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Wonderful wonderful– er, fantastic fantastic Copenhagen

So the big project at work that was supposed to end on September 1st… didn’t. A month before, they realised they weren’t going to hit the deadline, and so rebased all their plans. Which meant I was now free for the first weekend in September, the date of Fantasticon, an annual science fiction convention in Copenhagen. I mentioned it in passing to my boss, told her it was doable, if expensive, and she said go for it, I needed to use up some holidays anyway. Which is why, on pretty much a week’s notice, I booked a flight and a hotel room, and flew to Denmark to attend Fantasticon 2017.

I flew out on the Thursday night, as it was easier and cheaper than a Friday flight, although it meant an extra night in the hotel (which, er, wasn’t cheaper…). Usually, when I fly to Denmark, I go EasyJet, but this time I flew SAS, and it was a much better experience. I landed just after 9 pm, topped up my Copenhagen travel card, and caught the train from the airport to the city’s main railway station. My hotel was on Vesterbrogade, about 800 metres from the station. There are a lot of hotels on Vesterbrogade, which meant a lot of tourists, dragging their suitcases along the pavements, which were restricted because of roadworks. When I landed in Denmark, I’d switched my mobile back on and learnt I had two voicemails. Once I was in my hotel room, I listened to them. The first was from work; the second was from my bank… asking me to ring them on their fraud prevention line. I called them, demanding to know what was going on – they’d wanted to cancel my debit card two days before I flew to Helsinki for Worldcon75, but I’d persuaded them to hold off, and on my return they’d cancelled my card and sent me a new one… and now this new one had been compromised, even though I’d had it less than a week. I got a bit shouty. The bloke on the other end of the phone said, we haven’t left you a voicemail today, that one was from 16 August. Oops. It was an old message about my old card, and had got stuck in Vodafone’s voicemail system. I apologised for my outburst.

The view from my hotel window

Fantasticon 2017 didn’t start until 4 pm, so I had most of Friday free. I rang my sister, Kay, who lives just north of Copenhagen, and we agreed to meet up for lunch. I went for a wander in the Indre By, and managed to navigate my way to Faraos Cigarer, with a bit of help from my phone. I’d last visited there at Christmas, but the shop had greatly expanded. Downstairs had been English-language and upstairs Danish-language. Now, it was all English (there was a new Danish-language shop across the road), with novels and manga downstairs, and graphic novels upstairs. I met up with my sister outside the Rådhus, and we went looking for somewhere to eat. The first place, the waitress gave us a blank look when I asked what was dairy-free on the menu. She checked with the chef. I could have the salad. It seemed Copenhagen was going through a brioche phase and all sandwiches were made with bread that contained milk. We left. The second place we tried, the menu was just as unwelcoming, but the guy behind the bar (he appeared to be the only person serving) made an effort and produced two club sandwiches without dairy for us. Danish club sandwiches are not like club sandwiches in the rest of the world. They’re not triple-decker sandwiches with egg, bacon, chicken, salad, etc; they’re hot sandwiches containing chicken breast in curry mayonnaise, often with pesto. But then the Danish don’t call danishes danishes either. (They call them Viennese pastries.)

The Rådhus

After lunch I returned to my hotel to wait for the con to begin. At 3 pm, someone from the con posted on Facebook that the doors were open, so I made my way to Frederiksberg, 800 metres from my hotel in the opposite direction to the railway station, and the Serapion Order, the venue for Fantasticon. I was a bit early. I walked in and the only three people there were Sanna, Bende and Flemming, all of whom were involved in organising the con. (I’d met both Sanna and Flemming at Swecons previously.) So I checked out the venue until the opening ceremony started. More people began to arrive, including a few Swedish fans, Carolina, Thomas and Johan. There was also a Finnish fan at the con, Linn, who was a NOFF candidate. The opening ceremony consisted of Flemming welcoming everyone to the con, apologising that the GoHs – Nina Allan and Christopher Priest – had not yet arrived (their plane was landing as he spoke, he told us), and then mentioning several upcoming cons (including Icecon 2 next year and the worldcon in Dublin in 2019). Later that night, I sat through Jesper Stage’s entertaining, and very dry, talk on the economics of colonisation in fantasy and science fiction. The venue closed at ten. I left with Jesper Rugård, and as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, we stopped at a posh burger place on Vesterbrogade. They actually had an allergy sheet for their menu.

The Serapion Order

The next morning, after a big breakfast (sadly, no gherkins), I headed to the Serapion Order about 11 am. I spent most of the day talking with friends, and attended two programme items – a GoH interview with Nina Allan, and a panel on the New Wave. The con was much busier than the day before – not just with day members, but half a dozen invited guests had also turned up to give talks or sit on panels. That evening the con laid on a buffet – they’d assured me there’d be some lactose-free food available, so I’d bought a ticket for it. In the event, the chef turned out to have a daughter who was lactose-intolerant, so he made everything using lactose-free ingredients. The dinner was excellent. Again, the venue closed at ten. Most people went home, but half a dozen of us – Jesper R, Lars, Linn, Sanna, Fia and myself – headed for a bar called the Mikkeller. It turned out to be just around the corner from my hotel. Fia, Sanna and me carried on until 1 am, before calling it a night.

Nina Allan interview

I didn’t bother with breakfast on the Sunday, and had a lie-in until 9 am instead. On my way to the con, I stopped in Irma, a supermarket, and bought a sandwich and a small bottle of orange juice with chilli, which proved to be horrible. I nipped to another supermarket, Fotex, to buy a sandwich and a drink at lunchtime. (It was the same sandwich both times, chicken and bacon, which was the only dairy-free one I could find.) I attended a panel on “Will the real science fiction please stand up?”, with both GoHs, which mostly discussed the Clarke Award and the Sharkes. At 4 pm was my only panel of the con, added at the last minute when I bought an attending membership, on “Manned space flight in the past and in the future”, moderated by Flemming, with Asmus Koefoed, Klaus Æ Mogensen, and myself. It was a bit of a free-form discussion – perhaps too free, I noticed Chris Priest nodding off in the front row at times, although apparently something we said has given Nina “the key inspiration for my next novel” (according to her blog).

