Finncon reports ought to begin with a heartfelt “thank you” to Otto and Paula. This year the convention was in Helsinki, so I got to stay with them all week. However, even when the con is in another city I tend to prevail upon them on my way there and back. It is much easier to fly into Helsinki then take the train than to try to fly to small, regional airports. Otto also does a sterling job ferrying the guests about town. This year his car was decorated with large Finncon logos. People started referring to it as “the ConMobile”. Everywhere we went in Helsinki people would wave at the car. They knew what it was.
Which brings us very naturally to Thursday morning and the press conference. Getting journalists to cover and event can be hard, and offering them free food and drink is a time-honored method of bribery. So it was that George RR Martin and Al Reynolds turned up at a café for a working breakfast. I went along to reassure them that the Finns knew what they were doing, and because I had nothing else scheduled until midday. We have had one year when the press conference was a disaster, but only one. This year went as smoothly as such things can. The photographers were intrusive and pushy, and the journalists asked all of the obvious questions (the odd behavior of a small number of George’s fans, Al’s million-pound book deal). However, the end result was exactly what we wanted: almost a full page spread in the major Helsinki newspaper on Friday, a further half-page on Saturday, more coverage in the tabloid newspaper given out for free on the Metro. Also all three major Finnish TV stations turned up at the convention. This is the sort of publicity you can’t buy. All of it mentioned that the convention was free to attend. I’m sure it was a major contributory factor to the huge number of attendees we got.
Of course I can’t prove that the media coverage got us attendees, but I think I can prove that the work of Finncon’s press team was what got us the coverage. You see, there were three guests at the convention: George, Al and Adam Roberts. They were all mentioned in the con publicity. The newspapers majored on George and Al. They also mentioned a few other people, including me. They didn’t mention Adam at all, because he wasn’t at the press conference. The reporters hadn’t met him, so he wasn’t on their radar. So congratulations to Hannele Parviala and Sini Neuvonen for a job well done; and Adam, next time come to the press conference.
Next on my schedule was two half days at the academic conference at Helsinki University, organized this year by my friend Merja Polvinen. As usual there were some very interesting papers, and Adam did a magnificent job as the Guest Scholar. The people presenting the papers are generally graduate students, though some may have MAs. Sometimes this is the first time they have presented a paper. The quality isn’t always great, but the conversation about the papers is always interesting. Sometimes the weakest paper gives rise to the best discussion. I find this stuff enormously enjoyable, but I know it is an acquired taste so I’ll let you off this time.
Thursday evening saw the traditional Guest of Honor Sauna Party. This year it took place on a small, private island in the harbor. This did mean that we got to swim in the sea afterward instead of in a lake, but the sea was seriously cold and the beach we had was overlooked from the mainland by some of the most expensive real estate in Finland. Skinny dipping was therefore discouraged. I should also note that our two British newbies had a distinct case of SaunaFail. Obviously not everyone is going to like sauna, but it always seems to be the Brits who bail out. George and his partner, Parris, were happy to indulge. I’m pleased that the likes of Justina, Farah and MJH have shown that we Brits are not all wimps.
After the sauna we all headed off to the pub where large numbers of Finnish fans were gathering. I didn’t stay long because I was very tired, but I did get into a conversation with a few fans I hadn’t met before, and therefore I had to explain who I was. One of the other Finns described me a “permanent guest” of the convention. The young lady I was introducing myself to then exclaimed that if I was that important I ought to have a tiara, and I should stamp my feet until I was given one. Foot stamping isn’t really my style, but I did foolishly mention the conversation to Irma when I next saw her. This was to have Consequences.
Unusually for Finncon, programming got underway on Friday afternoon, so after the morning’s papers were discussed we headed off to the main venue. The Kaapelitehdas is an old cable factory re-purposed as an arts venue. Much of the old industrial architecture is still in place, giving the whole event something of a steampunk look. It is also much the largest venue we have ever had for a Finncon. The building is U-shaped. The base was mainly social space, including a restaurant and bar, the gaming area, and a space set aside for adults to relax in. One arm was devoted to program space: three rooms in all. The other was divided half-and-half into a dealers’ room and the main program room, which was used for major events such as George’s GoH talk and the CosPlay. The inside of the U contained a few food vendors but was mainly filled with teenage kids in a bewildering variety of anime costumes. They also spilled over into the adjoining car parks and green spaces. It was an absolutely amazing sight.
