At a skyscraper in Petah Tikva, the Leader of the Geeks sits hard at
work. Admittedly, there wasn’t an election or anything, but as the
director of the ICon Annual Science Fiction, Fantasy and Role-Playing Games
Festival, Tomer Shalev would be a strong candidate for the job.
who works by day at a leading investment management firm, has had his ICon alter
ego for the last three years, although he was involved in the conference for
several years before that.
The festival, which will take place this year
at Tel Aviv’s Eshkol Hapayis building on October 2-4, features over 150 events
with over 80 staff members – all of whom go unpaid – and 160
“We rely on local talent,” says Shalev. “Without volunteers,
we wouldn’t be able to put on the festival. That’s partly why we do it on
Succot, since both participants and volunteers are available. School
hasn’t started, people are on vacation from work for the holiday, so it works
out well for us.”
Unfortunately, the time frame is a double-edges sword
“I get asked all the time why don’t do a longer
festival. ‘Everything’s so great; I want to do it all. Why do have to
pack it all into three days, so that some of my favorite stuff overlap with each
other?’ I wish I could tell them that we could do more, but frankly we only have
Succot. Afterwards, everyone gets back to their real lives,” Shalev
It’s that break from reality that ICon provides that seems to be
appealing for so many. The festival receives thousands of visitors every year
and the number grows each time. It should be noted that this is not the only
science fiction and fantasy convention in Israel. Although ICon is the largest and most wellknown festival,
there are several similar events throughout the year, specifically Hanukka,
Passover and over the summer.
“There’s plenty of potential for events
here,” says Shalev. “We have a strong core of a few thousand – our faithful
following – that comes to these events. But ICon has a wider appeal than some of
the more specific events done during the year. We have something for everybody,
for beginners who want to dip their toes in the world of sci-fi and for those
who have been doing this kind of stuff for ages.”
Shalev touts the
festival as a place for everyone, young and old alike, a fact reflected in the
“ICon for Little Ones” programs debuting this year.
festival, like many science fiction and fantasy conventions, has developed a bit
of a reputation for gathering the geekiest of the geek, the creme de la nerd
crop. When discussing the colorful cast of characters in attendance, Shalev
revels a little in the zeal of the sci-fi and fantasy
“Everybody has imagination and it’s something that we love to
see. I think that’s something that appeals to everyone, the idea of coming out
and playing pretend.”
“It doesn’t matter what you like or where you come
from, we want to see you with us,” says Shalev, something that definitely shines
through in the wide-ranging eclectic nature of ICon’s schedule. While last
year’s festival featured zombies, this year’s is dedicated to the theme of
Programs range from “Inconceivable!: Impossible Discoveries
in Mathematics” to a event titled “The Ultimate Redheads Panel,” to a lecture
discussing “From Walt Disney to Joss Whedon: Feminist Disclosures and Gender
Subversion” and a live performance named “When Improvisation and Fantasy
Clearly, ICon takes on all comers, whether you let your inner
freak flag fly over slaying vampires, smashing orcs, arguing about postmodernism
in 21stcentury anime or any of the myriad other topics loosely classified under
the banner of science fiction and fantasy.
“There are many worlds here,”
notes Shalev, who hails from a Star Trek background, vis-a-vis his first
connection to science fiction. But, part of the fun of it all, he says, is in
the escapism and the flight from reality.
“There are many people out
there who do what I call ‘gray work.’ Look, I work for an investment firm, so
I’m one of them. But, that’s why I think people need sci-fi and fantasy, as a
vaccine for office work and a way to run away from the normal.
sci-fi gives us a way of viewing ourselves. We can learn life lessons from it. I was watching an episode of Star Trek a few years ago, and it was
really similar to the political reality of the Disengagement, and all of the problems we
faced with that,” he continues.
“While running away, we dig deeper and
learn more about our own world, going through the back door, so to
In short, intergalactic problems are our
Stepping away from the philosophy, Shalev emphasizes that, more
than anything else, ICon is all about the participants.