The end of the con

Fantasticon 2017 ended after the closing ceremony. There was a dead dog party planned, but not in Frederiksberg near the venue. Instead, they’d booked tables at the bar used in previous Fantasticons in Valby, a ten-minute bus ride away. I’d planned to head straight for my sister’s, bus since I had a travel card, I decided I might as well have a couple of beers first. So I caught the bus with the rest of the fans. I also had some food while I was there (fish and chips! I go all the way to Denmark and I have fish and chips!). I left to catch the 19:44 train but, in a weird repeat of Worldcon75, I arrived on the platform just as the train was pulling away. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last one of the night, and I only had to wait ten minutes before another came along. If I’d caught the train I missed, I’d have changed at Østerport and arrived at Skodsborg at 20:39. But the train I actually caught meant I had to change at Copenhagen main railway station, and I got lucky with my connections, and actually arrived at Skodsborg 20 minutes earlier than the earlier train would have got me. Danish trains are good – covered in graffiti, bizarrely – but the timetable is a bit variable.

I spent the night at my sister’s, saw my brother-in-law and my nephews. I’d originally intended to stay a couple of days in Denmark after the con, but in the end booked a flight on the Monday night. And unfortunately, museums are closed in Copenhagen on Mondays. Plenty of people had told me the best coffee in Copenhagen is in Arnold Busck, a book shop, which I already knew, since I go there at least once every Christmas. People had also mentioned Fantask, Copenhagen’s first comics/sf shop, to me, so I dragged Kay there after we’d finished our coffees. I walked into the shop… and there was Sanna. I didn’t buy anything, however. Me and Kay ate lunch in Palæo, which sells grain-free food (most of which is also  dairy-free).

Fantask

After a couple of hours back at Kay’s, I caught the train to the airport. I got a bite to eat in the airport – these days airports are all about the shops, with far too few places to just sit down and relax. And it’s ridiculous shops too – Gucci watches, £50 pairs of tights, Victoria’s Secret… Yes, food, toiletries, books and magazines, these are all useful… but you have to wonder if some of the shops take in enough to cover their rent. And I’d much sooner have somewhere to sit. The flight back to the UK on a tiny aircraft, an 88-seater Bombardier CRJ900, was uneventful. Instead of relying on the vagaries of the British railway network at 9 pm at night, I’d pre-ordered a taxi from an online website. They’d emailed me the driver’s telephone number, and I rang him once I was through the e-passport gates. Manchester was, bizarrely, extremely humid. The minicab turned up 5 minutes later, and drove me home. I think in future, when I travel to Nordic cons, I might fly later in the day and take a taxi home. It was a lot less stressful.

It was all a bit sudden, but I’m glad I made it to Fantasticon. Jesper reckoned they’d had about 65 paying members over the weekend, and certainly the two rooms used for the programme were often only a quarter full. The venue, the Serapion Order – it’s some sort of Masonic order, with lodges throughout Denmark – was surprisingly good. A bottle of beer for only 25 Kr! (That’s £3.) I didn’t try any of the sandwiches they had for sale, but the buffet on the Saturday night was very good indeed. I met a bunch of Danish fans, not just the ones already mentioned, but also Knud, Jan, Klaus, and several others whose name I didn’t catch. It was also good to chat with Nina and Chris, although the con kept them busy over the weekend. The programme items I went to could have done with a little more preparation – and I include myself and the one I was on – but none were boring. A date hasn’t been set for Fantasticon next year, although it’s likely to be the first weekend in September. Nor have they decided on GoHs. But if I’m free that weekend, I’ll probably go again (but I’ll book everything well in advance so it’s not so expensive).

I’ve now been to conventions in four of the five Nordic countries, only Norway is left. True, the cons I went to in Finland were a Nordic con and a worldcon, so neither were actually Finnish conventions. But there’s always Åcon or Finncon. Swecon next year is back in Stockholm, at the Dieselverkstaden in Sickla. Assuming work doesn’t get in the way, I plan to be there – it’ll be my third Fantastika there. And, as previously mentioned, there’s going to be a second Icecon in Reykjavik in October next year. The first one was excellent, so I’m definitely up for that.

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Kiitos, Helsinki

This year’s Worldcon took place in Helsinki, from Wednesday 9 August to Sunday 13 August. It was called Worldcon75 (not the most original name, it has to be said), and the guests of honour were John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (although she bowed out due to illness and did not attend) and Walter Jon Williams. It was my second Worldcon – my first was Interaction, in 2005 in Glasgow. I didn’t go to Loncon 3, in, er, London in 2014, because reasons.

The trip did not start well. A couple of days before my flight, my bank rang to inform me my debit card had been copied and they were going to cancel it and send me a new one. “Oh no you’re fucking not”, I told them. I explained I was about to visit Finland and would need my card. We reached a compromise, and my card remained valid throughout my stay in Helsinki. Yes, I want my bank to protect me from fraud, I want them to make sure no one steals my money, but… this is the same bank that had previously cancelled my card because they sent a marketing letter to the wrong address and it had been returned with “not known at this address”. So, you know, precautions.

I had planned to take some copies of my books to Finland, so if anyone wanted copies I’d have some on hand to sell. And perhaps I’d buy lots of books at the con. So I decided to take a suitcase to go in the hold (I normally travel only with cabin baggage). I’d already started packing it…

… when I thought to check my ticket. And discovered I had check-in baggage for the flight to Helsinki, but not for the flight from Helsinki. Oops. I suppose I could have contacted Finnair and asked them to add check-in baggage to my flight home, but I suspect they’d have charged for the privilege. And no, I wasn’t intending to smuggle Oscar into Finland. Anyway, I put the suitcase away, and took my usual cabin baggage. And it’s just as well – I saw someone tweet the day after Worldcon75 that they’d not had check-in baggage on a ticket to Copenhagen and had been charged €200 for their suitcases.

