSaab”, and pubs like “The Bell Inn”, the heavy-metalish “Salutation Arms”, and of course, “Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem” – rumoured to be the oldest pub in England as it seems to be bolted on to the back of Nottingham Castle. No, Nottingham was in the past and Fantasycon was heading way down south to the Royal Albion Hotel which had been the home for a very successful 2010 World Horror Convention – the first time that convention had been held outside America or Canada. Smart choice, you might think, because the talk has been that the BFS is very horror-orientated in its recent years once it got over giving awards to Michael Moorcock and Marvel for Conan the Barbarian comics. Okay, not every British Fantasy Award goes to horror, but a fair number of them do, and some people like Steve Jones, Ramsay Campbell, Graham Joyce have been multiple winners (and Steve Jones is a multiple multiple winner, but hey, I’m not complaining “Best New Horror” is an essential tome for us horror fans) while fantasy writers – and I mean those who write “straight” fantasy (call them Jonathan Carroll (okay he won best novel back in the day with “Outside the Dog Museum” so excuse me while I hop about as I shoot myself in the foot of my argument), or maybe James Blaylock, or Tim Powers – or comic fantasy writers (and we all know who I mean by that, Sir You Know Who), or heroic fantasy writers (like Juliet McKenna or James Barclay and a host of others) – have no chance of winning a major BFS award unless it is in the gift of the convention. Those who win, those who attend, the panels that are run, the books that are launched, the dealers in the dealers room all lend themselves to the notion that the BFS is more horror-orientated than fantasy. Discuss, but not here. It’s also pretty male-dominated (although I’ve always found the best “Chairpersons” to be women), with very few female winners –remember that point for later. However, convention organisers Marie O’Regan (a former Chairperson of the BFS) and partner, Paul Kane, played a canny hand by running a convention in an excellent location (okay, some potential dealers did moan that the hotel was too small because the dealer room ran out of space – but, hey, when it fills up it fills up, and then there is no more room) and ticked all the speculative fiction boxes by having among the guests of honour, three biggies – Brian Aldiss representing science fiction; Brighton-based writer Gwyneth Jones representing fantasy; and John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In) representing horror. This is not to diminish the talent or pulling power of the other major guests who included best-selling fantasy author, Joe Abercrombie; short-story, novelist, and screenwriter, Peter Atkins, as well as rising horror-star, Sarah Pinborough as the Mistress of Ceremonies. Apart from these “headliners” there were also dozens of “professionals” attending, varying from young adult writer Christopher Paolini to that other Christopher Priest, singing copies of The Islanders, as well as a whole host of authors, agents, publishers, and artists.
The convention started on the 30th of September and ran until the 2nd October over a sweltering three days, and it was hot stuff, with a programme that was packed with panels, signings, interviews with the guests of honour, book launches, book giveaways, readings, masterclasses, a film show, an art exhibition, even – I kid you not – a burlesque show. Oh, and the obligatory raffle where I was less successful than in previous years but picked up a gem of a prize in a signed copy of a CD of a performance by 'The Rolling Darkness Revue' – a touring group of horror writers which consisted of that time, Peter Atkins, Glen Hirshberg and the mighty Dennis Etchison. The convention ended on the Sunday with the Banquet and the presentation of the BFS Awards, followed by the Dead Dog Party for anyone left standing.
You may have guessed from the above that the programme was busy, busy, busy with registration opening at 12 noon on the Friday quickly followed by panels and readings and the official opening and launch of the BFS’ 40th anniversary book Full Fathom Forty which contained an epic poem by yours truly called The Fall of Tam Lin. After dinner there was a mass singing of those present, the start of the film show, a poetry reading event, a quiz, the raffle and the start of the first (of many) launches. This later programming set the template for what followed on Saturday which saw me trying to hop between rooms and signing sessions/launches, which would be my only quibble about a packed programme.
