ICon – celebrating fantasy in a fantastic place

October 16th, 2007

Nothing surprised me more this year – or perhaps in my writing career – than the email I received last May, asking me to be Guest of Honor at ICon, the Israeli Science Fiction Society’s annual Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Role-playing Festival. Only three of my books have been translated into Hebrew – Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration – but they seem to have struck a chord with the Israeli audience. In 2005, Transformation won the Israeli equivalent of the Hugo at this same festival, and Restoration was a finalist this year. Evidently the books have done well there.

I didn’t take long to consider my answer. The chance to travel to a part of the world so wrought with history and consequence doesn’t come every day. I had met my publisher, Rani Graff, and the multiple award-winning translator of Transformation and Revelation, Didi Chanoch, at the Glasgow WorldCon, and when these two great guys and Naomi Wiener, the foreign guest coordinator for ICon, promised to meet me at the plane, take me touring, show me a great time at the con, and send me safely home again, I jumped. (Besides, I’ve never done a GOH gig, and I thought I ought to grab the opportunity.)

I was actually surprised that almost everyone’s first reaction was: Are you really going to go there? Some were worried for my safety. Some have problems with Israeli history or politics.

I would hate the thought of people not visiting our own country because they judged us all by our national government. And no matter what my personal views on Israeli/Palestinian history or politics, I wasn’t going to become wiser or more intelligent about the issues by not going. And I sure didn’t like the thought of refusing because I was scared I’d be blown up.

I read the US State Department site that advised American citizens to stay out of the West Bank and Gaza and avoid places where large numbers of Americans gather. As the convention is conducted mostly in Hebrew (with the exception of the Guest of Honor events and the film festival!) I doubted there would be large numbers of Americans at ICon. Naomi assured me that most of the convention guests would speak excellent English, which was really a good thing as the sum total of my Hebrew comprises shalom, toda, and mazeltov!

Truly the most nerve wracking part of the anticipation was the shoes I had to fill. Last year’s GOH was Neil Gaiman. Ouch. And before him? Tim Powers. 2004, Guy Gavriel Kay. And in 2003, the man who put ICon on the map for North American authors – Orson Scott Card. Holy moly!!!

So how was it?

What an awesome time! Indeed Rani, Didi, and Naomi, whom I came to call my “minders,” met me at the airport. They allowed my to deposit my luggage in a charming Bauhaus-style hotel in downtown Tel Aviv, then whisked me off to the 4000-year-old port of Jaffa to walk off the long airplane hours and eat hummus and St. Peter’s fish while overlooking the Mediterranean.

We spent a total of four days touching the country itself – Caesarea, the Roman port city built by Herod the Great, the Crusader port of Acre, the Sea of Galilee at sunset and with the full moon rising, a drive through Haifa. On one day we did the fortress of Masada – where the great silence of the desert swallows up the voices of tourists – and a float in the Dead Sea – one of those touristy things that everyone does for a good reason. There is just nothing like it. (I call such things “uniquities.”) And then a full day in beautiful Jerusalem, being trampled on by representatives of all three great monotheistic religions, while finding a lovely peace sharing a meal with new friends on a rooftop in the old city on a golden afternoon with a soft breeze blowing. Jerusalem is a wholly and holy unique place.

And, oh yes, then there was ICon itself. We began with a preview night at a local bookstore, where I began to meet the passionate, energetic people of the Israeli fantasy/sf community. Besides drinking wine and being introduced to many of the con volunteers and bookstore patrons, two Israeli authors, Shimon Addaf and Hagar Yanai, and I gave a brief preview of a panel called “Conquering Fantasy” in which we were to talk about war and occupation as a continuing element of fantasy literature. Even after such a brief discussion, I could tell that this was going to be a great discussion.

ICon runs for 6 days during the autumn holiday of Sukkot, when schools are out. The similarities with North American conventions? Lots of card players, RPGs, non-stop films (the ICon internation film festival component is becoming very prestigious), lots of purple hair, and some costumes (though no masquerade.) Lots of things going on at once. Lots of literary programs. Attendees that are far better read in “the literature” than I am! Many friendly people. Many people who are just there having a good time and could care less about a GOH.