The trip to Helsinki was uneventful: train to Manchester Airport, a ninety-minute wait until I boarded the aircraft, a Finnair 100-seater Embraer 190. There was no one I knew on the flight, although two female passengers were clearly heading to Worldcon75 as one of them was wearing a T-shirt advertising the con. After two and a half hours in the air, I landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, passed quickly through the electronic passport control gates – I must look a lot like my passport photo as the gate took less than a second to admit me – and then walked what felt like kilometres to find the railway station.

The train which runs from Helsinki-Vantaa to Helsinki päärautatieasema (central railway station) runs on a loop, so it’s impossible to catch the wrong train. And the train is a lovely modern one, with plenty of space, and very quiet. There are flat screens which announce each station, and display the route, in Finnish, Swedish and English. My hotel for the duration of the convention was the Sokos Vaakuna, which is sited just across the road from the central railway station. I’d picked it because of its location and because the website described it as having a “functional design”. This latter proved to be something that looked like it belonged in 1970s Soviet Russia. I loved it.

After checking in, and having a quick shower, I caught the train – the same one which ran to the airport and back – to Pasila, the first stop on the line. It took five minutes (and cost 5 euros). From the station, it was a short walk, across a dual carriageway and halfway down a block to the entrance to Messukeskus, the convention centre where Worldcon75 was taking place. Even though I had landed at 3 pm, I was at the convention for 5 pm.

After registering, I decided to look for the dealers room, but went downstairs instead of up the ramp… and immediately spotted Tony Ballantyne and Chris Beckett enjoying a coffee at the café on the downstairs concourse. So I joined them…

And that was sort of how it went for the entire con: bumping into people I knew, in between arranging to meet up with people I knew. I remember saying that if there were 6,000 people at Worldcon75, and I could lay claim to knowing perhaps ten percent of them… I’d probably still keep on bumping into the same thirty or so people.

I later met up with Tobias Bodlund, who had his young son in tow, and the three of us headed into Helsinki for food. The convention pack included a restaurant guide, and from it we picked Zetor, which served Russian/Finnish agrarian food (or so said the guide). It was also apparently owned by a member of the Leningrad Cowboys. That no doubt explained the tractors and the stuffed cow. I recognised about a quarter of the people in the restaurant, which was a bit odd. I ordered the Karelian stew, which came with gherkins. It was very good. I also love gherkins. Afterward, I went straight back to my hotel and had an early night.

Members of Worldcon75 were given a travelcard for Helsinki, which meant the 5-minute train ride from the central station to Pasila cost me nothing. I don’t know if this is standard practice at worldcons, but it should be. I had one programme item on Thursday: Secrets in science fiction and fantasy. To be honest, I’ve no idea why I was picked for it. And after meeting my fellow panellists – Jane Anne McLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Tusscher and J Sharp – I suspect the topic was someone’s suggestion and they put together a random selection of authors and agents. Jane Anne had prepared several questions, and we spent the panel answering them. I’m not overly keen on doing panels like that as it prevents a free-flowing discussion and can seem stilted. It seemed to go okay. Although someone did fall asleep in the front row. I bumped into Adrian Tchaikovsky, who had been in the audience, and he said he enjoyed it.

I spent the rest of the day sitting outside the Terra Nova Brasserie, which was the bar attached to the Holiday Inn, which was the hotel attached to the Messukeskus. I went for lunch to a nearby Nepalese restaurant, with Barbara, Tobias and his son, and we ran into Lennart there. The food was okay. That evening I headed into Helsinki with Will, Jen and a Finnish friend of theirs, and the Mexican restaurant we had planned to eat in was closed so we ended up in an Australian burger bar, which wasn’t bad. Eating in Helsinki was really good for me – I didn’t have to worry about menus, as they all featured lactose-free dishes. In fact, most menus featured meals that clearly had dairy in them, but were made with lactose-free versions of the dairy products. I’ve found you either eat well at conventions or eat badly. I usually eat badly. At Worldcon75, I ate well.

I returned to the con and stayed until 1:30 am, chatting to friends outside the Terra Nova or hanging out in the Winter Garden, where I met Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer in person for the first time. I ‘d been reliably informed trains to the central railway station ran all night. They don’t. During the week, that is. I got to Pasila station at 1:31 am. The last train left just as I walked up the ramp to the platform. The next train wasn’t until 4:18 am. So I walked back to Messukeskus, and jumped in a taxi. It cost me €18, which was less than I’d been expecting.

On the Friday, I met up with Berit Ellingsen, and we had a coffee in the Fazer Café on the Messukeskus concourse (it was the best of the food/drink venues in the centre). We’ve known each other for several years, but it was the first time we’d met up in person. There was another person at Worldcon75 who’d I only known online and never met IRL – but Michael Martineck and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We first met in an online writing workshop back in the 1990s. I’d gone for a sandwich in Fazer Café with Will Ellwood, while I tried to figure out how get Michael and myself both in the same place at the same time… when I turned round, and saw he was two places behind me in the queue. We spent most of the afternoon sitting outside the Terra Nova.

I’d arrange to go for dinner that evening with Gillian Polack. Tobias was up for it too, so I went off to find Gillian. She was sitting outside Fazer Café, talking to… Michael. “I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They’d apparently met at a programme item, my name had come up in conversation, and they realised they both knew me. So the four of us took the tram into the centre of Helsinki, for dinner at Stone’s Gastro Pub. Which was very good. At one point during the tram ride, a guy came up to us and asked if he could sit with us and listen to our conversation. We said sure. I assumed he was just some random nutter on the bus. Later, I saw him at Worldcon75 – he was an attending member of the con.

Back at Messukeskus, I stayed until 3 am, caught the train back to the central railway station (they run throughout the night on Friday and Saturday night), and crossed the road to my hotel.

