Kiev, Ukraine, April 11 – 13, 2013
I met Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf at the Arlanda airport, and together we managed to get to the Nivki Metro station in Kiev. There our problems started. We asked a girl about the names of the roads and were not quite sure that we had understood each other, and after about a kilometre we asked a lady for the way to Hotel Nivki. She led us in a direction that felt more and more wrong, and suddenly we were at a hotel, but not the one we looked for, and we were almost back where we started. However, after going back quite a long way and on the right way again, we found the road were the hotel should be according to the address. By looking at the numbers of the houses and from help of some kids we finally found the hotel, situated in a muddy area with large apartment houses in disrepair. At last we got our rooms and had a very Ukrainian dinner with dumplings called varenyky.
The next day we were sight-seeing, mainly on foot after a journey in the very efficient and cheap (2 SEK per trip) underground train. We saw lots of churches with golden domes, and went down in the caves of the Lavra monastery which were still used as a shrine, where people kissed the glass coffins. We walked to the Independence Square that we remembered from tv during the “Orange revolution”, where we were harassed by people dressed as Disney characters who tried to convince us to be photographed together with them. Not for free. In contrast, taking photos of the last statue of Lenin was free. As was trying to understand the words on advertisements when you don’t know the Cyrillic alphabet. It was impossible not to try to read, and when you managed the feeling of revelation was excellent. When I understood that there were actually two Cyrillic alphabets I gave up.
The convention took place in a huge convention hall on Thursday and Saturday. The venue was shared with stalls of a market selling everything from candy to various home-made looking articles and one day a large dentistry and the other a large biomedical exhibition. Fortunately the programme items mainly took place in rooms well separated from the main hall. Parts of the programme were open to the public. On the Friday we were instead in a library building at the Polytechnic University, and this venue was much better. Lots of changes in the programme with no information about it made it problematic to get the most out of the convention. It was also a great surprise to find that there was no programme at all on the Sunday.
The opening ceremony – which actually started before the announced time – contained some entertaining singing and dancing Ukrainian kids, but also to our surprise a singing of the national anthem, which also concluded the convention.
Fantasy and national mythos: the returning of old gods was a lecture by Ilona Volynskaya from Ukraine, given to an audience of about a dozen. She used to talk about fantasy for young adults, and was convinced that these read fantasy of their own free will. They read more fantasy than sf. There is, however, a “negative critic paradigm”, that fantasy is childish, a “rudimental tail” of ancient oral tradition, and replaces the real world. They also described the positive paradigm, often given by writers, that fantasy tells about the real world but in a symbolic way and appeals to lofty matters of hope, belief, love and honour. Another vindication of fantasy they gave is that fantasy by being a reteller of old ethnic mythology both may preserve the national identity and spread it as e g the Celtic myths. In fantasy for young children today they perceive ecological paganism; mankind as a fifth element in a world that is living and spirited. Finally they concluded that fantasy is popular because it is associated with the future and develops ideas necessary for the survival and progress of humanity. This sounds a bit bombastic.
The Panel: Science Fiction in Great Britain: current state and new trends” should have had Cheryl Morgan as single panelist (sic), but she did not turn up (possibly she had not been asked to participate since this was the case with others in the written programme). The Guest of Honour Christopher Priest was kind enough to replace her. He talked mainly about his notorious journal note about the Clarke Award 2012, where he criticized the choices on the short-list, and the commotion this resulted in. About awards in general he said that “you don’t think about awards when writing”, and that “people like giving awards”. He also wonders who could talk about the list? You are either on or off the list, and in both cases there are a number of reasons why you cannot criticize it. He commented that there were no women on the list, and that there is an embarrassing lack of women on both committees and lists. He thought this issue had been settled in the 70’s or 80’s, but no. There is also a domination of USA, similar to that in films, where the Oscars are in the category “best film” and “best foreign film”.
To the question why British sf has been so influential in USA and other countries Priest answered that H G Wells was reprinted in the American magazines from 1926, when Wells had himself moved away from sf. The pulp authors imitated Wells and used his tropes. Orwell, Huxley and Stapledon also wrote sf but were outside the community. In the 1960’s the UK economy improved and it was possible to publish magazines, leading to a movement to overthrow the US hegemony. This the Americans have never forgiven.
