Cast your memories back to the glorious year of our Lord nineteen and seventy-nine. Portents were rife across the world, omens and signs abounded, and in the spring of that year, in a small city in Northern Ireland, a boy was born. Now in his small provincial city it was believed that this was the great thing that the universe had been waiting for. However, as this boy was to discover, this was not so. At almost the same time a group of courageous, some say slightly mad, mages and practitioners conceived of a strange idea that was soon to bear fruit. Whether it was those very universal forces that inspired them or if the celestial alignments were simply there to bear witness none will ever know. The result, of course, was ICFA.
Fast forward now to the year 2005, around the month of Oktoberre. The aforementioned young boy, now a man, if barely, had just begun studying a Ph.D. in fantasy literature, or “The Secrets of the Fantastic” at the place of learning known by the strange name of University of Liverpool. Quite by chance he ended up at a small, local symposium where he regaled the attendees with an amusing scroll dealing with the matter of “pictures telling a story.” Amongst the august personages present were the strange and knowledgeable wizard M. John Harrison and a certain Farah Mendlesohn, a highly respected and knowledgeable sage of renown. After being thoroughly ripped apart and dressed down by the aforementioned Mendlesohn, this young lad was inconsolable until she took him aside and told him a wondrous secret. She told him of a magical event that happened only once a year, when the stars assumed the proper alignment, the auguries were in agreement and the dragons were asleep. It was known as ICFA. He was charged with submitting his paper to this august and selective sect (once he had instituted Mendlesohn’s suggested, recommended, and mandated changes) and told in no uncertain terms that he must go there. In short he had been given a quest.
So like a young knight errant, he sought provisions from his illustrious seat of learning (then panhandled for change when that didn’t work out) and revised his paper (with a newly purchased Lecktrick Thinking Box). He laboured day and night over the revisions as time passed and the seasons changed in order to make himself worthy. So in the spring, following the 27th anniversary of his birth, he set off on his quest to find the mysterious ICFA, or the 27th ICFA as it was known at that time. It was as if the universe exhaled, choirs sang and Dwarves hummed happily about gold and ale.
Like any tale involving a great quest there were obstacles. The first were the Trolls guarding the entrance to the magical dungeon housing the great beasts that could transport the eager pilgrim to the far off land. Our hero heard a strange mixture of gibberish from one such low-browed goon named Arrg:
“You have been selected for random security screening; step this way.”
Unsure of what to make of this, our intrepid hero attempted to reason with the great lug, but as we all know Trolls have a low Intelligence stat, and so this was to no avail. A turning of the hour glass later, our hero realised that this was some sort of ritual requiring that he perform certain physical feats in a precise order, removing his boots and belt while juggling his magical memory box being the first of this trial of strength and agility. “It must be a test to gauge my worthiness,” he thought. After a rather intimate examination from the brutish one, a quick brush over with a beeping magic wand, and a thorough rummage through his belongings, he was commanded to walk hither and thither between Arrg and his brother Blorg and try to guess the answers to their strange riddles. The major thrust of their belligerent enquiries seemed to be “Why, grunt, would anyone want to leave this glorious land to far away go?” and whether or not he was carrying someone else’s travelling pack. Not being fluent in Trollish, the young man tried his best to explain but instead gave up and said that it was a trip to find his fortune, and yes, those lacy undergarments were indeed his; an apothecary had prescribed them. These answers and the strange formalities out of the way, our hero was freed from the evil clutches of the guards and made his way to the great metal bird which would wing him over the glistening Great Sea to the far off land.
He was packed into the belly of the beast with a great number of other travellers and given a strange, almost toxic substance to eat and maintain his flagging strength. Squalling babes, sniffing transients, and oddly alluring serving wenches populated this strange place, and no sleep or rest was to be had. As it was, the excitement of the great journey would never let his mind quiet long enough to relax.
After a time, the bird landed, and he was greeted by another Troll, although this one had a different ritual greeting and his tabard identified him as Girrr:
“What is the purpose of your visit?” it growled in a guttural and barely recognisable voice. For a time our humble hero was flummoxed. The ritual was different and therefore required a different approach, and the Trollish guard did not understand the nature of his quest no matter how he explained it. Eventually he realised that this was another Trollish riddle and he must simply guess the right answer: “Pleasure” he said, and lo! He was granted access to the new sprawling Troll lair. The barrier swung open, and our hero entered the land which some called the Ewe Essay but others called Fill Delfyah. A kindly Man-at-Arms who was passing informed him that another great bird was waiting, but first he must run the gauntlet of the Trolls of the Interior. These were fearsome creatures that guarded the great trade routes within the Ewe Essay. Luckily, when he approached them they began with the ritual phrase: “You have been selected for random security screening; step this way.”
Supremely confident now, he performed the simple tasks with a deftness and precision that confused them. He had thus made a grievous mistake; he had pre-empted their commands in the sequence, and now they were so confused that they had to call for the Super Vizier to sort out the mess.
The Super Vizier was a Troll of uncommon wit. He patiently led his minions through the correct sequence, then told them to stop bothering him. As he strode off our young gallant made to follow him through the gateway, but he was stopped by Ack and Bork who thought he was trying to escape. They had evidently forgotten that the Super Vizier had given him access only moments before. So once again he had to perform the ritual dance, only this time he listened carefully to their grunting cues and so complied with their limited notion of what was to be done. Eventually though, his physical prowess and great agility impressed the brutes, and they sent him on his way, although they had to be reminded to hand him back his money pouch and his travel scroll. Yet now he was on the last leg of his great journey, having travelled far beyond his home and the familiar Isles of his youth.