My second panel of the con was at noon on the Saturday, Mighty space fleets of war. When I’d registered at the con, I’d discovered I was moderating the panel, which I hadn’t known. I checked back over the emails I’d been sent by the con’s programming team. Oops. I was the moderator. The other two panellists were Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib. As we took our seats on the stage, Mary Robinette Kowal was gathering her stuff from the previous panel. I jokingly asked if she wanted to join our panel. And then asked if she’d moderate it. She said she was happy to moderate if we wanted her to, but we decided to muddle through ourselves. The panel went quite well, I thought. We got a bit of disagreement going – well, me versus the other two, both of whom admitted to having been USN in the past. I got a wave of applause for a crack about Brexit, and we managed to stay on topic – realistic space combat – for the entire time. I’d prepared a bunch of notes, but by fifteen minutes in, I’d used up all my points. In future, I’ll take in paper and pencil so I can jot stuff down as other members of the panel speak. After the panel, I met up with Eric Choi, a Canadian sf writer who contributed to Rocket Science back in 2012, and we had a quick chat.

Last year, when I bought my membership to Worldcon75, a friend who lived in Helsinki suggested we meet up for drinks or food. I used to work with Melody Jane about ten years ago. I left the company, she left the country. On the Saturday evening, I returned to my hotel, to meet Melody Jane. No sooner did she arrive, then the heavens opened. Thunder, lightning, the lot. Even strong winds, which caused enough damage to close one of the train lines. We waited inside the hotel for about twenty minutes, but it obviously wasn’t going to stop. So we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel reception, and walked to Farang, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Kunsthalle Helsinki. The food was excellent, and I had a really good time. After the meal, I headed back to the Messukeskus, and stayed until 3 am. After a thirty minute wait at the station, I returned to my hotel.

I’d been getting into breakfast around 8 am each morning, at the restaurant on the Sokos Vaakuna’s top floor. But for the Sunday, I decided to miss breakfast and have a lie-in. Around lunch-time, I went looking for some modern art museums. Happily, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was just around the corner from my hotel. Also happily, its collection features lots of video installations. I like video installations. Not all of them worked for me – one or two, the CGI was a bit crude, and they felt no better than Youtube videos. But the ones by Ed Atkins and Cécile B Evans were impressive. I also thought the one by Tuomas A Laitinen was very good. Coincidentally, it was all very science-fictional, with most of the pieces actually either based on science-fictional ideas or set in the future.

For lunch, I popped into the 24-hour supermarket in the basement of my hotel and bought myself a sandwich. After spending ten minutes puzzling out the ingredients in Swedish, I spotted it said lactose-free in both Finnish and Swedish on the front label. And then it was back to the con for last day…

… which ended with the Dead Dog Party. This is a tradition at cons: those staying for another night gather in the hotel bar and have an informal party. Because so many attendees had flown into Helsinki for Worldcon75, a lot of them – myself included – weren’t flying out until the following day. A group of us had planned to head into town for food, but that plan didn’t come together. Then we heard the Dead Dog Party was laying on a tex-mex buffet. We also heard it was packed and people were being turned away. We decided to give it a try, but unfortunately took a wrong turning and it took us three times as long to get the Sokos Pasila, where the party was taking place. So I was not in the best of moods when we arrived. And saw the queue for the bar. And the queue for food. But we joined the line for the buffet anyway. Tobias and I had just reached it – tortillas and taco meat – when it finished. We waited. The chef brought out something that looked a bit like chicken fajita. It was the “vegetarian option”. Quorn or tofu or something. It was vile. I went and asked for my money back. I also persuaded the others – Tobias, Michael and Ian McDonald – to try the bar we’d spotted opposite the hotel, the Ravintola Windsor. Ian bowed out, but we were joined by Stephen Vessels. We went there, it was quiet, we got beer, and we got food (I had kebab and chips, it was very nice).

After we’d finished our food, Michael and Stephen left. Then Tobias left, so I headed back to the Dead Dog Party. I chatted to Liam Proven for a bit, and the people he was with – one told me they’d overheard an American complain during the Closing Ceremony that the con had been “too Eurocentric”. By midnight, I was ready to head back to my hotel – the last train was at 12:30. But then I bumped into Sanna Bo Claumarch, a Danish fan, and joined her and Fia Karlsson and some young Swedish and Finnish fans, and ended up staying until 2 am. To get back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with Liam and a Finnish fan.

Will and Jenny were on the same flight as me back to Manchester, so we agreed to catch the train to the airport together. But by the time I’d checked out of my hotel, I couldn’t be bothered to hang around for another couple of hours, so I caught the train on my own, checked in, and waited in the airport for them. And for Tobias, whose flight to Stockholm was around the same time as our flight to the UK. And then, when I boarded the plane – another Finnair Embraer 190 – I discovered I was sitting next to Fran and John Dowd.

The trip to Finland finished in a nicely surreal fashion on the train from Manchester Airport, when the PA first insisted the train was heading to Manchester Airport, where it would terminate, and then repeatedly told us the next stop was Batley, despite the train going nowhere near Batley.

I had a great time at Worldcon75, met some really nice interesting people – not all of which I’ve named here, but also includes John-Henri, Daniel, Bellis, Edward, Jo Lindsay, Hal (Al), Ian W (there was a plan on the Sunday to get the four Ian writers together for a photo, but it never happened – perhaps it’s just as well as it may have caused a singularity or something), Hanna, (the) Anders, Johan, Brian, Jukka, Luke, Emil, Thomas, Christina, Jeremy, Kristin and Erik, and apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – from a variety of countries (mostly Sweden, the UK and Finland, but also the US, Canada, France, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Poland…). True, I spent most of the four and a bit days sitting outside the Terra Nova, drinking beer and socialising with friends (in fact, the con drank the bar dry of beer several times.) As is usual for me, I went to no programme items – not even the Hugo Awards, and I couldn’t get into the Closing Ceremony – but I did wander around the dealers room a number of times. In the end, I bought a single book – a first edition of John Varley’s Titan for 10 euros (bargain!) – so I wouldn’t have needed my suitcase, after all.

