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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…

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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…