The differences? The attendees are almost entirely under thirty. They can house many students hostel style in a nearby high school, which allows lots more young people to come. This fantasy/sf community is definitely young. Most of the presentations are in the form of single presenter lectures, rather than panels. As these are conducted in Hebrew, I didn’t get to many, but many of the subjects are similar to those we hear. Rather, in between my own events – which consisted of the opening ceremonies (run by a comedy troop who were funny even in translation), a talk & reading, GOH interview/Q&A session, a writers workshop with 15 eager aspiring writers, and the Geffen Award presentation – I sat in the cafe area of the convention venue and just talked to attendees. Some were aspiring writers and wanted to talk writing, some just wanted to talk about the books. Everyone wanted to talk about my impressions of their country. Many wanted to talk American politics. (Our own voters should be so informed!!) I found it interesting that gender issues were a big topic. I really enjoyed talking to two young women who had just completed their military service. Conversation was just terrific and no matter how much they apologized for their English – they were all quite fluent.

One of the highlights of the con experience was my publishers’ dinner, where I got to meet such interesting people as the young woman who has translated all of Harry Potter into Hebrew. She’s midway through Book 7, and invariably people said “Why are you here and not at home working?” I was also privileged to meet the man who translated Tolkien into Hebrew. I have nothing but admiration for people who do this – such a responsibility, and such talent.

Well, I could write about it all night. The upshot is that it was an honor and a privilege to attend. Fantasy readers are special people the world around. If you ever have the opportunity to attend ICon, do. Best if you speak the lingo to go to the lectures, but not a requirement to have a great time.


17 Responses to “ICon – celebrating fantasy in a fantastic place”

  1. Lois Tiltonon 16 Oct 2007 at 9:48 am

    Young people at a con! Who want to talk about books!

    That’s certainly different.

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Oct 2007 at 11:14 am

    I got to meet Naomi at WorldCon in LA when we hanging out at the bar with the pool table. She was a lot of fun to talk to and I could tell she was an excellent con organizer.

  3. Carol Bergon 16 Oct 2007 at 11:23 am

    I could tell she was an excellent con organizer.

    Naomi is incredible – and great fun. A founding mother of Israeli fandom at a tender age.

  4. Stacyon 16 Oct 2007 at 11:37 am

    Well, there will be at least one person under 30 at the World Fantasy Con in Saratoga, but as fond as I am of the Saratoa area I’m sure there is no way to beat Isreal for a venue.

  5. Kate Elliotton 16 Oct 2007 at 12:20 pm

    How marvelous! Had I known you were going i would have sent my greetings to Naomi! I met in her in Israel in 2005; we had dinner together and then she showed me a little around Tel Aviv (took me to the square where Yitzhak Rabin was shot). Anyway, they are wonderful, and I’m so glad you went.

  6. lyssabitson 16 Oct 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Wait, it’s unusual for there to be young people at fantasy cons? I was much more inclined to go to cons when I was younger than I am now — although I’d still qualify as “young” if you define it as under 30. I always thought audiences are cons tended to skew younger, but then maybe that’s just anime cons.

  7. Lois Tiltonon 16 Oct 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Most people I see at cons are greying boomers.

  8. Jenniferon 16 Oct 2007 at 1:00 pm

    I’m glad you had a good time at ICon, Carol. You deserve the GoH honor!

    How interesting to hear about a con experience in another country. I wish I had the resources to attend more cons period, never mind one outside the USA! Sounds like they really ran things well. If only the local cons could be so good…

  9. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Oct 2007 at 4:05 pm

    There are younger people at cons, but always less than there should be. I was at the Dead Dog party at the wrap-up of Conjecture down in San Diego and the great novelty was that, among all the usual suspects, we had a twenty-three year old. And part of the point was that it was a novelty.

    You find a younger skew at the gaming cons, the anime cons and the comics conventions, and sometimes there you will find cons organized and run by younger people, but there is still a lot of grey in the cons.

    Of course, I think there always has been, which isn’t that bad a thing.

  10. Carol Bergon 16 Oct 2007 at 4:48 pm

    It wasn’t so much the presence of the younger crowd, but the complete absence of anyone older that really struck me. One of the things that surprised me when I began attending sf cons in 2000 was the idea multi-generational fandom. Not only did people over 30 admit that they enjoyed speculative fiction…they reveled in it. Which is way cool.

    Israel’s fandom is just young. By ICon 21, 31, 41 etc. (this was 11), I hope they’ll see a broader range of readers and players enjoying the gathering.