Jukke Halme and his team can definitely be proud of the convention they put together. There were a few problems initially, as twice as many people had turned up as had been originally planned for, but the issues were quickly resolved. I’d certainly put Worldcon75 in my top five cons I’ve attended – and I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since 1989. And I loved Helsinki, it’s a great city. I wish I’d seen more of it, but I’d had to limit my time in Finland because dayjob. I want to go back.

And that was my worldcon.


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Onwards to Uppsala

The weekend of 26 to 28 May saw me in Uppsala, Sweden, for Kontur 2017, this year’s Swecon. The Guests of Honour were Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley and Siri Pettersen. It was my third Swecon and my fourth Nordic con. And, I fervently hope, not my last of either. I’d previously attended two Swecons in Stockholm, but since Uppsala is pretty close to Arlanda Airport, closer than Stockholm in fact, and it sounded like a really nice town, I signed up for Kontur.

In Manchester Airport, I bumped into Luke Smith, who was also on his way to Uppsala. It turned out we were on the same flight to Sweden. And the same flight back. We hung out together until our flight was called, and then met up once we’d landed in Sweden. After making our way through immigration and customs, we headed for Sky City and the airport’s main train station. Neither of us had travelled on the Swedish railways before (I’d used the Arlanda Express on my previous visits), which proved our undoing. I bought a ticket from a machine, Luke bought his from the counter. We went down to the platform. A SJ train pulled in. Luke’s ticket, it transpired, wasn’t valid on it, but mine was. But mine wouldn’t be valid on the next train, which Luke could catch as he had a UL ticket. So we ended up travelling to Uppsala on separate trains…

Kontur 2017 took place in the Clarion Hotel Gillet on Dragarbrunnsgatan, right in the centre of town and about a ten-minute walk from the railway station. We arrived there just after two pm, which made it about ten hours (taking into account the hour’s time difference) of travelling door-to-door. Not too bad. It takes about six hours from Sheffield to Glasgow. After checking in, I showered and changed, and then headed down to the first floor, where the convention was due to take place. The conference facilities at the Clarion Hotel Gillet are laid out in an L-shape, with a large bar area occupying the angle. Unfortunately, it had no comfy chairs for chilling out, only stools and chest-high tables. Programme items took place in rooms along both arms of the L. There was also a dealers’ room, containing some Swedish small presses and a woman who made fancy dragons out of paper; a room for the Alvarfonden, which sells secondhand UK and US books; and a games room.

At previous Swecons, I’d attended far more programme items than I typically do at conventions. In part, I think that was because of the venue, the Dieselverkstaden, which didn’t really have an area where you can just hang out (Swecon 2018 is back there, by the way). The bar at Kontur, however, because everyone had to pass through it from one wing to the other, was good for socialising. So I actually only made two programme items… and those were the ones I was moderating. Oh, and I went to the closing ceremony as well.

Both of my panels were on the Saturday. The first was “Make Art not War: Sentience and Narrative in science fiction”, with Ann Leckie, Karolina Fedyk and Markku Soikkeli. I thought the panel went quite well, even if it was my first go at moderating. Ann talked about Ancillary Justice, of course, Karolina is a neuroscientist and spoke about neuroaesthetics , and Markku mentioned the AI in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy which makes art out of found objects. My second panel was “Environmentalism and science fiction”, with, once again, Markku, plus Christin Ljungvist and Saara Henriksson. (Markku, incidentally, moderated the one panel I was on at Swecon 2016.) This panel didn’t go as well as the other one. I’d done my research, so I knew what the other panellists had written, even if it was only available in Swedish or Finnish… But environmentalism is a subject I know little about – enough to be dangerous, I suppose… We asked the audience for examples of environmentalist sf, and ended up writing twenty or so titles up on the whiteboard, but the discussion jumped about a bit without reaching any sort of point. I asked a member of the audience afterwards if he’d thought it was any good. “No,” he said. So much for my second attempt at moderating a panel…

I like city centre conventions because you don’t have to be confined to the hotel. And Kontur was slap bang in the middle of Uppsala. On the Friday night, a group of us went to a Lebanese restaurant beside the river for dinner. Anders also took me to a nearby Irish pub to try one of their beers. And on the Saturday night, Steve Savile dropped into the con as he lives in a nearby town, as did George Berger, who lives in Uppsala, so half a dozen of us went to Bastard Burger (yes, really) for dinner, which was just down the street from the hotel. There was also a supermarket in a shopping centre next to the hotel, where I could buy dairy-free sandwiches (as the hotel bar didn’t have any).

Later that night, Jukke Halme staged his famous quiz, although this time the format was slightly different. Three contestants were volunteered, and each had to answer a number of questions in three rounds: Call My Bluff, a fan version of Jeopardy, and Charades. The questions were, of course, fiendishly difficult, especially the “Fanopardy” round on a past Swecon (only three people knew the answers to the questions: one of them was Jukka, the other two were in the audience). After the quiz, I joined people downstairs in the hotel’s main bar, and stayed there until closing time.

On the Sunday, Tobias, with his son in tow, showed me around Uppsala. We drove out to Gamla Uppsala, which is pretty much just a small museum, five huge barrows, a small cafe and a church. We’d planned to eat in the cafe, but they had nothing I could eat. So we walked up to the top of one of the barrows, where we had a good view of the surrounding countryside. We popped into the gift shop in the museum, where I saw some bottles of mead – but it was alcohol-free, disappointingly. Tobias suggested getting some food from a supermarket and then having a picnic at Uppsala castle. So that’s what we did. We sat in the gardens, looking over the Botanical Garden.

