ICFA 2008 Report

I should start with some background. ICFA, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, is an academic convention. It is not necessarily the sort of place where you will be comfortable. If you think that structuring a debate about cultural changes around the question of whether or not the word “technoculture” needs a hyphen then ICFA is not for you. If you have difficulty working with analogies and metaphors then ICFA is not for you. And if you think that trying to discern the “meaning” of a story is an act of unacceptable violence inflicted upon the reading experience then ICFA is most definitely not for you.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy hanging out with very smart people who all have a love of fantastical literature and an abiding interest in literary criticism then there is a good chance you will enjoy ICFA. This is not SFRA, the annual conference of the Science Fiction Research Association. That is more of an academics-only convention where the conversation revolves around Theory and the jargon flows too densely for anyone without the appropriate training to be able to swim in it. ICFA, on the other hand, always has a large number of writers in attendance, and a small smattering of people that it describes as “independent scholars” – people such as Karen Burnham, Graham Sleight and myself. (Larry, if you are reading this, you really ought to be here.)

The convention takes place in Florida sometime around what US universities call Spring Break. That isn’t an exact time, because not every college has its vacation in the same week, but a date some time in March or April is pretty much certain. The Florida location was chosen because it provides many Americans (and Europeans – this is an international conference) an opportunity to escape the awful winter weather.

For many years, ICFA took place in Fort Lauderdale. However, the hotel it used was bought by a company that seemed unhappy with the convention’s presence. Convention organizers had been heard to mutter about a strong religious streak amongst senior hotel management. And more importantly they were unable to secure reasonable opening hours for the bar. A move was indicated, and this year saw the first convention in the new location.

The Orlando Airport Marriott is located in one of those hotel cities that grow up around major airports. Just about every major brand of hotel is available near here. There are also many chain restaurants, ranging from Denny’s to Tony Roma’s. Getting to a really good restaurant (the sort of place that Charles Brown likes to patronize) requires a lengthy cab trip, and fast food is also notable by its absence, but there is no problem getting food or sleep around here. The Marriott is perhaps a little expensive for some attendees – I couldn’t afford it without sharing a room, but Donald Morse, the ICFA hotel guru, tells me that the Marriott is the only hotel in the area with sufficient function space to host the convention.

Attendance at ICFA #29 was around 320, which is not particularly large, but programming mainly centers around the presentation of academic papers and that tends to mean lots of items with small audiences. There were 8 tracks of programming. The convention also needs sizeable banquet space for the three major food functions it runs. The only major exhibit space is for the book room – ably run each year by David Hartwell with loyal support from Peter Halasz and Joe Berlant.

From a facilities point of view, what you need is one big ballroom and a lot of small break-out rooms. The current location fits the bill very well, but there are a few annoyances.

The most obvious irritant is Internet access. This being a fairly high price hotel, wi-fi is not free. The $15/day rate is a bit steep, but a week for $35 is pretty reasonable, especially if, like me, you have been used to the absurd prices in the UK. Rather more annoying is the fact that you can’t connect in your room and in the lobby, it has to be one or the other. When I blogged about this I actually got a marketing guy from Wayport email me, which was very impressive. Hopefully some sort of resolution will be possible for next year. Nothing, however, is likely to change the $300/day access charge in the function space. It never ceases to amaze me how careless with money business people are, and while they are prepared to pay such absurd prices, non-profit conferences like ICFA are going to suffer.

The hotel also seems to have a bit of a habit of nickel-and-diming people. One story I heard is that they charge for wake-up calls, though I haven’t been able to confirm or deny that. They do charge for newspapers, but it is an opt-out system. There’s a check box on your key card that you have to mark and return, otherwise you get charged for USA Today. This seemed pretty crass, but Don was able to explain the history of it. Many hotels provide “free” newspapers, but of course the cost is rolled into the room rate. In Florida someone (probably prodded on by a rival newspaper chain) brought a law suit complaining about being charged for a “free” paper he didn’t want. So now all Florida hotels are required to have an opt-out for the newspaper service.

Those issues aside, however, the hotel experience has been very good. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, the food is good, the staff is friendly and helpful. Also the environment is beautiful. I didn’t manage to see a ‘gator, but the lake out back has turtles, and there are plenty of birds, lizards and animals such as squirrels and raccoons. I did pick up a couple of bites, but nothing to compare with Finland. It would be nice if the bar was open a little later at night, but we’ll train them on that.

This year’s ICFA also marks a sea change of a different sort – it is Farah Mendlesohn’s first year as President of the parent organization, the IAFA. Having someone with excellent con-running experience on the IAFA Board is making an obvious difference to how things are run. The con seems much more slick this year, and there is an awareness that the management is putting on a show for the attendees, not giving itself a soapbox. There are plenty of willing and capable graduate students who can from a con committee, so I think the organization will only get better from here. The web site could do with some work, as could the pocket program, and I’d like to see schedule lists posted outside each of the function rooms, but this is all tweaking, not major problems.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the panels I attended, so I don’t see any need to add to that here. The content was good. Roger Luckhurst gave one of the best Guest Scholar speeches I have seen. And I got to spend time with Vernor Vinge at last, which I was very pleased with. I didn’t manage to get to any of Greer Gilman’s events, but she certainly livened up the con with her presence. I also got to sit in the sun by the pool and drink mango daiquiri, which is a very good reason for being here.

Next year the theme of the convention will be “time” and the guests of honor include the very wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m very much looking forward to it.

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