Zagreb, Croatia, April 26-29, 2012
Together with Carolina I arrived in Zagreb already on Monday April 23. At the airport we met Frank Beckers from Belgium and were most kindly transported to the hotel in a car by one of the local fans, who also showed us how to get into the center of the city from the hotel.
We used the days before the convention to have a look at the town and surroundings, and we managed to taste some local specialities. Zagreb is a beautiful city with an atmosphere reminding of Vienna although only a few words were comprehensible. However, English was fairly well understood. There were lots of outdoor cafés in the streets, where you could get something to drink but nothing to eat, not even a cake to the coffee.
We went to a market in a tent on the central square, where Carolina bought honey.
On Tuesday 27 we took a bus to the former capital Varazdin, passing by trees in flower, small grape vineyards and even a stork in its nest on a pole. In this beautiful city we had a look at the castle which also had a small museum inside, and the cemetery that was dominated by clipped thuja trees. We also managed to look around in an art museum by contacting the curator. The paintings were more interesting than good, but there was one Rubens.
In a café we had tea with a cottage cheese strudel, called Strukli. Due to misunderstanding of the bus time-table we had to spend more than an hour in a café at the bus station, since we were not well prepared for the heavy rain. In the café we had to listen to a debate between a mother and a smoking man, and we were as bored as her daughter. Fortunately we had our books.
The next day Carolina, Frank Beckers and I went to the small village Samobor and did all that it was famous for: We climbed to the castle ruin from the 13th century, we had a look in the museum, we had tea with the delicious custard-filled cake kremsnite which was about as difficult to eat as a Napoleon cake, and finally Carolina bought a pot of local mustard.
Back in Zagreb we went to the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb has many museums but this was possibly the strangest. The exhibition consisted not so much of various small articles as of the stories connected to them, relating the end of marriages and friendships. Many were quite banal but some were gripping. On another day we visited the Contemporary Art Museum after a long walk out of the city. The works there were heavily influenced by the Balkan wars. At the Archeological Museum I found an ancient marble triskelion,
and at the Mimara Museum the most impressing were a bronze statue from the first century AD found in the waters outside Croatia, and a small painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
The convention felt very international. I stayed in the hotel International that also served as venue for the first 1.5 days. Thus I had breakfast together with fans from various countries and made plans for excursions. For example, the group that visited the Contemporary Art Museum consisted of me and Carolina from Sweden, Frank Beckers, Frank Roger and Peter de Weerdt from Belgium and Bridget Wilkinson from UK. At one breakfast I talked with Bridget Wilkinson about sf poetry. She recommended Edwin Muir’s The Horses.
Although I am not quite sure I guess the number of participants was about 1000. There was a gamer’s room and a large dealer’s room where most books naturally were in Croatian. There were tables where it was possible to become a member of the Eurocons 2013 (Kiev) and 2014 (Dublin) as well as presupporter of the Worldcon in London 2014. In the art exhibition I was impressed by some photomontages with elf-like creatures on spiderwebs or branches, done by Zdenko Basic. In a Reader’s Corner various authors read from their work, and a small bar served beer and sandwiches if you were willing to make a donation (they were not allowed to sell…). I talked for a while with Pierre Gevart at a table for French sf. He recommended Xavier Mauméjean’s Rosée de feu and Roland Wagner’s Reves de gloire, if I wanted to try some French sf. He also had the magazine Galaxie for sale, but it contains mainly English texts translated to French.
For me, the programme started on Thursday afternoon with an interview of the GoH Darko Macan, conducted by the chairperson of the congress, Petra Bulic. Macan had always dreamt of being a cartoonist but has found that he is a better writer than artist. He wrote the short story “Koda” directly into a book that he was editing. He has also written a YA book about three girls, and he has done a lot of reviewing. However, reviewing killed hos enjoyment of reading: You are not looking for fun; you are looking for mistakes. Due to his many activities Petra Bulic named Darko Macan an “SF renaissance man”; a label that stuck with him for the rest of the convention.
