If there was only one convention a year that I could get to then it would probably be Finncon. BristolCon is much cheaper, but Finncon is (for me) a very busy four day event with the added bonus of a trip to another country. Thanks to a large stash of frequent flier points, and the enormous generosity of my Finnish friends, I can get there fairly cheaply too.
My usual hosts in Helsinki, Otto & Paula, were on their way back from a vacation in the USA when I arrived, so I got to stay a couple of nights with Jukka & Sari, in a room now known as the “VanderMeer Suite”. A stopover in Helsinki is always useful for travel purposes, and prior to the con it is also necessary for the press conference. The reporters from the main newspapers don’t like to travel, so we have to go to them.
This year’s Guests of Honor were Richard Morgan and Nalo Hopkinson. Richard got most of the love from the media, because his books are available in Finnish and Nalo’s are not. It is a different sort of cultural snobbery, but much less of a problem than the anti-SF nonsense we get from some people in the UK. Much to my relief, there was another press conference in Turku when Nalo and Richard got there, and this time they both got some attention. Nalo kindly plugged the Translation Awards. I’m told that there was also a short feature on the local TV news. After the con some idiot on the local newspaper did a Moral Panic!!! article about all those young girls in short skirts. It is kind of weird seeing SF fans get good press while the anime people get targeted. I guess we looked normal in comparison.
After the Helsinki press conference we had a lunch meeting with a representative of FILI, the Finnish Cultural Institute. Much to my surprise, also in the restaurant was Val Grimm. She had been visiting Finland and was on her way home to Boston via Oslo, and found us by accident. I was able to introduce her to Richard and Nalo, and talk a bit about The Portal. While the ever-efficient Tino whisked Nalo and Richard off to Turku so that they could spend Thursday touring the Åland archipelago, we had a little party at Jukka and Sari’s place at which we tried to come up with a theme for the 2013 Finncon in Helsinki, and tried to dissuade Eemeli from starting any Worldcon bids.
On Thursday morning we headed off for Turku and I spent the afternoon at the academic conference that traditionally precedes Finncon. A couple of the presenters had dropped out, so I offered to present the paper on trans characters in SF&F that I had written for last year’s ICFA, but had been unable to present due to being denied entry to the USA. I’m relieved to say that it went down very well. Liisa Rantalaiho kindly offered to translate it for publication in Finnish. I’m a bit nervous about that because the trans experience can be very culturally specific and I don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone.
Fortunately, at the convention, I got to meet some actual Finnish trans people who said that they read my blog. This was a very humbling experience. Talking about yourself is all very well, but talking about yourself when other people with similar life experiences are reading you is scary. Anyway folks, you know who you are. Please take a look at my paper. If it doesn’t reflect how trans people see themselves in Finland, please let me or Liisa know before anyone does any translation.
The main convention hotel was a city center Sokos about 15 minutes walk from the university where the con took place. It was one of those old hotel buildings that have been massively extended by new build, with a consequent mix of architectural styles. The remaining bits of the old building were very nice, though the staircase with adverse camber on the turns was rather disconcerting and is probably a disaster if you are drunk. The new rooms, on the other hand, were very comfortable. I particularly liked the under-floor heating in the bathroom. I seem to have lucked out. I got a proper double bed, whereas Otto & Paula got two singles pushed together. Then again, Nalo got a rubber duckie, and we didn’t.
Friday saw more academic papers, and a brief appearance by Nalo for the one paper discussing her work. I loved the fact that we had a paper about a Donald Duck comic. Apparently Donald is very popular in Finland. I had no idea. Afterwards we went for lunch and discovered a very nice, and very cheap, Indian restaurant near the university (the Delhi Darbar, should you happen to be in the area). I ended up eating there on Saturday and Sunday as well. It was always open, and never packed with hordes of cosplayers.
I was having a bit of trouble with jet lag and lost most of the afternoon, but in the evening I got in my traditional visit to Harald, the viking-themed restaurant. They had bear sausage on the menu this year. I’m pleased to report that the cinnamon beer and tar ice cream are as good as ever.
Saturday was a bit mad. It had been obvious in the weeks leading up to the convention that the program was going to be in a state of flux. The Turku convention was being run by a committee that was heavy on anime fans who appeared to have little interest in what us old fogies were doing. I was offered very little programming, and opted out of some of what I was offered because it didn’t seem appropriate. As it turned out, there was very little programming in English, and much of it had been stretched out to two-hour sessions. That kept me occupied, despite the lack of actual panel appearances.
It is difficult to make specific criticisms of a convention when most of what is being said about it takes place in another language. Two points, however, are definitely worth making. Firstly, if you have part of programming in one or more alternative languages, it makes sense not to schedule those items against each other. Saturday afternoon saw two items in English and one in Swedish all in the same time slot. While Finland has a sizeable Swedish-speaking population who may also speak Finnish, the fans visiting from Sweden mostly have excellent English and look forward to the English language program to supplement the accessible material.
In addition, while there are legitimate discussions to be had about how to list program items in the program guide, alphabetical order is not one of the sensible options. (The usual options are by room and by time — both have their supporters.)
I should also note that the feedback from anime fans has been very positive. They felt that their side of the programming had been done better than ever before, which probably shows that when the con was run primarily by older SF fans they didn’t pay much attention to anime. There was special praise from all concerned for the child care, which was exemplary.
