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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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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!