Thursday, March 21, 2019

International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts

Last Wednesday through Saturday, the 2019 ICFA met in Orlando. As usual, it was wonderful to spend four days in Florida in March. Days were pleasantly warm, and the predicted off-and-on rain never appeared. The organization is considering changes to the date and/or location of the conference. For the first time, I attended the annual business meeting, just to hear the discussion on this issue and the results of the membership survey about it. I'm happy with the present set-up except for one point, the risk of airline delays in March. March in Florida falls in the "high season," with expensive hotel rates, so a change could save money and avoid rises in cost for members who couldn't afford to pay more. The long-time conference chair (about to retire from that role after thirty-five years—we'll miss him!) and his assistant presented a detailed explanation of the factors that go into hotel convention prices and the process of negotiating with hotels. Two major alternatives suggested were Toronto or a different venue in Orlando, with other choices also discussed. Naturally, no decision has been reached yet. The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) plans to send out another survey to get an updated sense of the membership's preferences now that more information has been supplied. Being naturally averse to change, I don't like the idea of leaving a pleasant location I'm used to, but I have faith that the IAFA officers will make the best decision for the majority. Like any change, of course, whatever happens will be good for some people and unfavorable to others, especially since U. S. residents, North Americans in general, and the smaller percentage of attendees from overseas all have different needs.

The Lord Ruthven Assembly—the vampire and revenant division of IAFA—presented its annual awards. The fiction winner was EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN, by Theodora Goss. The nonfiction award went to I AM LEGEND AS AMERICAN MYTH, by Amy Ransom. For the first time, as far as I know, both winners were present at the Saturday night banquet to receive their recognition, which was quite a thrill. Since 2019 marks the bicentennial of John Polidori's "The Vampyre"—the first known prose vampire fiction in English, the story with Lord Ruthven as the enigmatic villain—we had a panel about the influence of that work. The theme of the con was "Politics and Conflict," so the panel nominally dealt with the politics of the characters' social status and relationships but in practice ranged more widely. At the LRA evening meeting, after the business portion we screened an obscure horror film, THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST, based on or at least inspired by Polidori's tale. Only an hour long, the movie was co-written by classic SF author Leigh Brackett (who also worked on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). It was better than I expected, actually quite worth watching. It also contains more elements from "The Vampyre" than I'd expected from reading the Wikipedia summary; these include the vampire's "death" and revival by moonlight, the hero's inability to tell anyone about these events, and his being incapacitated with a fever while the vampire, who poses as a concerned friend, courts the heroine (in this case, the hero's fiancee instead of his sister as in the original story). In the most significant alteration, the movie takes place in equatorial Africa instead of Greece and England.

The author guest of honor, G. Willow Wilson, although also a novelist, is mainly known for her work in comics and graphic novels, especially MS. MARVEL. Her after-lunch speech on Thursday was lively and thought-provoking. She reminded us that comics have always had a "political" dimension, often invisible to both creators and audiences because of its mainstream nature. In the case of her work, though, because she isn't an Anglo male writer, her very existence in the field is regarded as "political" no matter how innocuous her content may be. She described a hate-mail electronic message she received, whose sender went to the trouble of printing every line in a different-colored font. She noted that the wildly successful MS. MARVEL was expected to last only about ten issues, because its heroine falls under the "trifecta of death"—a new, female, minority character. Wilson also raised the question of who "owns" a creative product—the fans, the writers, the publisher, the parent corporation?

Guest scholar Mark Bould, who has written extensively on science fiction, delivered the after-lunch talk on Friday. He remarked, "We need better stories," and highlighted the surge in zombie films in recent years. He characterized this trope as a "disastrous, dehumanizing, deadly story." Instead, he advocates for a narrative of "less work, more life." His theme was openly political, focusing on a "post-capitalist, post-scarcity" society that would produce luxury for all. I was especially struck by his statement about the role of speculative fiction in exposing what's thought to be "natural" and inevitable as contingent and making the supposedly "impossible" seem attainable.

One unique feature of this year's event: A display of memorabilia from the entire forty-year span of the conference. It was mildly mind-boggling to contemplate the modest programs of the earliest years contrasted with the book-sized directories of more recent conference programming.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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