My 25 years of Eurocons and the European Science Fiction Society
Roberto Quaglia's first Eurocon was 25 years ago
back in 1989. During the latter part of this time he spent
a decade as the Vice-Chair of the European SF Society
that is responsible for Eurocon governance.
For the first time since leaving office, Roberto speaks out.
I have just realised that this year (2014) it will be exactly a quarter of a century since I took part to my first Eurocon in 1989, in San Marino, and so in London I will be celebrating my silver-marriage... well, at least my silver-affair, with European SF fandom.
Very much has changed since the start of this 25 years. Back then for a common SF fan it was not easy at all to discover that something called SF fandom and Eurocons existed. There was no internet where you could easily find out what was going on, and there was no e-mail. In fact, even before 1989 I had been an SF fan for almost 15 years (beginning in the mid-1970s) without ever suspecting that fandom and Eurocon existed!
Governance for the Eurocons is undertaken by the European Science Fiction Society (ESFS), much as the governance of Worldcons is handled by the World SF Society. In those days the main problem for the ESFS board was simply to ensure that another Eurocon could take place. You realise that before the age of the internet the window of opportunity for fans discussing and agreeing on where to held the next convention (and on every other matter by the way) was very little. Everything had to be discussed and agreed upon during the convention, as there were no mailing groups or Facebook threads where to continue afterwards. When emergencies occurred, like the sudden eruption of war in Yugoslavia as Eurocon was supposed to be held in Zagreb (1992), it was not an easy task for a delocalised SF community to take decisions without the magic of the internet. Nevertheless, thanks to ESFS, a solution was found and an excellent Eurocon was rapidly organized in Freudenstadt, Germany.
Back in those years, the European Science Fiction Society consisted almost entirely of SF authors, translators, publishers (books, magazines and fanzines), since only those who were deeply committed in the genre were motivated enough to pay for the then expensive travel around Europe; low-cost flights were still to come in the early 2000s.
In 2002 I was unexpectedly elected to act as the Vice-Chairman of the ESFS, even though I did not run for any position on the board. In the mid-nineties, having been something of an internet pioneer, I was aware that the internet could and should play a key role for the growth of the ESFS. So I recovered an early version 'homepage' of the former ESFS website that had been created by Roelof Goudriaan and was later left abandoned on some free webpage-hosting sub-domain. I then registered the domain name ESFS.info, made the new official homepage and took care of it for the following dozen of years.
The ESFS society has indeed grown its population in the past decade, and internet has undoubtedly helped a lot in the process, as has the growth in aforementioned cheap air travel and not forgetting the growing economic wealth since 1990 of the post-communist, central European countries. Before internet age, and even during internet's first years, the very existence of Eurocons has always been to some extent endangered for lack of communications among fans. For example, the Romanian Eurocon of 2001 had the lowest international attendance ever, due to the fact that the convention had a change in venue (the main organiser for the original bid venue had tragically died) ending up being held in tents in a remote, but picturesque, wild island in the Danube biosphere reserve; it was also poorly promoted outside of Romania. Except for some high-profile guests (authors Joe Haldeman and Norman Spinrad, and scientist and SF fan Jonathan Cowie), together with a few friends and members of the ESFS board and the eastern Romanian SF community, nobody attended – not even those bidding to host future Eurocons. It was nevertheless a fun convention, though largely populated by Romanians…
Now I have chosen this as an example to show how easily could an Eurocon be drowned in oblivion. The ESFS Board, which often is mistakenly considered by some the entity who organises Eurocon or which is directly responsible for whatever happens in an Eurocon, for all these decades has existed mainly just for sake of ensuring that fragile continuity, secondly for arranging the voting of the community on the ESFS awards, and thirdly to help each time the effective organisers with some advice, a fruit of experience. Some argue that its role and commitment should now possibly grow and so should its horizons – and even though I fully agree with this idea, I am also aware of the many difficulties to move from the words and the wishes to the facts.
In recent years we could witness the average attender of Eurocons sensibly changing in time, at least in Europe's mainland. The once pure science fiction readers are slowly giving way to other sorts of niche fans: fantasy, TV series, role play games and Japanese cartoons. Conventions in some countries (like Russia, UK) are still characterized by attendees mainly focused on books, but in others countries (like Italy) the TV fans are by now a massive majority.
