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A Tale of three cons

In the past four months I’ve attended three science fiction conventions in three different countries. Three con reports in one post would be a bit much, however, so I’ll keep these short.

The first was Åcon, in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, a part of Finland. I hadn’t initially planned to attend a con so soon after my move north, but was persuaded to go by members of Uppsala fandom – well, one member: Johan Anglemark. And I’m glad I bowed to the pressure. The trip to Mariehamn was ridiculously easy – and the first time I’ve travelled to another country with liquids for many years. A group of fans from Malmö and Copenhagen came up to Uppsala by train the night before, and the following morning we all caught a coach to Grisslehamn on the coast. It takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s two hours on a ferry to Eckerö in the Åland Islands, followed by another 45-minutes coach-ride. It’s been many many years since I was last on a ferry, but they don’t appear to have changed much: a bar with a band murdering hits of the late twentieth century, a huge duty-free store (and, in fact, the chief reason why people take the ferry), and gently shifting motion that had me thinking I was a fraction of a degree away from falling over most of the time.

Åcon takes place in the Hotel Adlon, which may share its name with the Berlin hotel which appears in Philip Kerr’s excellent Bernie Gunther novels set in Nazi Germany, but is entirely the opposite. Sort of. It’s perhaps a bit tired these days, but it’s only a year or two past needing refurbishment and, to be honest, being a little behind the times seems entirely fitting in Mariehamn. While I was there, I actually saw someone delivering newspapers to people’s doors. I didn’t see a milk float, although I don’t think they’re a Finnish or Swedish thing, but if they were, they’d be still be using them in Mariehamn. It’s a bit like time travel. Which is, of course, entirely fitting for a science fiction convention.

Åcon is characterised as a relaxacon, with a single Guest of Honour. This year, the GoH was Amal El-Mohtar, a Canadian writer of Lebanese extraction who used to live in Glasgow, and who I last met in 2013 when she had a quite pronounced Scottish accent. To be honest, I’d thought then she was a Scottish writer. The Åcon way is to schedule 60-minute programme items 90 minutes apart. Everything is in English.

On the first night, I accompanied the GoH and several others to Dino’s, an upmarket burger/steak place. I like eating in Finland. Finns suffer from lactose intolerance, as I do, to such an extent that pretty much all eateries cater to both lactose- and gluten-intolerant diners to a massively better degree than any other country on the planet. The sports bar attached to the Hotel Adlon, for example, served only pizzas, but they were all made with lactose-free cheese… because it’s easier to do that than cater for those tolerant to it and those who aren’t. I love Finland for that.

I was put on two programme items at Åcon, one on how the genre treats the six senses, which I moderated. Yes, six. Because proprioreception is generally considered a sense now. That went so well, it overran its spot and I had trouble bringing it to a close. My second panel was about fairytales and I was probably the least-qualified person on the panel to discuss the topic. Oh well. I attended a couple of items I was not on. I do that at Nordic cons. I find their programmes more interesting because they scratch more itches as a science fiction fan. I was also chosen as a team captain for Jukka’s infamous quiz, but we lost by a single point.

On the Saturday, myself and a Finnish fan called Orjo visited the nearby Sjöfart Museum (Maritime Museum), which includes one of the last sailing ships used in trade by the Åland Islands. That was interesting. In the afternoon was a con-arranged trip to a craft brewery, Open Water Brewery on Lemland, one of the other Åland Islands. There we were given a quick lecture on brewing, and tried several of the breweries beers. Including its cider, new that year. And, I think, the first ever made in the Åland Islands (which actually provides 80% of Finland’s apples).

The final programme item – other than the “gripe session” – was a William Shatner karaoke. This turned out to be performing songs in the style of William Shatner. So, no actual singing. Which I cannot do. I have often said I could not carry a tune even if it came in a bucket. William Shatner karaoke sounds like something worth running from. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It was definitely one of the funniest things I’ve seen at a con for years. Shout out to Regina from Shanghai, who not only travelled all the way from China to Åcon but also performed a jaw-dropping Mandarin song in William Shatner style.

My second convention was Replicon, the annual Swedish national con, Swecon, this year held in Västerås. Which is west of Stockholm and 80 minutes by coach from Uppsala. The con took place in the CuLTUREN, an old copper foundry (hence “Cu”) converted into function space. Replicon occupied the central foyer and made use of three function rooms – two for the programme, and one for the Fantikvariat, a charity that sells secondhand genre books, mostly UK or US. There were a couple of smaller rooms used for other programme items. The venue boasted a small coffee shop and a restaurant – which normally serves Lebanese food but for some bizarre reason decided for the con to become a pizzeria. I’d jokingly said the year before that eating Lebanese on the first night of Swecon had almost become a tradition (we did it in both 2017 and 2018). And this year, while I didn’t have Lebanese food on the Friday evening, I ate in what is normally a Lebanese restaurant. So I think that counts.

Anyway, I arrived at CuLTUREN and immediately bumped into the Anders. Who I’d not seen for over a year, and who was unaware I was now living in Uppsala. He took me to the Bishops Arms for a few beers. The Västerås Bishop Arms is the original one. There are now over 40 scattered around Sweden. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the venue for the Opening Ceremony. Which introduced the two Guests of Honour, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, both names known to me but I’ve not read anything by either. I didn’t attend that many programme items – there seemed to be more Swedish-language ones than in previous years; hopefully, by next year’s Swecon, that will make no difference to me. I spent both Friday and Saturday evenings in BierKeller with some Swedish and Finnish fans. This did entail the drinking of a couple of beers that cost 199 crowns each (in 500 ml bottles), although myself and Anders split both the cost and the beers.

While I may not have attended every programme item – although the ones I saw were good, particularly Anna Bark Persson’s talk on “Female masculinity in SF” – I did better in the Fantikvariat than I’ve done recently in dealers’ room: I bought eight books, two were in Swedish and four were books I already owned (but in storage in the UK). For the past couple of years, I’ve bought more second-hand books at Nordic cons than I have at UK cons. Go figure.

