FantasyCon 2009

There are two things that you need to know about FantasyCon, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society. The first is that it is best described as a relaxacon. It is the only convention I can think of that actually apologies for the program screw-ups before it starts, and regulars describe the air of disorganization as part of the charm of the event. Many of the attendees appear to just sit in the bar all day, save for the occasional excursion to a nearby pub or restaurant, and that suits them just fine. The other thing is that the majority of attendees are probably better described as horror fans than fantasy fans. If you bear those two things in mind you won’t be disappointed, and will probably enjoy yourself there.

That said, what about the location? FantasyCon has been in Nottingham for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve attended the convention there. Geographically it is actually very good. The hotel is right in the centre of Nottingham within easy walking distance of the main shopping streets and a number of good restaurants. Crucially it is also an easy walk to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which bills itself as the oldest pub in England, claiming continuous business since 1189. It has good beer too, and the food is decent. In order to get there you have to walk past the (partially restored remnants) of Nottingham Castle, the statue of Robin Hood, and the lace museum. It is tourist heaven with a mainly medieval theme.

The hotel is a Britannia, which British readers will immediately recognize as likely to be a bit cheap and shoddy. It is. I was apparently quite lucky in having a working shower, but the kettle in my room didn’t work and the toilet was rather temperamental. Breakfast was fried food-like substance that I mostly avoided. The banquet food was rubber chicken. On the other hand, compared with its sister hotel, the Liverpool Adelphi, the Nottingham Britannia is model of comfort, safety, cleanliness and efficiency. Also the wi-fi was free and pretty much faultless. It could have been so much worse.

The function space was OK, but the art show was on a different floor and a little hard to find, and some of the programming was on the top floor of the hotel, about as far from the rest of the convention as it was possible to get.

The programming was somewhat shambolic at times, especially with regard to people who needed tech. I attended a couple of panels, but managed to miss the one I really wanted to see — the Sebastien Peake presentation — mainly due to my not paying attention. The “Green Man” panel was one of those things where the panel all said they didn’t understand the topic and several of them didn’t seem to know why they were there, but I did learn two useful things. Firstly Graham Joyce informed us that the term “Green Man” was first used in 1939, so it has even less authenticity than the inventions of Iolo Morganwg and his ilk. Also Storm Constantine introduced us to the concept of the fluffification of mythology. That’s sort of like Disneyfication but without the trademarks. She disapproves. So do I.

The New Writers panel was odd. Mark Charan Newton and Kari Sperring tried to provide some constructive advice. Three blokes I didn’t know but I think were probably writers of horror short fiction sat there glumly telling us that there was no point in bothering as it was all a matter of luck as to whether you got published or not.

The conversation throughout the weekend was excellent. I was particularly pleased to see various people from Europe in attendance. Ian Watson was acting as local guide for Sissy Pantelis (Greece) and Roberto Quaglia (Italian living in Romania). Stephane Marsan was on hand to represent Bragelonne. I got introduced to Anna Lentle who is a Kiwi living in Germany, and there were at least one more Italian and one more Frenchman there.

The award ceremony went mostly according to plan and I was utterly delighted to be asked help present the Non-Fiction category. The BFS does tend to reward its own. All fan-voted events are to some extent popularity contests, and also fans are more likely to vote for people they have read. Local favorites such as Steve Jones, Peter Crowther and Graham Joyce tend to do well, but they are also all very good at what they do. It is a complicated business. Pete has, I think, done a very good thing by removing PS Publishing from the Small Press award and sponsoring it instead. Andy Hook’s Elastic Press was a worthy winner, especially after their success with Chris Beckett’s The Turing Test.

The BFS has done some major revamping of the awards this year, making them very Hugo-like. There are film, TV and graphic novel categories for the first time ever. Also there is a new and rather cute demon trophy which replaces the old squid-faced-monk thing that everyone agreed was the ugliest award trophy in genre literature. This is all very promising.

My live coverage of the event went very well. It looks like we only got 19 people online, but we had a lively exchange going. It is great fun hosting those events. I’m very much looking forward to doing the World Fantasy Awards.

The good thing about the Dealers’ Room at FantasyCon is that it is full of small presses whose books you are unlikely to see on the shelves of a shop in the UK. Forbidden Planet in London does stock some PS Publishing titles, but most of the small presses are not available in stores at all. I would have bought quite a few PS books, except that I knew I’d be able to buy most of them at World Fantasy and then I wouldn’t have to transport them to California myself. The one book I was not prepared to wait for was a copy of John Berlyne’s incredible book about Tim Powers, Secret Histories. I fully expect to see this one on the Best Related Book nominee list in next year’s Hugos, it is gorgeous.

The Art Show was rather good considering the size of the convention. Any art show that includes Les Edwards / Edward Miller, Anne Sudworth and Vincent Chong is definitely worth looking at. Andy Bigwood was in there too, and several other people I wasn’t familiar with. It is a shame I don’t have anywhere to put art in the UK.

There are times when the BFS drives me to distraction. We have some great fantasy writers in the UK, and it breaks my heart to see the country’s premier “fantasy” convention being a gathering of less than 300 people who are mostly interested in horror. The BFS hierarchy is trying to change things. The Guests of Honour this year were Jasper Fforde, Gail Z. Martin and scriptwriter Brian Clemens (The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives, etc.). These are not the sort of people that your average horror fan reads. Yet their presence did not lead to a large influx of fantasy fans. Indeed, I’m told that Fforde’s GoH speech was embarrassingly poorly attended. Clearly there’s a marketing problem here, but without being closely involved in the process it is hard to say what it is.

On the other hand, enough of my friends go to FantasyCon for it to be a very pleasant, relaxing event. There is always someone interesting to hang out with, and the contrast to the non-stop 14-hour days I was putting in at Worldcon was very marked. I enjoy going to FantasyCon. I imagine I would enjoy it in a different way if it was a 3,000 person convention full mainly of epic fantasy and paranormal romance readers, which it could be if someone wanted to put in the effort. However, as with all fan-run events, you only get what people are prepared to put in. The BFS appears fairly happy with FantasyCon the way it is, and I’m happy to go to it while it is that way. Maybe that’s the problem.

A video diary of the event (provided mainly by Gail Z. Martin) can be found here, and my photos from Nottingham are here.