Coming of the Hordes
By Cheryl Morgan
Helsinki has a population of around 500,000. At least 1% of those people attended this yearís Finncon. Can you imagine what would happen if 1% of the population of London attended an Eastercon? Or if 1% of the population of Los Angeles had come to Worldcon?
But, as usual, I am getting ahead of myself. Like all storms, Finncon 2006 started slowly and quietly. I will gloss over my arrival in Helsinki on Wednesday night, because Irma made the foolish mistake of taking me to a sushi bar when I was starving. Thatís not something sheíll do again in a hurry. Thankfully salmon is in plentiful supply in Finland so the bill was only of galactic proportions.
We began with a press conference, held in the very splendid Pullman Bar at the main railway station. Part of the purpose of this was to introduce the various visiting writers to the Finnish media. Jeff VanderMeer, Justina Robson and Stepan Chapman duly turned up and faced the cameras. However, the meeting was more notable for two other points of interest.
Firstly I discovered, somewhat to my astonishment, that Doctor Who had never been screened on Finnish television. The critical success of the Christopher Eccleston series had finally persuaded the Finns that daleks were not that dangerous after all, and the series was due to start real soon now. As a PR stunt, the TV company had arranged to screen the first two episodes at Finncon, and they were keen to tell the assembled journalists all about it. The Finnish fans, of course, all had collections of videos and DVDs stretching all the way back, in some cases to William Hartnell, but we all listened politely and the Brits amongst us enthused merrily. Paul Gravett, a guest of Animecon, added his voice to Justinaís and mine, and even Jeff chimed in. Like most Americans, he was introduced to the Doctor through Tom Baker. Presumably by next yearís convention all of Finland will be dalek-crazy, and Clute and I will be asked to pronounce learnedly on the series.
Also at the press conference was the presentation of this yearís Tähtivaetaja. Award. Unusually the prize went to a Finnish author, Risto Isomäki. His book, Sarasvatin Hiekaa, is an ecological SF novel in a similar vein to the latest Kim Stanley Robinson series. The basic premise is that the release of pressure resulting from the melting of ice caps could result in some pretty spectacular tsunami. From a geological point of view, this is highly plausible. The book is currently only available in Finnish, but there are plenty of competent English-speakers in Finland so Iím hoping to see something I can read soon.
After the press conference the Finns whisked their guests off on a sightseeing tour. I, however, wandered up to the academic conference that Irma had organized. The afternoon session was to be conducted in English and I was looking forward to some interesting papers. And Iím very glad I went, because one of the papers was by a visitor from Russia, Vadim Chupasov. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that in Russia between 250 and 400 science fiction novels are published each year. That must be in the same league as the UKís output, and yet we English-speakers see nothing of these books.
Vadim is doing his PhD on Russian alternate history and cryptohistory novels. It doesnít take much thought to work out why this type of fiction is popular in Russia right now. Some parts of the population are hankering for fantasies about a lost Imperial past, while others are eager to be told the secret history of the Soviet era. Not to mention the fact that the Ďhistoryí taught in Russian schools has undergone significant re-writes over the past decade or two.
Other papers covered topics such as the presence of Ďmanifest destinyí themes in Asimovís Foundation series, and themes of age and gender transformation in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones. It was a good afternoon.
As the afternoon was winding down, Otto Makela (at whose apartment I was staying) came and whisked Irma and I off to rejoin the guest party for a visit to the sauna. As usual, there was some confusion amongst the foreigners. Stepan Chapmanís wife, Kia, had brought her bathing costume, and Jeff had managed to convince Ann that men and women went into the sauna together. Eventually we got everyone straight. And after a while sweating away no one seemed in the slightest bit inhibited about skinny-dipping in the nearby "lake". A magical thing, sauna.
A short comment on Helsinki geography is in order here. Finland, like Minnesota, is very much a land of lakes. Helsinki, on the other hand, is a harbor city. It looks from a map like it is full of lakes and rivers, but actually these are all parts of the Baltic Sea. The city is built on a collection of islands and peninsulas.
Having spent the late afternoon in a state of deep moral depravity (or at least nakedness), we compounded our sins by heading off to a pub. Helsinki fandom is keen on its beer. Indeed, if you had taken a photo of the evening and edited out the signs in Finnish, you would not have known that the meeting was in Helsinki rather than London or Melbourne. Fans are fans, the world over.
