Finncon 2008 Report

This year’s Finncon was the first to take place in Tampere, a city previously most famous for Communist revolutionaries. More of all that later, but my journey started in Helsinki. I flew there to avoid the horrors of Ryanair, and also to see my friends Otto and Paula. They are my sort of people. Anyone who is planning to buy the next door apartment in order to have room for their expanding book collection is OK by me. And they have cats too. I’m always very happy to see them.

Being in Helsinki allowed me to connect up with M. John Harrison before the con. Mike was being looked after by his publisher, and there was a press conference scheduled for the Thursday morning. After last year’s embarrassment I was a bit worried about that, but Iida, Mike’s designated local guide, did a wonderful job, and we had a full house. The primary end result was a large newspaper article, the headline of which yelled (in Finnish), “M. John Harrison – The Man Who Saved Science Fiction”. It was accompanied by a photograph of Mike with his hair down and back-lit, looking very messianic. He was understandably a bit embarrassed by it all, but it was good PR so you can’t complain too much.

Marianna Leikomaa, the con chair (known as “The Supreme Queen of Everything” in Finnish Fandom) came to Helsinki to collect us. We drove up to Tampere (about 2 hours) that afternoon, stopping off at a chocolate factory along the way to allow Marianna and I to indulge our girlish tendencies. I can now happily report that the Finns make very good chocolate.

Friday morning saw something of a communication failure which resulted in my not knowing where the academic sessions were happening, so I took myself off around Tampere instead. First stop had to be Moomin Valley, which I believe is the only place in the world where you can see original Tove Jansson artwork on display. The Moomin stories are a wonderful combination of cute and scary – the sort of thing that would not be allowed these days were they not already famous. The museum is quite small, but it has a lot of cute dioramas as well as the artwork, and there are several nice play areas for the kids. My only regret is that I didn’t get to tour it with Charles Vess – I’m sure he would have had a lot of interesting things to say about the artwork.

In the afternoon I did some scouting around the convention site. It would have been perfect for Kevin. Our hotel was on one side of the main railway station, and the convention center was on the other side. The easiest way to cross the tracks was to go through the station. It was about a 10 minute walk from hotel to convention center. There was a Holiday Inn that was nearer, but our hotel was very nice so I had no complaints about the exercise.

Tampere Talo (Tampere Hall in English) is apparently the largest purpose-built convention center in the Nordic countries. It is home to a symphony orchestra, and hosts many other types of event. There were posters up for a Kris Kristofferson concert. The program rooms are all well kitted out with modern technology (of which more later). The main auditorium seats around 1,500. The only thing it lacks is an exhibition hall. This was to prove problematic.

Convention centers are, of course, expensive to hire. A particular annoyance was the fact that Internet access cost €200/day per connection. The hall itself cost the convention €40,000 for the weekend, and with no membership fee that had to be paid for in some other way. Marianna told me that about half the money came from government grants of various sorts, none of them more than €5000 in value. The rest came from advertising sales. Most of the fund-raising was done by two students of Business Administration who were able to treat it as a coursework project.

With the venue scouted out, and a firm promise from the tech manager that I would be able to hook up my laptop for both video and audio, I was ready for the evening entertainment. Marianna and her sister, Karo, (who was managing the gophers) had arranged for the guests to spend the evening at their father’s summer cottage at a lake out in the country. There was sauna, of course, and a barbecue. Also an interesting blue drink that tasted a bit of gin and contained small wild strawberries picked from around the cottage. I gather than the recipe is a family secret – so much so that Marianna and Karo don’t know how it is made. We left Mr. Leikomaa with the remains of the bottle of Talisker that Farah had brought, which proved a very popular exchange.

While we were at the sauna Marianna got a phone call from the head of programming to say that they needed another person for the Asian Science Fiction panel. As you may remember from the call for help I put out on the blog, I got drafted. Many thanks to all of you who helped out, especially to David Brin whose information about China provided the basis for most of what I talked about. Also to Farah, and to everyone who responded to the blog post.

After such a wonderful evening (not to mention several hours in the hotel bar afterwards – Iida and I got thrown out around 1:30am) we found it a little hard to get up for the start of the con, but opening ceremonies were nicely relaxed. The con had come up with the idea of a fashion show. The committee were all wearing red shirts (doubtless because they were the ones who would get shot if anything didn’t work) and the gophers blue shirts. Security staff were resplendent in fluorescent yellow vests (and occasionally cat ears). The guests, of course, all wore their own, individual creations.