One of the things I love about the Finns is how professional they are when it comes to convention running. Last year’s event was very successful, but I did point out a couple of areas where it wasn’t quite perfect. The schedules given to the guests did not include the social events that they were expected to attend, and there was no material to help those of us who don’t speak Finnish or Swedish to find our way around. This year the guest schedules included everything we needed to know (though I still managed to mis-read mine and be late for the sauna party – sigh), and there was also a 24-page English language program book available (from the “Alien Info” desk). Chris Bell, whose difficulties finding her way around in Tampere had prompted my original complaint, was astounded at how well the Finns had responded. So was I.
What’s more, that wasn’t the only area in which the Finns had taken note of what I had said. On Saturday morning I got to help judge the individual CosPlay tournament. Much to my delight, they had instituted separate competition categories for novices and experienced cosplayers. We got some excellent entries in both categories. Unfortunately I was too busy judging to get good pictures, but there will be some online soon.
Something that the Finncon CosPlay does that I haven’t seen done anywhere else is have special awards for entries that made the judges laugh. There is actually a special judge for this. This year they went to a zombie nurse and to a character who tried to bribe the judges by throwing us candy. (Why Lucy’s music box should contain candy is a mystery to me – anyone seen Elfen Lied?) Another character that got everyone excited was Danbo, the cardboard box robot (see picture). Whoever had the idea of doing this costume was inspired, and also very talented to walk around stage in it. Presumably it was quite cheap too, though I suspect that finding actual boxes to fit might have been quite difficult.
The Legend of Zelda continues to provide excellent costumes. Had we given first place prizes in each category it is entirely likely that the beginner prize would have gone to Midna (in her imp form) and the experienced prize to Zant. There was a lot of work in those costumes, especially the headpieces.
After the CosPlay I had a lunch engagement with my new friend Jenni Tyynelä whom I had met at the DWJ conference. I wanted to introduce her to Irma Hirsjärvi, because Irma is a whiz at getting grants and has also been to ICFA on several occasions. As it turned out, we bumped into Hannu Rajaniemi as well, and he’s by far the best person I can think of to explain quantum mechanics to a Finn. So a very pleasant lunch was had discussing cosmology and the philosophy of the multiverse. Jenni got lots of ideas for books to read (including, Goddess help her, The Number of the Beast, because it is one of the books most closely based on David Lewis’s ideas). I was also able to recommend that Jenni meet Adam Roberts, because Yellow Blue Tibia includes some interesting use of quantum probability. The conversation at lunch was so absorbing that we missed George’s GoH speech, but we all trooped off to listen to Al talk about his cosmological speculations and other science-fictional stuff.
Next up was my first panel of the weekend. Adam and I, being well known “motherfuckers who are systematically destroying science fiction” (that’s an Internet term for “reviewers”, in case you missed the recent “ethics” furor) had been asked to comment on this year’s crop of Hugo nominees. Ben Roimola and Tommy Persson were also called upon to give their expert opinion, and Marianna Leikomaa was asked to use all of her ex-Finncon-chair skills to keep us from killing each other.
As it turned out, we were mostly in agreement. Tommy did occasionally take the part of traditionalists against Adam and my championing of adventurous writing, but there was remarkably little squabbling. Even in the case of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, which Adam has notoriously rubbished, we were all agreed that it ought to win when compared to the other nominees.
For the record, here is what I can remember of our conclusions:
Short story – Kij Johnson or Ted Chiang
Novelette – John Kessel (the others are mostly awful)
Novella – Finlay, McDonald or Reed (we all agreed the Doctorow/Rosebaum was fascinating but too difficult a read to win)
Related Book – Scalzi, but Farah deserves it
BDP Long Form – Dark Knight or Wall-E (audience vote)
Novel – Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson
The next panel in the room was Adam’s GoH talk. I stuck around listening to him bravely trying to convince the Finns that postmodernism and deconstructionism were interesting ideas. He did very well, though it is perhaps best that he then went on to talk about his novels and parodies. I discovered that Adam and I are very much in agreement about Structuralism, but have widely different views about Rhetorics of Fantasy. I shall explain this is more detail in a separate post. Afterward I spoke to some of the Finns, who were unanimously impressed. When I have talked about Finncon (or Imaginales) to writers before I have sometimes been rebuffed with the excuse of, “oh, I don’t have anything translated, there’s no point in going there.” Adam comprehensively proved this wrong. A whole bunch of Finns have developed an admiration for him and are going to go out and buy his books (probably in English from Amazon). Given that most of them had never heard of him before, he did a wonderful job.
