CON REPORT: UTOPIALES
Aliette de Bodard
I suppose it says something about my near-total ignorance of the French SF scene that I knew next to nothing about Utopiales: one of the two biggest French cons takes place in Nantes, a city around which half my family lives, and which I pass through on a regular basis. I booked myself in this year not sure what to expect: after all, my experience in the matter of cons is pretty much limited to English-speaking cons (and not many at that, since my first con as a writer was the 2008 Eastercon).
Utopiales has been going on for a while: it receives generous funding from the city of Nantes, which allows it to invite foreign writers–mostly from the English-speaking world. This year, it had Robert Charles Wilson (who unfortunately cancelled his coming), Sarah Ash, Stephen Baxter, Ian McDonald and Hal Duncan, among others. The con always takes place in the same venue: the Cité des Congrès, which is adjoined by a Novotel, and conveniently close to transport (20 minutes from the airport, 10 minutes on foot from the railway station). Spread over four days, it has a varied range of programming from cosplay, roleplaying and board games to literature: important prizes like the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, the Prix Julia Verlanger and the Prix Européen Utopiales des Pays de La Loire are awarded at Utopiales. Unlike the Hugos or the Nebulas, those are all juried awards (in the sense that they’re awarded by a very small number of people, not by a vote over a category of membership).
The Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (like its brother Prix Imaginales, awarded in May at the other big French con, Imaginales) has categories for SF written in French and for SF in translation; the Prix Européen Utopiales des Pays de la Loire, however, only has one category: any novel translated into French is eligible. Notable for being supplied with prize money (3,000 euros, which makes up a nice sum), its finalists have been diverse over the three years of its existence, ranging from English writers such as Ian McDonald to Spanish ones like Javier Negrete (who won it in 2008) and Germans like Andreas Eschbach (mainly known in the English-speaking world for The Carpet Makers, which received glowing press from Orson Scott Card). And, of course, French writers: the winner this year was Stéphane Beauverger with The Déchronologue, a historical fantasy set in the Caribbean, where pirates end up facing off against time-travellers (the novel also won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for best original French speculative fiction, making a rather clean sweep)
To someone mainly used to English cons, the differences start at the door: in a somewhat bizarre splitting of audiences, Utopiales allows you to get one of three passes. The first is a daily entry ticket, which is around 7-8 euros; the second is a VIP pass, which is much more expensive. The first is a one-time only (in particular, you can’t exit the con and come back to it later; once you’re in, you have to stay inside); the second is much closer to the con memberships I’m used to: it comes with a nametag, allows you to come and go as you please, includes meals, several rounds of drinks, and attendance to the cocktail parties that take place over the weekend. It’s also, as I discovered, prohibitively expensive if you try to take it two weeks before the con. The third type of pass is the one I ended up getting: it’s reserved to professionals in the field (editors, writers, journalists), and though it doesn’t come with the perks of the VIP pass, it at least allows you to come and go as you please.
My experience of Utopiales was severely curtailed: I came for the weekend, and was too tired to get there on Friday night, so basically I got the full Saturday, and most of Sunday (though by Sunday the con was markedly winding down).
Compared with the other cons I’ve been to, Utopiales is very convivial: as I mentioned above, most people related to publishing get the VIP pass, which means everyone is taking meals in the same room, so there are many opportunities to socialise at the buffet or around a table (if you don’t have the VIP pass, you can pay for your meals, which is what I did). It’s in a fairly small space, so everyone tends to converge towards the bar–and, as usual in the field, everyone is amazingly welcoming. I barely knew anyone on arrival; by the end of the con, I’d been introduced to a host of people, several of which were editors or other luminaries of the French SF scene (I use “French” in a language sense, since the con also had a strong Swiss French attendance).
It has a much smaller programme, too: at any given time and discounting other attractions such as the board games and the movies (the movie programme is pretty amazing, though), there are only two panels, one in the main space, broadcast over the sound system, and the other in a smaller room behind the bar. It has both advantages and drawbacks: it strongly focuses the con on networking, which is great for making contacts. On the other hand, if you don’t happen to be interested in either of the panels and are not particularly here for the socialising (case in point: my boyfriend, who came with me), then you can end a bit short on things to do.
A lot of the panels are discussions about literature, either particular books nominated for a prize or anthologies released near the con. They’re not quite like the panels I’ve attended elsewhere: all of them are strongly moderated, with everyone speaking in turn, and if necessary elaborating on what has been said before–rather than the formula that tends to be the default in English-speaking cons, which is that everyone who has anything relevant to say will grab the microphone and speak their piece, surfing rather close to outright interruption of the previous speaker. Here, I’ve never seen anyone speak who wasn’t invited to by the moderator (and, speaking over it at the bar, I confirmed that this was indeed the norm, which does raise interesting questions over French vs. English debate sensibilities–I hadn’t realised until then that my reluctance to forcefully shove my way into a debate might have a cultural component).
The only point of the con which was slightly depressing was wandering over into the bookshop section upstairs (the equivalent of a dealers’ room except everything was new), which displayed row upon row of books by editors–and desperately looking between the piles for fiction that wouldn’t have been translated from English. It was–sobering. I’ve always realised that a lot of SF is dominated by English speakers, but it’s never pleasant to be reminded of this in such a concrete fashion.
But overall, it was a very good experience, and I’ll definitely plan to come again.