My first duty was to judge the individual cosplay competition. As I had a bit of time beforehand, Kyuu Eturautti, the guy who runs the contests, gave me a tour of the facilities. The stage was huge, but we used less than half of the depth due to using the big screen to project the camera feed as a backdrop. Tech did a great job with the video, even showing some of the tricks that the Noreascon 4 crew got up to. Backstage wasn’t so good. It was designed for concerts, so several small changing rooms down stairs. I would have been tempted to build a green room on the unused part of the stage, but it was way too late to change plans and none of the anime people had huge, unwieldy costumes so we did OK. There was a nice little office for the judges to use, and the secret backstage toilets, which I made great use of through the weekend.

We had 73 listed entrants, though as is the way with teenage girls quite a few (14 in all) scratched. That still seems a huge show, but the format meant we could get through them very quickly. Kyuu would announce each contestant; they’d come to the front of stage and pose; and then Kyuu’s co-host, Elina Rimpiläinen, would ask a couple of questions. Each contestant took only a minute or so. It was all very efficient.

By the way, Kyuu and Elina were both resplendent in their own costumes. I felt very under-dressed, not having brought anything special to wear. Both of their costumes would have been prize contenders had they been in the competition.

With so many contestants, judging might have been a nightmare, but in fact we came to our decisions quite quickly. The cosplay people don’t use competition classes and don’t give out a Best in Show, so all we had to do was pick 10 or so contestants and come up with reasons for giving them a prize. The easiest one was Iris Rönkkö – whom we gave the “not surprising” prize because she is always very good. Her costume of Esther Blanchett from Trinity Blood was superb, and apparently she has won a lot of cosplays before. I hope to see her in a Worldcon masquerade some day. I was also very pleased to be able to give a prize to Jutta Sarhimaa. Her costume of Fran from Final Fantasy XII included some superb leather work (or possibly something that passed for leather). Another superb costume was Pauliina Nihtilä as Princess Zelda, and those three were also the winners of the popular vote awards. There was more nice leather work on Maiju Härkönen’s costume of Balthier from Final Fantasy XII. I’d also like to make special mention of Susanna Huhtarinne who did a good job of recreating the Transformer, Nemesis Prime; and Aino Nevalainen who portrayed the Birdman from Akira very enthusiastically. The full list of winners is available online.

There were definite fashions in costume choices. Trinity Blood and Final Fantasy were obvious favorites and produced some great costumes. There were also a lot of “girl in short skirt” costumes – the cosplay equivalent of the “girl in floaty dress” meme from Worldcon masquerades. They tended not to get prizes, especially if their “costume” involved little more than street clothes. With there being very little in the way of presentation, costume quality was very important, but the really good entries did manage to get a sense of character across.

With cosplay over for the day, I had to find my way to my panels, and that meant getting out of the main auditorium and into the Hordes. This year’s Finncon had a much bigger venue than anything I have seen in the past, and the corridors were very spacious. However, the building had a very linear structure, and with no exhibition hall the only place to put the dealers was in the corridors. Consequently there were still serious traffic flow issues. Thankfully the weather was superb, and most of the Hordes had decamped into the park beside the convention center where they spent the weekend posing and photographing each other. There was supposed to be an adult sanctuary in the bar on the third floor, but apparently the beer was not up to scratch and the hard-core SF fans were a bit grumpy as a result.

On the subject of the Hordes, I should point out that many of the hall costumes were superb – way better than some of the entries in the competition. Kyuu tells me that the contest entry lists fill up very quickly and good people often can’t get a slot. I’d like to see us able to give out hall costume prizes.

My first panel was the rescue operation on the Asian SF panel. We survived, but it didn’t go very well. The panel was originally supposed to be in Finnish, and to accommodate me it got switched to English. This resulted in my co-panelist, Laura Järvenpää, struggling with translation when she should have been concentrating on delivering her material. Also she was very much a film person and I’m very much a book person, so we couldn’t play off each other much.

On the other hand, having me there did save the panel in an unexpected way. Laura had been promised a computer that could show DVDs, but the one we got didn’t work. Thankfully my laptop did the job just fine. There were quite a few tech screw-ups of this type through the weekend. They seem to have happened because the con’s tech staff believed what the convention center people told them without checking it.

And so to the next panel, in which Farah, Mike, Edward and I got to talk about reviewing and how it differs when you are writing for a mainstream audience. We thoroughly hijacked the panel and proceeded to entertain the audience. Farah and Mike in particular play off each other very well. Poor Ben Roimola hardly got a word in edgeways. Thankfully he is a very nice guy and didn’t mind at all.

