SF Conventions Across Europe
Roberto Quaglia spent three decades
attending SF conventions across Europe
and now reports on how they differ and yet
have their similarities.
Quick links to below sections:-
3. Genre Focus
7. Realising the Experience
In less than two years it will be thirty years from my the day of my first science fiction convention, while even now it is already 40 years from my being part of the SF fandom. But back in those days there was no internet and it took me barely a decade to discover that the fandom was not only me and that there were conventions with a lot of people who shared a passion for science fiction books.
My first proper SF convention ever has been the Eurocon in San Marino in 1989. I had no idea who I would find there, I had barely information about the fact that there would be an SF convention in San Marino. So it was with utmost surprise that not only I discovered on arrival that there was a science fiction in San Marino, but that I found myself there among people of the calibre of Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, Harry Harrison, John Brunner, Julian May, Judith Merril and more, all together in one little place. That certainly was an unusually high concentration of superstars for one little convention! As you may well understand, how I would ever be able not to jump from one SF convention to the other for the next 30 years after such an unforgettable overture?
I soon had to learn that not all SF conventions are the same. They can be very, very different one from another. For example, I would never again experience such a high concentration of superstars in one little SF convention. Differences would also arise due to which people in what country organised the convention, and also the decade in which it would take place would have a role too. I will now try to outline some of these differences, in a quite superficial and completely subjective manner, according to my very personal experience over the many years and what I still remember at this very moment.
Size of Conventions
Without considering Worldcons, for obvious reasons, I have noticed there usually are no particular rules why one country would always have big conventions while another country would have little ones. Having said that, some countries are more likely than others to have bigger events. This is so, for example, the cases of: Britain, Russia and Finland. Britain has Eastercons, which notoriously have a lot of attendees, while Russia has Roscons, which usually are very crowded too. The fact that these two countries enjoy some of the biggest conventions of the continent is probably due to the fact that both countries have a lot of professional SF authors who can make a living from their writing: something that is very unlikely in other countries. Why Finland has extremely big conventions too is quite a mystery to me. I have been only once to a Finnish SF convention (Turku 2003) and I remember seeing a lot of young girls weirdly dressed and with extremely coloured hair walking while pulling each other along on leashes. This strange phenomenon may have contributed for Finnish conventions to be very populated. Perhaps?
Conventions organisers have a quite heterogeneous range of taste in choosing the locations for their gatherings. From my experience, I have noticed that the British love to organise their convention in excellent and very expensive hotels. The hedonistic pleasure of attending such conventions is assured, provided you can afford it economically. Russians vary in their way of organising cons, but one of the most popular of Russian conventions, Roscon, is typically held in huge resorts in the woods outside Moscow, which are entirely rented for the whole event. Lately Roscons have split into two. One is more a commercial ComiCon set in the centre of Moscow, while the 'literary core' still takes place in the countryside just outside Moscow.
Aelita, Russia's eldest SF convention is held in Ekaterinburg on the border between Europe and Asia, takes place inside a university. Many continental European conventions are held in convention centres, as one would expect, and they are usually not very big. But I remember several mini-cons which took place for one night in some pubs or restaurants or even in someone's home and these are, all things considered, my preferred form of con.
The most unusual locations for an SF convention I remember have been the 013 Eurocon in Kiev (held in a corner of a gigantic hall hosting a fair of something else) and of course the Romanian Eurocon of 2001, which was held in a camping on a little island in the Danube, with Haldeman and Spinrad as author GoHs and where most of the attendees were local mosquitoes.
The Latvian publisher and fan, Imants Beogrivs, has once expressed the intention to hold an SF convention inside a former Soviet bunker in Latvia that had been built to host Soviet VIPs in case of nuclear war. This would out-perform every competition as to the most original site for an SF convention.
Conventions in different places are also likely to vary as for the genre focus is concerned. Books and Film (Great Britain), TV series sci-fi (Italy), just books (Romania, Bulgaria), SF books and separately medieval fantasy (Russia), computer gaming (Poland), Sci-Fi Media and medieval fantasy (Czech & Slovachia), Anime (Finland). This of course does not mean that you would find only that in these countries, but the afore does certainly define a trend in focus. And while, for example, Anime and Sci-Fi TV series represent a focus in Finland and Italy, I have never seen either of them in any Russian convention though the recent ComicCon Moscow centre dimension to Roskon has this focus.
