Geek Out In Valhalla

Being Cheryl’s report of the 2011 Eurocon, held in Stockholm over the weekend June 17-19.

Location, Location, Location

Stockholm is a good location for a convention for a number of reasons. To start with, I like the Swedes. They seem to have the right attitude to life. They begin every day by greeting each other with the phrase, “God Morgon”. I’m just saying…

Arlanda is a major airline hub and fairly easy to get to from all over Europe. There is a fast, direct train service from the international terminal to the Central Station in Stockholm. Like the Heathrow Express, it is stupidly expensive, but for the nervous tourist it fits the bill very well. From Central Station it is a simple Metro ride to the Royal Institute of Technology, where the convention was being held, and if I had taken the correct exit from the Metro station I would have pretty much fallen into my hotel.

The hotel, Metro station and convention venue are all situated along a major street called Valhallavägen. Crossing that, and leading into the city center, is the long sweep of Odengaten. Nearby is the slightly smaller Frejgaten, and the short — one might almost say cut off in its prime — Baldursgaten. It was all very mythological.

The Elite Arcadia turned out to be a very good hotel with an excellent Scandinavian breakfast (including cheese and summer fruits). The wifi was free, though annoyingly you had to get a new code from reception every 6 hours. The idiots who coded the system gave users an option to log out, but neglected to stop the clock when you did so, thereby ensuring that everyone needed two codes per day — one in the morning and one in the evening. But it was free, and simple to operate, and you could use the same code with multiple devices, so I can’t complain too much.

The major downside of the hotel was that it partook of the Swedish design ethic, so everything was neat and use of space was ruthlessly efficient. In other words, the rooms were quite small and there was very little space for your stuff. Swedes, I think, never travel with checked bags. They are much too neat and tidy. I could have done with a nice, roomy American hotel with plenty of space for fat, pack-ratty people to spread out. But I managed. The only real issue was the beds, which were very narrow and had wobbly mattresses. Irma and I kept worrying that we would fall out in the night, but we never did. Kevin would have done, though of course if he had been there we would have got a slightly bigger bed.

However, Kevin wasn’t there, and I was sharing a room with my Finnish friend, Irma Hirsjärvi. Another advantage of Stockholm is that it is a fairly short ferry ride from Helsinki. Even if Jukka Halme had not been the Fan Guest of Honour, lots of Finns would have turned up. With Jukka, it was a major expedition, including BåtCon (BoatCon to the rest of us, and båt is a Swedish word) on the way there, and Dead-BåtCon on the way home. Why waste a perfectly good ferry trip?


Starting from the West of England rather than Helsinki made from a much longer travel day and I did not arrive at the con until fairly late on Friday. I did, however, manage to get to see two program items and find the rudest Italian restaurant in the world. The latter was really quite bizarre. It was half full when Irma, Jukka and I arrived, but for some reason the manager took a dislike to us and was abysmally rude until we got the hint and left.

This unfortunate incident did, however, lead to my sampling Swedish fast food. I’m not sure it counts as “traditional” because it included a chorizo sausage, but it was very tasty. The assemblage comprised the chorizo, spiced mashed potato, lettuce and sauces wrapped in a tortilla-like flat bread. It was flavorsome, filling and cheap.

Ian McDonald’s Guest of Honour speech got things off to an excellent start. The theme of the talk was “What’s good about science fiction?”, and one of the good things Ian spent a lot of time talking about was the large number of excellent women writers of SF that everyone should be reading. Yay!

The other program item I caught on Friday was Pierre Gévart of Galaxies magazine talking about science fiction in France. This was very interesting, especially when Pierre started talking about the submissions he was starting to get from French-speaking writers from various parts of North and West Africa. Unfortunately Pierre’s talk was frequently interrupted. French fans will know what I mean if I say that Georges was there. Indeed, so well known is this fellow that Pierre began his talk by pointing at Georges and saying, “this man is a terrorist who will interrupt me frequently”. Never was a truer word spoken.

Another interesting aspect of Pierre’s talk involved buying translated stories. Pierre can read English (and French, of course), but he has the whole world to choose from and is keen to look at SF from other countries. Translations are expensive, and potentially a big risk, but Pierre says he uses online translation to get a sense of the stories before commissioning a translation. Such tools are nowhere near publication quality, but they can give him enough of a sense of a story to tell whether a proper translation is going to be worth the effort. It is an interesting technique, and one I hope other editors will try.


