In our last article about imaginary literature in France, we mentioned the Utopiales convention which takes place every year in November, in the town of Nantes. The city itself is particularly rich as far as the genre is concerned: birthplace of Jules Verne, it houses the bookstore L’Atalante – which is also since the eighties one of the main publishers of the genre in France (among others, it publishes the works of Terry Pratchett).
This year, Utopiales took place from the 10th to the 14th of November : according to the organizers, this year the convention welcomed forty-two thousand visitors. This number makes it the largest science fiction convention in the world since its creation in 2000. Since 2006, Pierre Bordage, a renowned French author of the genre, has chaired at Utopiales. But the importance of this convention is also due to its variety. Literature holds of course an important place, with lots of authors coming from France and foreign countries, more than fifty panels, and a large bookstore inside the convention itself. But the convention also welcomes other aspects of the genre. Movies are shown every day. There’s a showcase of the work of numerous bandes dessinées (comics) artists. There are several exhibitions such as Mondes et Voyages, by Didier Graffet and Galactic Hits (showcase of more than three hundreds vinyls related to science fiction). There’s also a room set aside for RPGs and an area dedicated to video games.
Each year the Utopiales committee propose a different theme, which is afterwards a main thread in the panels: this year, the theme of frontiers was discussed. Science fiction offers lots of ways to approach this topic, and different aspects of the matter were tackled by writers and scientists taking part in the panels. What makes this convention special and interesting is that it brings together not only science fiction and fantasy writers but also French scientists and researchers, who come there to share their knowledge and their scholars’ point of view with the authors. This collaboration leads to debates rich with compared views which explore new or current aspects of science fiction.
The theme of the frontier has been explored at length in the genre of science fiction, and the panels treated the matter of physical frontiers—first those of space: what are the limits of space, will we explore space one day, and how? On the smallest scale, this theme led to a variety of panels based on geographical frontiers: what about the American myth of the frontier in western and its echoes in science fiction nowadays, what about frontiers between people, like walls, and their consequences—sometimes war? But can we live without frontiers, though they cause conflicts? In the domain of the infinitesimal, nanotechnology, its developments, and its impact on society was also the subject of a panel. Mental frontiers were also discussed: the theme lead to the matters of spirituality, to the differences between the imaginary and the real . . .
Several panels also had a more medical aspect, and treated of the frontier between human and robot, of the possibility of chosing your outward appearance in the future or including robotic components in a human body, to eventually reach the ultimate frontier: will we one day be able to push back the limit of death itself? One could easily understand that with such matters, the presence of scientists in the convention and in the panels brought a particularly interesting richness and a depth of thought.
The Utopiales committee has presented the Prix Européen Utopiales des Pays de la Loire since 2007. Two French authors tied for first place this year: Vincent Gessler for his novel Cygnis (édition L’Atalante) and Ugo Bellagamba for his novel Tancrède, une uchronie (édition Les Moutons Electriques). The Prix Julia Verlanger has been presented at Utopiales since 2003, and this year’s winner was the same Vincent Gessler for the same novel—a great success which has been greeted by the French milieu.
At last, beyond the panels themselves, the Utopiales are a great occasion for the whole French and foreign milieu of the genre (with authors coming from very different places—including Scott Westerfeld, Juan-Miguel Aguilera, Peter Watts, Brandon Sanderson or China Miéville) to meet and talk around a glass at the famous Bar de Mme Spock, which is set in the convention itself. Lots of warm meetings happen in this place between authors, translators, publishers, journalists or just visitors—lots of projects are born, concretise and evolve there. Annual marker and important rendezvous of the imaginary, the Utopiales manage to talk about the genre and to make it move forward by offering to all its attendees a privileged setting for chats and debates. It’s in this setting that I’ve been able to do three short interviews of French authors for the Portal: Lionel Davoust, Sylvie Lainé, and Jean-Claude Dunyach have very nicely agreed to answer our questions for this issue. These interviews will shortly follow the publication if this article, so keep up!