After grabbing a quick sandwich (and being very grateful I had eaten lunch) my next task was to judge the masquerade. The quality was a lot better than last year, and we had such difficulty making up our minds we decided not to name a winner. Instead each of the 11 entries got a prize of some sort, and we set to thinking of entertaining reasons for giving those prizes. Here are some of my favorites.
There was a fabulous Corpse Bride entry – a really great costume. We gave her a prize of “Most Desperate” and a signed Al Reynolds book. When I handed the prize over I told the audience that I had written “will you marry me?” above Al’s signature.
Inevitably there was a Song of Ice and Fire entry. Parris (who was on the jury) was very impressed with their attention to detail, and some of the costumes were lovely. Amazingly they managed to pick five characters to represent, none of whom George had managed to kill off. Parris promised them some exclusive Ice & Fire t-shirts.
There was also a Lord of the Rings entry, done extremely tongue in cheek. Adam is sending them a couple of copies of his LotR parody.
Mari-Pilvi did Elvira, a role she is very well equipped for. We gave her the prize for “Most Cleavage”. Amazingly we managed to find an entirely Elvira-appropriate prize – a book created for a music critic whose nickname is “The Tomb”.
Another of my favorite entries was based on the Batman TV series. Tuomas and Pasi had great costumes, and they had the feel of the program down pat. I loved how they did the “climbing the wall on the bat-rope” thing. Hopefully there are some very special bat-goodies on the way to them.
Finally my thanks to Petri and Hannele for doing Magnus, Robot Fighter. That strip was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and I had no idea anyone else remembered it.
The masquerade prize presentation was the first event of the Saturday evening party in the bar. As is traditional with Finncon, this also featured the Guest of Honor filks. I was surprised and delighted that the filkers used a modified version of my con-runner filk, “Busy, busy, busy”. I have video of all of the filks, but this was somewhat interrupted by Marianna calling me on stage. Apparently Irma had been shopping and had bought me a tiara. The Finns are so kind. Someone on Facebook asked me to bring the tiara to Worldcon. I may do so, though I have no idea when would be an appropriate time to wear it; maybe at the Hugo Losers Party to cheer me up after having lost to Langford yet again.
On Sunday I was scheduled for two panels either side of lunch. Both involved book recommendations and I hope at some point to have lists for you. The first panel was what I have taken to calling Fat-Free Fantasy, in which we explained to a huge audience that fantasy should not be purchased by the kilo and just because George’s books were very large there was no reason for everyone else’s to be. The other panel was a more general book discussion which I took to be about books that are new this year, and everyone else didn’t. I got to pimp the likes of The Quiet War, Palimpsest, The City and The City and Yellow Blue Tibia.
In between the two panels something happened in one of the program rooms that caused a huge queue of cat-girls to extend more than the length of the building. I later discovered that it was a panel on Yaoi. I should have guessed, really.
At the end of the second book panel there was an announcement about a guerilla program item on fandom around the world. Yes, Irma had been busy again. Parris was on the panel, and as she hadn’t been on anything else I went along to support her. Irma immediately co-opted me onto the panel. Finncon can be dangerous like that. Parris enjoyed herself explaining to people that back in the ‘70s the hordes of teenagers who were looked down upon by the old guard were not anime cat-girls, but Star Trek fans. People like Ben Yalow. Of course some of the Star Trek fans were girls, which caused seismic disturbances in the fandom of the time.
I spent the next hour making sure that the various guests were going to be taken care of dinner-wise before the dead dog party. Then we ate. Otto took Al and his wife on a sightseeing tour of Helsinki, and I fell asleep in the back of the car. Thankfully I woke up in time for the party, where I distributed whisky to the Finns and shot some more video.
Reaction to the convention appeared to have been pretty good. Apparently one outraged parent complained to the security people that some of the cat-girls were not wearing enough clothes. This is a bit rich in a country famous for nude bathing after the sauna, and for putting pictures of naked people in churches and on their money. Otto was a little concerned about the volume of empty McDonalds wrappers strewn about the area, but they had all gone by the time of the dead dog and I’m told the kids cleared the site up themselves. Some of the local people told us that this was the best behaved youth event they could remember at the Kaapelitehdas.
The final attendance count for the convention that was being bandied about at the dead dog was 15,000. Obviously that’s very approximate. With no admission charge it is very hard to know exactly how many people you have, or how many attend on multiple days. What I can say is that every panel I attended was standing room only. The main hall where the CosPlay took place seated 800 and there were lots of people standing, sitting on the floor, or watching from the balcony. The other program rooms had seating for around 1000 between them. The dealer’s hall was roughly the same size as the main hall and generally packed, but given the tables it probably held only 500. Add a couple of hundred in the social space and at least another 500 hanging around outside and you have over 3000 people on site at any one time. Given two and a half days of convention, and the fact that free attendance will have encouraged people to drop in to see what the event was like, I think the final count is entirely plausible.
