When I learned the 2015 Eastercon would be in Heathrow, I knew I’d be giving it a miss. And when I discovered its guests of honour were urban fantasy writers, then I had even less reason to attend. At Fantastika, Swecon 2013, in Stockholm, I’d heard about Åcon, a small con which takes place in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, an archipelago between Finland and Sweden (it’s a self-governing part of Finland, although the natives speak Swedish). I quite fancied attending Åcon – I’d found Nordic fandom hugely friendly at Fantastika, and Mariehamn looked like a nice place to visit – but plans to do so in 2015 came to nothing… But that was okay because then Archipelacon was announced. An Eastercon-sized convention. In Mariehamn.
So that would be my alternative to the Heathrow Eastercon.
As the date of the convention approached, I started to worry about travelling to Åland – the Finnish fans catch a ferry from Turku, and the Swedish fans from Stockholm. I didn’t fancy finding my way from Helsinki to Turku and onto the ferry in a country I’d never visited before. But then I found out Mariehamn had an airport… and I could fly there from Helsinki Airport. Sorted. I booked my flights, my hotel room, and my days off from work.
As journeys go, it wasn’t too bad. I had to spend five hours in Helsinki Airport waiting for my connection, but it’s a nice airport so it was no real hardship. And at the gate to the flight to Mariehamn I ran into some friendly faces, Icelandic writer Emil Hjörvar Petersen and his girlfriend Kristin. We were staying in the same hotel too, the Park Alandia. So on reaching Mariehamn, we shared a taxi from the airport. And met up later for food and drinks in the hotel bar… where I discovered all food in Finland is either gluten-free, lactose-free or both. (I was told a lot of Finns are lactose-intolerant, but most food is actually only “low lactose”. However, I had no problem finding lactose-free food during my stay – and even in Helsinki Airport half of the sandwiches in the café were labelled lactose-free.)
The following morning, I went for a wander in the centre of Mariehamn. Which didn’t take long. It may be small, but it’s very pleasant. I found the convention venue, the Alandica conference centre, quite easily, but when I turned up they were still getting things ready. I returned later, bumped into some friends, and so Archipelacon began in earnest…
Much as I’d like to mention everyone I spoke to during the con, I’m likely to miss someone off so if I have done, apologies. But here goes anyway: Tobias, Ian, Cristina, Edward, Farah, Johan, Linnéa, Johan, Kimmo, Rollo, Kristina, Alexander, Emil, Kristin, Jukka, Juha, Elio, Linda, Gary, Niall, Liz, Nic, Jukka, Polar bear, Loponen, Jerry, Juha, Christina, Doug, Dave, Gaie, Minnow, Alexander, Eugene, Cheryl, Karin, Mia… and no doubt there’s someone I’ve forgotten. I met people from a dozen nations, and hung out with people I knew from Fantastika, UK fandom, online fandom, not to mention lots of very friendly people I’d never met before. Archipelacon is also the only time I’ve had a convention-goer introduce themselves to me in a non-convention venue. I’d nipped back to the Park Alandia Hotel bar for some food on the Thursday night, and the person next to me spotted my membership badge and introduced himself and his wife – they were, of course, also members. We were then joined by a fourth person who had spotted our badges. I don’t recall anything like that ever happening at a UK con.
The programme was very good, although I didn’t attend as much as I’d planned (but certainly more than I typically do). I was on only one programme item, “Why SF Writers Should Rule the World — or Should They?”, with Kristina Hård, Kimmo Lehtonen and Farah Mendlesohn. Obviously, we all said they shouldn’t. Then we sort of talked around the subject, prompted at intervals by Kristina. The audience seemed to enjoy it.
There was also a strong academic track – and a lot more academics present than is the case at Eastercons. In fact, sitting outside on the Alandica deck at one point I found I was the only non-academic in the group at the table. On the Friday night, there was a big party around the pool of the Hotel Arkipelag (the main con hotel). The Arkipelag also has the only nightclub in Mariehamn – so when we moved indoors later, it was very busy. The nightlife in Mariehamn is… odd. It all felt a bit nineties. At the Saturday night pool party, I left around midnight, and took a wrong turn leaving the hotel… and found myself at the nightclub entrance, where bouncers held back Mariehamn twentysomethings queuing behind a rope. And when I got to the Park Alandia Hotel and entered through the bar, I noticed that everyone there was over the age of forty-five. I was later told the nightlife in the town revolves around the hotels, but wandering about town on the Sunday I found a couple of small bars. Outside one were three men who looked like they’d just stepped out of an Aki Kaurismäki film. Except they were speaking Swedish, of course.
The Alandica was a superb venue. The central space was big and airy, with plenty of seating. The two auditoriums were excellent. There was food available throughout the day – much of which was lactose-free. And the bar sold bottles of the local beer, Stallhagen – which is what I drank for most of the weekend. It’s very nice. Sunset each day was around 11:30 to midnight. Which meant it was always later than you thought. The weather was sunny and hot – you don’t expect to get suburned in Finland, but I did.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books at the con, but I’d said the same at Fantastika and still left with a dozen or so. Thanks to Alvarfonden. This is a fan-run fund which sells secondhand US and UK paperbacks cheap – at Archiepelacon for between €1 and €2. So I ended up coming back with half a dozen or so, mostly for SF Mistressworks: The Clewiston TestOuter Space Stories, AL Furman; Strange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia; The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril; Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown; Godsfire, Cynthia Felice; A Woman A Day, Philip José Farmer; and A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough. I read the last during my flight home, so a review of it will be going up on SF Mistressworks this coming Wednesday.
The only bad thing to happen during the weekend was entirely my own fault. On the Sunday afternoon, I received a telephone call from my hotel. “You must check out now.” “I’m booked through until tomorrow.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t. Gah. I’d booked a room from Wednesday to Sunday, meaning including Sunday night. But the hotel took that to mean checking out on Sunday. And I never noticed I’d only booked four nights instead of five (possibly because Archipelacon started on a Thursday rather than a Friday, and that threw me). Tobias offered the spare bed in his room – he was in the same hotel – but the hotel managed to find me a free room. Except it had no shower. Which meant using the one down in the saunas. I took that room because I’d be up at seven am to catch my flight, and thought it unfair to Tobias. But skulking naked around the hotel sauna was not an experience to be repeated.
It seems likely Archipelacon was a one-off, but I think pretty much everyone who attended would like it to be repeated. The Alandica was an excellent venue, Mariehamn (nightlife notwithstanding) was a lovely little town, and everyone seemed to have a really good time. I know I did. It was the best con, in fact, I’ve been to for a long time. I certainly plan to visit Finland again – perhaps an Åcon, or maybe a Finncon (next year it’s in Tampere, I believe). And, of course, there’s always Sweden – Fantastika is back at the Dieselverkstaden in Stockholm in 2016. There was even talk of running small con in Reykjavik. I’d definitely go to that.
ETA: Archipelacon has posted all the photos by official con photographer Henry Söderlund. You can find them here.