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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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Åwesome

When I learned the 2015 Eastercon would be in Heathrow, I knew I’d be giving it a miss. And when I discovered its guests of honour were urban fantasy writers, then I had even less reason to attend. At Fantastika, Swecon 2013, in Stockholm, I’d heard about Åcon, a small con which takes place in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, an archipelago between Finland and Sweden (it’s a self-governing part of Finland, although the natives speak Swedish). I quite fancied attending Åcon – I’d found Nordic fandom hugely friendly at Fantastika, and Mariehamn looked like a nice place to visit – but plans to do so in 2015 came to nothing… But that was okay because then Archipelacon was announced. An Eastercon-sized convention. In Mariehamn.

So that would be my alternative to the Heathrow Eastercon.

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As the  date of the convention approached, I started to worry about travelling to Åland – the Finnish fans catch a ferry from Turku, and the Swedish fans from Stockholm. I didn’t fancy finding my way from Helsinki to Turku and onto the ferry in a country I’d never visited before. But then I found out Mariehamn had an airport… and I could fly there from Helsinki Airport. Sorted. I booked my flights, my hotel room, and my days off from work.

As journeys go, it wasn’t too bad. I had to spend five hours in Helsinki Airport waiting for my connection, but it’s a nice airport so it was no real hardship. And at the gate to the flight to Mariehamn I ran into some friendly faces, Icelandic writer Emil Hjörvar Petersen and his girlfriend Kristin. We were staying in the same hotel too, the Park Alandia. So on reaching Mariehamn, we shared a taxi from the airport. And met up later for food and drinks in the hotel bar… where I discovered all food in Finland is either gluten-free, lactose-free or both. (I was told a lot of Finns are lactose-intolerant, but most food is actually only “low lactose”. However, I had no problem finding lactose-free food during my stay – and even in Helsinki Airport half of the sandwiches in the café were labelled lactose-free.)

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The following morning, I went for a wander in the centre of Mariehamn. Which didn’t take long. It may be small, but it’s very pleasant. I found the convention venue, the Alandica conference centre, quite easily, but when I turned up they were still getting things ready. I returned later, bumped into some friends, and so Archipelacon began in earnest…

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Much as I’d like to mention everyone I spoke to during the con, I’m likely to miss someone off so if I have done, apologies. But here goes anyway: Tobias, Ian, Cristina, Edward, Farah, Johan, Linnéa, Johan, Kimmo, Rollo, Kristina, Alexander, Emil, Kristin, Jukka, Juha, Elio, Linda, Gary, Niall, Liz, Nic, Jukka, Polar bear, Loponen, Jerry, Juha, Christina, Doug, Dave, Gaie, Minnow, Alexander, Eugene, Cheryl, Karin, Mia… and no doubt there’s someone I’ve forgotten. I met people from a dozen nations, and hung out with people I knew from Fantastika, UK fandom, online fandom, not to mention lots of very friendly people I’d never met before. Archipelacon is also the only time I’ve had a convention-goer introduce themselves to me in a non-convention venue. I’d nipped back to the Park Alandia Hotel bar for some food on the Thursday night, and the person next to me spotted my membership badge and introduced himself and his wife – they were, of course, also members. We were then joined by a fourth person who had spotted our badges. I don’t recall anything like that ever happening at a UK con.

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The programme was very good, although I didn’t attend as much as I’d planned (but certainly more than I typically do). I was on only one programme item, “Why SF Writers Should Rule the World — or Should They?”, with Kristina Hård, Kimmo Lehtonen and Farah Mendlesohn. Obviously, we all said they shouldn’t. Then we sort of talked around the subject, prompted at intervals by Kristina. The audience seemed to enjoy it.

There was also a strong academic track – and a lot more academics present than is the case at Eastercons. In fact, sitting outside on the Alandica deck at one point I found I was the only non-academic in the group at the table. On the Friday night, there was a big party around the pool of the Hotel Arkipelag (the main con hotel). The Arkipelag also has the only nightclub in Mariehamn – so when we moved indoors later, it was very busy. The nightlife in Mariehamn is… odd. It all felt a bit nineties. At the Saturday night pool party, I left around midnight, and took a wrong turn leaving the hotel… and found myself at the nightclub entrance, where bouncers held back Mariehamn twentysomethings queuing behind a rope. And when I got to the Park Alandia Hotel and entered through the bar, I noticed that everyone there was over the age of forty-five. I was later told the nightlife in the town revolves around the hotels, but wandering about town on the Sunday I found a couple of small bars. Outside one were three men who looked like they’d just stepped out of an Aki Kaurismäki film. Except they were speaking Swedish, of course.

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The Alandica was a superb venue. The central space was big and airy, with plenty of seating. The two auditoriums were excellent. There was food available throughout the day – much of which was lactose-free. And the bar sold bottles of the local beer, Stallhagen – which is what I drank for most of the weekend. It’s very nice. Sunset each day was around 11:30 to midnight. Which meant it was always later than you thought. The weather was sunny and hot – you don’t expect to get suburned in Finland, but I did.

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I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books at the con, but I’d said the same at Fantastika and still left with a dozen or so. Thanks to Alvarfonden. This is a fan-run fund which sells secondhand US and UK paperbacks cheap – at Archiepelacon for between €1 and €2. So I ended up coming back with half a dozen or so, mostly for SF Mistressworks: The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm; Outer Space Stories, AL Furman; Strange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia; The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril; Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown; Godsfire, Cynthia Felice; A Woman A Day, Philip José Farmer; and A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough. I read the last during my flight home, so a review of it will be going up on SF Mistressworks this coming Wednesday.

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The only bad thing to happen during the weekend was entirely my own fault. On the Sunday afternoon, I received a telephone call from my hotel. “You must check out now.” “I’m booked through until tomorrow.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t. Gah. I’d booked a room from Wednesday to Sunday, meaning including Sunday night. But the hotel took that to mean checking out on Sunday. And I never noticed I’d only booked four nights instead of five (possibly because Archipelacon started on a Thursday rather than a Friday, and that threw me). Tobias offered the spare bed in his room – he was in the same hotel – but the hotel managed to find me a free room. Except it had no shower. Which meant using the one down in the saunas. I took that room because I’d be up at seven am to catch my flight, and thought it unfair to Tobias. But skulking naked around the hotel sauna was not an experience to be repeated.

It seems likely Archipelacon was a one-off, but I think pretty much everyone who attended would like it to be repeated. The Alandica was an excellent venue, Mariehamn (nightlife notwithstanding) was a lovely little town, and everyone seemed to have a really good time. I know I did. It was the best con, in fact, I’ve been to for a long time. I certainly plan to visit Finland again – perhaps an Åcon, or maybe a Finncon (next year it’s in Tampere, I believe). And, of course, there’s always Sweden – Fantastika is back at the Dieselverkstaden in Stockholm in 2016. There was even talk of running small con in Reykjavik. I’d definitely go to that.

ETA: Archipelacon has posted all the photos by official con photographer Henry Söderlund. You can find them here.