Serihy Krykun from Kiev gave an interesting lecture called Visions of Terror, starting with ancient art and going all the way to the artists of the sf magazines. Unfortunately his Cyrillic letters for the names of the artist made it difficult to follow sometimes. He showed many pictures done by Hieronymus Bosch, as e g the triptych Garden of Earthly Delights (on which Ian Watson based the brilliant The Gardens of Delight). Albrecht Dürer, Rubens, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all could be shown to have made art describing terror, and Goya in his series “Capricious” and “Horrors of war” was of course a master. William Blake depicted the apocalypse, and Gustave Doré is most known for his illustrations of the Bible. Felicien Rops drew horror in the form of women, and Sidney Simes illustrated the works of Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson. Alfred Kubin was an expressionist and Lee Brown Coye illustrated works by H P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. The pulp illustrators Virgil Finlay was extremely productive and Hannes Bok gay and uncomfortable. Francis Bacon was also gay, and surrealist, and the Swiss surrealist H R Giger is known for his bio- and erotomechanics. The magazine illustrators Phillipe Druillet and Frank Frazetta were rapidly mentioned before Serihy had completely run out of time.
I then listened to Anastasiia Rohoza talking about Mandrake – legends and lore. The plant mandragora belongs to the Nightshade family, that also has belladonna and potatoes. These plants have poisonous berries. In medicine mandrake has been used as an anaesthetic for surgery, already by Hippocrates. Rachel and Lea in the Bible found a field of mandrake that was supposed to help fertility, and it is still used for that purpose in Israel. The use in magic is due to the shape of the roots, which can resemble the human body. It has also been shaped by pots to increase this similarity. There is a story on the Internet that a guy consumed a small piece of mandrake, leading to nausea, immobility and sleep, followed by hallucinations, shining strings crossing his view. Mandrake may be found on Sicily and Corsica, but is rare. It is said to be frequent under gallows, and that it shines in the night. According to Theophrastus it should be harvested in twilight, and a magical sword should be used to draw three circles around the plant, that should then be slowly dug up. A black dog is useful for finding it, and you should block your ears with wax so that you do not become dumb from the shrieking sound when it is dug up. In a story by Clark Ashton Smith, “The mandrakes”, a witch and warlock couple used mandrake as a love potion. The witch disappeared and a woman-like mandrake was found in the garden. In another story, by Hans Evers, a mandrake raped a girl. In that story the German (and Swedish) name was used, alruna.
Another interesting talk was Chimerical prose: magic realism, made in Ukraine. Unfortunately the room and time were changed so I missed the first part of what Mikhaylo Nazarenko had to say. However, I heard about a book about a Cossack, Cossack Marmay, which had been filmed. In the 1970’s there was a lot of chimerical prose in Ukrainian culture. He mentioned a book about werewolves by someone called Drozd, and a novel about vampires by someone called Galina Parotjak, but when I tried to Google these I got nothing. The latter name should be Halyna Pahutyak according to a comment from Oleh Silin. Apparently very little has been translated to English. The publisher that might do it was said to be Garoslav. But I didn’t find that either. However, in a comment from Michael Burianyk I have received a correction: The publisher is Glagoslav, and can be found on the net.
In the presentation of Shamrocon, the next Eurocon that takes place in Dublin a week after the Worldcon in London, I saw that a new GoH was Andrzej Sapkowski. Of course I was also happy to see our own Ylva Spångberg among the GoHs, and that Sten Thaning from the Eurocon 2011 committee was in that committee too.
Christopher Priest’s GoH speech – announced as an autograph session – started with his observation that there is a lot of terrible sf around, and that we should celebrate the best. He mentioned his background, that the British culture defines him, whereas he did not get any interest in culture from his parents. His father worked for an engineering company and could not understand why his son had so many books.
In the beginning of the 60’s there was a yearning for better things. He wanted to explore the world of imagination, since he had had an unexciting childhood and had to daydream. As a teenager he read US sf and was stimulated by the ideas there. It took boldness to read sf at that time; you had to get used to hear about ray-guns etc. He wanted to consider what would happen to real people in the space ships, and when they arrived.
He had problems to read Asimov’s stories which he considered to be long and complicated and have unbelievable characters. Instead, he liked Ballard’s work, which he found weird, ambiguous, surrealistic and written in an obsessive, beautiful style. In part this is a matter of taste. In Asimov’s work he saw a dead end, commercial, with lots of power in a military future, whereas Ballard’s stories seemed full of encouragement and reminding of Salvador Dali. He read a lot of sf in his teens but not any longer.