Back at the hotel, we made the closing ceremony, and then people began drifting across to the Bishop’s Arms, where the dead dog party was being held. The Bishop’s Arms is an “English pub”, although more like the sort of English pub you’d find in Dubai than Durham. It was so committed to the theme, it even played Manic Street Preachers over the PA in the toilets. The beers on offer were very good, although most were considerably stronger than I’m used to. As the evening progressed, people drifted away to catch their trains, but there were still quite a few of us left when the bar closed around eleven o’clock. We headed into the town centre, but couldn’t find anywhere still open. Fortunately, it turns out Swedish hotels sell bottles of beer (and wine) at the reception desk after the bars have closed. So we hung around in the hotel lobby, drinking, for another hour or so.

After our lack of success with the trains on the Friday, Luke and I were determined to get it right for the trip from Uppsala to Arlanda Airport. We failed. We bought our tickets from the same machine, so we were definitely going to be on the same train… but we should have looked which train was departing for the airport first and bought tickets for it. We had to wait over an hour for a SJ train…

The trip home was uneventful – other than me leaving the book I was reading on the plane by accident, although, to be honest, I was more annoyed about losing the 100 Yugoslavian Dinar banknote I was using as a bookmark than the book itself. My plane was supposed to land five minutes before the hourly train from Manchester Airport to Sheffield, which obviously I could never have caught, but the landing was delayed by twenty minutes, and then there was a massive queue in Immigration, and I missed the next one, so had to wait an hour for the one after that. The worst part of every journey abroad is the final leg home from the airport by rail. There is only one train an hour from the UK’s third busiest airport (and the busiest outside London) to the country’s sixth largest city, and they’re only seventy kilometres apart! British railways are shit, and it’s all due to privatisation. In virtually every case in this country where nationalised industries have been privatised, the privatised service or utility has proven much worse. Privatisation doesn’t work. But the Tories push it because it’s a way for them, and those who own the Conservative Party and its MPs, to make more money. It’s a form of theft.

Anyway, Kontur… was an excellent convention. My first tries at moderating panels weren’t entirely successful, but never mind. Hopefully, I’ll have further opportunities to improve. I had a great time chatting with friends, and making new ones. I met up with some people I’d known only online in person for the first time – hi, George. If I name everyone I spoke to or hung round with over the weekend, I’d probably miss someone out. But certainly Sunday night and Monday morning were spent saying, “See you in Helsinki!” to a lot of people. Swedish fandom reminds me of why I joined fandom in the first place – there’s a similar atmosphere to the UK cons I remember from the early 1990s. Okay, so people don’t actually talk about genre all the time, at least not in the bar, but there’s a genuine sense of community, and an international community, which British cons no longer seem to have. I don’t think that’s due to the fact Swecon is typical three to four times smaller than a UK Eastercon, so perhaps it’s simply because of the way Swedish fandom works – and how it integrates with Nordic fandom.

I only bought three books, and they were from the Alvarfonden – Her Pilgrim Soul, The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica and The Final Circle of Paradise. I didn’t want to buy too many, not just because I’d have to carry them back in cabin baggage (memo to self: remember to take a suitcase to go in the hold for Worldcon75, so I don’t have to worry about buying too many books), but also because I’d bought too many books in May already.

Finally, I leave you with a photo I took in the abovementioned supermarket. It shows an entire aisle filled with varieties of crispbread. Välkommen till sverige!


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Weekend in Iceland

The last weekend in October has just seen the first ever Icelandic science fiction convention, Icecon 2016, take place in Reykjavík. As soon as I heard it was happening, I signed up – for a number of reasons: I’d never visited Reykjavík but wanted to; I know a few people in Icelandic fandom; and, in recent years, I’ve attended several Nordic conventions. And, of course, I’m more than happy to support Icelandic fandom’s first ever convention.

I flew from Manchester to Keflavík (the plane was named “Eyafjallajökull”, which I hoped wasn’t an omen). The flight was uneventful – except for some turbulence – but as the Boeing 757 finally reached land, I looked out the window, saw a snowy landscape like that of some Jovian moon, and thought, shit, I’ve brought the wrong clothing. Fortunately, as the plane flew further north and closer to the airport, the snow disappeared and the land began to resemble what I had expected: wet, scrubby and windy. Keflavík airport proved surprisingly large. Iceland has a population of around 330,000, but the airport is comparable to that of the capital cities of nations ten to twenty times the population. Since Johan Anglemark was arriving thirty minutes after my flight, I’d arranged to meet up with him at the airport. So I waited… only to receive a text from him that he’d probably miss the next bus to Reykjavík – which would mean a further hour’s wait. I went and caught the bus – actually a coach – only for Johan to appear five minutes later.

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To get from Keflavík to Reykjavík, a distance of 50 km, you can either take a taxi, which would cost around £100, or catch a coach, such as Flybus, which costs around £36 for a return. The coach takes you to the BSÍ, where you transfer to a minibus, and that takes you direct to your hotel. Which, in my case, was the Apotek Hotel, located 250 m from the con venue, Iðnó theatre. (Those members of Icecon who had flown into Iceland were scattered in hotels and apartments around Reykjavík, as the con had not arranged any deals with hotels.) The con did not start until 8 pm, when the attendees were gathering in Klaustur bar, the con’s designated bar, in the block next to Iðnó and some 200 metres from my hotel. So I ate in the restaurant attached to the Apotek Hotel – except, it would be more accurate to say the hotel was attached to the restaurant, as it was an actual restaurant. The menu featured puffin and minke whale, but I avoided those and had salmon. The meal, plus a small beer, cost me around £44. Iceland is expensive.

Given this was the first Icecon, meeting up at the bar was an excellent way to start the convention. We were actually sharing it with a book group, who were discussing The Girl with all the Gifts, so some people sat in on that (I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film). Registration was also onhand in the bar – which was important, as con membes could buy drinks at happy hour prices (a mere 800 ISK, £5.85, for 500 ml of Viking pilsner beer). It was an excellent night. The two guest of honour, Karin Tidbeck and Elizabeth Bear, were present, as were con members from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the UK, the US and Ireland. And probably further afield.

