Eastern European SF meets west

In 2000 Hungarian author Mandics Gyorgy and
Romanian SF translator Antuza Genescu visited the UK
for two weeks of science fact and fiction. In between
the jollity's of a local SF group meeting, three of London's international centres
of scientific excellence, and the UK national Easter SF convention with
a non-SF focus.., there was some exchange of culture

 

 

Though it has been a decade since the Iron Curtain fell, the economic differences between eastern and western Europe are still so great as to prevent regular contact. However the Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange has engaged in a number of projects over the past six years to help bridge this gulf. Last year's venture was an International Week of Science Fiction and Science in Timisoara with authors Robert Sheckley (US) and Roberto Quaglia (Italy) to see, among others things, the eclipse (Locus 43 (4) 35-38). This year it was the turn of the Exchange to bring two eastern Europeans to the West.

Mandics (George) Gyorgy is a member of the Hungarian community, living near its border, in Romania and as such his works are well known in both countries. Indeed his novel Vasvilagok (Worlds of Iron) has had around 100,000 copies printed (a large run for non-Anglophone SF) and in 1987 he won Hungary's Golden Meteor prize. His works cover science fiction, para science and history. Conversely Antuza Genescu's work as a translator has had less recognition, although her contribution to SF within Romania has to be at least as great. Perhaps her greatest achievement is the translation of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. A lesser translator might have muddled along, but Antuza - realising on receiving the manuscript that this was an extraordinary job - negotiated an extension and, when she came across a problem even she could not address, she began liaising with SF readers in both the UK and US.

The Exchange's principal sponsors, The NW Kent SF Society (The Phoenicians) and the Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation semi-prozine (now this web-zine), arranged for a week in London meeting SF fans, visiting three international centres of scientific excellence as well as local sites, before attending the 2000 UK National Easter SF convention (2Kon) in Glasgow. All provided surprises and engendered interest.

The first major encounter, that with the NW Kent SF Society, was no exception. It should perhaps be pointed out that SF meetings in Hungary and Romania tend to be more cerebral affairs compared to those in the UK and much of the west; whereas over here much of fandom's creative activity takes place within fanzines and APAs (amateur periodical associations), as well as in the organising of conventions, but not actually within local SF clubs that usually meet in a bar. And so it was that the NW Kent SF Society introduced Antuza and George to the Duke pub in Northumberland Heath. It has to be said that while most meetings normally involve quiet chats over a couple of beers, this meeting was different in that the pub owners not only laid on a buffet (complete with Romanian, Hungarian, English and Scottish flags) but provided the apparatus for the 'yard of ale'. For non-Brits the yard of ale consists of two and a half pints of beer served in a long glass tube with a bowl at one end. While it is a well known traditional pub pastime, it is very rarely practised these days so that even if you are a fairly frequent visitor to the UK you are still unlikely to have seen it. The aim is to down the yard in one go, swirling the bowl to allow air in as one tilts, otherwise the unfortunate one gets a proverbial face full. That night sponsors bet on whether fans and locals alike could complete the task in one go, and incidentally raised over 150 (US$240) for UK coastal life boats.

The rest of the week saw a full schedule of visits including: a look behind-the-scenes in the research labs of the Natural History Museum, one of London's most visited tourist attractions (as well as an explanation of fieldwork their scientists had under taken in Romania); a coffee reception at the Royal Society with its Eastern European liaison officer (the surprise here was that one of the sponsoring local fans, Simon Geikie (who is also a biologist), discovered that his geologist great uncle was a former President of the Society); a visit to Kew Botanic Gardens; a day at the Millennium Dome with all the principal fan sponsors (an Exchange event sponsored by industry for both the Eastern Europeans and the fan organisers; a behind-the-scenes look at the Romanian and Hungarian Sections of the BBC World Service; and a visit to the British Library where George found six of his books.

