Big Weekend in a Small Town

A review of a science fiction convention in Spain, where I used to live.

XXX HispaCon / II ImagiCon, the 30th Spanish national convention, in Urnieta, Basque Country, October 12 to 14, 2012

I win!

Friday, October 12: Madrid to Urnieta

Early in the morning, Chamartín train station in Madrid was quiet because October 12 is Día de Hispanidad, celebrated with a big military parade in Madrid overseen by the King. The parade includes many picturesque moments, especially the double-time march of the Spanish Legion accompanied by their mascot, Blanquita the goat, usually sporting her own little uniform. It’s also Pilar Day, celebrating the day in 40 AD when the Virgin Mary appeared in the city of Zaragoza and left behind a jasper pillar as testimony, so Zaragoza has big celebrations. In many Spanish cities, women who are named “Pilar” after that holy pillar gather to celebrate the day together. In short, plenty of people were leaving town for the long weekend, but massive hordes of daily commuters weren’t dashing around the big station, so it seemed peaceful.

I was heading for Urnieta near the northern Atlantic Coast, and about five hours later, the train pulled into the little station in San Sebastián-Donostia. I had planned to take a commuter train for a short ride to Urnieta, a suburb, but a volunteer from the convention confused me with a well-known Spanish writer named Susana Vallejo, and even after explanations, I got a lift to my pensión.

The convention organizers had arranged for a 30% train fare discount and discounted room reservations in the town’s three inns: a roadside hotel, a student residence, and a pensión, which is a sort of basic small hotel. The Pensión Guria had nine rooms on the first floor of a building alongside a small restaurant. For 35€ per night (about US$45; the student residence was even cheaper and, I heard, adequate; the hotel was twice as much and also perfectly adequate) I got a modest, very clean room only a couple of blocks downhill from the convention site.

In fact, everything was close-by in Urnieta, population 6,170. The municipality, located on a hilltop amid farms in mountain foothills, donated the use of its cultural center, theater, town square, and secondary school, where classrooms were used for panels and workshops. A group of unemployed townspeople had organized a friendly makeshift bar under the town hall’s arcade and served drinks and food to earn a little money.

I checked in, ate a nice lunch in the Guria restaurant, and headed for registration in the lobby of the theater, across the street from a medieval church. The mayor himself had offered a welcome at a lightly-attended brief opening ceremony that morning. Many attendees were still in transit, but by then the town had been plastered with posters in Spanish and Basque inviting local residents to the events, since everything was open to the public.

The welcome pack consisted of a wheeled backpack containing a T-shirt, two lapel buttons, tourist information, the convention program/poster, bookmarks, and five books, including an anthology by the Spanish Federation of Epic Fantasy. That organization has four local branches: The Valencia branch had organized the convention there the year before, and the Basque branch, el Bastión del Fénix, had organized this one — hence “II ImagiCon.” Paid attendance reached 155, more than the organizers had hoped for.

Special guests were writers Javier Negrete, Toti Martínez, and Susana Vallejo. Foreign writers had been invited but none could attend; Guy Gavriel Kay sent a video that was among the shorts shown at the theater. In all, ten short films were presented during the convention, including Onironautas, The Bequer’s Guide and Crónicas Drakonianas.

In the busy convention schedule, as many as ten events took place at once. At the school, two well-stocked rooms for games were open Friday and Saturday on the top floor. On the lower floors, new books were presented; panels discussed alien languages, genre music, and urban fantasy; and workshops taught editing, makeup, and Basque storytelling.

I had time to attend a panel on book cover art by enthusiastic and accomplished artists; then the showing of Onironautas, which featured strangely obsessed characters; and finally an outstanding talk on Basque mythology by author and expert Toti Martínez. (I own a couple of her historical novels.)

Then it was back to the town square for a  tasting of seven brands of hard cider (sidra) at the town square; sidra is a regional specialty. I shared a round with Susana Vallejo. After a trivia contest about Song of Fire and Ice, the episode “Blackwater” from Game of Thrones was shown in the theater — but it was 10 p.m., I’d had my fill of cider, and while other friends went to the theater or to bars for food and more drinks, I went to bed.

Saturday, October 13

Early on Saturday morning, a copy of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones was installed at one end of the town square for anyone to sit on and be photographed. Both con attendees and Urnietarras (town residents) posed and mugged for the camera throughout the day.

Saturday was another intense day of book presentations, round table discussions, workshops, and presentations, with topics as diverse as translation, self-publishing, and how to survive a zombie apocalypse. The day was enlivened by a few attendees dressed steampunk-style and by roaming zombies and zombie hunters. Another cider-tasting was held at midday, and the Hall of Arms of Fortuna presented a beginner’s lesson on medieval swordsmanship in the town square in the afternoon.

Since I was covering the convention for Europe’s sf website Concatenation, I interviewed Alfonso Cea, president of El  Bastión del Fénix, as he stood in the town square watching people enjoy the throne. “Everyone’s happy,” he said.

Everything was going well. The local press was covering events with articles and photos, the hotels were filled, its restaurants were getting extra business, and the unemployed bar team was making good money.

“A small town might be the best place to hold a convention,” Cea said, because small towns have the advantages of a compact area and municipal support, plus local enthusiasm that could never be mustered in a big city.

But, he added, the 2011 and 2012 conventions had each taken a year to organize, and the Epic Fantasy Association’s members needed to take some time off. “We’re thinking of doing this like the Olympics, maybe every four years.”