Talking of the program book, Toni Jerrman told me that it was mostly a work of fiction. The items involving the Guests of Honor stayed where they were put, though Nalo hadn’t been told that her GoH speech had been stretched to 2 hours and stopped after one. One of my panels, however, took place at a different time, in a different room, and in a different language to what was advertised. Thankfully it still got a great crowd. Jarmo Puskala’s Iron Sky presentation wasn’t in the program book at all, and the correction sheets were only in Finnish, but I managed to get to it anyway. The Finnish for “Iron Sky” is “Iron Sky”.
The much-changed panel was about selling Finnish science fiction and fantasy in translation, and was very constructive. It included Maria Säntti, a literary agent, and Owen Witesman, an American who translates Finnish literature into English. I was delighted to hear that Owen will be working on a translation of Risto Isomäki’s Sands of Sarasvati. (He was also involved in creating the graphic novel version.) If anyone is interested in publishing it, please get in touch.
My second panel of the day was the now traditional look at the Hugo ballot in which Jukka Halme and I tell Tommy Persson that works don’t have to be traditional hard SF to get on the ballot, and Marianna Leikomaa tries to keep the peace. We had a very poor turnout, thanks mainly to being scheduled against the second half of Richard’s 2-hour Guest of Honor speech (which he filled, having seen Nalo trip up earlier). The main thing that sticks with me from the panel is how much we all disliked most of this year’s Short Story and Novelette nominations.
The evening saw me get my first opportunity to MC a masquerade. The Finns have been very kind about my performance, but I know I could have done so much better. This was not entirely my fault. Marianna (who was directing the show) and I arrived at the venue to discover that the stage was littered with audio equipment for a disco, that we were mostly not allowed to move. There was around five feet of free space in which to perform, with a nest of unsecured cables that the contestants had to walk over to reach it, and a four foot drop off the edge of the stage. Thankfully none of the costumers had sight problems, but we did have a Lara Croft who wanted to do cartwheels. Dealing with all this occupied much of my time and attention prior to the show.
Just before we were due to start, I discovered that there was no entertainment (except me) scheduled for the intermission. I had been expecting to be able to spend some time with the judges, but instead I ended up trying to improvise some jokes. Thankfully the contestants saved me by doing their own comedy routines. Nalo wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make the evening event, but I am enormously grateful to Richard who immediately grasped what needed to be done and took charge of the jury. Thanks are also due to Toni Jerrman and Sari Polvinen who acted as emergency holographic judges.
I had rashly promised Nalo that I would be at the con for 11:00am on Sunday for the 2-hour cultural appropriation panel. Nalo was the only non-white person in the room, but she and Richard managed to do a good job of explaining the issues, and the questions we got were mostly very constructive. Tom Crosshill (who has gone back home to Latvia to live) moderated well. I think we dodged a bullet on that one.
Poor Richard was then scheduled for a reading. That was three hours of programming from 11:00 to 14:00 on a Sunday. Ouch.
I’d had to go without food to get to the panel on time, and I ended up having lamb biryani for breakfast at 13:30. The rest of the day was a washout, best characterized by the slogan from Ninni Aalto’s excellent t-shirt, “I can’t brain today. I has the dumb.”
For some unexplained reason, the official dead dog party was being held 40km from Turku. Most of my Finnish friends either weren’t invited or didn’t have transport. I wasn’t invited either, and wasn’t really expecting to be. I gather it went very well, despite Richard scaring his hosts by undertaking a very long swim through some fairly treacherous waters. If any Finnish fans are wondering what happened to the whisky I normally bring for such events, I have left it with Otto because I can trust him not to drink it, he being teetotal. Hopefully it will turn up at a fannish event sometime soon. Those of us left in Turku ended up a Koulu, a fabulous microbrewery situated in an old school building. Much of the evening was spent encouraging Eemeli to run a hoax Worldcon bid rather than a real one.
I was expecting a fairly relaxed Monday, but the movie industry waits for no one and I found myself on an unexpected trip to Tampere to visit the Iron Sky post-production studios. The end result of this should appear in SFX sometime soon. I am in awe of what can be done to movie footage these days.
Finally I took the train back to Helsinki and availed myself of Otto & Paula’s sauna. There was more curry, and I discovered that you can buy Bath Ales’ Gem in Stockman, the big Helsinki department store.
Tuesday was spent traveling again. This is the first time I have used Lufthansa, and I am very impressed. The flights were on time. The aircraft were clean and not falling apart — two things I no longer expect from United. The alcoholic drinks with the meals were free. Only the food let them down. Munich airport is fabulous — bright and spacious with lots of curves, and packed with shopping. Frankfurt is very steel-industrial chic in comparison, and needs something like Chicago’s neon lighting to liven up the tunnel.
I still have a fair stash of Star Alliance points, so getting to Finncon next year should be no problem. Besides, Irma Hirsjärvi and Liz Williams are Guests of Honor (alongside Lois McMaster Bujold). Much of the car trip to Tampere on Monday was spent brainstorming ideas with Marianna and Karo Leikomaa. The website is currently only in Finnish, but there will be English language material soon, including a travel guide. I’ll let you know when it goes up. There are also some interesting plans afoot for the academic conference. The only thing that currently concerns me about next year is that Moominvalley may be closed as the city council wants to move it to a larger location. Again I’ll keep you informed.
Here are my photos: