Belgian author Alain le Bussy reports on the genre's principal French gathering.
French national conventions have been held continuously since 1974 in some twenty different venues. Indeed they have been hosted twice in Switzerland, in Yverdon due to the town also being the location of La Maison d'Ailleurs, [The House of Elsewhere], which is the biggest SF library in Europe. Also twice prior to 2002, they were organized in Belgium: in Redu (1992), a small Ardennes village, the attraction here is that every other house is a second-hand bookshop; and also in Esneux (10 miles south of Liege) in 2002, which is where I live.
Usually convention sites are decided two years in advance, but in 2001 there were no candidates for 2003 so an ad hoc decision was taken during the 2002 convention when a small group of fans offered to run it in Flemalle, 10 miles west of Liege. French national cons are increasingly becoming a Belgian specialty, as you'll discover later. But not least because some 40% of Belgium's population is French speaking: including myself.
French cons are something of a family meeting and not large with usually around 100 attending. Though there was one time with a legendary low of just nine people the late seventies but there have also been a few peaks above 150. At there heart there is a hardcore of about 50 who never miss a convention, 60 others who come only if the con is not too far away from their home town. Of course each year there is a handful of newcomers or 'just curious'. Some of those will come back in later years and slowly renew the flock. I guess this is not very different of what happens elsewhere.
French National Conventions are always held during French school holidays, and often at the end of August, but occasionally on other dates. They start on Thursday afternoon and close officially on Sunday afternoon, but usually Sunday late morning, survivors just say 'Hello', and 'Goodbye' to the exhausted organizers. I also guess this is not very original.
Due to the small number of delegates, the programme is a single track one, with usually two or three items each half day. This is all in French, of course, except when there is a guest who can only express himself in a foreign language (English, usually). There is a small dealers room, with second hand books, publishers' tables and fanzines.
The 2003 Convention was held in Flemalle, in a small 19th century "castle", La Chataigneraie [The Chestnutwood] and it was rather hurriedly organized. This explains some problems the organizers and members had to face. There were no hotels nearby, everybody had to go back to Liege, some 10 miles away, by car because there were no late buses. A second handicap was the available space. The main meeting room was wide enough to seat some forty people, but not separated from the dealers' room, the noise from which threatened to disturb the panels and speeches. Happily, the bar was outside the house, under a tent, and well stocked with common as well as several special beers.
The two main organizers, Sara Doke and Anne Smulders did their best, but the beginning of the con was a little bit chaotic. Happily, we are just a big family and some hands were ready to help: Jean-Claude Dunyach - a French writer who has been published in Interzone and elsewhere, manned the reception desk, while I played taxi-driver to pick up late arrivers from Liege's main station (as, the day before, I did for Brian Stableford and his wife from Maastricht Airport) or ran the bar for a couple of hours. Others helped too, and the convention subsequently ran rather smoothly.
The Guests of Honour were the afore-mentioned Brian Stableford, Jean-Pierre Fontana (a fan, journalist, long-standing writer, and Chair of the GRAND PRIX DE L'IMAGINAIRE jury panel); Andre-François Ruaud, (critic, author, anthologist and publisher of Yellow Submarine, one of the oldest fanzines); Patrick Marcel (critic and translator); and Gilles Dumay (publisher, critic, and author including under several pen-names).
There were probably about 80 members in 2003 including the one-day delegates.
I won't review the whole programme, but will mention some highlights: Brian Stableford on Our ancestors imaginary; a panel on the History of French Fandom with Jean-Pierre Fontana, Roland C. Wagner (writer and fan) and myself; a presentation of Electrokinetic Propulsion (hard science, this one!) by Jean Etienne; a presentation about Jean Ray, a Belgian writer also known as John Flanders, author of numerous fantasy short stories, the creator of the Harry Dickson character, and who is often published in Weird Tales.
We had also the traditional annual meeting of INFINI (the French Association of Science Fiction and Imaginary Literatures), and to vote on the 2005 site. There was only one guy crazy enough to be a candidate organizer (as usual), so it will be back to Esneux and myself two years from now. Belgium once more!
The convention had an outing when our whole group transported itself 5 km away to the Ramioul prehistosite, where we learned how to make fire by striking rocks - that's far away from rockets, computers and BEMs, isn't it? - and listened to the proclaiming of the various annual awards.
The main award is the ROSNY aine, named from a Belgian born writer who was one of the founding members of the Goncourt Academy, author, between 1890 and 1940 of numerous novels, mostly SF, among which is The War of Fire, a prehistoric novel (we were just in the best place to celebrate him!). There is one novel and one shorter fiction award and it was the 22nd year it was voted, following the Hugo system.
ROSNY aine award for best novel was: Pollen, of Joelle Wintrebert, published. by Le Diable Vauvert.
While the award for shorter works shorter works went to: Les Visiteurs de l'eclipse [The Eclipse Visitors] by Jean-Jacques Girardot and (tie) Un signe de Setty, by Sylvie Laine.
For the second year, there was also the Merlin award (no explanation needed), dedicated to Fantasy stories, also a novel and a shorter fiction one, same system as Hugo. MERLIN novels: La sevre et le givre by Lea Silhol and published by Oxymore. The award for short works went to L'affaire des elfes vérolés by Jess Kaan.
The fifth award is the INFINI Prize, for unpublished short stories (up to 5.000 words), attributed by a judging panel of three, which I preside presently. INFINI 2003: Les disparus de Lethe by Georges Flipo.
The sixth award, is the VERSINS Prize and is very special. It's given to the author of the worse pun made during the convention! (I got it in 1999, but don't remember fort which pun.) The VERSINS for 2003 went to the French writer Pierre Stolze.
We had a drink to celebrate the winners and then back to the castle for the banquet with the traditional auction run by George Pierru. In the auctions, you may find not only collectors' items, but also trash; anything that will generate some money mostly to finance the award trophies. One year, the most priced thing was a bra of a member (the previous year's con organizer) with George showing how to wear that thing. Another time, it was a reverse strip-tease by Jean-Claude Dunyach. In fact, auctions, apart from fund raising the auctions are always good for a laugh.
The 2004 French Convention will be L'ISLE SUR LA SORGUE, (15 miles from Avignon) from August 22 to 25, 2004. Info through Jerome BAUD email@example.com
Alain le Bussy
Alain le Bussy is one of Belgium's most prolific SF authors, if not its most prolific contemporary author. Further details of French SF can be found on the http://sf.emse.fr site and for news on the INFINI site.
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