As for what the ESFS business meetings during Eurocons is concerned, I have noticed the time necessary for these meetings growing year after year, ending up in swallowing an excessive share of the convention in whole. I cannot tell the exact reasons for that – whether board members talk too much or delegates raise too many (not always necessary) issues or a mix of both – that is a mystery which really escapes me. Bureaucracy is perhaps a necessary evil, but looking at recent ESFS meetings it looks like for someone it has become an unnecessary pleasure, so that to discuss the rules of our meetings swallows away already close to half of the time we actually have to effectively meet. Since someone could argue that as a Vice-Chairman I could have done something to change that, I have to tell you that Vice-Chairmen exist in the ESFS basically just for the function to replace the Chairman if he happens to be absent. Other than to advise now and then people to keep it short there has always been little or nothing I could do to change that trend which I've personally always hated. So we can witness the funny paradox that in the time when the ESFS bureaucracy was mostly needed (decades ago, for lack of communication possibilities during the year) it was the least present, while now that it is mostly useless (for an e-access of communication possibilities through the Internet during the year) it tends to swell hypertrophicly. If this trend continues, one could extrapolate that in future all the time of the convention will be spent by some on discussing on how the convention should run. If that were not enough, I now see people having fun endlessly discussing about ESFS rules also on Facebook in the Eurosmof group. And in some cases, I remember even people who have never been at an Eurocon suddenly criticising the status quo and pretending to dictate some new rules! As we were used to say in my country long, long time ago, de gustibus non est disputandum.
Another problem is the rising polemics around the ESFS Awards, due in my view to a common misunderstanding about the nature of the prize.
The original creators of the ESFS Award were perfectly aware of the impossibility of assigning some of the major awards (best author, for example), based on appropriate comparison between individual works (as opposed to people and ventures be they magazines or publishing houses), as the European Babel of languages makes any comparison of individual untranslated works technically impossible for any jury. Therefore the principle of the Hall of Fame was established, meaning that every winner could win only once the ESFS award, thus entering the Hall of Fame. The concept behind this is that the ESFS Award should be a tool to help in time as many European authors, editors, artists as possible to get some more visibility, and not a tool to realise the silly ambition to establish who really is the best of them all every year. I have repeated this argument again and again to newcomers, but with little success alas, since the wrong and meaningless polemics around the prizes continue to flourish.
So now I see the legacy of pragmatic wisdom of the ESFS founders at risk of getting lost, as more and more newcomers in the ESFS community insist in coming out with any sort of personal random idea on how to change the rules of the Eurocon awards, while most of them seem to avoid making any thoughts on why things actually are as they are.
I still remember an episode which happened during the ESFS meeting in Dortmund, in 1999. While making some quite daring and inspired proposal (which were then rejected), the Romanian delegate Alexandru Mironov told the audience: "Come on, let our little beautiful community of science fiction lovers be different from politics." He well knew what he was talking about, he being a very high level politician in his country. I'm afraid the times in the ESFS are not ripe for this wisdom. On the contrary.
So why do I still attend Eurocons? Because you occasionally still meet exceptional people who represent a beautiful exception to the general trend. And it's also important to get to see how SF is seen in other countries, cultural exchange always happens while jumping around Europe for Eurocons and this way you see also a lot of countries where you probably wouldn't travel otherwise. Moreover, the fact that Eurocons are usually far smaller in size – and thus more intimate- than the more popular Worldcon, may be seen by some as something which makes the convention less important and therefore less worth going, while instead it is a terrific opportunity of actually getting to know often more people and more famous writers (or honour guests anyway) than in a huge and impersonal Worldcon. Everybody is usually too busy in Worldcons to have time to spend with you, because everybody things they have too many things to do and too many people to meet, while in medium sized convention like Eurocons people are usually more available and honour guests will likely always have some time also for you. And after several years of attending Eurocons you will be surprised of the quantity, quality and variety of your SF friends circle – at some point you'll realise you have friends all around Europe. If I may add a final little suggestion on how to make the ESFS meetings less painful (to benefit the few who are used to attend them), it would be great to move on-line all endless discussions on how to continuously update the statutes of the association, and to restrict it to the fans who actually regularly attend Eurocons. SF Conventions must be a place to meet and happily discuss SF and other pleasant arguments, not really a place to meet to endlessly argue about 'rules'. It would probably benefit everybody if those with a developed talent in bureaucratic issues would just gather on-line during the year to discuss these things. This being said, let's all work together to ensure a long bright future to our favourite yearly SF event in Europe!
Roberto Quaglia is an Italian SF writer who is very well known in Romania as he spends his time divided between Italy and Bucharest. Roberto can occasionally be found at the Eurocon and so frequently rubs shoulders with a number of the SF2 Concat' team and has worked with Concatenation on a number of Anglo-Romanian Exchange projects. A couple of his convention reports are on this site and he occasionally provides Concatenation with news of continental European goings on. He has been an Officer for the European SF Society (ESFS) from 2002 - 2013. In recent years (since 2010) he has had SF collections of short stories published that have been written jointly with Ian Watson, one of which won a BSFA award in 2010. He is also the author of the 'Paradoxine' diptych duology Bread, Butter and Paradoxine. In 2013 he was awarded the title of SF/F Grandmaster by Aelita, Russia's longest-running SF convention, for his contributions over the decades to the genre.
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