Replicon was a smaller affair than other Swecons I’ve attended, but it was well-organised, the venue worked, and Västerås is a pleasant town. In Swedish terms, I think Västerås fandom well and truly put themselves on the map in terms of con-running. Should they ever plan to run another Swecon, they’ll likely get more attendees.

The big con this year was, of course, the Worldcon, which took place at the Convention Centre in Dublin. I last visited the city when I was two years old so I remember nothing of the trip. And it’s undoubtedly changed a great deal since then. (I mentioned this to the cab driver taking me to the airport after the con. The area where my hotel was sited has been extensively redeveloped, and for all of the buildings we passed he pointed out what had been there before.) I’d booked rooms in the Grand Canal Hotel, a ten-minute walk from the Convention Centre, which no doubt contributed to my 10-km a day average for walking (when I normally average 8 km a day). But then there were a lot of floors in the Convention Centre and a lot of walking required between the various rooms. There were not, in fact, many chairs. Seriously, given the greying of fandom, cons need to provide more areas where people can sit down and relax.

The other notable aspect of this particular Worldcon was the queuing. I didn’t actually attend any programme items other than those I was on (more on them below), but I was told it was almost impossible to leave one panel and then get into the next because of the queues. Several people told me during the weekend that high levels of attendance for the programme seemed to be a new thing. Dublin2019 was only my third Worldcon, and while I remember lots of queues at Worldcon75 in Helsinki, I don’t remember any at Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. Fandom really has changed over the past decade; and for the better. There seems to be far more engagement, and it’s less of a private club.

But. My panels. The first was Apollo at 50, first thing on the Friday, with Dr Jeanette Epps, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dr David Stephens and Geoff Landis. When we arrived in the room – the 600-seat room – only two of the microphones were working, those in front of Epps and Kowal. So they suggested they talk while tech fixed the other mikes. And the subject they chose was… going to the toilet in space. It became a bit of theme during the panel. I thought the discussion went really well. The panellists were excellent, especially Dr Epps. Later that same day, I was on Artemis: Apollo’s Big Sister, again with Dr Epps and Geoff Landis, but also Becky Chambers and moderator Alan Smale. The panel went reasonably well, but I would have enjoyed it more if Becky Chambers had not sat with her back to me for its entire length.

My next panel was early afternoon on the Saturday. It was about Alternate Apollos. It came very close to becoming the Panel from Hell. It is my practice when moderating panels at cons to contact the panellists by email a week or so before. So we can introduce ourselves to each other and get some discussion going, and no one is ambushed during the actual panel. One member of the panel managed to offend another. The day before the panel. I demanded the person send out an apology. They objected, but sent the apology (which was, to be honest, pretty much a non-apology apology, you know the sort). The next morning I get an email asking me to visit Programme Ops. I’m told one member of the panel has dropped out (the offeendee, so to speak), and the offender has been removed from the panel. They’re looking for replacements, but not having much success. I spend half an hour running around the con, trying to find replacements of my own, before making my way up to the green room to break the news to the remaining panellist. Except, it turns out her partner is just as qualified for the panel and is downstairs queuing for it. “Get him up here,” I tell her. He joins us. And when we get to the room, it transpires Programme Ops has managed to get one of their alternates to volunteer – and my preferred choice, too. After all that, the panel went pretty well. I hadn’t wanted to get too space-geeky, but we had an audience of space geeks, and they seemed to enjoy the panel. But I didn’t enjoy running around trying to rescue the panel in the hour before it started.

Happily, my final panel, on the Monday morning, went reasonably smoothly. Admittedly, after four days of Worldcon, my ability to brain was badly impaired. The topic was lunar depictions in science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want it to turn into fifty minutes of recommendations of books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Panellists Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffrey Reynolds and GoH Ian McDonald, however, managed to get some intelligent discussion going about depictions of the Moon in historical and mythological texts around the globe… and then we ended up recommending books, films or TV set on the Moon from popular and genre culture. Ah well.

The highlight of the con for me was being approached by Dr Jeanette Epps on the Sunday evening as I was heading out for a meal. she told me I was her favourite moderator. It’s not every day an actual astronaut says something like that to you. (To be fair, the  Apollo at 50 panel was good. It was informative and entertaining, and it stayed on topic. But I had excellent panellists and, even if I say so myself, it was probably one of the best jobs at moderation I’ve done in twenty years of appearing on panels at cons.)

I suppose I should mention the dealers room. It was big. But, unfortunately, the only books available were either brand new or self-published. No second-hand book dealers. I returned home with a single book purchased at the con:

My next convention this year will be held in a fourth country: Fantasticon in Copenhagen, Denmark. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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Me at Worldcon, with Apollo

So it’s the Worldcon in two and a bit weeks, and this year it’s in Dublin. And I’m going to be there. Last time I was in Ireland was around fifty years ago, so my memories of the trip are pretty much non-existent. Something else that happened fifty years is the Apollo 11 moon landing. And, somehow or other, I seem to have been put on a bunch of panels on that very subject…

My schedule looks like this:

Apollo at 50
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Getting men on the Moon was certainly an achievement, but it is nearly 50 years since anyone was there and the Apollo launchers, unlike Soyuz, have been abandoned for years. Beyond the obvious spectacle, was Apollo all for nothing? Was the spectacle itself enough? Panellists consider the legacy of Apollo.
Jeanette Epps, Ian Sales (M), Dr David Stephenson, Geoffrey A Landis , Mary Robinette Kowal

Artemis: Apollo’s big sister
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Recently NASA selected three lunar landers for taking scientific instruments to the Moon. This is the start of many steps towards the goal of returning to the Moon in 2024. What needs to be done, what is planned, and how does this compare with initiatives from other countries?
Jeanette Epps, Becky Chambers, Alan Smale (M), Ian Sales, Geoffrey A Landis

Alternate Apollos
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)
We know how the Apollo landings turned out, but it could have gone quite differently. Armstrong and Aldrin could have crashed, or landed safely but been unable to take off again. What might have happened if Apollo 18 and the Apollo Applications programme hadn’t failed? If the Soviet N1 launcher had succeeded, could they have reached the Moon first? Panellists consider alternate histories of Apollo.
Henry Spencer, Ian Sales (M), Dr Laura Woodney, Gillian Clinton

Shoot for the moon: lunar depictions in SFF
19 Aug 2019, Monday 11:00 – 11:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)
For as long as there has been science fiction there has been a fascination with the moon. What role does the moon play in cultures around the world and how do those cultures incorporate it into their speculative fiction? Our panel will discuss why the moon holds such a powerful allure as a subject for writers and whether the discovery of more distant heavenly bodies has had an impact on lunar fiction.
Ian Sales (M), Ian McDonald, Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffery Reynolds

The good news – sort of – is I’m moderating three of the panels, which means I don’t have to say anything intelligent, just keep the discussion moving. Which is just as well since most of the other panellists are actual rocket scientists. On the one hand, the above are good meaty topics, ones that interest me – one of the reasons, of course, why I wrote the Apollo Quartet. On the other, actual rocket scientists.