He made his way to the next great metal bird, though this one was less impressive, and the wenches who worked there were obviously using a great deal of paint to hide their hideous and time-ravaged faces. The hours seemed to pass interminably, and the sustenance he was offered was even worse than before. Manfully though, he swallowed it down, guessing that this was a rite of passage or a test of his manhood, either that or some sort of torture enacted on unsuspecting visitors to the great land in order to entertain the serving hags.
He arrived in the next great labyrinth, and word of his great talents must have travelled afore him as the minions simply waved him on his way. Finally he had arrived in the Kingdom of Flawr Rida. It was a balmy Kingdom, and he was obliged to remove the travelling cloak required in his native land before boarding a strange horseless carriage and instructing the coachman to take him to Palace, the very palace of his dreams.
Here was a great castle peopled with the leaders and most respected practitioners of his field. No more would he have to explain, in excruciating detail, what it was he laboured over day and night in his scholarly rat hole . . . [ahem] . . . garret. These great men and women would know what he was talking about. Slightly trepidatiously, he made his way in and was surprised to be warmly greeted by almost all he met.
Everywhere he turned he caught glimpses of the great and the good. The Magisters and Mages, Wizards and Enchantresses, Witches and Warlocks, and very occasionally some great Alchemist would stroll by. There the great Clute was deep in conversation, dropping pearls of wisdom down onto the minds of his eager listeners, and there the legendary Aldiss, great wizard and scholar of repute. In the distance he spied Mendlesohn, now High Priestess of Academe, and her group of acolytes as she illuminated their mistakes with gracious patience and showed them the correct way to approach the various subjects of which she was justly viewed as an expert.
Almost over-awed by the august personages mingling, laughing, and furtively talking, our young hero stepped outside to see a smaller group lounging relaxed in clouds of pipe weed as they merrily smoked and talked of matters great and small.
He saw them all, this great assemblage, never once having imagined that there were so many. Not only were the very practitioners of the craft in attendance, but also those Lords and Ladies of repute who looked at their formulas and arcane musings and teased the very meaning of life from them. He walked to them and they welcomed him like a long lost brother . . . not a favourite brother but one that is benignly tolerated. Though his journey had ended for the time, his adventure was just starting. After much grog and ale, amiable companionship, and long treatises on strange and esoteric matters, he suddenly realised that the strange astrological alignments, long associated with his birth, were actually portents of this place, this strange magical place that came into being only once a year.
He availed himself of the facilities, greatly enjoying the outdoor swimming hole and the bubbling relaxation cauldron. The small tavern, though hideously over-priced, supplied social lubricant in such volume that the days simply floated by in a haze of erudite conversation, amiable dissection of the arcane, and friendly grumblings and japes made at the expense of the members old and new. Most of all though, he revelled in the access to these great minds that did not treat him as a pariah (except when he made some unfortunate remarks about their current King). These kindly souls, regardless of their eminently greater knowledge, their years of experience beyond his ken, took it upon themselves to welcome him to their illustrious ranks.
Now you might think that I am poking fun here, but this is pretty close to how I viewed that first ICFA I attended. I was nervous and over-awed. I was surrounded by some of the most respected (and disreputable) personages in my field, authors of renown, emerging authors, eminent critics and scholars, experienced academics, and to my very great surprise a number of aspiring academics such as myself. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, sharing jokes, remaking acquaintances, renewing friendships, and being at ease, and without fail I was convinced that everyone there knew more than I did about Fantasy. Yet I was welcomed, not as a student, not as some inexperienced lackey, but as a peer. Admittedly a junior and inexperienced peer, but everyone treated me courteously and showed an interest in what I was researching. Of course at the time I simply assumed I was being humoured and tolerated, but as time has passed and I have experienced more of the community created by this conference, I know that although some may have had that attitude, the vast majority were genuine.
I was amazed at how human and normal those great scholarly figures were; they had their strengths and flaws just like everyone else and were not quite the mythical beings I had always assumed them to be. In fact, they were better. ICFA has given me the opportunity to hear new research, talk to the very leaders and experts in my field, and discuss fantasy with the authors who write it. This conference is invaluable. It is a collection of some of the most fascinating and knowledgeable people on the planet who share a fascination with or at least an interest in the myriad forms of the fantastic. It is a conference for friends to catch up and to meet new people who share our peculiar thirst for the strangest of fictions. (Not to mention that there was a great hot tub, although that story is not quite so heroic or suitable for publication. The new hot tub is nice but just not the same.)
Time could not hold its breath forever, and so the stars parted ways, the magic dissolved, and our dashing young hero had to travel home. He passed again through the Troll-infested dungeons, competed in their strange ritual games, and suffered indignity and hardship. The were two things that kept him going; the warm glow inside that no brutish guard could destroy and the promise that next year, around the time of the anniversary of his birth, ICFA would return and the adventure could start again. This coming year marks a milestone in his life, thirty years old, and to celebrate, what better thing than the trek to the Ewe Essay and the enchanting ICFA, the 30th ICFA.