But the genre focus is also mutating with the passing years. Once upon a time, it was just SF books everywhere. Over the decades the situation has changed and, as we have seen, not in an uniform way. As for SF books, here the focus has slowly shifted from SF towards fantasy everywhere, Russia included. Is this a symptom of a rising escapism attitude worldwide?
Different places have different habits also in the programmes they chose to run. Unfortunately, I am not the best person to report on that since I have never been a fan of structured events like panels, workshops, classes, presentations, i.e events where people are usually divided in two groups - those who are entitled to talk and those who are entitled to listen. I always tend to run from these events and meet people at the bar where I can have a fully symmetrical chat. However, I have noticed that some countries have a very precise way to plan and execute their programme items exactly as planned, while others have a totally chaotic way to assess this issue, resulting in virtually no programme item taking place when and where it is supposed to. For reasons of mercy, I won't name these countries here.
Socialising at SF conventions is actually one of the main reasons to attend them, at least in my humble opinion. There are ritualised ways to do that. This is an aspect that varies a lot from country to country and it is very much linked to the spirit of the different peoples. British fans like to socialise at the bar or in pubs in front of endless pints of real ale: a custom that has my whole-hearted approval. They would do this again and again during the day, between one programme item and the next: sometimes even during a panel itself! Germans would do something similar but with a very different kind of beer. However, as far as I remember Germans would rather wait for the day programme items to be over before starting any serious drinking session. Duty first; that's very German!
Italian fans prefer to socialise in some good restaurant in front of plenty of good food: neither doubt nor exception to this sacred rule. Russian fans, during conventions, love to socialise in the evenings in little room parties, where streams of vodka make their way through their bodies until all the vodka bottles are empty, and all bodies are full. This is not a common place: it is a common habit.
Hospitality of different counties' fandoms towards fans coming from other nations varies not only from country to country but also in time. While for example I remember the 'old guard' of Czech, Slovak and Polish fandom being very hospital towards foreign guests in the nineties, I have experienced the newer generation of fans of those countries to be quite indifferent towards foreign fans at their conventions… at least this has been the impression of myself and others I know.
Romanian fandom still qualifies as one of the most hospitable in Europe, even though the Romanian fandom is also one of the most divided ones, with quarrels between the fandom of different zones of Romania that have been lasting for many years, even decades now.
Financing a convention also varies in different ways in different countries. British organisers like to charge increasing quantity of money to people who want to attend, depending on how late they decide to join. They clearly like to punish south and east Europeans who typically decide to attend a con a few weeks before the event instead of the very British two years before. Some countries, like Finland, enjoy the tax-payers money contributing to their conventions' organisation, but it is not very common across Europe. In other countries, like Ukraine and Romania, organisers often seek the aid of some private sponsor who helps cover the costs.
In Italy, for a while you would have quite expensive membership rates because of the high cost of inviting actors of Start Trek or of some other TV series. In Italy, one of the most innovative form of financing was introduced by Stanimondi, a little but good new SF con with a focus on books that, in the past couple of years, has been organised in Milano. Several months prior to the convention a crowd-funding campaign was used to pay for the convention. If the target is met, the convention will happen… It has always happened so far!
Realising the Experience
I am aware in penning this little overview of the differences between fandoms across Europe, that this analysis is by no means a comprehensive one, since it is only based on my personal experience. Moreover, it is only based on what I am remembering NOW of my personal experience, which reduces matters further. For a broader view on the whole sector I'm recommending you to read the collection of European articles here or the European conventions among those here.
For those wishing to experience European SF conventions for themselves, many European nations run their own, annual national conventions (natcons) – see SF² Concatenation's annual natcon list. A number attending these conventions do speak English, but these conventions' programmes are held in the respective nation's own tongue. Another, easier option would be to attend the annual Eurocon. These conventions always have many programme items in English and more often than not hold a socialising event the day before as well as the day after the Eurocon to facilitate visitors' orientation and tourist activities. Eurocons are a very good way of sampling other nations' SF communities as well as seeing different countries. They also make for great mini-holidays. There are many European worlds out there for you to explore. You do not have to just read SF: you can live it too.
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 annual 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 2009) 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.
And if you want the visual experience of Quagliaspace then you can see Roberto over on YouTube on a panel discussing the finer points of an aspect or two of European SF and fandom.
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