Saturday morning began with a panel on e-books. There was a big crowd, and the panel was much more constructive than the one at Eastercon, though I’m not sure how useful it was. There was a Swedish fan, Per Åkerman, on the panel whose main requirement for ebooks is that they should scroll automatically so as to slow down the rate at which he is able to read. I feel his pain, it must be terrible to read so quickly that you are always running out of books, but that’s not an issue most people have.

The Swedish Guest of Honour was John-Henri Holmberg, who has been around the local SF scene for a long time. Of particular interest is that he knew Stieg Larsson quite well. As many of you will know, Larsson was a keen science fiction fan. He published fanzines, was president of the largest Swedish SF club for a year, and attended many conventions. I took the opportunity to ask John-Henri about the man who is now as famous as Abba.

Of course I could have got a lot of this from Wikipedia, but it is always good to check sources. John-Henri confirmed the story that Larsson and his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, opted not to marry for complex reasons to do with Swedish law and the fact that Larsson felt he was in danger because of the work he did exposing extreme right-wing groups in Sweden. Recent events in Norway tend to suggest that his caution was well-founded. But as a result, Gabrielsson is not entitled to any of the income from the success of Larsson’s books. The pair were apparently in the process of setting up a company that would own the books, and which Gabrielsson could have a stake in, when Larsson died.

By coincidence, just today a review turned up in my feeds of a book written by Gabrielsson about her life with Larsson. The comment in the review, that she is more interested in preserving the vision and integrity of Larsson’s work than in the money, matches what John-Henri told me about the couple. I suspect, however, that Larsson’s publishers are much happier dealing with people who have no interest in the work.

The Feminist SF panel went off rather better than expected. There was some concern beforehand because only two of the five panelists were women, but I knew that Klaus Mogensen would do a good job and the others guys were OK as well. Good books were recommended.

There was some nervousness about the award ceremony, because we had three sets of awards to get through, one of which was the European Science Fiction Society awards. These were to be hosted by the fabulously loquacious Dave Lally (Maximum Leader of ESFS). The Swedes volunteered to do their local awards first, and got through them in good time. I then did the Translation Awards announcement, with excellent help from Elizabeth Bear and Ian McDonald. Hannu was very surprised to win. It all went very well, much to my relief, and also quickly. Dave then got his bit done in record time. Huzzah!

One of the traditions of ESFS is that the award trophies are made by the host convention, and have some sort of local flavor. The Swedes, in the form of artist Nicolas Krizan, produced some marvelous trophies based on the famous Dalahäst wooden toy horse that is so popular with tourists. These were not traditional Dalahästs though, they were SFnal. One was a robot, another was green and had three eyes, a third had eight legs. The Best Writer trophy went to Alastair Reynolds, and he got My Little Space Pony.

My Little Space Pony

The awards were followed immediately by a marvelous chat between Charlie Stross and Hannu Rajaniemi. I was busy updating the Translation Awards website during the session, so I’m very much hoping that the audio turns up somewhere so that I can listen to it again.

The panel entitled “Books From My Country Which Should be Translated” was one of the few lowlights of the convention. It could have been very interesting, but one of the panelists decided to take over the discussion and change the focus of the panel. So instead of a panel about good books, we had a panel in which one person went on and on about how bad it is that most translations between European languages are done via English. To a certain extent I agree with this. English is ugly, imprecise and sloppy — a consequence of it being an unholy mix of Latin and Germanic languages, liberally, even excessively, spiced with borrowings from other tongues. This makes it a very bad intermediary language. But it is also a very popular language, in that very many people speak it. The chances of your finding someone who can translate from, say, Spanish to Polish, or Hungarian to Swedish, are not good. But if you have English translations of your Spanish and Hungarian books, the chances of finding someone who can go from there to Polish and Swedish are much better. Ideally, yes, I’d like to see direct translations, but translations are relatively rare, and if going via English means we can have more of them, I think that’s a good thing.

And I would really have liked to hear about books that people thought should be translated.

My next panel was “The Hugos Today and 40 years Ago, a Comparison”. John-Henri, Ian and Vincent Docherty were on it, together with moderator Egil Brautaset. We did our best, but pretty much the only thing that could be said for certain is that today’s winners, thanks to the magic of the Internet, are much more international than they were in 1971. The main benefit of the panel from my point of view was that it was another opportunity to put another stake through the heart of the idea that the Hugos were only awarded to science fiction in the good old days.

And so to the parties, and in particular the nice people from Zagreb who are running the 2012 Eurocon. I had been to their presentation earlier in the day and had been very impressed. Many of the people from other countries I have encountered at Eurocons fit the classic SF convention stereotype: old, male, beer-drinking, and obsessed with the past. The Croats had a lot of women involved. They had younger people, and they seemed very switched on. Also the hotel rooms in Zagreb are cheap and they promised to pick up foreign visitors from the airport if you bought a full 4-day membership (a mere €40). So I signed up.

