Monday Original Content: Utopiales Con Report


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.



8 thoughts on “Monday Original Content: Utopiales Con Report

  1. Hi,

    just stopping by to say that the Prix Julia Verlanger also gives money : 2500 € for the winner, Michael Flynn for Eifelheim (Laffont) this year.

    Sylvie Denis

  2. Ah ok, my bad. Having missed all awards ceremony except that for the last one, I was going mainly on half-remembered tidbits from the bar, and really should have thought of checking that one out.

  3. “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)”

    Soory, but no. My daughter had one of those tickets and she could come in and out of the place without any problem, she just had to show the part of the ticket she kept when coming in the first time.

    “Here, I’ve never seen anyone speak who wasn’t invited to by the moderator”

    So you weren’t at the panel about 21st century & spirituality, nor the one about Hadopi.

  4. Really? That’s weird, because I was told by the con that my fiancé (who had the day ticket) couldn’t come back if he exited the Palais des Congrès… We did not try our luck, but it looks like we were misinformed.

    So you weren’t at the panel about 21st century & spirituality, nor the one about Hadopi.
    No, I didn’t attend either of those two panels.
    I probably did not phrase it properly, but what I was commenting on was more a general trend of panels. I don’t deny that panels on every con can and will degenerate, especially on sensitive subjects, in which case all bets are off on politeness and not interrupting people.
    I was more thinking of the standard way a panel tended to go: in English-speaking countries, even if everything goes well, speech tends to be more up for grabs than in France. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this: I’ve attended other events, such as in science conferences, which happened in slightly different fashions depending on the country they took place in.

    As I said, it’s a trend: I’ve seen panels that were very much ordered in the UK/the US, and as you point out, panels can become more agitated in France as well.

  5. I have to say my experience of Utopiales in 2003 was very different, in terms of of the focus on French and international SF rather than English. While it had an impressive rota of big-name English-language writers (Terry Pratchett, Tim Powers and many others) there were also writers from Germany, the Netherlands, South America, South Africa, Taiwan and elsewhere, and a whole bunch of bande desinee and fiction writers from France.

    I came away with almost the opposite feeling to Aliette’s, in fact! That there was a vibrant community of writers doing exciting stuff in France and elsewhere. The bande desinee people, in particular, drew quite a crowd of autograph seekers at the shop area. The panels were all with simultaneous bilingual translation, which was impressive.

    I suspect some of it has to do with budget – it was probably higher back in 2003 than it is today, so more guests were invited – and also tied into the Utopiae anthology published to coincide with the festival, and I’m not sure if that is still published. Looking at the guest list for this year it does appear to be almost exclusively French and English.

    Back in 2003 I had the feeling this was truly a world fantasy/world sf convention. If that’s changed it seems a shame.

  6. I wouldn’t be surprised if the budget had indeed been cut, which probably explains why I didn’t have as strong a feeling of international SF as you did (I got a strong sense of the French SF scene, but if there were people from Taiwan I missed them).
    That said, the anthology is still around, and they also launched at least another one over the con (“Retour sur l’Horizon”, which celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Denoël Lunes d’Encres imprint with texts from prestigious French SF authors). And the bande dessinée people were still there, and were by far the most successful of autograph givers.

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