It was also interesting to hear that the Ministry of Culture in Croatia and the City of Zagreb granted scholarships and funding for anthologies by Croatian sf authors which are published for the SFeraKons.
The interview of Charles Stross was amusing as usual, and he covered a lot of different subjects during the hour. He mentioned that he wrote fewer and fewer short stories, but in order to get a Hugo he now wrote one per month. We were told that the founder of PayPal wanted to use his money for mining of asteroids. Stross himself had been invited to a conference regarding what we should investigate in order to make a starship in the next hundred years. Saturn’s Children was his tribute to Heinlein, and in order to understand it you should have read Friday. It is very hard to make anything new in sf now, and according to the author Nick Mamatas the life span of an art form is about 70 – 80 years.
Stross’ Laundry stories are Lovecraftian spy stories, and they have been converted into role-playing games. Laundry Files #4, The Apocalypse Codex, is a tribute to Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise. The ideas for the Merchant Princes series came from H. Beam Piper and Robert Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber.
He admits to making mistakes in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise; he got the stuff wrong regarding FTL and time travel. In “Palimpsest” the time police does not make these mistakes.
Regarding Christopher Priest’s famous comments on the shortlist for the Clarke Award he says that Priest wants sf to be respectable in terms of the literature in the 1970s. Stross writes fiction for the 2000s.
Glasshouse is his slowest selling novel, and thus there will probably not be a sequel since the agent does not want it. It could be about the grandchildren 200 years later. I am not sure whether a sequel actually is needed to this his most entertaining and thought-provoking novel.
Stross was pessimistic regarding space colonization. We have a complicated echosystem, i e some ten thousand microorganism species in the gut. Our technological infrastructure is much bigger than we usually think. Still, one possibility could be to fill Valle Marineris on Mars with oxygen and nitrogen and roof it over. This would give us a colony the size of Germany.
After the opening ceremony we were served a glass of very good red wine and could have a look at the contestants of the Masquerade. We then went to a brewery to drink and eat. I and Carolina sat at a table with three Slovenian authors, Martin Vavpotic, Bojan Ekselenski and Andrej Ivanusa. At least a steampunk novel, Clockworks Warrior by Vavpotic, is available in English in electronic form. These authors told that they were starting a fandom in Slovenia, shaped after the successful fandom in Croatia. We were also joined at the table by the GUFF winner, Kylie Ding from Perth who had first visited the Eastercon Olympus.
Tim Powers writes fantasy in a real history setting, and he tries to minimise the effort needed for the necessary suspension of disbelief. He mentioned this in his interview. It is still escapism. He lets his subconscious handle any messages and recurrent themes. His stories may also be defined as secret history. To make a story he tries to find interesting events or enigmatic puzzles, and connects them. He was a friend of Philip K. Dick and had him living in his house when Dick’s house had blown up in the early 70s. Of Dick he said that he was rationally funny and generous. He invented a poet, William Ashbless, who was at the same time invented by James Blaylock, and this led to a collaboration with poetry “written” by this author. The novels he himself recommends are Declare, The Anubis Gates and Last Call. He does not like doing sequels. However, sometimes characters appear who have already been mentioned in an earlier novel.
Finally, he talked about German translations. When he saw them, they contained a few pages that he had not written, and which were set in another typeface. At the most exciting moment one of the characters asked if there was time for some soup? Another one answered “what kind of soup?”, and when they had had their delicious soup of a certain brand the story conrinued. Apparently this is a story he has told before but it is a good one. Interestingly, the powers went in the middle of Powers’ talk. It went almost completely dark.
It was interesting to listen to the interview of Dmitry Glukhovski even if I sometimes was surprised and disagreed. The dystopia Metro 2033 was based on the presence of the biggest nuclear shelter of the world, the Moscow metro. The time is 20 years after the war, when the world has shrunk to the metro. He used the subway two hours daily for six years going to and from his school, and he got tips of the presence of an underground city. He published the story on line and had visitors influence the story, chapter by chapter. Civilisation is fragile and can disappear in one generation. In the Soviet Union, nationalsocialists were renamed fascists since socialism cannot by definition be bad.
