Another year, another Fantasycon. This year's had a lot to live up to after 2011's glorious, sun-soaked high-jinks, but also a lot to live down after the Gulag-style horrors of 2010. Not to mention the fact that both the SFX Weekender and Eastercon in recent months have done a lot to raise my personal bar for what a Con can be ... that is, provocative, imaginative, varied, slickly organised and purposefully inclusive.
The good news is, I had a fun weekend, and caught up with some wonderful people. The bad news is that not much of that had to do with Fantasycon itself.
Truth be told, I've had my concerns about the British Fantasy Society and its pet Con for a while now; it's been getting harder to see what either has to offer me as a fantasy author when the society increasingly seemed to be a clique for certain folks, most of them in the Horror field, with apparently limited interest in promoting much besides themselves. The embarrassing awards hiccup last year dragged a lot of my own gripes into the spotlight; seeing that plenty of other people had the same issues and hearing society figures respond in what seemed a positive, proactive fashion, I hoped the times might be a-changing.
Unfortunately, what followed involved those hopes getting a lot of dashing.
This year I went with Jobeda Ali, who - as a fan of Fantasy with no interest at all in Horror and no familiarity with the BFS's long and storied history - was bewildered by the under-representation of her genre of choice at an event named Fantasycon. Though plenty of excuses have been made for this in the past, the fact remains that if you put on an event called Fantasycon and charge people to attend it, it should live up to its name more than a little.
Of course, that wouldn't have mattered half as much if the programming had had more to offer. It's probably more polite to not specify which they were, but of the three panels I tried, one irritated me enough that I had to walk out, another achieved the same by being painfully dull and straying badly off topic, and I only suffered through the third because one of the five panelists had interesting things to say. All three panels were badly thought through and poorly moderated. In fairness, I should say that Jobeda made the Fantasy Fiction: Keep it Real panel, which I missed, and reported back that it was excellent. Still, not a great success rate, and those were the ones we'd picked because they looked most interesting. In general, there were too many tired old questions; does the publishing world really need another "Print vs. Electronic" panel? I've been lucky enough to watch some terrific panels this year, enthusiastic debates that both entertained and tackled significant questions within the industry, and that's the standard I'm coming to expect.
Elsewhere, there were the usual mainstays - readings, a disproportionate number of launches and signings, often scheduled over each other - and not a whole lot else. The masterclasses are a potentially good idea, but the decision to charge extra for them and severely limit attendance is plain baffling. What organiser thinks reserving their best content for a tiny minority is a good idea? I saw some of the Saturday night's entertainment, and the kindest thing I can say is that I probably wasn't the intended audience. My less-than-complimentary thoughts about the only feature film on offer can be found here. In general, I spent a lot of time feeling glad that I wasn't there on my own, relying on the conference to keep me entertained.
Finally, there came the British Fantasy Awards. Whatever hopes I'd had for their not being another shambles after last year's travesty had already been dented by the shortlists - three of the five best short stories from one anthology? Edited by BFS mainstay Stephen Jones? Really? - but it was still a disappointment to see an opportunity for the society to get its act together wasted so thoroughly. Yet again we had an unlikely mash up of an international awards ceremony - I'm sure Woody Allen and Joe Hill are still reeling from their successes - with something so comically insular and mutually back-slapping that every market up for Best Novella, Best Short Fiction, Best Magazine and Best Collection (not to mention all but one of the publishers up for Best Anthology) could be British and no one thought it worthy of comment. Just because this year doesn't seem to have produced any major scandals, I hope it doesn't fool the BFS into imagining they've finally got it right.
As is probably apparent by now, I struggled to find much about this year's Fantasycon to be positive about (what there is, I'll come back to in a day or two) and found a huge amount frustrating in light of the steady progress being made elsewhere. It would take a whole other post to discuss the crummy and wholly inappropriate venue, for example, or to talk about subjects like inclusivity and diversity and the staggering disregard for the basics of sustainability (But seriously, I hope that all least some of the proceeds go towards reforestation.)
All told, I suspect it's a good thing that there's no Fantastcon next year. I'm hanging onto the hope that the extra year will give the BFS an opportunity to regroup, put aside a little of their complacency and figure out what it is they're trying to achieve here. I genuinely believe that both the society and Fantasycon have something to offer, and I'd love to see them do it, but with others doing the whole genre convention thing so much better, they have plenty of catching up to do if they want to remain a meaningful date in the Con calendar.