The more observant among you will have spotted the names of some successful sf authors above, including a Hugo Award finalist. And, er, also a Guest of Honour. Coincidentally, I’ve read some of their books, although not necessarily the ones appropriate to any of the panels.


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Some thoughts about Fantasycon

I’ve seen a few reviews of this year’s Fantasycon, which took place in Chester a couple of weekends ago, and how good it was, and… well, not everyone was quite so impressed. I’m the first to admit Fantasycons are much better than they used to be. I attended one, or it may have been two, when it was at the Britannia Hotel in Nottingham, and it was awful. But starting with the one in York in 2014, there has been a definite improvement. However…

The Queen Hotel was a good venue. The rooms were comfortable, the breakfast pretty good, and there was plenty of space, both function and social. But it was also expensive – not that I can really complain, given I’ve stayed in hotels in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavík this year. But the hotel didn’t put on enough staff in the bar; or indeed enough beer, as it ran out on the Saturday night. The location was good for the railway station, although it was a ten-minute trek into the town centre. Having said that, finding somewhere to eat in the evening that wasn’t fully booked was only marginally easier than it had been in Reykjavík… I will say this for Chester, however: wherever I went the staff were friendly and helpful, more so than in any other UK city I’ve visited.

So, a good venue – and I’ve not even mentioned the Victoriana, the portraits or the statues. The convention itself, however… The programme was not very appealing; with four streams, which is too many for a con of that size. While individual panel items might have come up with something new, the topics covered were the same ones UK cons have been doing for years. I don’t generally attend programme items – I’m there for the social, more than anything else – but no item in Fantasycon’s programme persuaded me it might be worth sitting through. But then it’s not just Fantasycon. UK conventions as a whole seem to have got into a bit of a rut. (I’m told Nine Worlds is different, but I’ve never been to it.) Having four or five people sitting behind a table just seems boring these days. I like IceCon’s more relaxed approach, where the panellists are in armchairs or on sofas. I think UK cons should adopt it. I also think there should be more talks/presentations given by individuals, and programme items that are just interviews/conversations between two people.

But then Fantasycon has always felt like a showcase weekend for UK small presses, with its back-to-back book launches and dedicated stream of book readings. The entire Sunday afternoon is taken up with a banquet, in which members of the British Fantasy Society hand out awards. Not always to each other. Although one year the best novel and best short story awards were won by the partner of the BFS chairman, and acting awards administrator, and the chairman’s own publishing company won best small press… With four programming streams, this year felt more than ever like it was designed for writers to showcase themselves. But since pretty much everyone else attending was also a writer…

That’s what UK fandom seems to be turning into these days: writers marketing themselves to other writers. Actual fans seem to be a dying breed.

Speaking of readings, I’m not a fan. I’m a person who prefers to look at the words on a page, not hear them. Reading and listening use different parts of the brain – I suspect the former part of my brain is more developed than the latter. Book launches, on the other hand, I no longer attend having done so for years and ended up with bookshelves of books I’m unlikely to read… Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. But you do feel obligated to buy something at a book launch, whether you really want it or not. Ironically, I bought a book at Fantasycon before the book launch, because I hadn’t known it was being launched at the con…

Which neatly leads into the organisation of Fantasycon. The two organisers have been praised by many. But. There were no programmes available until midday on the Saturday. When I registered on Friday afternoon, all I received was my membership badge. No programme. No goody bag. And the programme, when it did finally turn up, included a story by the convention chairman. Since when was that acceptable? And the programme doesn’t include a list of attendees, so I had no idea who was present. It contains only a partial list of those appearing on panels. It’s also riddled with typos, and even manages to spell the name of one of the Guests of Honour incorrectly. The top half of the second page is an introduction from the con’s “Coodinator”, while the bottom half, ironically, is an advert for a proofreading service…

(However, the volunteers, the Red Cloaks, were omnipresent and helpful.)

I attend conventions chiefly to hang out with friends, I admit it. Fantasycon is friendly, yes, if you know people. And on the Saturday night in the bar, it’s as friendly as any place full of people in various stages of drunkenness who are all gathered in one place for the same reason – and even have handy ID badges hanging around their necks… It is, if you like, a social crucible. A good place to meet people and make new friends. Because you all have something in common. But that’s true of conventions in general, it’s not unique to Fantasycon. And while Fantasycon has much improved in that regard, it’s still no better and no worse than other cons.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t have a good weekend, when in fact I did enjoy myself. On the Friday night, David Tallerman and myself ended up eating in Koconut Grove, a southern Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, we arrived just after a party of around two-dozen, so it took over an hour for our food to arrive. Walking back to the hotel, we bumped into two people I’d not expected to see: Cristina Macía and Ian Watson. I’d seen both of them back in June, as Ian was GoH at Swecon, but they don’t typically attend Fantasycon. On the Saturday, I went hunting for a supermarket to buy a sandwich for lunch, but found only a street that the 1980s forgot (Brook Street, for the record). Not only did it have shops that sold vinyl, but also two private shops! I ended up having a pint in the Old Harkers Arms at the side of the canal, and it was awful. Worse than Wetherspoons.

After a trek round Chester city centre on the Saturday night – the programme didn’t include maps, not even a map of the hotel, which would have been really useful; with smartphones, who really needs a town map these days? – myself and David finished up in an Italian place on Foregate Street. It was quite good. Cheaper than a lot of the places we passed. However, on both Friday and Saturday night we’d set out relatively early to eat, around six o’clock. Those trying later had difficulty finding somewhere that wasn’t fully booked.

