Convention Review

Utopiales 2002

I turned up late for the Apocalypse.... but it didn't happen anyway

Andy Sawyer, of the SF Foundation, Liverpool University, reports on his annual pilgrimage to the French Utopiales SF festival in Nantes.


According to December's Fortean Times, Arnaud Mussey, the leader of the 'Neo-Phare' or New Lighthouse sect based in Nantes on the Atlantic coast of France, predicted that "Nantes will be consumed by the apocalypse on 24 October 2002. All life will cease and the Earth will be invaded by flying saucers carrying 'beings of light'."

The reality was even more exciting. I can confirm that the promised Apocalypse didn't actually happen. The only invasion I noticed when I was there for the 2002 Utopiales SF festival (Oct 30 - Nov 3) included the customary disreputable crew of usual suspects, some of whom may have been beings of light in the disguise of Samuel R. Delany, Brian Aldiss, James Morrow, K.W. Jeter, David Brin, Rob Holdstock, Chris Priest, Terry Bisson, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Liz Williams, Alasdair Gray, and Norman Spinrad. However, reality was enough for me and given what happened when I dropped my membership card behind the furniture in my hotel room I think I'd have preferred the flying saucers.

The Utopiales festivals were started by Bruno Della Chiesa, who edits the tie-in anthology of international science fiction. The festivals are among the World's biggest SF gatherings with over 20,000 visitors and are headed by: best-selling French SF novelist Pierre Bordage; Olivier Müller (the director of the "Fantasporto 2003" fantastic film festival in Oporto, Portugual); and Patrick Gyger of the Swiss SF museum Maison d'Ailleurs. Utopiales feature art displays, panel discussions, and cinema showings, with crowds of people milling around the splendid Cite de Congres conference centre in Nantes. This year there was a special stream for role-playing games and an evening of 'Music from Outer Space' from various musicians and bands including Tom Log III, Bebe and Serge, Al Komet of the Young Gods, Khan, and Julee Cruise. And there is always a vast amount of books, especially French graphic albums! This year, the book room also hosted a display of the "Lord of the Rings" illustrations by John Howe.

The main feature is the strong international flavour of the event. Among the guest writers were: French luminaries Jean-Claude Dunyach, Ayerdahl, and Jean-Marc Ligny; Brazilian writer Roberto de Sousa Causo; Valerio Evangelisti from Italy; Andrea Eshbach from Germany; Henrik Loyche (Denmark); W. J. Maryson (Netherlands); Yoss (Cuba) and Jean-Louis Trudel (Canada). From my viewpoint, as a Brit and librarian in charge of the Science Fiction Foundation collection, this festival is a major opportunity to meet with a collection of SF luminaries who aren't the usual suspects - the non-Anglophone SF writers of the World. Of course, friendships have grown up and there are numerous people who I'm pleased to see at Utopiales, but it's always interesting to meet with and talk to people from those countries where I've never been and about whose SF I know little. It's hard work - and I'm always embarrassed when people I'm talking to are fluent in three or four languages when I stumble in French and can just about ask for a beer in German - but always rewarding.

Also rewarding, for readers fluent in French, is this year's Utopiae 2002 anthology, published by L'Atlante, which includes stories by Ashok Banker (India), Wolfgang Jeschke (Germany), Roberto de Sousa Causo (Brazil), Rodolfo Martinez (Spain), Jan Polacek (Czech Republic), James Morrow (USA), Roberto Lopez Moreno (Mexico), Luca Masali (Italy), Jean-Louis Trudel (Canada), Liz Williams (UK) and Yoss (Cuba).

Robert Silverberg won the Festival's Prix Utopia for his overall contribution to SF. Among other award winners were Michel Pagel, (Best Novel - Le Roi d'aout) and Palestinian-American writer Jamil Nasir, (Best Foreign novel - Tower of Dreams). Graham Joyce won best foreign short story for 'Leningrad Nights'. Another Brit success was Andrew Parkinson's "Mike Leigh zombie film", Dead Creatures, which won the 'Prix des Exploitants de Salles' which seems to be sponsored by Cinema chains. The juried award was won by the Japanese film Uzumaki, directed by Higuchinsky, which I have to admit I did not see but by all reports I missed a fascinatingly strange movie. Other films included the Korean 2009 Lost Memories (Lee Si-Myung), the German Planet der Kannibalen (Hans-Christoph Blumenberg), and the Portuguese Low-Flying Aircraft (Soveig Nordlund).

I was delighted to see "Magazine Chum" Pierre-Paul Durastanti from the Fictionmaggers e-list get a translation award for L'I.A. et son double, and Sylvie Miller's efforts in promoting Spanish SF in France were awarded with the "Prix Européen".

Highlights for me - apart from the sheer joy of being there and meeting so many old and new friends - were: seeing Alex Cox's new film Revenger's Tragedy (a setting of Middleton's Jacobean revenge tragedy in a near-future Liverpool); being able to introduce and lead a discussion with Robert Holdstock (who won a special award for the new French edition of Mythago Wood); and the bizarre parallel-world art display of "Plonk et Replonk". Almost as strange were the "Mécanofolies" sculptures of Jean Fontaine: ceramic fusions of mechanical and organic forms which looked like fossils from a cyborg world. An inventive site for an exhibition of artwork by Philippe Jozelon featuring his work on the "Compagnie des Glaces ("Ice Corporation") graphic novel cycle written by G. J. Arnaud, was the resin tunnel, twenty feet long, ten feet wide and seven feet high, designed by Gilles Francescano.

As always, this was a wonderful event. Apart from the time when I dropped my membership badge behind the furniture in my room and reached down to retrieve it - then discovered to my growing horror that I couldn't actually extricate my arm! Visions of a) spending the night intimately wrapped around an item of furniture until the cleaners came in the morning or b) gnawing my arm off, seemed to be the only options. Fortunately, after a few minutes of blind panic I recalled that my mobile phone was in my pocket and within reach was the number of Hotel Reception. The rescue party showed a remarkable sense of tact and discretion. In front of me, anyway, although by that time I was rather looking forward to flying saucers and beings of light.

I soon recovered, even achieved something of a personal highlight when I was introduced to Scottish artist/writer Alasdair Gray who presented me with a piece of original artwork. The bad news is that it was a sketch of me, and therefore unworthy of display except in a Chamber of Horrors. Yes, the Utopiales festival is always a good event. Shame about the missed apocalypse. Perhaps we were having such a good time that we never noticed!

Andy Sawyer

For further details, check out the Utopiales' festival's website

Andy Sawyer is the curator of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool. (A shorter version of this piece was posted (7/11/02) on the Alien Online webzine, . Andy has also written a review of Utopiales 2001 elsewhere on the Concatenation site.


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