Then came Sunday, not a day of rest, but quieter as it was dominated by the annual general meeting of the British Fantasy Society and the Awards banquet, although using the word “quieter” is hardly appropriate to describe what transpired. As someone who has been a “volunteer” board or committee member of things such as my local tennis club, town development trust, even international charities, then I can appreciate what a thankless task being on a committee can be, especially at an agm. It did not help matters that there were no minutes of the last meeting for the members to approve, no accounts (because the BFS were treasurer-less at the time), and then there followed various discussions/arguments about several things, like the above, the production of a 40th anniversary book, the choice of where the next convention was going to be held – at that time it looked like Corby which then prompted further discussion/argument over its location, the convention hotel and the lack of good restaurants in the town. This was then followed by even more argument/discussion about who was running the convention and how that decision had been arrived at. By this time an hour and a half had passed and there were several items left on the agenda, so I left. I’m all for democracy, but the AGM needs to be organised (presenting minutes and accounts, etc) and a bit slicker – an hour to an hour and a half max. Given that the BFS has over 300 members it was lucky if there were 30 people attending, and at least two of them were not BFS members.
Then it was time for the banquet and the awards ceremony. If you are a BFS member you are allowed in for the awards ceremony, therefore the walls around the banquet hall are packed with standing people. On one hand the ceremony was a slightly wooden, staged affair, only enlivened by Peter Atkins throwing away the script and going off on one when he introduced an award. Some of the awards were surprising – artist Vincent Chong sat beside me for the awards ceremony and he won two awards – one for best artist - no real surprise there, but also one for non-fiction for his book Altered Visions: The Art of Vincent Chong which was published by Telos Books. Simon Clark won for best novella for Humpty’s Bones another Telos book, and Telos also took the best small press publisher award. Sam Stone was a two-time winner for short story and best novel Demon Dance published by the Murky Depths imprint (the first time a woman had won best novel since 1980). Other awards went to Stephen King (best collection), Johnny Mains (best anthology), Black Static (best magazine), Terry Pratchett (never a winner for a particular novel) won the Karl Edward Wagner Special Award decided by committee, and Robert Jackson Bennett won the best newcomer award. There were also awards for best film (Conception) and TV series (Sherlock).
Then the recriminations started. Foul, some people cried. David Howe was the BFS Chairperson in charge of the awards, but also the co-owner of Telos who won three awards and his partner, Sam Stone, won two. Editor and multiple award-winner (of nearly everything) Steve Jones wrote an article called 'Putting the Con Into Fantasycon' on his own website which gave his view about proceedings. I wouldn’t agree with everything Steve said - I was sitting at the back of the hall and did not hear any booing when Sam Stone won, and I think it was said that Terry Pratchett could not attend because he was en route to a funeral, but he makes some valid points. Facebook was full of it, the BFS forum was full of it, and no doubt other places were full of it too, it even made The Guardian. David Howe published some stats (which showed that possibly only a third (or less) of the society voted) and resigned as Chairperson, and Graham Joyce stepped into the breach and has overseen some member’s surveys and a forthcoming Emergency General Meeting. I have to say that I don’t think the votes were rigged in any way. The stats that were released just highlighted the fact that if you can secure 30, 40, maybe 50 votes you can win a British Fantasy Award. I am sure it means a lot to the winners, and their publishers, but does it really matter that much given the numbers of people in the UK who read fantasy and horror who had no say in the matter? Then they should bloody well join, I hear the cries from off stage. Discuss, but again not here. All in all it was a great Fantasycon, but there were 'too many notes' - that means too many things on at the same time, a trend that will continue next year as we are now back in Brighton, under the steady hands of O’Regan and Kane, but hopefully with less Brighton Shocks than this year.
What major SF conventions are taking place in your country? At the beginning of each year SF2 Concatenation compiles a science fiction convention diary of national conventions and regional conventions with an international dimension. (We do not cover specialist conventions or local events as there are too many. Besides others do this far better: for example, Locus for N. America, Ansible for Britain, Australian Bullsheet for Australia, FantLab for Russian Fed (Sov Blok) nations, etc.)