As with any UK convention these days, any shortcomings are thrown into stark relief by the shitness of British public transport, especially the railway. The train journey from Chester to Manchester wasn’t too bad – the train had originated in Chester and was less than half full. But at Manchester Oxford Road, I had to transfer to an East Midland train that was both ancient rolling stock and over-full. I managed to get a seat, but many didn’t. I’d left early, around noon, as I saw no good reason to hang around for the banquet and the awards, which I haven’t done for any Fantasycon I’ve been to. I was home by about 4 pm.

This year’s Fantasycon was a definite improvement on the last one I attended, in Scarborough, but I didn’t think it was, well, an especially good con. I liked the Queen Hotel, and I liked Chester. But the programme was not much different to one you might have found at a UK convention ten years ago. My overriding memory of Fantasycon 2018 is sitting in the bar talking to various people – many of whom I’d known before the weekend, one or two I had not – or trekking around Chester…

There are worse things you could do on a weekend.


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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…


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Raising steam in Copenhagen

Last weekend was Fantasticon, a Danish sf convention which has been running since 2004. This year the theme was Steampunk, and the two Guests of Honour were Jeanette Ng and Lavie Tidhar. It was also my second time at Fantasticon, as I went last year (see here).

The journey didn’t start well. At the railway station, no platform was given on the concourse display for the 7:08 train to Manchester Airport. Fortunately, five minutes before it was due to arrive, someone spotted a hand-written sign on the information desk which said it was arriving at platform 6. So I headed to platform 6… only to watch another train to pull in. The Manchester Airport train was now at platform 8. I had a seat booked on coach E, but when the train appeared it only had three coaches: A, B and C. FFS. So the train was packed and all seat reservation were null and void. The train also ended up stuck behind a slower train, so it was soon running ten minutes behind schedule.

Thank you, Conservative governments, for fucking up our railways so comprehensively.

The timing was tight, and if there were a massive queue at security at the airport I’d have to rush to catch my flight. And then I looked at the boarding card I’d printed out the night before… It read 12:35, not 10:15. When I’d bought my ticket months earlier, it had said 10:15. Which was why I’d booked a ticket for the 7:08 train. When I checked the Opodo website a few days earlier, it had said 10:15. I checked the SAS website. It said 12:35. Apparently, they’d rescheduled the flight and not bothered telling me. Oh well. At least it meant it didn’t matter if my train were 10 minutes late. On the other hand, I’d have three hours to kill in Manchester Airport…

I reached the airport and was directed to the security check-in in the basement. The usual one was closed for all except “fast track” passengers. I asked one of the security officers why the usual one was closed. Was it being refurbished? He laughed. Refurbished? Manchester Airport? Ha. No, it was only because it got too busy so they introduced a second security check-in downstairs. The usual one would be open later. I for one am glad they put us through all the security rigmarole. After all, think of the bombers they’ve managed to catch– oh wait, they haven’t caught any. On the other hand, they did fail to catch two bombers…

Happily, the plane stuck to the new time. It wasn’t SAS, however. I noticed the signs in the aircraft were in English and… Icelandic? Apparently not. It was Faroese. The aircraft was operated by Atlantic Airways, the national carrier of the Faroe Islands. They have an Airbus 319 and two Airbus 320s. So I have now flown on a third of their fleet…

I was sat next to an old Australian couple, who were flying to Copenhagen to join a Baltic cruise. They were due to visit Talinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm. They had, they told me, plenty of euros. You’ll need more than that, I told them…

This year, I’d booked a room in a hotel in Frederiksberg, 250 metres from the con venue, the Serapion Order (the same venue as last year). That proved a tactical error, as it was a 1 kilometre hike from the central railway station to the hotel. With a heavy bag. And it was pissing it down when I arrived. Still, the Hotel Sct. Thomas proved very pleasant (and convenient), although the soft-boiled eggs on Saturday morning looked like they’d only been shown a pan of boiling water…

Fantasticon seemed more, well, in evidence this year than last. The downstairs hall contained far more dealers, and there seemed to be more attendees – there were reportedly 119 in total, almost twice as many as last year. Obviously, I knew more people – not just Danish fans, but also Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. And another Brit beside myself (and the two GoHs, of course, and partner). And even an American, although he lives and works in Finland. This was good, but it did mean I attended few programme items since there was always someone to hang out with. So, name-check time: Sanna, Fia, Thomas, Jukka, Bente, Sidsel, Eva, Knud, Johan, Edmund, Paul, Einar, Rolf, Dom, Carolina, Flemming, Klaus, Lise, and if I’ve forgotten anyone I apologise profusely. As for the programme, well, I’m not a steampunk fan, so I wasn’t especially interested in it. But who goes to cons for just the programme, eh?

On the Friday night, a group of us went for a meal, arranged some days earlier, to a seafood restaurant near Nørreport, called Musling. Some of the group had oysters, but I’ve never been a fan. I’ve heard them described as like “licking snot off a tortoise’s back” and that seems about right. I had ceviche for starter and monkfish for main, and it was very nice. I saw some Danes at a nearby table with a massive dish that looked like something out of Lovecraft, all hard jointed legs and antennae. After the meal, it was back to the con. The bar closed at eleven, so I took Lavie to the famous Mikkeller bar. But his idea of a good beer is apparently Carlsberg, so he wasn’t impressed. After a couple of beers there, we went looking for somewhere else, and ended up in Dudes on Vesterbros Torv, which was strangely deserted for one am on a Friday night.

Saturday was more of the same: sitting around in the Serapion Order, drinking the cheap bottled beer – and good beer it was too – and chatting to friends. The bar also served food, so I ate there for lunch. That evening, it was the banquet, which again was lactose-free. This time, they had it in the main hall on the first floor. And it was a lot more, well, Danish. Not the food – which was excellent, incidentally – but the fact that people would stand up at intervals during the meal and speak. Or sing. Yes, filk. Karl-Johan Norén led the filking. Including some song, sung to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which used the phrase “bouncing potatoes”. It is still stuck in my head. Both Lavie and Jeanette gave speeches. Then Jeanette was persuaded to sing. It was some pirate song with lyrics composed entirely of obscene double entrendres. After the banquet, a group of us head for Dudes. I left the bar around one-ish. I wasn’t the first to leave, and I wasn’t the last.