He considers himself to be part of a disappointed generation, bored of ideology. In the novel many subscribe to ideologies which they do not believe in. The mutants, or blacks, or in US “the dark ones”, symbolise immigrants. There is no love-line in Metro 2033, but there is friendship. There is also a lot of aggressivity, and like Richard Morgan he considers this to be impossible to throw away. We always fight and there is conflict in every movie. I am not sure I agree with this pessimistic view; conflict does not have to result in violence as can be seen from many novels, even sf novels. And even if inborn aggressivity has been necessary for the evolution of mankind, I believe that culture may provide sufficient barriers to reduce violence significantly. He stated that peace is unnatural. In Sweden we have had peace for 200 years and it definitely does not feel unnatural.
Metro 2034 is not a sequel but more of an antipode. There are different characters, and it is a different genre. He will not make a third novel in this series. Other authors are writing in different languages in the same universe. There are 24 novels describing the situation in Russia, Italy, Scotland, Cuba and other countries.
Surprisingly, he has disdain for contemporary Russian sf authors. They write action without ideas. In contrast, he appreciated the Strugatski brothers. Finally he says that sf is a fairy tale adapted to scientific facts.
Several hours on Friday were spent listening to motivations for nominations for ESFS awards, and the voting on Saturday also took up too much time. This is a pity since there were quite many interesting programme items that I missed. I was the last presenter of nominations, and naturally my computer suddenly refused to work when it was connected to the projector. I had to restart and I just had to apologize.
Of most interest in the ESFS voting was what country would host Eurocon 2014. Ireland won over the bid from Romania, and the Eurocon 2014 will take place in Dublin a week after the Worldcon in London. The Eurocon 2014 was named Shamrokon. The awards are listed on the web for the con. Ian McDonald, who was nominated from both Sweden and UK, got the award for Best Author. The other Swedish nominations did not result in any awards.
The award ceremony started with the SFERICA (little SFERA) awards for best children’s work on a given sf theme. All elementary and high schools in Croatia are invited, and about 1500 entries are received every year. From them about 40 are chosen for awards. This seems to be a very efficient way of recruiting new fans, not only among the children but also among their parents who were present at the ceremony. To organize this must be a real challenge, and I am very impressed!
The lecture entitled “Supernatural Beings and Phenomena in the Legends of Istria” sounded interesting, and the lecturer Evelina Rudan from the University of Zagreb was obviously an expert of the field. Unfortunately she spent most of her lecture describing the methods she had used to collect the legends. However, she briefly explained a few of the phenomena: There appears to be descriptions of fairies (“vila”), werewolves (“vukodlak”) and an impossibility to have sexual relationships in marriage caused by magical methods (“kljuka”). She also mentioned a hero (“krsnik”) who protects the community and predicts the future.
The sf scholar, author and fan Milena Benini gave a talk called “100 years of Andre Norton”, that was a delight to listen to. In Andre Norton’s texts there is no explicit sex and relatively little explicit violence, making them perfectly enjoyable for all. Her first published novel, The Prince Commands, is set in a small ficticious European country. During the war she wrote an alternate history spy trilogy, and after the war she worked as a children’s librarian. She used the pen name Andre North for her space operas. Star Man’s Son is an early (1952) YA dystopian space opera, and Sargasso Space (1955) seems quaint today but contains the essence of space opera. In 1963 she got tired of space and started her Witch World series, amounting to more than 75 novels and several collections of short stories. These were partly written together with fans, and she had a lot of communication with fans. She liked fan fiction and edited it making it consistent with her world.