Irma and I talked to Irena, their head of programming, at the evening party, and there may be plans being hatched. I also talked to Darko Macan, the Croatian Guest of Honour, who will be editing an anthology of translated stories to be published at the convention (a copy of which comes free with the €40 membership). The Croats were giving out copies of a fanzine, Parsek #117, with a few translated stories in it, so I know they have good material. And their foreign guests are Tim Powers and Charlie Stross. I’m looking forward to this.

By the way, that issue of Parsek also had comments from various US and UK writers who have been guests at SFeraKon, Zagreb’s annual convention. The 2012 Eurocon will be an SFeraKon as well, and judging from what Lois McMaster Bujold, Ken MacLeod, Michael Swanwick, Richard Morgan and Walter John Williams say, they run a good con. According to Parsek, there are five other annual conventions in other Serbian cities. If you want to check that for ourselves, the last 20 issues of Parksek are available as PDFs, and three of them are in English.

Sunday was mercifully less frantic, though we did have Jukka Halme’s Guest of Honour speech to attend. He talked quite a bit about the visit to Finland by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and the various projects that came out of that. In particular Jukka and Tero Ykspetäjä will be editing a series of anthologies for Jeff’s Cheeky Frawg press. The first volume, It Came From the North: A Finnish Fantasy Sampler, is due for publication in November. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Elizabeth Bear’s Guest of Honour speech was also a big hit. The convention got a lot of kudos for bringing over such a charming and entertaining American. And yes, hooray for diversity!

Sadly my final panel was scheduled for after the closing ceremonies, and most of my Finnish friends had already headed off for Dead-BåtCon. This is a shame, because we rocked. The panel had Ian, Bear, Kari Sperring, myself, and a couple of Swedes, Johan Jönsson and Kristina Knaving, who held their own very well. We talked about gender in SF&F, and the good news is that you can listen to an audio recording of the panel via the Salon Futura iTunes feed or here. Many thanks to Jonas, the con’s tech wizard, for making this available.

All in all it was a very impressive convention. It was apparently the largest SF con ever held in Sweden by quite a long way (membership exceeded 700) and everything ran very smoothly. Of course there were the usual behind the scenes panics. When the con committee arrived at the venue on the Thursday they found that there were no chairs. Carolina and her team copied with this in the same calm, efficient way that they handled everything else.

I had some business to do in Stockholm on the Monday and Tuesday (a conference at the school of economics), and I took the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing. Sadly I didn’t have the time to get to see the Vasa, but I did take some train photos for Kevin.


7 thoughts on “Geek Out In Valhalla

  1. and a couple of Swedes, Johan Jönsson and Kristina Knaving, who held their own very well

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a panel and said so little. On the other hand, the state of my throat didn’t really allow me to talk more. Anyway, it was a very nice panel to listen to! (:


  2. “English is ugly, imprecise and sloppy — a consequence of it being an unholy mix of Latin and Germanic languages, liberally, even excessively, spiced with borrowings from other tongues.”

    Really? I find it frequently beautiful, careful and exact. For, of course, exactly the same reasons.

    1. Oh, it can be great fun to write in. It’s just not good as an intermediary for translation. (Unless you are trying to translate puns, because that’s something English is very good at).

  3. I don’t see how English would be inherently worse than any other language. Translating through another language is never a good option, but you’ll (or a good translator will) lose less the closer the languages are to each other. It’s easier to keep the voice and style of an author if you translate to English from Dutch than from Arabic, easier to Swedish from Danish than from Chinese. English would be a rather lousy intermediary from Hungarian to Sami (but so would most languages) and a huge and completely unnecessary detour on the way from Norwegian to Danish, but in many cases probably no worse than any other language. Yet again of course depending on the translator.

    I would say it depends on what kind of story you’re translating. If the main point is the idea and the exact wording doesn’t matter that much, sure, “better than nothing”. If language and style is a central part of the story, then I wonder if it’s worth the effort. Even a good translation will always lose some things in the process – even more so if it’s done twice and one of the translators can’t even understand the original text.


    1. You are right that it will depend on the type of story, but one of the joys and frustrations of English is the amount of choice you have. That can cause drift in meaning. Also it is so widely spoken that the same word can have different meanings to different readers, which is very dangerous when translating.

  4. Cheryl – thanks a lot for letting us unfortunate Finns to hear the gender panel. I was disappointed missing that even before the con.

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