The Easter weekend saw Antuza and George travel much of the length of the UK to Glasgow, to 2Kon that year's UK National SF Convention. Here was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Indeed there were two of them. Non-Brits should note that the UK has both an annual SF convention as well as a national fantasy convention, Fantasycon. While it is true that there is an overlap between the two, both events have managed to cater for their respective camps, even if a part of one sometimes addresses issues normally found at the heart of the other. Here then was the first surprise. This year's national SF convention had both its feet firmly planted in fantasy. Both its Guests of Honour were most decidedly fantasy writers: Katherine Kurtz and Guy Gavriel Kay. As a consequence much of the bookroom was fantasy orientated as opposed to science fiction. Even one of the two films (actually video projections) shown was firmly fantasy, Excalibur. In fact the closest most of the programme came to science fiction was with science and Amanda Baker's cosmology talk for the George Hay Memorial Lecture as well as Dr John Salthouse's photochemical demonstrations - both were excellent, the latter being a reprise of his Westminster demonstration by the Royal Society of Chemistry which was the first time gunpowder had been set off in the Parliament's buildings since Guy Fawkes (indeed even back then the powder was not ignited). However the rest of that year's Eastercon programme was sparse. So sparse there were hour and two-hour gaps in the two main programme streams every day, and non-SF radio and TV programmes (the Archers radio soap and Grand Prix motor racing) in the support streams. So there was little to do but spend time in the bar or go out and see the sights of Glasgow. Added to this many British-based SF authors had stayed away and even Scottish-based writers who are also regular Eastercon attendees seemed to keep a low profile - for instance local Lisa Tuttle was absent and Iain Banks was only seen for a day (by now you probably realise possibly why).

However do not let the above give you the impression that those attending 2Kon did not have a good time. The UK Eastercon, though less inclusive in recent years, is still the closest Britain has to the annual gathering of the SF clans even if this year it was not reflected in the programme. Nonetheless, it was still a chance for British fans to get together, renew friendships and conduct business. Indeed fan sojourns into Glasgow were of such intensity that a nearby leather wear shop was actually saved from closing down. All in all it was clear from the con's business (feedback) meeting (uncommonly the only final-day item scheduled on the main programme stream apart from the closing ceremony) that Eastercon committees must do much better. Eastercon is the only British SF convention in which the organisers are entrusted by vote in running the event for the nation's SF community. As such the organisers are beholden to fans, clubs, societies and SF interest groups and not the other way around. (Here you will have to read between these lines to gauge the actual temperature of the debate.)

So what did Antuza and George make of it all? Well, they loved meeting everyone and enjoyed the sights and bookshops of Glasgow. And what of the future of Eastercon? The voting for the 2002 Eastercon went to Helicon 2 in Jersey, the Channel Islands. An expensive off-shore option maybe, but Jersey has the advantage of four castles, many ecological sites and numerous tourist attractions. The two previous Jersey-based conventions arranged for the convention hotel discount to apply the week before the event so enabling many fans to have a holiday together first. This option is being considered. Notwithstanding this, the Helicon 2 committee should have picked up on the vocal nature of this year's business meeting and so be more communicative over the next two years and actively work with the SF community to make a great convention (as were the past two Jersey cons). If not, fans will still have a good time and Jersey's tourist economy will get an extra windfall with fans lured from the convention.

As for the Anglo-Romanian Exchange, if this year's Romanian General Election goes a certain way (and Government backing really makes Romanian Eurocons special (see Locus Jan '95 pp 44)), then next year (2001) Romania will host the Eurocon on the Danube near Bucharest. Currently the Romanian end of the Science & SF Exchange hopes to arrange for two or three translator guides to be on hand the day prior to the convention for western fans' sight-seeing and there are plans for a bi-lingual fanzine. With regards to the long-term, there is talk for a follow up to the first International Week of Science & SF with a second.

Jonathan Cowie & Tony Chester

A version of this article together with pictures was published in Locus (vol. 45, No. 4).

The various projects with which Concatenation has been involved have only become manifest with the support of numerous people, groups and conventions. These have included SF professionals and the following welcoming messages for the 2000 Exchange guests were received...

AN INTERNATIONAL WELCOME!
- TO MANDICS GYORGY AND ANTUZA GENESCU -
FROM SEVEN AUTHORS FROM SIX COUNTRIES

In 1976 I organized the first conference of SF professionals in Dublin. Since Ireland was not a member of NATO I could invite writers, editors and publishers from both sides of the international curtain. World SF was founded in Dublin and went on having conferences where professionals from both East and West could meet. Later World SF expanded and had a very important conference in China.
So it is with great that I to see fandom carrying on this good work. Welcome to Brit fandom, Mandics Gyorgy and Antuza Genescu. A whole new world of thrills, excitement and alcoholism awaits you.
Welcome!