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Icecon 2016 began in earnest the next day. The first programme item was at 10 am, an introduction to fandom. The Iðnó is a theatre, and is used for a variety of functions. There is a stage at one end, a foyer at the other, and off that a small room containing a bar for serving hot and cold drinks, and another small room with three tables. Upstairs, one room was being used as the dealers room. The conventiob took place entirely within Iðnó’s main room, which had been left with the chairs arranged around small tables. On the stage, there was an armchair for the moderator, two sofas for the panellists, and a small coffee table for carafes of water. The layout gave the con an informal atmosphere, which worked really well.

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I didn’t catch every programme item on the Saturday, but I did see Johan Jönsson interview Karin Tidbeck (which was good), and a panel on “The multimedia of science fiction: adaptation, borrowings and rewriting” (which was, to be honest, a bit waffley). I spent some time in the small room with the three tables, chatting to people, and I wandered outside to take a couple of photographs on my phone. At 6 pm, I joined a group of Nordic fans – mostly Swedes, but also Norwegian, Icelandic and Finnish – on a hunt for a meal. A restaurant called Snaps had been recommended to me on Twitter, so we went looking for it. But there were nine of us in the group, and this was too many to seat in Snaps. And in the next restaurant we found. And the next. We ended up in an Italian place, called, imaginatively, Italia, where they put five two-seater tables together for us. The food was good (not as posh as that in the Apotek Bar and Restaurant, but not as expensive either). The restaurant was good about gluten-free, as one of the party had a gluten allergy, but less so about dairy. (One consequence of being lactose-intolerant is I’m now learning the words for cheese, butter and milk in different languages – in Icelandic, it’s ostur, smör and mjólk.)

Back at Iðnó, the costume ball had begun. It was essentially a con disco, but people had been encouraged to turn up in fancy dress. And quite a few had. Some had put more effort into it than others. I, er, made no effort. I stayed until about midnight. The music was loud, and so shouting over it proved tiring – although I did have a good time.

On the Sunday, the programme didn’t start until 1 pm. (There was a hangover lunch in Iðnó at noon, but I didn’t sign up for it.) So I used the time to explore the city. Both Iðnó and my hotel are in the touristy bit of Reykjavík, between the lagoon and the old harbour. It was wet and windy, and not much different to UK weather during November or March. During my wander, I spotted a huge shop that sold Icelandic tat for tourists and the Listasafn Reykjavíkur, Reykjavík Art Museum… but the latter was closed. Back at my hotel, I spotted a brochure in the foyer for the Volcano House, and the opening times indicated it would be open. So I headed for it – it was just up the road from the Art Museum. The Volcano House has a small exhibit of volcanic rocks, but it also offers a 60-minute documentary on two of Iceland’s most famous volcanic eruptions: Eldfell on Heimaey in the Westman Isles in 1973, and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Fascinating stuff. And I can now almost say Eyjafjallajökull. On my way back to the hotel, I swung by the Art Museum, and saw that it was open. Whenever I visit my sister and her family in Denmark, we usually go to an art museum, so I’ve found myself becoming interested in them. The Listasafn Reykjavíkur was… Um, well. The biggest exhibit was for Icelandic pop artist Erró, but I was not impressed. Neither did I think much to the Yoko Ono exhibition. One of the galleries contained “Some New Works” by Örn Alexander Ámundson, which I thought very clever, and reminded me of the tricks with narrative structure I enjoy reading and writing. The highlight of the museum, however, was “The Enclave”, a six-channel video installation by Richard Mosse, shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo on infra-red satellite photography film which transform shades of green into shades of pink… Sadly, there was nothing by Mosse available in the gift shop.

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Back at Iðnó, I caught the programme item on “Inclusive futures: diversity in speculative fiction and publishing”, which was good, before I climbed onto the stage myself for “Climate change, nationalism, famine: addressing contemporary problems in scifi and fantasy”, with moderator Hildur Knútsdóttir and panellists Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Kristján Atli and Scott Lynch. You know that thing where you have several important points to make on a topic, but once you’re up on stage your mind goes completely blank? It was a bit like that; although I was told afterwards that the panel went well. I was also told that once Brexit had been mentioned I turned into a stereotypical Brit (Remainer, of course).

The programme item following the above was the last of the convention, “Carving a path to the future: Icelandic sci-fi and fantasy writers”, which was informative, and it sometimes comes as a surprise – although it shouldn’t – quite how different the road to publication in genre is in countries other than the UK and US. Once the panel had finished, the con organisers all appeared on stage, and admitted they were hugely gratified at the turnout. Just over one hundred people had joined the convention, and nearly half of them had been from outside Iceland. Oh, and did I mention that the first lady of Iceland, the Icelandic president’s wife, dropped by Iðnó on the Saturday afternoon to see how the con was going? Not many conventions can say that. And all this was despite the fact a general election had been called and was taking place over the same weekend. (Two of the moderators for the con’s panel items were standing for parliament.)

The con finished back where it had started, with a dead dog party in Klaustur Bar. I lasted until midnight… but then I did have to get up at 4 am to catch a Flybus to the airport for a 8 am flight back to Manchester.

I thought Icecon 2016 was very successful – and so too, I hope, did the organisers (to their surprise, they admitted). The next one is scheduled for 2018, and I certainly plan to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Reykjavík and would welcome the opportunity to explore the city, and the country, further. Despite the expense. The convention ran very smoothly, and the venue worked so much better than expected – seriously, other cons should adopt the chairs around tables layout, rather than row upon row of chairs; the sofa thing also works a lot better than having the panellists behind a table (fun with dodgy microphones notwithstanding). It was an excellent convention, and a definite highlight of 2016.

I’ve now atteneded conventions in Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Next year, of course, the Worldcon is in Helsinki. But I’d still like to do a con in Norway and Denmark. Perhaps next year…


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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.