“We love the
people who come, who take part, either as visitors or as
According to Shalev, one of the main goals, aside from
promoting science fiction and fantasy in Israel, is providing a place for people
to mingle and connect.
“It’s about making real friends, not imaginary
ones,” he quips with a smile.
And so the conversation turns to the
people, the geeks themselves. When faced with the quintessential
stereotype – at least in the American mindset - of a geek, namely a
bespectacled, socially awkward guy unable to talk to women but able to lecture
for an hour on the syntax of Klingon, Shalev flatly denies the claim.
don’t know what a geek is,” he says, in a phrase reminiscent of US Supreme
Court Justice Potter Steward’s classification of pornography: “I don’t know what
it is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
“There are geeks who like one
thing and geeks who like something entirely else,” he continues, explaining that
there are entirely different worlds and people in them that could be termed
“geeks.” Some build rockets; others make wands.
“But, that geeks are
anti-social or anything is absolutely untrue. The people that show up for ICon
are very friendly and outgoing. They might not be in their everyday lives, but
here, I see all the time people calling for a game and suddenly starting to play
with people they’ve never met before. Maybe it’s because they feel that
they are in a safe environment, where there’s people who like the same stuff
that they do. But they are very social here, and it’s great for meeting new
Shalev is equally adamant about refuting the second half of the
“That most of the people that turn up are men? Definitely
not. For women, it’s not a problem to be a geek and participate. In fact,
we had more female volunteers last year than male ones. And in terms of
visitors, I’d say it was about 50/50, with the numbers maybe leaning a little in
favor of the woman. So to say that science fiction and fantasy is a man’s game?
That is a sentiment shared by Liat Shahar-Kashtan, the
chairwoman of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, one of the
organizers of the ICon festival.
“Maybe at one time, this stigma of
anti-social guys being the perennial geeks was true, but not anymore. Women are
just as active in the community, if not more so. And geeks of all kinds
are becoming more social. That’s one of our organization’s goals,
to provide a social outlet for people who like sci-fi and fantasy,” she
Shahar-Kashtan, who like Shalev was active in the community for
years before taking up the mantle of leadership, has been the head of the ISSFF
for three years. And just like the work done at ICon, the ISSFF is all run
An agronomist by trade, Shahar- Kashtan credits
Stephen King’s IT and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
some of her first forays into the world of sci-fi and fantasy.
remember reading them and then starting to read more and more, and started
watching sci-fi movies, but I felt like I was an outsider. My friends were my
friends, but they couldn’t really connect with it, so I kept feeling like I was
a little alone,” she says of her youth.
“Then, in my second year of
university at Rehovot, I came across the local branch of the ISSFF. They were
doing this mini-conference things and I ended up staying there till five in the
morning. And I’ve been involved ever since.”
Shahar-Kashtan puts a
premium on the social side of the science fiction and fantasy
“That’s one of the reasons I started getting involved in the
group’s leadership – to help people like me, who felt like they were
In terms of Israeli society’s views on science fiction and
fantasy, Shahar-Kashtan sees a trend forming.
“It’s starting to be okay
to be a geek. Sci-fi is starting to get a little popular, a little cool. More
people are accepting of it.”
Shalev would agree with such an outlook, but
is a little less optimistic.
“Yes, science fiction is starting to buzz
around Israel, which is great and we’re starting to see more of it than we have
in the past. But, for TV and movies, people just don’t want to take a chance on
it because of the economics. It can be an expensive gamble, and, to my
chagrin, Israel’s not quite there yet.”
But the community carries on,
rolling their twelve-sided dice and slaving away on fan fiction. And it’s the
community that matters, say Shahar-Kashtan and Shalev. The friendliness of the
people and the social atmosphere at the festival that puts some of its
sometimes-less-than-gregarious participants at ease and lets themselves be
themselves. This, more than anything, is the overarching message of ICon: It’s
the people themselves that matter the most. When it comes to the world of
geekdom, everyone’s welcome.