During the panel, Farah started talking about how the new Doctor Who is attracting a very different audience than the original version. It is apparently much more character-based, and much less plot-based. Mike went on to note that he finds that the scripts are more a series of unconnected scenes than coherent storytelling. I don’t know if this is related, but I had been thinking very much the same thing about Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain comic. They chop between scenes rather too quickly for my liking.

Finally I got to my own presentation. This was about running masquerades, and included lots of photos and video from conventions around the world. Thankfully the audio and video feeds both worked, though we were half way through the panel before we could find someone from Tech to crank up the volume on the audio to a decent level. The panel seemed to go down well, and Irma is talking about having me do it again in a couple of year’s time, so I guess people liked it.

By this point you might be wondering what my schedule was like. Opening ceremonies were at 10:00am. I had half an hour to read the material I had been given for the Asia panel, and was then on cosplay duty for 2.5 hours. That was followed by 3 hours of back-to-back panels. Marianna brought me a sandwich during the Asia panel, which is just as well as I had no time to get food myself.

(If you are wondering why the con chair was waiting on me, it is because con chairs don’t have much to do at the convention except make speeches and the occasional decision, so she had time and her staff were all busy.)

The first part of the evening was taken up with a trip to Harald, a Viking-themed restaurant. It is totally over the top: stuffed animals, axes and shields hung on the walls, kebabs served on daggers, and waitresses in costume. As it was my idea to go there I was very worried about how the guests would react. Thankfully they all appeared to have enjoyed themselves. It helped that the food was superb. There was no wild boar, but I did get goat’s cheese and venison (I chose the roe deer as I can eat red deer any time in Somerset). The cinnamon beer turned out to be surprisingly tasty. I suspect that Kevin might like it enough to actually get drunk for the first time in his life. And then there was the tar ice cream. None of the guests was brave enough to try it, but I gave them all a taste of mine and they all pronounced it wonderful. I count that as a major success.

And so to the evening programming, which took place at a local bar. (The anime kids had their own evening party, but that was alcohol free so even the anime guests of honor avoided it). We had the masquerade, we had the filking, and then we crashed. I didn’t think I was particularly good doing the prize presentations this year, but some people made kind comments about it afterwards so it can’t have been too bad.

The masquerade itself was also a bit sub-standard. Mari-Pilvi Junikka didn’t enter, and neither did Hannele Parviala, and that took out two of the best costumers. Hannele did have the good excuse that her husband, Petri, who is an excellent comics writer and artist, was the Finnish Guest of Honor and therefore one of the judges.

Sunday morning began with a panel called “How to Define the Fantastic”. It featured Farah, Mike, Edward, Charles Vess and Johanna Koljonen, of one the Animecon guests. This was another occasion where the panel got thoroughly hijacked and was hugely entertaining. Farah and Mike were again superb, Edward made several useful comments, and Charles, when the moderator finally asked him to speak, was so devastatingly intelligent that I wished he hadn’t been so politely quiet beforehand.

At this point I should say something about the Animecon guests. Johanna Koljonen and Nina von Rüdiger are collectively Ms Mandu, purveyors of feminist Finnish-language manga. Nina is the artist and has done a wonderful job of reproducing the look of manga. Johanna is the writer. She’s got a BA from Oxford, and she held her own in conversation with Farah and Mike effortlessly. I’m very much hoping to see both of them at cons in the future. You can find out more about their work here.

I should also note that Charles got his moment in the newspapers on Sunday. Again it was a very large spread and it began (in Finnish), ‘“I’m not a post-modernist, I’m a romantic,” said Charles Vess, and he laughed.’ The journalist had obviously done a great job, because that’s Charles all over – the man is a walking smile.

Next up was the group cosplay. Unlike the individual competition, this was totally performance-oriented. Groups were allowed up to 5 minutes for their performance, so thankfully there were only 10 entries. In my opinion, 5 minutes is too long. How many pop songs go on for 5 minutes? You don’t need that length of time to tell a simple story, and most of the entries padded their performances unnecessarily. There was also a definite tendency to have more than one focus point on stage at the same time, which obviously didn’t work. Some acts tried to use live mikes and got into trouble. The best ones all used sound on tape.

Due to problems loading the auditorium the show was about 10 minutes late starting. Rather than let the audience stew, Kyuu and Elina set about keeping them entertained. First of all Elina did a warm up act, interacting with the audience. I didn’t get much of what she said as it was in Finnish, but Marianna was judging with me and translated some of it for me. Apparently someone in the audience had been yelling suggestions, all of which Elina declined, including “I’m not going to show you my tits because I don’t have any – today I’m dressed as a boy.” (Which indeed she was.) And then Kyuu sang. Unaccompanied. He was very good.