I gave breakfast a miss on Sunday, I felt rough and had a bit of a lie-in. I had a plan, you see. I was going to grab myself a fruit juice and a sandwich and a bottle of water (as I’d managed to lose the one I bought in Manchester Airport). But I obviously wasn’t braining very well. The nearest supermarket was a Føtex. I found the fruit juice, and even a dairy-free cold coffee drink (it proved to be vile), but I couldn’t find the sandwiches and I completely forgot about the water. And when I tried to use the self-scan machine, it wouldn’t let me use my card, so I paid in cash, took my change… only to have a guy run after me because I’d left a 50 kroner note in the machine. Doh.

Despite having a bowl of chilli in the con venue, I accompanied some friends for lunch, and we ended up in a tapas – I think – bar. During the hunt for somewhere to eat, I discovered my favourite Danish word, blækspudder, which means octopus but translates literally as “ink squirter”. The bar served “orange wine” but I stuck to beer…

Sunday afternoon, Fantasticon hosted the Niels Klim Prisen for children’s fiction – genre I think – and the con had invited a class from a school to participate. So there were kids everywhere. At one point, one of the nominated writers approached myself and a few others who were sitting an chatting in the lounge to ask us about fandom. We admitted we were from several countries, that some of us had last seen each other at Swecon in Stockholm, that some of us would see each other at Icecon in Reykjavik… It feels weird to be included in this group, given I’m not actually a Nordic fan. True, I have a family connection to Denmark and I’ve visited the country about a dozen times. And the first Swecon I attended was in 2013… leading one Swede to wonder why I didn’t speak the language, until I pointed out I had spent less than a fortnight in elapsed time in Sweden… But, to be fair, I’ve been picking up bits and pieces of the language, although I do need to make a concerted effort to learn it. However, post-Brexit, once “Fortress UK” comes into effect when we lose our Freedom of Movement throughout the EU and all the flights to and from the UK are grounded, well, I may not be so regular an attendee to Nordic cons… I hope I’ll still be able to attend them, of course, but…

Thank you, Conservative government, for fucking up our economy and our future so comprehensively.

Fantasticon ended at five o’clock on the Sunday. Most went home, but several of us headed for the dead dog party in Cafe Asta in Valby, which entailed a ten-minute bus ride. Copenhagen public transport operates a similar system to London’s Oyster card (it may predate Oyster, I’m not sure). I have a Rejsekort because I visit Copenhagen regularly, but others didn’t. So I dug into my pocket, pulled out a handle of Danish coins and handed them across.

The dead dog party was fun. It wasn’t warm enough to sit outside, as it had been last year, but then Fantasticon this year took place later in the month. People slowly disappeared as the night progressed, until there was less than half a dozen of us left, including the GoHs, both of whom were staying in the hotel attached to Cafe Asta. I asked the cafe to order me a taxi. I think it was only about midnight, but I’m not sure.

The following morning, I hiked it from my hotel, with heavy bag, to the central railway station, and caught a train to Skodsborg, where my sister picked me up. She lives in a small town nearby – although they’re not really towns: Zeeland north of Copenhagen is pretty much suburbs all the way up to Helsingør, although many have town-centres, such as Lyngby, Holte and Nærum. I spent the Monday relaxing, well, recovering from a weekend of drinking.

On the Tuesday, my sister took me to see the Tekniske Museum in Helsingør. It’s in an old hangar, and contains a number of cars and aircraft, and the Soyuz capsule in which Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen returned from the ISS after a ten-day stay. As well as the Soyuz, there is a Sikorsky S-55, a Lockheed F-104, a Saab Draken, a Caravelle, a Dakota DC-3, the wreck of a Blohm & Voss BV 138 flying boat discovered in the Øresund when they were building the bridge to Sweden, an early outside broadcast TV van from Danmarks Radio, a number of electric cars, some other early jet fighters, and, apparently, as I missed it, DASK, the first Danish computer.

I love shit like that, especially when you can climb all over the exhibits, as you could at the Tekniske Museum. The Caravelle was a bit old and tired, as was the DC-3, the Draken was missing its engine and the F-104 had half of its control panel removed… I mean, it’s great seeing these things “in the flesh”, as it were, but I’d sooner they looked as they had done when they were actually in use.

After the Tekniske Museum, we drove into Helsingør, got a bite to eat in a cafe in the town centre, and then walked out to the Søfart museum. This has been built in an old drydock below ground, and to reach the entrance you walk down a ramp crossing the drydock from one side to the other and back again. The museum itself is arranged in a downward spiral underground around the drydock, and covers Denmark’s maritime trade. There are lots of models of ships, as well as film clips and artefacts from more than two hundred years of cargo transport by sea. It’s fascinating stuff, if not as visceral as clambering over and around helicopters and supersonic jets or standing next to a flown Soyuz descent module.

I’d planned to head into central Copenhagen on the Wednesday, perhaps to visit Fantask or Faraos Cigarer. But in the end we drove into Lyngby for lunch and a wander round. Lunch wasn’t especially good, a steak sandwich in a cafe we’d visited several years previously – and why do Danes put pesto in all their hot sandwiches? At 5 pm, I caught the train to Copenhagen airport for my flight back to the UK. Which this time was a wet lease operated by Air Nostrum, a Spanish airline. It was a Bombardier CRJ100, a small 100-seater jet. Not the smallest airliner I’ve flown on, but not far from it. The flight was happily uneventful, the landing very smooth, and even Manchester Airport’s passport control was virtually empty. We landed thirty minutes late and it seemed like all the major routes across the Pennines were closed, but I got home around 11 pm. And went straight to bed.

Oscar returned from the cattery the next day, and has been following me around and copying me ever since. I give it a week before he’s back to his old tricks of demanding I fight with him and scratching everything in sight.