  11. Lois Tiltonon 16 Oct 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Or will this group just age as it did in the US, with no younger generation picking it up?

  12. Kate Elliotton 16 Oct 2007 at 7:33 pm

    The dynamics in Israel are different, for one thing.

    But also, the kids here are all right, too. Maybe they’re not into the same conventions in the same way. I noted plenty of younger people at Wiscon, forex. And while reading levels overall are down, YA and teen reading is still going well in the marketplace and of course urban fantasy and paranormal is going strong. So – I dunno. Maybe it’s just not their thing, and why should it be?

  13. Lois Tiltonon 16 Oct 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I’m curious about the demographics, how many of those young fans came from Russia, forex?

  14. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Oct 2007 at 8:23 pm

    I think it often is their thing, but certain segments of fandom are quite simply offputting to any newcomer. One is the Hoary Old Goat Reader who’s read every novel for the past X+ years, but rather than simply turning people on to books they might enjoy, instead gets off on pontificating about various books that have been out of print longer than some younger fans have been alive. The other is the fannish narcissus effect, which is not to say that there shouldn’t be such a thing as a fan guest of honor, but when you go to a panel and the speaker is someone you’ve never heard of speaking about in-jokes from this strange nomadic clan lodge, rather than, you know, literature or whatever the topic at hand is, this isn’t that fun either. Especially when you realize that in the audience there are local authors and other experts who aren’t on that panel or any panel for that matter.

    More related to the topic at hand, when I went to the Mexico City Fantasy Arts Festival a few years ago, I also noted that the audience mostly consisted of younger fans, and the oldest people there were some of the Mexican authors. Which didn’t mean that there wasn’t a fannish culture, but that it wasn’t this odd monolith with its own traditions and secret handshakes.

  15. Stacyon 06 Nov 2007 at 12:42 pm

    I’m not sure it’s fair to put in a note about the World Fantasy Convention in a post about ICon, but I’m going to anyway. I’m afraid I have to say I’m very disappointed in the, shall we say, group dynamics I found at the World Fantasy Con. The place was full of the Hoary Old Goat Readers Kevin very accuarately described above, and felt very exclusive to a young first timer like myself. I’ve attended a couple of writers workshops in the past that all were very inclusive and great learning experiences, and the con was neither. I’m not making any plans to invest in attending another con. Subscribing to Locus is a lot cheaper. I hope the published writers of this blog had a better time than I did.

  16. Carol Bergon 06 Nov 2007 at 2:08 pm


    World Fantasy is a bit different than most other sf conventions and, yes, it is WAY different than writers’ workshops/conferences like Surrey or Pikes Peak that focus on teaching the craft and business of writing. Other cons have lots of programming choices, but, certainly for the past few years, WFC programming has been very light, even compared to small local cons. The few panels are very much centered on the theme (ghosts, this year) – which leaves a lot of ground uncovered (and often bores me to tears). WFC is a great opportunity to meet lots of fantasy authors in one place – even legendary figures like Patricia McKillip and Guy Kay and Gene Wolfe – and to hear them read, but if you’re not into readings that’s a bust. Which leaves networking.

    WFC is actually more of a family reunion than a full-bodied con. People come to meet friends and professional acquaintances and eat and drink and talk. At my first WFC, I felt very much the same as you. I ran into exactly one person than I knew. She had been to another WFC and introduced me to two people she knew. I still spent lots of time in my room and swore never to go to WFC again. But I tried one more time, and now, seven years later, I go to WFC specifically to see a whole conglomeration of people who come almost every year. Yet I (and many other authors) do love it when someone new comes up to me and says, “could we talk?” or “do you have time for a cup of tea?” That’s how I’ve met a number of my best writing friends, published and unpublished.

    That’s my experience,

  17. Stacyon 06 Nov 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Sadly, unless they have the WFC within driving distance again, I can’t justify the expense based on the experience I had. I don’t drink, either, which is always a handicap at social events. I missed bumping into you and I certainly would have said hello if I had. I think if I was published and knew more people or had something to sell it may have worked out better. I’m not badmouthing the event, but basically wanted to say, yes, I’m a younger person, and the statements about the community not welcoming new people rang true in my experience. If you are past the college phase of dressing up in costume and hanging out in the gaming room (if applicable) but haven’t yet been reading or publishing for forty years there seems to be no niche to join in. Maybe I’ll try out the Worldcon in Montreal, if I can afford it.

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