It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Flying north

Recent events – the desire by our current government to commit political suicide, and half the population to commit economic suicide – have somewhat over-shadowed the past couple of weeks, but prior to the UK imploding very messily, I spent a weekend in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016, this year’s Swecon. It was my second Swecon, and my third Nordic con. My first had been Fantastika 2013, in the same venue as this year’s Fantastika – the Dieselverkstaden in Sickla, an area to the south of Stockholm’s city centre.

I flew to Sweden early on Friday 17 June. I’d been panicking a bit because I’d had trouble finding out where I was supposed to check-in online, but fortunately I got it sorted the evening before I flew. And when I boarded the aircraft – a Norwegian Boeing 737-800 – I discovered I had one of the seats by the emergency exit over the wing. In other words: leg room! After landing at Stockholm, I caught the Arlanda Express into the city-centre – SEK 280! – where I met up with Tobias Bodlund. We caught the Metro to Gamla stan, and had a burger and a couple of beers. The plan was to cross the bridge to Slussen and catch the Saltsjöbanan urban railway to Sickla… But it seemed the railway was closed as they were extending it or something, so we had to catch a replacement bus. The weather was hot and sunny, and the bus was like a sauna.

At Fantastika 2013, this area in front of the Dieselverkstaden had been a building site

At Fantastika 2013, this area in front of the Dieselverkstaden had been a building site

I checked into my hotel, showered and then headed over to the Dieselverkstaden to register… Early in the evening a group of us ate at the Italian restaurant just by the Diselverkstaden – although “restaurant” is perhaps a bit strong. You picked your food from a variety of bowls of saucers and pasta in a display counter, they dished it out onto a plate, and then stuck the plate in one of a dozen microwaves on a shelf behind the counter. Despite that, the food wasn’t that bad. Later, I caught one of the programme items, a conversation between GoH Caroline Mullan and Linnéa Anglemark.

Next was Jukka Halme’s infamous quiz, which I was told I had to go to… and where I was immediately volunteered to be one of the contestants. Jukka’s quiz is designed to be difficult, and the scoring can be a bit random, but it’s also intended to be entertaining. Which it certainly was. Our team was international, with GoH Jerry Määttä (Sweden), Thomas Recktenwald (Germany) and myself (UK). We also won. By a thumbs up. (The audience managed to score the same number of points – don’t ask – as us, but we’d managed a thumbs up for a close guess on one question.) Apparently, the score keeper – a volunteer from the audience – normally wins. I also managed to answer one of the “four fields” questions correctly and scored the full two points, which has apparently never been done before.

I had another beer or two after the quiz – unlike the last Fantastika, they’d set up a small bar in the concourse area outside the two auditoriums used for the programme.

The view from my hotel room on the Saturday morning

The view from my hotel room on the Saturday morning

The next morning when I woke up, it was chucking it down. And it rained most of the day. I wondered if I’d brought the weather with me from the UK. Breakfast was packed – there were at least four coach parties, one British, staying at the hotel. Fantastika 2013 had taken place in October, and the hotel had been a lot less busy. Back across to the Diselverkstaden to catch a few programme items and several wanders around the SAAM/Alvarfonden book room (a Swedish fan charity which sells secondhand books, mostly UK and US paperbacks, for SEK 10 to SEK 30). Tobias and I ate lunch at the Mexican taverna next to the Italian restaurant. Then it was an afternoon of programme items, visits to the book room, and the occasional beer. I ate in the hotel restaurant that night as I was on a panel at 6 pm, which was apparently when a lot of people went for dinner. The panel was titled “That’s why I killed him!” and was about character motivation. On the panel were GoH Maria Turtschaninoff, Anna Jakobsson Lund, Mats Strandberg, myself, and moderator Markku Soikkeli. I thought the panel went pretty well – and I was surprised when Markku asked me about the motivation behind the title character in my story ‘Barker’. (Easy: he’s based on a dog…).

After hanging around, drinking beer and chatting in the Diselverkstaden until around midnight, I headed back to the hotel.

Sunday was a quieter day. The con seemed to be winding down from around mid-morning. By mid-afternoon, when GoH Carolyn Ives Gilman had her signing, people were starting to leave. (I’d brought copies of her books for her to sign but, annoyingly, only realised I’d forgotten her debut, Halfway Human, when I landed in Sweden. Gah.) After the closing ceremony, led off by acapella singing by the Gléowine chair and closed with the spirit of Swecon being handed over to Kontur (Uppsala, 26 to 28 May next year), those of us that remained had the dead dog party in the Dieselverkstaden’s Bistro (last time, it had been in the Bishop’s Arms, a UK-style pub). The weather was nice and pleasant – bar the occasional shower – so we carried on until the bar closed. And when we moved across to the hotel, we managed to catch one more round before its bar closed.