His first three novels were sf, especially Inverted World, which was somewhat Ballardian, but also slipstream which he considers to use an unusual way of thinking. Other slipstream works he mentioned were Anna Kavan’s Ice and the films Memento and Being John Malkovich.
He has also used alternate history or counterfactual literature, which is familiar to sf readers. In The Separation peace is negotiated with Germany early in WW 2, and this might have decreased the horrors of the holocaust. It is also slipstream according to Priest.
Most fiction is invented and irrational. There has to be collaboration between the writer and the reader. Realism should only seem to be realistic, not be realistic. But why set the story in the future? By using the fantastic the readers are invited to think, their mind will be involved.
The earliest sf in English is Frankenstein. Mary Shelley developed a novel in gothic form, which was concerned with responsibility. This is an issue not only for scientists today. Sf often describes larger consequences, and if imagination is suppressed we may suffer a lack of freedom.
On a question about the future of books, Priest showed optimism. Today there are other information sources, but books are private, not mass-media. Important people read books.
At the General Meeting of the ESFS there was a spoof bid for the 2015 Eurocon, Mårtenique, proposed by Mårten Svantesson and James Shields, getting zero votes. Instead, the 2015 Eurocon will take place in St Petersburg in the last half of April. A new board for ESFS was elected: Chair: Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Sweden. Vice chair: Saija Kyllönen, Finland. Secretary: Gareth Kavanaugh, Ireland. Treasurer: Vanja Kranjcevic, Croatia. New position as Awards Administrator: Bridget Wilkinson. Thus, there are new persons on all positions, except on the newly invented as Awards Administrator. I think it might have been quite difficult to manage this organisation since fandoms in European countries have different culture and history, in addition to the problematic language barriers. The old committee has done a great job in keeping European fandom together.
I listened to a presentation of Science Fiction in Germany by Mathias Kunkel and Eckhard D. Marwitz, who also published a fanzine during the convention, ConFact. There are conventions in Germany in Leipzig, Munich and Dortmund, and the latter city is bidding for Eurocon 2017, Dortcon, presented by Arno Behrend. The big German Club is SFCD, Science Fiction Club Deutschland, and there is also a fantasy fandom organised in FOLOW, Fellowship Of the Land Of Wonders. There appears to be little sf written in Germany. Walter Ernsting wrote a lot of Perry Rhodan stories, mainly under the pen name Clark Darlton, Andreas Eschbach has written some sf books e g The Nobel Prize, but there are no longer sf labels on his books. Frank Schätzing has written thrillers and sf, and in his latest, Limit, there is a space elevator. Previously big sellers paid for the stories that the editors wanted, but this is no longer the case. I think this is a general problem when too much power is given to economic forces, e g the company owners.
Attila Nemeth talked about Science Fiction in Hungary, and the publishing climate there appeared much better than in Germany. There is a lot of Hungarian sf written after 2000, but unfortunately very little is being translated. The sf magazine Atjaro has taken over after Galaktika that folded in 1995. Galaktika restarted in 2004 and won the ESFS award in 2005. (Thanks to Jonathan Cowie of Concatenation for this amendment. ).
Science Fiction in Belgium was presented by Peter de Weerdt and Frank Roger, who started by telling that they came from the half of Belgium that is speaking Dutch and that they thus had more in common with people in the Netherlands. The Dutch-speaking fandom has organised BeNeLuxCons, and is now planning a Eurocon in 2016 in Antwerpen. The most well-known fantasy author in the Dutch language was said to be Jean Marie de Kremer, a k a John Flanders (1887-1964). There is a Dutch fantasy magazine, Elf Fantasy, and a web portal for Dutch fandom, http://www.ncsf.nl.
The Pan-European Party in the remote Prolisok Hotel was really a very pleasant end to a convention that was perhaps more an interesting than a rewarding experience. I talked to several people from many countries, and the international feeling is the really great thing about Eurocons. The international character continued on the “free” Sunday, when I, Carolina, Frank Rogers, Peter de Weerdt, Pascal Ducommun (Switzerland) and Christopher Priest went sight-seeing in the city, to be accompanied by Bridget Wilkinson and Georges Bormand (France) at the impressive Sophia Cathedral. We then had a late, very Ukrainian, lunch in a restaurant where the interior decoration seemed to celebrate the culture during the Soviet era in a nostalgic way. Some of us finally took part in a “ghost walk”, guided by Anastasiia Rohoza, who showed us some gargoyles and the site of a Ukrainian prehistoric shrine that we had missed on our Sunday trip.