With 10 entries and 4 prizes to give out we had been expecting an easy ride, but the quality of the entries was so high we ended up having quite a bit of debate. Everyone agreed that the Van Helsing entry, complete with zombie dancers, was superb. We also liked two of the three entries based on Kingdom Hearts II (especially the one with the choreographed fight complete with comic sound effects for the punches). The Lara Croft v Bridget skit was wonderfully acrobatic and again well choreographed, and the girl playing Lara was so good even Brad Pitt might have mistaken her for the real thing, but the Bridget costume was poor (there had been a much better one in the individual cosplay the day before). A Pokémon entry was very well acted and had the audience in stitches over a slash joke, but again had poor costumes. Eventually we gave the final prize to an entry based on Chobits which was again very well acted and had much better costumes. The audience vote went to the Pokémon skit – those kids loved anything with a slash element to it.

Being in the cosplay meant that I missed the Robert Jordan Memorial Hockey Tournament, but I did have an hour free for lunch and a walk around the park to photograph some of the many excellent costumes on show. Then it was on to a panel I very much wanted to see.

Tanya Tynjälä is a science fiction writing living in Finland, but she was born in Peru. She is in touch with science fiction writers all over Latin America and gave us an excellent summary of the current state of that community. The grand tour included authors such as Angela Gorodischer and Daina Chaviano, and web sites such as Axxon and Velero 25. I immediately signed Tanya up as the Latin American correspondent for SF Awards Watch, and hopefully we will be working together to get the English- and Spanish-speaking SF communities talking to each other. There is, apparently, an annual convention in Mexico. I need to find out more about that.

As far as I know, all of the other programming went off well. The guests enjoyed their solo slots, though Charles tells me that he wished he had remembered to answer “Blistering Barnacles” when asked what his favorite swear word was. One panel I would have loved to see, but it was in Finnish and I was busy elsewhere, was the Parents Panel. This was for parents of SF fans to talk about what it is like to have their kids involved in all this weird stuff. The local newspapers were apparently very interested in the panel, but I think that they may have been rather disappointed to hear people like Marianna & Karo’s mother, and Irma, talk about how proud they were of their children. (Marianna and Karo had roped their doctor mother in to be the con’s on-call medical support.)

The dead dog was at a sauna near to the town of Nokia. I really love going to the country sauna locations, but it does make it quit hard for the entire con to participate. Many of the con attendees will have come by train, and a half hour each way taxi ride can’t be cheap. Hopefully Helsinki will find a closer location for next year. They might also think of having a foreign visitor liaison officer whom overseas visitors can come to for information about off-site events.

Monday was a free day for the guests and for me. Mike had to fly home, but the rest of us went our separate ways around Tampere’s many attractions. For me that included the Cathedral and the Lenin Museum. I’m not normally a great one for churches, but Tampere Cathedral has some excellent art work. Goodness only knows what Fundie visitors make of the huge frieze featuring several naked boys. Australian readers, please do not let Kevin Rudd anywhere near Finland. He might cause a diplomatic incident.

The Lenin Museum is in Tampere because Lenin lived in the city for some time while plotting the Russian revolution. Most of the museum is very serious and Soviet, but they have managed to obtain one photograph of Lenin smiling, which is something I had never seen before. I very much wish we had had Ken MacLeod with us – he would have been in his element.

Finally it was back to Helsinki by train, in the company of Irma’s daughter, Senja, and her son. The lad spent the journey reading Douglas Adams and laughing. I think we have another fan in the making there.

Overall I think that the con went very well, and I know that the guests all had a great time. The Finns are hugely hospitable and are always looking for ways to give their guests a fuller experience. If asked to give advice I would suggest that the guests be given a full program of events in advance, including evening entertainment and opening & closing ceremonies, not just their panels. Also the right way to ask guests to something is to say “we’d like you to do this, is that OK?”, because if you just say “we’d like you to do this” then most guests will work themselves into the ground rather than disappoint their hosts.

Irma tells me that there has been a lot of discussion post-con about what to do with the Hordes. I was clear from this year that even Tampere Talo isn’t big enough to handle them. They are very well behaved, especially when given a nice big park in which to play, but the numbers are getting ridiculous. Marianna estimates this year’s attendance as in excess of 6,000 (based, on the convention center’s estimates of the number of people actually in the building at peak loading). Quite what will be done, I do not know. No one wants to scare the kids away, but at the same time catering for them is becoming impossible.

Next year we move back to Helsinki, where they have a very interesting venue lined up. But that will be the subject of a separate post. Otto and Paula gave me a tour of the venue on Monday night, so I will have photos. It is a very unusual building.