Utopales 2001

Back to Utopia

Andy Sawyer, curator of the Science Fiction Foundation's collection, reviews France's International SF Festival, Utopiales 2001.


I don't quite know what the leading figures in French science fiction made of Ian McDonald and I discovering our mutual interest in the Molesworth books with incoherent cries of "The Pukon!", "Sigismund the Mad Maths Master!" and "as any fule no!" Nor am I quite sure about much of what went on during the awards ceremony, apart from the fact that Chris Priest (about whose fiction I'd burbled happily for twenty minutes earlier in the day after the official announcement that he'd been awarded the annual 'Prix Utopia') got two awards, (one also for best short story), because he had two acceptance speeches with him. An awards ceremony in a language who only partly understand is sometimes best dealt with by thinking of the party to follow.

"Utopiales 2001" was the International Festival of Science Fiction held in the space-age conference centre, the Cite de Congres, Nantes (birthplace of Jules Verne) from 30th October - 4th November. And it was a splendid affair. This is possibly the largest international gathering devoted to SF literature, film, art, comic books and other related material held in Europe. The guiding light behind the festival is Bruno della Chiesa, who produces an anthology (Utopiae 2001) featuring stories from ten European authors. Deputy Artistic Director is Patrick Gyger, of the Maison d'Ailleurs (The House of Elsewhere), Switzerland. Together they directed a programme which included Brian W. Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Norman Spinrad, James Morrow, Mike Resnik, Gardner Dozois, Keistine Kathryn Rusch, M. Lee Wood, Terry Bisson, Ian McDonald, and just about everyone in French science fiction, including Pierre Bordage (who was President of the festival) and Jean-Claude Dunyach and Ayderdahl, both familiar to readers of Interzone. Also present were writers and critics from Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Russia, Holland, Mexico, Germany and other countries: further details can be seen on the website www.utopiales.org.

Each year at Utopales the "grand master" award, the "Prix Utopia" is given. Previous winners have been Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss, and Frederik Pohl. This year as I indicated, the award went to Christopher Priest, whose The Prestigehas just been published in France to enthusiastic reviews. Indeed, part of the reason I had been invited was to talk about how good Chris Priest's fiction is: something which I'm not exactly reluctant to do. The problem is usually to stop me. The festival itself lived up to expectations (apart from my arriving too late to see the Russian movie Aelita.) The panels were interesting, often too numerous for real discussion (what can you say on a panel with eight people?) but good. There was one on steampunk which seems to be big in France right now that provoked some audience participation., and a "tribute" panel on Douglas Adams which worked wonderfully thanks to James Morrow's foresight in bringing along a towel. . . Interesting people I met - including friends from last year, or for the first time - included: translator Kirk McElhearn; Russian critic/translator Larissa Mihaylova; Italian writer Valerio Evengelisti; German SF writers Andras Eschbach and Marcus Hammerschmidt; Dutch writer W. J. Maryson, Danish writer Han Henrik Loyche and Danish SF expert Neils Dalgaard; Mexican SF writer Jose Luis Zarate and scholar / critic Miguel Angel Delgado-Fernandez; artist Patrick Woodroffe (who designed the festival poster) and Polish SF writer Rafael Ziemkiewicz. Donations to the SFF Collection were made by a number of people including Neils Dalgaard, Miguel Angel Delgado-Fernandez, Pierre-Paul Durastanti and Rafael Ziemkiewicz: many thanks.

One of the purposes of the festival is to create and cement links between the various European "scenes", and many of the panels touched on this activity, and the problems involved in creating a real sense of cross-cultural SF. For some time there has been conversation about creating a well-translated anthology of the best of European SF to be issued in English. A solid proposal was tabled among a group of interested individuals, and some firm moves are to be made. Fingers crossed on this one. On the basis of the French anthologies which have come out of these festivals, there is some remarkable work being done in Europe which we in this country are missing out on.

There was a particularly good "Cafe Litteraire" on the festival anthology, put together by Utopiales supremo Bruno della Chiesa, which covered political themes, public manipulation. And a number of discussions involving cross-cultural projects, the difficulties involved in getting translated, etc. Somewhere in the distance there are memories of an interesting experiment involving myself, Norman Spinrad, Kirk McElhearn, Kathy Morrow, Lee Wood, Ian McDonald and the ultimate sex test-the comparative ability of men and women to stand two paces away from a wall, lean over a chair with their heads against the wall, and stand up holding the chair. So a good time must have been had by someone . . . More seriously, the designs of books by new publisher "Au Diable Vauvert" (including the French translations of Jim Morrow's books) made me want to weep at the lack of imagination of most British SF publishers. There was a full film programme, most of which I failed to attend, and a terrific display of artwork by most of the top French artists. Once again, the display of bande dessinees made me realise how little of this material we ever see in the UK and how limited our discussions of "comic books" are.

The festival is sponsored by numerous organisations including the municipality of Nantes to who we are all grateful for the opportunity to attend. What we need in this country, I think, is more events like it . . . but sadly, until local and national government in the UK starts to consider culture important, instead of something to be tagged on to a list somewhere, and literary festivals start to consider SF as something interesting in its own right (full praise, though, to the Edinburgh festival this year!) a British version would be hard to pull together. Maybe we should start inviting the Europeans to our events - how about a French GoH, con organisers?

But watch out for the hotel catering, you'll have a lot to compete with!

Andy Sawyer

Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool.

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