Later in the afternoon, I appeared on a panel to present the soon-to-be-released science fiction anthology Terra Nova: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction. This project had two parts: a Spanish-language anthology featuring the best in Spanish and translated English stories, and an English-language version to bring the Spanish stories to English-language readers. I had translated two of the Spanish stories.

Meanwhile, fans of the 59-novel series The Saga of the Aznar Family held their own mini-convention, the XIV Aznarcon, on Saturday evening. A newly edited tome of the series had been included in the convention’s welcome pack.

At 8 p.m., a folk-punk group called Duendelirium held a much-awaited concert in the theater. A duende is a Spanish magical spirit that inspires musicians. The rousing songs included references to science fiction, such as “Lullaby for a Nosferatu,” “(Morgana) Le Fay,” and “Day of the Walking Dead.” I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first, since loud punk isn’t my favorite style, but the enthusiasm of the performers won me over. A couple of pieces were sung in Basque.

Shortly afterward, the convention reconvened in a nearby restaurant for the gala awards dinner, featuring six courses, several kinds of wine, and an enormous barrel of cider. A joke claimed that instead of being a HispaCon, the weekend was an HispalCohol. In keeping with the Spanish love of late-hour festivities, the boisterous, jovial award presentations began at 1 a.m.

The winners of the Ignotus Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Hugos, were:

  • Best Novel: Fieramente Humano (Fiercely Human) by Rodolfo Martínez
  • Best Novella: ‘La textura de tu piel’ (The Texture of Your Skin) by David Jasso
  • Best Short Story: ‘Mytolític’ (Mytholithic) by Sergio Mars
  • Best Anthology: Abismos (Abysms) by David Jasso
  • Best Non-Fiction Book: Blade Runner. Lo que Deckard no sabía (Blade Runner: What Deckard Didn’t Know) by Jesús Alonso Burgos
  • Best Article: ‘Gigamesh, ¿Qué fue de?’ (Gigamesh Magazine: What happened to it?) by Ignacio Illarregui Gárate
  • Best Illustration: cover art for Los horrores del escalpelo (The Horrors of the Scalpel)by Alejandro Colucci
  • Best Audiovisual Production: Eva by Kike Maíllo
  • Best Comic: El héroe (The Hero) by David Rubin
  • Best Poem: ‘Histerias minúsculas’ (Minute Hysterias) by Víctor Miguel Gallardo Barragán
  • Best Magazine: Calabazas en el trastero (Pumpkins in the Junkroom)
  • Best Website: La Tercera Fundación
  • Best Foreign Novel (tie): 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and La chica mecánica (The Windup Girl) by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Best Foreign Story: ‘Ultima generación’ (Final Generation) by Ian M. Banks

The Nocte Awards were presented by the Spanish Association of Horror Writers:

  • Best Novel: Descosidos (Unsewn) by Javier Quevedo Puchal
  • Best Spanish Anthology: Abismos (Abysms) by David Jasso
  • Best Spanish Short Story: ‘La necesidad del dolor’ (The Need for Pain) by José María Tamparillas
  • Best Foreign Book: Now we are sick, an anthology of poems
  • Best Foreign Short Story: ‘Venganza’ (Vengeance) by Liudmila Petrushevskaia

The 21st Domingo Santos Award for an unpublished novella went to ‘Orpheus’ by M. Bracelli, a story about a boy and his twin whose father has been sent to work in a station at an asteroid in a dying galaxy. The award included a cash prize and publication.

Sunday, October 14: Urnieta to Madrid

In spite of the late festivities, early on Sunday morning a quorum of the Asociación Española de Fantasía, Ciencia Ficción, y Terror held a general assembly. Since I’m a member, I was there. We voted to expand voting for the Ignotus Awards, and approved new editions of our publications, and some other projects. I volunteered to take on Espora, the English-language newsletter covering Spanish genre developments.

As the sponsor for HispaCons, we also set aside funds for the next convention in 2013. But we had received no bids for the coming year. Spain has often had trouble finding organizers for HispaCons, and the quality of the conventions has varied from year to year. The future 2013 convention remains unresolved.

The morning included a few more projections in the theater, and some panels and workshops. The closing ceremony consisted of thanks for the convention organizers and from an Urnieta alderman who had attended the event. Then everyone put their convention badge into a box for a drawing to win prizes including a wide variety of books, posters, and teeshirts. I got Condenados (The Condemned) by Santiago Eximeno, a leading horror writer, the first crowd-funded Spanish-language novel. A heavy rain that had begun at the start of the final ceremony relented in time for people to return home. Along with some other attendees, I caught the commuter train to San Sebastián, and then the train to Madrid, arriving at 10 p.m., caught another commuter train to my neighborhood, and then a bus through a downpour home.

On the whole, the weekend had tilted more toward fantasy than science fiction. There were plenty of young people, but a worrisome lack of some of the larger publishers in the dealers’ areas — in fact, many of the books presented were self-edited or offered by very small publishers who count on pre-publication purchases to finance their books.

Spain’s economic troubles are taking a toll on the genre, which was never well-heeled to begin with. Despite all the genuine joy in creation that writers expressed, very few can earn their living or even much spare pocket money by writing. Almost all the print genre magazines and big anthologies have disappeared. While the Song of Fire and Ice is making a splash with its throne, show, books, and fans, Spain has no equivalent to George R.R. Martin, not out of a lack of talent but out of a lack of opportunity, especially in the current, deepening economic crisis.