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Summer night city

This last weekend I visited Stockholm for the third time for my fourth Swecon (last year’s was in Uppsala). I think that now makes me a regular… at least, I’m starting to feel like one. And even though attending the convention involves flying 1400 kilometres, with a bit of planning it doesn’t really cost that much more than an average Eastercon (assuming you stay in the convention hotel for an Eastercon). Since I started attending Nordic sf cons five years ago, I’ve been keep track of the cost… and Fantastika 2018 did indeed cost me more than Kontur 2017. The flight was cheaper, but the hotel was more expensive – because the one nearest the venue, Quality Hotel Nacka, which I had stayed in previously, was fully booked. So I ended up in the Hotell Anno 1647 in Slussen, which was more expensive.

Anyway, early Friday 15 June, I catch the train to Manchester Airport. Which is in fucking chaos. The normal security check area is blocked off – for use of “fast track passengers only” – and everyone else has to use temporary facilities in the basement… So it takes nearly 40 minutes to get through. When I do finally get to the front, the security guy asks me if I’m wearing a belt. “It’s plastic,” I tell him. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not metal detectors, it’s all body scanners now, so no belts.” So I put it through the X-ray, and am directed to walk through… a metal detector. Sigh.

And then the flight is delayed. I flew Norwegian. I’ve now flown them four times and three times the flights were delayed. I doubt I’ll be using them again. Delay aside, the flight is smooth and quick. There is a massive queue at passport control at Arlanda Airport as we seem to have landed at the same time as a couple of large international flights. I catch the Arlanda Express – 280 SEK! – to the Central Station, and from there walk to Sergels Torg to meet Tobias Bodlund for lunch. We eat in the Kulturhuset. (You can’t really say “the Kulturhuset”, of course, because Kulturhuset means “the culture house”, so that would be “the” twice.. But “we ate in Kulturhuset” sounds daft in English, and “we ate in the Kulturhus” sounds odd to Swedes.)

After lunch, Tobias heads back to work and I catch the Metro to Slussen and my hotel. I check in, and then go looking for the Saltsjöbanan, which I’d been assured was now running, as it hadn’t been due to renovations at Slussen in 2016. It isn’t running. Well, it is. But only as far as Henriksdal, the stop before Slussen. So I have to catch a bus out to Sickla. There is no replacement bus service, as there was in 2016, just normal bus service. I ask a staff member, and learn there are several bus numbers which run past Sickla Bro, the stop I need. I’d bought myself a travel card, so using Stockholm’s public transport proves very easy. And Sickla Bro is only the third stop after Slussen, a ride of around ten minutes.

At the Dieselverkstaden, the venue for Fantastika 2018, I register, say hello to a few friends, then buy myself a beer in the bistro and sit down to chill out a bit after the journey. I’m reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and have only been reading for about half an hour when a Swedish fan, Wolf von Witting, asks me about the novel, as he’d read and admired both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. I tell him he could have my copy of The Buried Giant when I finish it. Which I do the next day. And I give it to him. (I liked it – more at the end than I had done halfway through. Review to follow soon.)

More people begin to turn up, including Tobias, and at eight o’clock we all attend the opening ceremony, where they release the previous spirit of Swecon, and the three guests of honour – Kij Johnson, MR Carey and Ian Watson – are introduced and, immediately following, interviewed, well, it’s more of a moderated conversation.

By the time that’s finished, the “gang” is pretty much all assembled, and we sit in the Dieselverkstaden bistro, drinking beer and chatting until the bar closes. Then we move across to the Quality Hotel Nacka, and carry on until that bar closes. I catch a taxi back to my hotel in Slussen.

I should say something about Hotell Anno 1647, which is apparently named for the year it was built. Not as a hotel, obviously. As a private residence. As a result, it has no lifts, just wide spiral stone stairs between floors. I had the smallest hotel room in the world. At least it felt like it. There was room for a single bed and a narrow desk. The en suite was even smaller – you had to slot yourself under the sink to sit on the toilet. There was no air-conditioning – but with the window wide open at night, the room was cool enough, despite being June. My room also overlooked a quiet alley, so there was no noise. If the facilities were hardly “mod con”, and the decor perhaps a bit tired, the hotel did lay on a good breakfast, the staff were very friendly, and it was ideally located – within five minutes walk, you had both the Slussen Metro station and bus station, and a handful of excellent craft ale bars (more on which later).

I’m up early on the Saturday morning as I have a programme item at 10 am. Ugh. The topic is “I want to read good books!”, moderated by Sini Neuvonen, and including Jukka Halme, Oskar Källner, Jenny Bristle and myself. We’d discussed the panel on email in the weeks leading up to Fantastika – my initial list of 15 books had been rejected as too many, so I’d whittled it down to four. Oskar had put together a PowerPoint presentation of the cover art, and as they appear on the screen behind us, we discuss them. For the record, my choices were: Necessary Ill, Deb Taber; The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck; The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts; and The Smoke, Simon Ings.

I have three panels on the Saturday. The second is at three pm, “Ethics of generation ships”, moderated by Tomas Cronholm, and including Tommy Persson, Eva Holmquist, Peter Ekberg and myself. It is in the big room, Stora Scen, and seems to go well. I manage to get in a Brexit joke.

For lunch that day, myself, Tobias and his son, Eric, try the Lebanese restaurant next to the Diselverkstaden (it was an  Italian on my previous visit in 2016; I approve of the change), and so inadvertently start up a new Swecon tradition, as the first meal out I’d had with other Swecon attendees the year before in Uppsala had been at a… Lebanese restaurant. This is definitely a tradition I am happy to follow.

My final panel of the day, and of Swecon for me, is at seven o’clock, “Where is the borderline?”, moderated by Nahal Ghanbari, and featuring Linda Carey, Patrik Schylström, Flemming Rasch and myself. The discussion centres around last year’s Clarke Award winner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I haven’t read. But I think I get away with it. The discussion is quite wide-ranging, but I have to disappoint one audience member who complains about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, saying the author clearly knows nothing about sf. Mitchell has been a sf fan for decades, I point out, he’s even a member of the BSFA (or certainly was).

When not in panels, or wandering around the Alvarfonden collection of secondhand books (I bought six), I’m in the bistro, chatting to friends. At one point on the Saturday, I’m sitting outside the bistro, when I look up and spot an unexpected face – Tracy Berg, who I know from UK cons as she’s a member of the Glasgow Writers Circle. It turns out she’s moved to Sweden, doesn’t know anyone, and has come to the con in the hope of making friends. So, of course, I introduce her to everyone. After the bistro closes we all move across to the Quality Inn Nacka, and carry onto until it closes. Anders Holm enters into discussion with the barmaid over which beer to buy. In English. “You’re both Swedish,” I point out to them. “You should speak Swedish.”

After the bar closes, the inimitable Bellis invites a bunch of us to his room for a room party. Which lasts until about 2 am. I believe there are photos. I then catch a taxi back to Slussen. Anders also needs a lift into town, so he shares the taxi. But the hotel must have assumed we need a taxi each, because they order two, and the second taxi driver is not happy to discover he’s lost his fare. It gets quite heated at one point, and I don’t know whether to be amused or afraid.

At one point during Saturday, I was sitting outside chatting to Fia Karlsson, when she noticed her phone, which had been sitting on the table in the sun, was hot. So was mine. Red hot. It ran out of power late afternoon, and when I had it fully charged the following morning, most of the apps on it no longer worked. After an hour or so of fiddling, I got some of them working again, but I was looking at a factory reset to get it fully functional. Happily, a full Android update dropped on the Monday – I installed it on Tuesday – and that fixed everything. But, annoyingly, I didn’t have access to a lot of apps from Saturday night until Tuesday.

On the Sunday evening, after the closing ceremony, which once again features the Tolkien Society choir, we’re sat in the bistro discussing the con, and we all feel it has been the most social Swecon so far. Yet we can’t understand why. True, it’s the third time in that venue. And a group of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish fans (and a few from further afield, such as myself) who regularly attend Swecons has begun to gel… Perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was because the three GoHs are themselves very sociable. Ian Watson is a sf institution these days and needs no introduction, but Kij Johnson proves to be just as approachable and engaging. Which is not to say Mike Carey, or his partner Linda, are not. In fact, during the closing ceremony, Mike mentions it has been a long time since he’d been at a convention where people actually discussed the genre, rather than conventions that are little more than merchandising expos (the price of success, I suppose).

Sunday night is an odd night. The dead dog party takes place in the bistro, and there are plenty present. But I want to visit some Stockholm real ale bars, so Anders and I catch the bus into Slussen. I have a pint and dinner – gravad lax – in the Oliver Twist, then we have another pint in Akkurat, before heading back to Sickla. Only to discover the bar in the bistro has closed. Everyone remaining heads across to the Quality Inn Nacka, where we all manage to get another beer or two in. But I’m not working the following day, and not flying back to the UK until the evening, so I’m up for more. Anders looks online and it seems Akkurat is open until 1 am. So the two of us, plus Bellis, jump into a taxi to Slussen. Except Akkurat is closed. Bellis calls it a night. But myself and Anders make our way to Omnipollo’s Hatt, which is still open. We get chatting to a US student who is moving to Stockholm later this year to study. It’s my T-shirt – I’m wearing a Dark Tranquillity one, and several people comment on it during the night. Must wear more Swedish metal band T-shirts when in Sweden.

I check out of the hotel Monday. Tobias has invited me to his place for lunch since I’m not flying out until late afternoon. I catch the Metro out to Sundbyberg, and follows his directions to his flat. Not entirely successfully, it must be admitted. I’m also regretting not leaving my bag in a locker in the Central Station, as it’s quite a trek and it’s a warm day. However, it turns out an airport bus stops near Tobias’s apartment – and it’s less than half the price of the Arlanda Express. So that works out really well.

At Arlanda Airport, I’m queuing up for security, when I abruptly remember I have a bottle of mead in my bag. Sanna Bo Claumarch bought me two bottles (small bottles!) as part of a running joke. I drank one, but forgot to drink the other (and when I tried, it had a cork and I had no corkscrew). I dump the bottle. As it is, the metal detector goes off anyway. I’m told it’s a random check, but later I find a 20p piece buried in a trouser pocket and wonder if that set it off. The flight back to Manchester is delayed. At first by 20 minutes, but it’s an hour late by the time we take off. Just like the flight to Sweden. Norwegian clearly have a problem keeping to their schedule. At Manchester, I’m met by the taxi I ordered, and driven home. Oscar is pleased to see me. He has not destroyed his robot feeder this time. I’m glad to be home, but also glad I attended Fantastika 2018.

It was probably the best Fantastika yet, the three GoHs were excellent, I hung out with a bunch of good friends – and all in a city I like and would like to visit more often. A quick shout-out, for those I’ve not already mentioned, to Marianna Leikomaa, Hanna Hakkarainen, Johan Anglemark, Jukka Särkijävi, Cristina Macía, Saija Kyllönen, Jerri Määttä, Johan Jönsson, Barbara-Jane, Kristin Thorrud, Erik Andersson, K Lennart Jansson, Thomas Årnfelt, Lally, Gwen, and if I’ve missed anyone I sincerely apologise. There were a few faces missing, however, and I was sorry not to see them.

Next year’s Swecon was announced at Fantastika. It’s Replicon in Västerås, on the weekend of 14 June next year. I suspect I’ll be there.


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The con in the north

I think Harrogate is the furthest north in England the Eastercon has ever been. Certainly, it’s the most northerly Eastercon I’ve attended. Blackpool, Manchester and Bradford are in the North, but still south of Harrogate. York and Leeds, also south of Harrogate, were before my time. And Glasgow, of course, is in Scotland.

More recently, I’ve been attending conventions much further north – in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. But that’s by the by. Follycon 2, this year’s Eastercon, took place at the Majestic Hotel, which is a huge Victorian hotel that has seen better days, in Harrogate. And now that it’s all over… I’m not entirely sure if it was a good Eastercon or a bad one.