Sergels torg, from the top of the Kulturhuset

Sergels torg, from the top of the Kulturhuset

My flight back to the UK was at 6 pm on the Monday, so I had plenty of time to kill. I woke up early, panicked a bit because I’d forgotten to check-in online the night before, but managed to do it on my phone (and discovered when I boarded the plane that evening that I’d once again got a seat by the emergency exit over the wing; result.) After checking out of the hotel, I took a taxi to the Centralstation, where I dumped my bag, and met up with Tobias. We went for lunch at the rooftop restaurant in the Kulturhuset, which overlooks Sergels torg. It was hot and sunny, just like it had been on the Friday (when I was also carrying a heavy bag around with me). After lunch, I said my goodbyes and caught the Arlanda Express to the airport, where I planned to kill the rest of the afternoon. The last time I’d flown from Stockholm had been on an early October morning, and the airport had been deserted. It wasn’t this time. It was heaving, and there weren’t many places left to sit.

My flight was delayed by 45 minutes, which meant I’d miss the train I’d planned to catch. Fortunately – for me, at least – the next train’s arrival had been delayed by 15 minutes, so I managed to catch it a couple of minutes before it left the station. But it was then delayed further – kids trespassing on the line between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, apparently – and I didn’t get home until 10:30 that night. That final train ride is always the worst part of any journey home from abroad, because drives in just how shit our railway network is. Of course, we know who to thank for that…

Three years ago, I’d had an excellent time at Fantastika 2013, so it had always been my plan to attend another Swecon. When I learnt Fantastika, in the exact same venue, had been chosen as the Swecon for 2016, I knew I had no excuse not to go. And especially since I’d met a lot more people in Nordic fandom at Archipelacon last year… And yes, this Fantastika was a good as the earlier one, if not better. Not only are the Swedish (and Nordic) fans extremely friendly, but they’re also still focused on celebrating the books and stories that fandom is actually about. While there was a panel on the novels Robert Heinlein – which was actually very interesting – there were also lots of discussion of current science fiction and fantasy works. The experience reminded why I became a fan myself.

I really ought to shout out to all the people I spoke to over the weekend, but I’ll probably go and get a forget someone – but I’ll have a go anyway. Here, in no particular order, goes… Tobias, Johan, Luke, Fia, Kristin, Erik, Jukka, Jessica, John-Henri, Caroline, Brian, Chris, Barbara, Anders, Jukka, Carolina, Thomas, Patrik, Jerry, my fellow panellists, Tommy, Flemming, AR, Karin… and if I’ve missed anyone, I sincerely apologise.

As mentioned earlier, next year’s Swecon is in Uppsala. I’m hoping I’ll be able to go. And if not, there’s always Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in August next year.



Fantastika 2013

Back in April at the Eastercon in Bradford, Michael Cobley mentioned that a sf con in Sweden had invited himself and John Meaney as guests (though not as actual guests of honour). I’d always wanted to visit the country, so I said I’d go as well. I looked into it, and discovered there’d be a few other people I knew – both from cons and online – also attending, including one of the actual guests of honour, Lavie Tidhar. So I bought membership, booked my flight and hotel room, and the con even asked me to appear on a couple of programme items. Which I was happy to do.

The convention was called Fantastika, it was this year’s Swecon, and it took place in a suburb of Stockholm called Sickla.

I was originally going to write about the con in your usual con report format – a linear narrative, beginning with my arrival in Sweden, and ending with my return home. But a lot happened over the weekend, and it’d probably end up as TL;DR. So here’s a few of the more memorable incidents from Fantastika 2013 instead:

  • Agreeing to meet up with Lavie at Arlanda Airport so I could tag along to his signing at the SF Bokhandeln. But after waiting an hour in the airport concourse, he texts me that he’s already on the train, having been nabbed by his wrangler. So I make my own way to the book shop, wondering how we missed each other in the airport… only to learn later he landed at a different terminal.
  • The Arlanda Express is a modern, fast, electric train that runs every twenty minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s Centralstation. It also costs SEK 260 for a single.
  • Exiting Centralstation and discovering the map and directions I’d printed out from Google Maps were near useless. I had no idea where I was or where I needed to go. I figured out heading south was good… and when I came to water, I managed to get my bearings. From there, it was easy.
  • Stockholm is a lovely city. Very impressed.
  • After the signing, I travelled out to Sickla on the train with Jo Walton and Karin Tidbeck (the other GoHs), Lavie and Rebecka from the con committee. Lavie and I headed straight for the hotel to check in. As we approached it, a voice yelled out of a window, “I can hear you moaning from the second floor, Lavie!”. It was his agent, John Berlyne.
  • Lavie, John B and myself went for a meal later that evening in Urban Deli, a nearby delicatessen/supermarket/restaurant. I was impressed that the menu was colour-coded for gluten, lactose and peanut intolerances. Despite knowing that Sweden was expensive, I was still a little surprised by the SEK 710 bill.
  • The next day, I returned to the Urban Deli at lunch-time for a sandwich. They didn’t have any that were lactose-free, so the young woman behind the till happily fetched ingredients from around the shop to make one for me. Excellent service.
  • I had no intention of buying any books at the con, and after seeing the prices in the SF Bokhandeln was firm on that resolve. But Johan Anglemark pointed out that SAAM, a Swedish fan organisation, had brought along several thousand second-hand US and UK paperbacks for sale… at SEK 5 to SEK 15 each. I ended up coming home with seven books: five from Jo Clayton’s Diadem of the Stars series, a Mike Mars paperback, and a sf novel by a woman writer of the 1970s I’d never heard of, Gertrude Friedberg. (I also bought a copy of Karin’s collection, Jagannath: Stories, so she could sign it for me.)
  • Pretty much everyone in Stockholm uses their debit/credit card to buy things. Hardly anyone uses cash. I saw someone using  a card to buy a packet of crisps at a bar. I had taken cash with me; I ended up with half a ton of change in my pocket.
  • The people at the con were a lot friendlier and welcoming than I think would be the case at an equivalent-sized British con. I met loads of really nice people. I can’t remember everyone I spoke to, but as well as those mentioned earlier they included Steve, Emil, Miika, Nene, Anders, Thomas, Jon-Henri… and no doubt numerous others.
  • My first programme item was on at 10 pm on the Friday, which is the latest I’ve ever done a panel. The title was “Fantasy and sf worth reading”, and I think Lavie, Jo, moderator Linnéa Anglemark and myself managed to come up with a number of recent books worth reading. And yes, we did mention Ancillary Justice.
  • On the Saturday, Lavie, Mike C and John M were signing at the SF Bokhandeln, so I cadged a lift in with them, and spent an hour wandering around the old town. It was fascinating. But also really busy. A bit like York during the tourist season. Committee-member Ebba came with us and en route asked if we could pronounce the SF Bokhandeln’s address, Västerlånggatan. She said my pronunciation was “very elegant”. Not sure what that means.
  • Learning that the Swedish for “mushroom” is svamp. Which has to be the best word for fungi ever.
  • Mike C and the monster breakfast. (The hotel laid on the usual European buffet breakfast, and there was more than enough to choose from – even for me.)
  • I attended more programme items than I typically do at cons. Around half of the programme was in English. By the Sunday, I was timing how long into an item before Lavie mentioned Shimon Adaf’s name. And yet on the Sunday, in the one programme item in which Adaf was on-topic, “What sf is written outside the English speaking world?”, Lavie completely failed to mention him.
  • The con venue was excellent. The Dieselverkstaden is an old factory that has been converted into a library, cinema, climbing school, function space, bistro and coffee shop. It’s located in Sickla’s Köpkvarter, which is a massive retail park with a huge shopping centre. There was no shortage of places to buy coffee or food. (Although I never visited it, I was much amused by the name of a local Indian restaurant: Holy Cow.)
  • On the Sunday night, the dead dog party took place in a British-style pub nearer the city centre called the Bishop’s Arms. It took me four tries to order a Swedish beer called Rapa – must work on my accent.
  • On leaving the pub, after being given excellent directions by Anders, I led John B, Lavie and Icelandic author Emil Hjörvar Petersen to the Texas Long Horn steak house. Afterwards, John, Lavie and myself ended up walking all the way back to our hotel, which took almost an hour, through a mostly-deserted Stockholm. A somewhat odd end to the convention, but never mind.
  • The trip home went smoothly… right up until the moment I left Manchester Airport. The taxi to Stockholm’s Centralstation arrived early, so I ended up catching an earlier Arlanda Express to the airport. Which proved to be almost deserted. The flight was smooth, albeit a bit bumpy as we went over the Pennines. There was hardly any queue for passport control… And then I got to the railway station and had to wait an hour for a train. Which arrived early and sat at the platform for thirty minutes, but we weren’t allowed to board until five minutes before departure. The train was late leaving Manchester Piccadilly, so we ended up stuck behind a slow train… which resulted in a 15-minute delay. If you think the UK has a good railway network, you are either an idiot or you have never visited another country.

Fantastika 2013 was definitely worth every penny. I liked Stockholm a lot, the congoers were amazingly friendly, I had some really interesting conversations, the venue was excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’d definitely do it again.