In Witch World magic works, but only by women, and you have to be a virgin. Male magic is weak and despised. The society is a matriarchy. This is Earthsea in reverse, since in Earthsea male magic works but female is weak. Both authors discuss the male/female relation. Andre Norton describes a functional family, and she also introduced different races, consisting of people and not automatically inferior.
Andre Norton was not critically acclaimed but has a long list of awards, mainly for life-time achievements. She lived for 93 years. Two authors who were tutored by her are Mercedes Lackey and Louis McMaster Bujold.
In the lecture “Making the Reader Believe It!” Tim Powers talked about his methods for writing. He writes interesting episodes on cards and puts them on the floor and changes the order until he is satisfied. He makes a calendar with events for each day. He suggest that you throw away the first three pages and the last three pages of your draft, and all pages that the reader would skip. Dialogue should read as if you were eavesdropping, and it should not be too helpful. He does not believe in writer’s groups.
One of the more curious programme items was a lecture and demonstration called “Wireless Energy Transmission with Tesla Magnifiers” by Davor Jandrijevic. Nikola Tesla was born in what is now Croatia and there is a statue of him in Zagreb, but he made most of his work in USA. In the lecture we were presented with several schedules and diagrams providing the theoretical background for some demonstrations. From one antenna to another power was demonstrated to flow as shown by the lightening of a fluorescent lamp. People from the audience were invited to hold fluorescent lamps which also started to glow. To me this just shows that there was an electric field, as can also be shown with an ordinary electromagnetic field detector. The practical use for transfer of significant amounts of energy still has to be demonstrated.
To me the prices of new e-books are ridiculously high, comparable to hardcover books, and this is not because I don’t understand that the paper and binding are a small part of the total cost. But a hardcover book can be read by many persons for at least a century or two, whereas the e-book may not be borrowed or resold and has a likely life-span of a decade.
The panel “Steampunk in Literature” started with the moderator Milena Benini naming Tim Powers “the father of steampunk”, and he described how it all started. The Victorian era has been thoroughly studied and described in several volumes, and he, together with Jeter and Blaylock, realised that this could be a gold-mine for the setting of stories. Immediately Charles Stross, named anti-steampunk, critised this since you tend to ignore the late-Victorian holocausts and colonial atrocities performed by the British empire. He was worried by any positive descriptions of empire-builders, and felt that steampunk is escapistic literature, to which Tim Powers answered that yes, it is, but so are for example Westerns, they are not accurate either. The zeppelins are actually post-Victorian, but Ivana Delac is not interested in the science part, she writes fantasy. According to Vlatko Juric-Kokic the Victorian era was the las time when artist could produce beautiful things, then they were mass-produced. But Stross objected that they were mainly cast-iron everyday things, and we now look at the Victorian objects through “Bauhaus” – the charm comes from the distance.
The talk entitled “How the Publishing Industry Works” started with John Berlyne talking for a very long time about what a literary agent does, unfortunately without saying anything more than that they have guide-lines on the website and that they send the manuscript to several editors which surprised me. This was absolutely forbidden when I sent scientific papers to journals. Bella Pagan who is an editor talked about what they do after the deal with the agent. First they edit which might involve rewriting the whole book, then copyediting with checking grammar, sense and style in every sentence, then finally proofreading. The author is involved and checks all stages. About a year before publishing a cover is chosen and the author is asked for a blurb.
I then went to a panel on graphic novels in the south-east Europe, but this was obviously intended for fans who knew all about these novels. It would have been much better if a computer with Power-Point had been used to show examples and titles.
We could see from the programme book that there was a lecture about Stieg Larsson. Both the lecture and the abstract were in Croatian however, but the abstract contained the words “SF fan”.
Finally the chairman of ESFS, Dave Lally, led a discussion with the chairpersons of the present and the last Eurocons, Petra Bulic and Carolina, about “How to Run Eurocons”. Since the present convention was very enjoyable and in all ways successful there was not much discussion. Obviously the SFeraKon committee is used to running big conventions!
A more direct impression of the convention and some interviews, a few actually in English, can be found here.