At this point I can see old-time fans wringing their hands in horror. Surely all of these people are “not part of our community”. We shouldn’t be letting them into our conventions. They are just ticket-buyers, right? They don’t want to be part of fandom. Well I’ll give you the fact that very few of them participated in the organization of the event, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. But at least a third of the kids who attended were wearing a costume of some sort. They were clearly interested enough in what they were doing to go to that level of effort. And the existence of all those costumes contributed significantly to the atmosphere of the convention.
The problem is that anime fandom is a moving target. When I used to work with Games Workshop they had (and probably still do have) a theory that their target market was teenage boys, and would always be teenage boys. Most of their customers would not stay with them for more than a few years. The same appears to be true of much of anime fandom, except that the majority of them are girls. They will turn out in huge numbers, and put an amazing amount of effort into their costumes, but most of them will be teenagers, and they won’t have the experience or enthusiasm to help actually run the convention. By the time they have stopped being teenagers, most of them will have most interest in their hobby.
This creates a problem for Finnish fandom. Running a convention of this size is a huge amount of work, and that can quickly get wearing if the majority of people you are doing the work for have interests that don’t mesh well with your own. It is certainly possible for older fans to run anime conventions, and train the kids up to help with the work. I am very impressed with the work that Chaz Baden & Co are doing with Anime Los Angeles. However, the Finns appear to be having trouble finding enough people from within the anime community to help run the event. That inevitably creates tension, and burnout.
A rather more serious problem is that the anime side of the event has now outgrown just about every potential venue outside Helsinki. It is possible that we would not have got so many people to a convention in Tampere, but the numbers we had this year would have been disastrous last year. There is no way we can accommodate even last year’s numbers at the facility we have in Jyväskylä. Something has to give.
So next year there will be no hordes of cat-girls, and the convention will be down to the size of a large US regional. I’m told that Finncon will still have some anime programming, but it will not have CosPlay (though anime costumes will be welcome in the Masquerade) and it will not be twinned with Animecon. Hopefully a lot of anime fans will turn up, but equally hopefully not in such large numbers or we’ll have a serious safety hazard.
Quite what will happen to the anime side of the event is not certain. It seems to me that it might make sense to have it as a permanent fixture in the Kaapelitehdas, but this is something that Finnish fans need to sort out amongst themselves and I’m trying not to interfere. I also don’t know what constraints Animecon has placed on itself. I’m pretty sure that the constitution of Finncon requires it to move around the country. (Next year it will be in Jyväskylä, the following year in Turku.) I know it also requires attendance to be free. The anime folks may be working with similar issues.
I understand that George and Parris have been trying to persuade the Finns to bid for a Worldcon. That shows how much confidence they have in Finnish con-running skills. However, I still don’t think they have the facilities. There is only one major hotel close to the Kaapelitehdas, and while Helsinki’s public transit is very good a Worldcon audience is unlikely to be happy commuting. Also they really need a space that will hold 1,500 – 2,000 people (assuming 3,000 – 4,000 attendees, and they could get a lot more if the Russians decide to come en masse), and I don’t think the Kaapelitehdas can do that without cramping the rest of the space. Worldcon members tend to want to be entertained all day, whereas the anime kids are happy to spend much of the day hanging out and photographing each other so they need less program space.
Helsinki, then, is not really on as a Worldcon venue unless the convention shrinks significantly, or its membership gets a lot less fussy about how far they have to walk. However, I am in no doubt that if I were planning on putting on a Worldcon in Europe any time soon then I would be spending a lot of time in Finland and getting very friendly with Finnish con-runners. Given how smoothly they moved in to help out the Danes at last year’s Eurocon, I’m sure that they could fit in well with a Worldcon committee. Fortunately for my Finnish friends, I’m not about to be bidding for a Worldcon any time soon.
Regardless of all that, however, huge congratulations are due to Jukka Halme, Eemeli Aro, Topi Toosi and their team. It is impressive enough for a fan group in any country to put on a convention of this size. That a country as small as Finland can do it is both an awesome achievement and a stunning example to the rest of us. Due to the facilities constraints this may end up holding the record for the biggest Finncon for many years. That record will be well deserved.
My video diary from the convention (including the Tiara Incident) is online here.
My photos are available below.