Harry Harrison

 

I would like to take this opportunity, both on my own and as an honorary member of Timisoara's H.G. Wells Society, of welcoming Mandics Gyorgy and Antuza Genescu to the UK Eastercon. I had the opportunity of meeting these two in Timisoara, Romania, last year. I can assure the convention that they are entirely friendly, civilized and in all ways human people of a European persuasion. Not Anglo Saxons, of course, but then not even I can make that claim. The convention will recognize at once that there exists in them that spirit of erudition and good fellowship that transcends national boundaries, and to which the spirit of the H.G. Wells Society is in large part dedicated.
So I welcome you, Antuza and George. You will have, I am sure, a most excellent visit. Be advised, however, that the Brits, as we lovingly refer to them over here in the New World, are much given to apologies, which sometimes makes it difficult to discover what they are really saying; and to beer, which, aside from their pleasure in drinking it to excess, is also a semi-religious ritual they perform with others; and to self-deprecation, which is a subtle expression of rabid ego. Keeping these few points in mind, and avoiding the boiled vegetables, you will be sure to have a fine time.

Robert Sheckley

 

At Con-Fiction, the Eurocon and 48th Worldcon, in the Hague in 1990, famous Danish author Inge Eriksen said: "Americans have such potential, but the British have such stamina. The Czechs and the Poles have rich multi-cultural traditions and the most weird imagination. They begin where we end. Now the dualism has gone, it's not just East and West, aliens and us."
Famous Californian author David Brin, wearing a Red Army hat, put it more succinctly. "There are Finns hanging from the rafters!" he said, several times.
Well, it was Brian Aldiss' party, and David was more drunk than Inge.
Welcome then, Antuza and Gyorgy. Nice to know we're mixing it all up a bit. Hang from a rafter or two for me!
Very best wishes,

Colin Greenland

 

When Fred Pohl, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and I started World SF, the international organization for Science Fiction professionals, many many years ago, our first and foremost aim with the organization was to get our colleagues from Eastern Europe over to the West for conventions, in order to pour drinks into them and corrupt them with our Western ideas and lifestyle and let them see the decadent science fiction Western world in all its dubious but flashy glory. This we did with some success, notwithstanding as recent events in Eastern Europe have proved. Brian Aldiss opened up China for us and brought Chinese SF authors out to our meetings. Harry Harrison did the same for Russia. I firmly believe I did it for Romania, through Ion Hobana, whom I first met at a convention in Poland, a hundred years ago. So welcome Antuza and Gyorgy, and enjoy your first Eastercon.

Sam J Lundwall

 

I'd like to welcome SF fans from abroad. I think that most Scots share the feeling that we're bilingual, talking proper English and Scottish English. This may mean that in Glasgow you need two interpreters, unless you are in the bar, of course where, eventually, everybody speaks the same language...

Iain Banks

 

I , Roberto Quaglia, the 34,578 most unknown SF writer of the known universe - but the truly most unknown of my own soul - am happy to welcome Mandics Gyorgy and Antuza Genescu to UK fandom where I myself will be a complete intruder. So, we'll try together to intrude ourselves in this new and very mysterious human environment. And now, I'm very glad the Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange has caused Antuza and Gyorgy to be teletransported to our brave, decadent world.
Yes, dear Antuza and Gyorgy, welcome in the Western world, the wealthy home of invisible mental diseases. UK, Germany, Italy, USA, there's no really meaningful difference between our countries any more. We all live in the era of the universal TV-lobotomy, the gratuitous abundance of useless things, the diffused mental inertia which leads everyone of us to be a neurotic if he's sane, a psychotic if he's almost sane. But you will like it, because it's new for you. This is the beauty of international SF conventions. A vacation in someone else's nightmare is the ultimate source of personal enrichment and joy. But don't let my words let frighten you. It's just advice to keep your eyes wide open as to see clearly beyond the surface of things. And after such a scary welcome, between us I'm sure you are ready to have a very good time.

Roberto Quaglia

 

As some may recall, I was President of the World SF during Cold War days. One of the good things we did was to encourage cultural exchange, not only among the Western world countries but more particularly with SF writers from the Warsaw pact.
So I am very much in favour of the Anglo-Romania cultural exchange visit. I hope our two friends from Romania will enjoy their visit to the Glasgow Eastercon.

Brian Aldiss

 

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