 


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The wrong side of the Pennines

Eastercon this year took place in Manchester, on the other side of the Pennines. I very much prefer Eastercons when they’re outside London, and even more so when they’re relatively close – and Mancunicon was only 55 minutes away by train. Having said all that…

Every Eastercon begins with travel woes, and Mancunicon was no exception. I’d booked a taxi in plenty of time to take me to the station, giving me 40 minutes before my train left. But at the time the minicab was supposed to arrive, it didn’t. And continued not to arrive… until eventually appearing 15 minutes before my train was due. This was because the current minicab operating model has a central dispatching office put out jobs for drivers to bid on. And if they don’t receive any bids, or don’t accept any of those they do receive, then you don’t get a taxi. And they don’t bother to tell you. This is not helpful. The cab driver who eventually turned up told me he’d bid on the job earlier but his bid had been rejected – otherwise he’d have arrived much sooner.

As it was, I managed to make train, although it was close. The trip was uneventful, and I then had a ten-minute walk to my hotel. Not normally a bad thing. But it was a warm day, I was wearing a coat and carrying a box of Whippleshield Books to sell. So I was knackered and soaking wet by the time I made it to my hotel room. I then met up with Tobias, who’d flown over from Stockholm, and we headed across to the Hilton Deansgate, the con venue. I sort of liked the hotel, but I’m not convinced it was an especially good con hotel. Most of the programme rooms were far too small, meaning you had to get to them really early to get a seat. The dealers were split across two rooms, which didn’t work. The hotel had only three lifts, which meant there was a queue when people wanted to head up to the twenty-second floor for book launches in the Presidential suite (which was itself too small). There was no place to sit down and relax – one  bar was pretty much standing-only, the other was laid out like a coffee-shop. And the snack food provided during the con was disgusting.

On the plus-side, the location was excellent – lots of shops and eateries within easy walking distance. And even a museum of science and technology… which I didn’t visit. And a cinema. Given better use of the Hilton Deansgate’s conference facilities – and some comfy chairs in the mezzanine bar – it would make a really good venue. Having said that, Mancunicon was a victim of its own success. I was told they’d expected 700 to 800 attendees, but actually had 950 people over the weekend. It was certainly busy a lot of the time.

I made, as is my usual practice, less than a handful of programme items. I was on one – on space opera, ‘The Stars Are Your Canvas’, with Mike Cobley, Tom Toner, Alison Sinclair, Jo Zebedee and Gavin Smith. I think the panel went well enough, although in hindsight we didn’t actually interrogate our subject much, and by the end it had turned into a bit of a nostalgia fest for certain space opera properties… Ah well. Then there were the BSFA Awards (congrats to the winners)… Oh, and I made the NewCon Press book launch in the Presidential suite too. But the highlights of the weekend were, as ever, meeting up with friends, and those free-wheeling conversations you have in the afternoons while you’re sat round a table – including one discussion on neurology, theology and Game Theory with Simon Morden and Alex Lamb; another on the various media adaptations of Dune with Adrian Tchaikovsky; not to mention all those “catch-up conversations” you have with friends that aren’t really catching-up because you know pretty much what they’ve been up to since you last saw them thanks to Twitter and Facebook status updates… Of course, there’s also meeting new people. Which I did. And seeing many people I’d not seen for many years…

Oh, and for the record, the Traveller identity card I mentioned during the space opera panel? Here it is:

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I also mentioned Judgment Night, the Valerian and Laureline series, The Communist Manifesto and a coin that’s flown around the Moon:

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I didn’t do so well on the social front, and went to be early on all three nights. I’d developed a bad back about a month ago, and all that standing around wasn’t do it any good. As usual, I also ate badly during the day, thanks to the poor choices available (such as the aforementioned disgusting con food). On the Sunday, I nipped to a nearby Sainsbury’s and bought lunch there. I wish I’d done it on the previous two days. Twice, I had dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was pretty good. On the Saturday night, a group of us went to a nearby Indian restaurant. The food was good, but it was a bit too loud in there (a birthday party on the mezzanine, apparently).

I want to like Mancunicon more than I did. I think the two things that spoiled it for me were pain from my back and the somewhat feeble dealers’ room. I bought three books at the con; I usually come back with a carrier-bag full. In the past, I’ve spent hours browsing the books in the dealers’ room, but that took all of five minutes at Mancunicon. I suspect I was also hoping it would be more of a relaxacon, with places to chill out; and while many of the programme items looked interesting, the faff in actually getting a seat in the rooms put me off even trying. None of which is to say Mancunicon was a badly-organised Eastercon. On the contrary, it did extremely well – especially when you consider it was a rescue bid.

(Speaking of which, 2017’s Eastercon in Cardiff collapsed, but a rescue bid in Birmingham was announced at Mancunicon: Innominate at the Hilton Metropole at the NEC, GoHs Pat Cadigan, Judith Clute and Colin Harris. And 2018’s Eastercon will be Follycon in Harrogate, with GoHs Kieron Gillen, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nnedi Okorafor and Christina Lake.)

Oh well, perhaps I’ve been spoiled. Archipelacon is going to take a lot of beating. I did quite well with my own books (and I’m eternally grateful to Roy Gray for having them on the TTA table). It always surprises me – in a good way, of course – when people come up to me and say nice things about them I was hoping I wouldn’t have to carry a box full of Whippleshield Books back home, and happily I sold just over half of those I took with me. (The books are, of course, still available from the Whippleshield Books website here.)

In summary, a middling-to-good Eastercon for me. Mostly my fault – but also partly because the venue didn’t quite work as a con hotel. I wish I could say I came home fizzing with ideas and enthusiasm for writing projects… but I didn’t. I left at lunch-time on the Monday – it was absolutely hammering it down and I didn’t fancy walking to the station but a friend planned to order a cab… The journey home went without a hitch, and the cat at least was happy to see me and spent a good five minutes telling me off for disappearing on him. I did tell him but… Anyway, Birmingham next year – and I remember the hotel from the 2011 Eastercon… A good venue, but expensive and miles from anywhere, I seem to recall. But that’s twelve months away…


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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.