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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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Doing the Hugos 1

I did this last year, so why not again this year? Once again, I’m not a member of the Worldcon, so I didn’t nominate any of the works which appear on the various shortlists, nor will I be able to vote on them. But the shortlists are public, many of the novellas, novelettes and short stories are available online to read, and I have opinions which I am happy to share.

First up, the short stories. These are stories of less than 7,500 words, previously published in the US or online in the preceding year. The 2010 shortlist looks like this (click on the titles to read each story):

‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (PDF), Mike Resnick (Asimov’s December 2009)
Nope. I don’t get it. After John Kessel’s clever Austen / Frankenstein pastiche, ‘Pride and Prometheus’, appeared on last year’s Hugo novelette shortlist, this year we have another entry riffing on Frankenstein. But this time it’s a simplistic short story by Mike Resnick. The narrator is married to Victor Frankenstein, but it is not a loving marriage. But, with the help of the monster, Frankenstein’s wife undergoes a change of heart. It’s hard to know when the story’s set – the narrator is married to Victor Frankenstein, but complains the castle has no electricity. So not the early 1800s, then. It’s implied that Gone with the Wind has just been published, so the story could be set in the late 1930s. Except the narrator uses the term “family unit”. ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ works as a lightweight throwaway piece – and it’s a little better than last year’s dreadfully old-fashioned ‘Article of Faith’ – but are we seriously supposed to believe it’s one of the two best stories published in Asimov’s during 2009, and one of the five best stories published anywhere in 2009? I refuse to believe that science fiction is so moribund.

‘Bridesicle’ (PDF), Will McIntosh (Asimov’s January 2009)
In the future of this story, those who have died and been frozen are revived by lonely people looking for love. Which could be considered a neat commentary on immigrant brides. But McIntosh adds more. He makes his eponymous Mira gay, so even if a man does fall in love with her and pay for her to be brought back to life, she’s never going to return his sentiments. And, in this future, the personalities of dead people can be uploaded into living people’s minds – these are known as “hitchers”. Mira is woken at intervals over a couple of centuries, makes friends with a man who later admits he could never afford to revive her, and also learns that her lover is a corpsicle in the same facility. I wanted to like this story more than I did. It’s well-written – although one or two phrases were a tad too much: “her jaw squealed like a sea bird’s cry”, for example – and Mira is a well-drawn protagonist. But it feels too busy. Either the “bridesicle” idea or “hitchers” alone would be enough. Having both seems to me to weaken the story, and so it turns into a future romance. ‘Bridesicle’ is not an embarrassing choice for the shortlist, but it doesn’t feel strong enough to win a Hugo.

‘The Moment’, Lawrence M Schoen (Footprints, Hadley Rille Books)
I’ll admit to being surprised at seeing this on the shortlist. But only because it appeared in a themed anthology from a small press. I wouldn’t have thought such a book would have received a wide enough readership to generate enough nominations for one of its stories to be shortlisted. But it did. And the story is… Well, it’s not bad. It’s a series of linked vignettes, showing the history of the galaxy through visitors to a human footprint on the Moon. Given the last line of the story, I don’t think the footprint is meant to be Neil Armstrong’s (and, of course, the famous photograph was taken by Aldrin of his own bootprint), or indeed made by any of the Apollo astronauts. The story is a bit of smeerp overdose, full of silly made-up words. It’s also somewhat over-written. Having now read it, I’m still surprised to see it on the shortlist. I don’t actually think it’s good enough for an award.

‘Non-Zero Probabilities’, NK Jemisin (Clarkesworld September 2009)
This story is so much better than the preceding three that it feels like a much better story than I initially thought it was. In fact, prior to the Hugo nominations being announced last month, this and the Johnson story from Clarkesworld were the only two of the shortlist I’d actually read. Adele lives in a New York in which wildly improbably events – disasters, mostly – happen regularly. It’s a slice-of-life sort of story, with some lovely writing and a clever central conceit. It’s not the sort of genre fiction I normally choose to read, or enjoy all that much, so I wouldn’t have nominated it myself. But yes, it’s good enough to be on the shortlist.

‘Spar’, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld October 2009)
And you’d think this story would be the sort of genre fiction I would read since it has aliens and spaceships in it. But. It’s a mood piece. It has no rigour. It feels like a writing exercise, not a story. I didn’t like it when I first read it, I don’t like it on rereading it. And I can’t understand why it was nominated, never mind received enough nominations to make it onto the shortlist. Johnson, of course, was on the Hugo short story shortlist last year – for ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’ – so she clearly has her fans. I’m not one of them. Nor am I fan of the type of genre fiction she writes.

I thought last year’s Hugo shortlist for short stories was poor, and I’d hoped this year’s would be better. It isn’t. Two authors are back again – Resnick and Johnson – which only shows how incestuous the Hugo Awards are. I mean, there are a huge number of people writing genre short fiction, so I find it really sad that the same old names keep on appearing. This year, I think the Jemisin should win, with the McIntosh as runner-up. I expect the Johnson will win.

My take on the novelette shortlist will follow soon. It at least looks better than the above shortlist. Um, the same was true last year. Perhaps the best sf now being written is at novelette-length…