Majestic Hotel to the left, Premier Inn straight ahead

The venue was large, with plenty of room to sit down and chat and have a drink. The layout had been knocked about in the past, resulting in odd staircases that appeared to go nowhere, and a poky reception that actually had the main entrance on hotel’s rear, and an original entrance hall which boasted a nice mural above the dado but felt more like a space without a purpose – at least, normally; during the con, it was the main social area. And since there were programme rooms on either side, you’d get a throng crossing it whenever programme items ended. Having said that, the service was occasionally appalling, and I heard a few stories about delayed meals.

View of the Majestic from my hotel room

However, the Majestic is literally a stone’s throw from Harrogate town centre, so it was a quick walk to plenty of good places to eat. So I ate well during the con. Which is unusual for me. I can recommend Major Tom’s Social on the Ginnel, off Parliament Street, which serves pizza – including two vegan ones – and craft ale. There’s also a good all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant on Cheltenham Crescent, although it’s not a buffet – and the concept of all-you-can-eat from a menu did confuse a couple of members of our dinner party…

(I wasn’t actually staying in the Majestic, but in the Premier Inn, which was pretty much next-door. My room was large and comfortable – it had a chaise longue! – and the staff, sorry, “team”, were helpful and attentive. The breakfast was also pretty good.)

Then there was the con’s programme. It pretty much had something for everyone, not that I attended any items. Well, other than the one I was on, about AI, which went quite well. There were a couple of other panels I’d liked to have seen, but they seemed to fall at times when I had other plans, like lunch. I heard mixed reports from those who did attend panels, although most people seemed to have enjoyed them.

I no longer attend conventions for the programme – I haven’t done for years – even if I always promise myself I’ll see more of the programme, make more of what’s offered over the weekend. Instead of just sitting in the bar and chatting to friends. Which is pretty much what I did. There was a good real ale bar, which helped. And one of the two bars – the Regency Lounge – was more like a gentleman’s club, with panelled walls and leather(-ette?) armchairs (and peeling plaster above the dado). It was a good place to socialise.

The dealers’ room – I remember when they used be called book rooms – was poor. The usual small presses, a few self-published authors, jewellery and T-shirts… but no secondhand books. I can understand why dealers no longer bother – if they’re not making a profit, or even covering their expenses, then it’s not worth it. But it is disappointing.

No description of the hotel would be complete without a mention of the gents’ toilet near the dealers’ room. It was enormous. There was even a bench at one end for people to, er, sit down. It had seen better days, but was still pretty impressive.

The infamous gents’ toilets

The BSFA Award ceremony took place during Follycon. I usually attend this, but didn’t bother this year. It was pretty much a done deal. I’d expected Nina Allan’s The Rift to win – it’s a very good book and a worthy winner – although I thought Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time slightly better. But Charnock took the short fiction award for her novella, The Enclave. Which is also very good. Although I think the category was reasonably open. Best artwork went to Jim Burns, who must have a garden shed full of BSFA Awards by now, for the cover of a novel published by NewCon Press (who also published The Enclave), jointly with Victo Ngai for illustrations for a JY Yang story on Tor.com. The non-fiction award was won by Paul Kincaid’s book Iain M. Banks, which was the most likely winner of a strong shortlist… and has also been shortlisted for the Hugo. During recent years, books, novellas and artwork published by NewCon Press have regularly appeared in the BSFA Award shortlists. True, the BSFA is a small organisation, and it takes only a handful of votes for a work to be nominated… and probably not many more for it to be shortlisted. I suppose, the same might be said of PS Publishing and the BFS Awards.

But then I think popular vote awards – and the term “popular vote” is a total misnomer – are neither popular nor useful. Like the Hugo Awards, the shortlists for which were announced over the weekend. And, ho hum, the same old faces. It’s good the puppies appear to be a spent force, but all that means is we’re back to the old way of doing things, ie, a small group of writers dominating the shortlists. It’s telling the Hugo Award shortlists (voted for by fans) and the Nebula Award shortlists (voted for by pros) often have considerable overlap. Authors, especially popular authors, bend awards out of shape. I’ve said it before, and each year it proves my point.

But the Hugo shortlists… Jemisin is the new Card, the new Bujold, the new Willis… The Broken Earth trilogy is good, but not so good it contains the best genre books published three years in a row.  I’ll read the third book, The Stone Sky, as I’ve read the first two books of the trilogy. And I’ll read Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 too, as I’ve been a fan of his books for many years. But I’ve zero interest in the rest of the shortlist. I suspect Jemisin will win, which will be  disappointment, as it’s a safe choice, but neither do I want any of the others to win. And, to be honest, I could say the same for the short fiction categories. Once upon a time, they were dominated by the Big Three print magazines – Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF – but a new Big Three of online magazines now rules the roost – Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Uncanny. But then, at a time when the short fiction is notoriously vast, it only takes a few extra votes to get a story onto the shortlist. I guess we’ll find out later in the year exactly how few votes it takes to be on the short story shortlist.

Oh well. It’s not that I can’t get excited about the Hugo Awards, because I haven’t been for years. Even back in the day, the tastes of its voters never really aligned with mine.

Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running – as the British weather had managed to  bollix the service. Now our railways are privatised, they are so much better, honest guv. (When will it be okay to punch a Tory? Their entire ideology is built on dangerous lies which have a habit of doing the exact opposite to their claimed benefits: trickle-down, home ownership, privatisation, low taxes, Austerity, Brexit… One Tory even went on record saying he doesn’t think rented accommodation needs to be “fit for human habitation”! There’s a Tory who deserves a fucking good kicking.)

Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running. I had a fun weekend. I ate well – always a surprise at cons, for me – and I saw some friends I don’t usually get to see (except, perhaps, at Eastercons). I had some good conversations with various people. But, as I remarked to Mike Cobley on the Sunday, we’d made the tactical mistake all those years ago of making friends with people who no longer attend cons. And from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, young writers, ones that weren’t previously fans who attended cons, prefer to hang out with each other and their publishers. It’s not like UK cons have never been cliquey, but it does seem more marked these days. I don’t see that happening at Nordic cons – although that may well be because Nordic fandom is smaller and they all know each other. Having said that, UK fandom these days – or rather, that subset of it comprising writers and editors and critics – is entirely London-based, and us up here in the provinces can’t generate enough critical mass to get another scene going and sustaining itself.

The fact the Eastercon often takes place in the North means nothing.