I spent much of Friday morning exploring the city. Helsinki is not that big, so I quickly learned my way around. Visiting tourists should be wary of the sidewalks. Firstly there are still a lot of cobbles around Helsinki. It is not a place to be wandering around in heels. Also you need to pay close attention to the markings at your feet. Helsinki is criss-crossed with cycle paths, but they are on the sidewalks, not on the road. If you donít watch where you are walking you are in danger of being run over.
Walking dangers asides, it is beautiful city. I didnít have time to take in tourist attractions, but I did get to ride on the trams. They looked very familiar in their green and yellow livery. Melbourne people would be instantly at home.
I spent the afternoon at a meeting of the Finnish science fiction writersí association. It began with a fascinating paper on definitions of "genre" by Bo Pettersson of The University of Helsinki. Jeff and Justina then both gave presentations (during which I gained a much better understanding of why Justina has suddenly produced a book like Keeping It Real). The afternoon was rounded off by a presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Liisa Rantalaiho, a lovely lady who has been a leading light of Finnish study of SF for decades.
The weekend arrived, and so did the anime hordes. At times it seemed like every teenager in Helsinki was present at the convention, most of them (of both sexes) wearing cat ears and dressed as French maids or magical girls. The convention center, Paasitorni, has a fire safety capacity of 3500. The convention management had staff on the doors counting people in and out. At 3:30pm they had to close the doors and only let new people in when someone else had gone out. At one point there were over 1000 people queued in the street outside.
It is easy to dismiss this impressive attendance by noting that entrance to the convention was free. But I suspect that even if Eastercon was free it would not attract that many people. There are several other factors that contribute to the massive attendance.
To start with anime is very popular in Finland. This may have something to do with the fact that the westernized style that manga and anime artists use to draw their characters makes them look very like Finns. Finnish teenagers look like anime characters in a way that your average over-tall, overweight American cannot.
Next up is the fact that Finnish fans donít have the same sense of entitlement as Brits or Americans ó they have a different one. In Britain fans expect a cheap bar and free drinks for panel participants; in America fans expect a con suite. On both sides of the Atlantic they expect printed progress reports. In Finland fans expect their conventions to be free, and they are prepared to sacrifice much of what British and American fans regard as essential in order to achieve that.
Finally the Finns are superb at getting sponsorship. Nokia had loaned us a bunch of phones for the guests (even I rated one). The local McDonalds was offering cheap Big Macs to convention members and provided Ä800 worth of free food for the gophers. Money poured in from all over the place. I have no idea how they manage it.
My first panel of the weekend was on foreign conventions. We had an audience of maybe 50 people. Hopefully we persuaded some of them to take a chance of a convention in Sweden (from what I hear Swedish cons need to loosen up a bit) or next yearís Eurocon in Copenhagen. Sadly there did not appear to be many anime fans in the audience, so talking about Yokohama would not have achieved much. In any case most of them are kids and would not have been able to afford a trip to Japan.
I was pleased to see that we had a few foreign visitors. A couple from New York who were on vacation in Helsinki had seen some of the publicity for the convention and had dropped in to check us out. They had been to Wiscon, so were able to back up my enthusiastic recommendation. There was also a young man from Vancouver in the audience. Who would have thought it?
Jeff VanderMeer premiered Shriek: The Movie to an enthusiastic reception. As movies go, of course, it is odd and arty. It was also made in a hurry on a shoestring budget. Bearing those facts in mind, it was actually very good indeed. I think the primary reason for its success if that Jeff did not try to cover anywhere near the whole book. Instead he focused almost exclusively on the short section (one chapter?) dealing with the war. That gave him plenty of dramatic action Ė something for which VanderMeer books are not normally noted ó to work with. Unfortunately the sound system in the hall didnít perform up to expectations, but that aside it all went very well.
The afternoon saw one of those communication SNAFUs that conventions always throw up. Con Chair, Jukka Halme, and I had talked about putting me on a panel about SF concepts becoming reality, but when my schedule turned up that panel wasnít on it. I thought Iíd been dropped, Jukka thought I knew I was on it. The previous evening Ahrvid Engholm had tried to tell me I was on it, but I was convinced I wasnít. It wasnít until Hannu Rajaniemi stuffed a program under my nose that it occurred to me that something had gone wrong. Thankfully Ahrvid, Hannu and J. Pekka Mäkelä got me through the panel. As moderator all I had to do was keep throwing ideas at them.
Next up was a panel on Deadly Sins of Science Fiction and Fantasy. This time I was blessed with the company of Jeff, Justina and Stepan. We decided to play it for laughs. It worked brilliantly.
As with last year, the masquerade and cos-play were run as separate competitions, but this time they followed one another in the main hall. Having got stuck in the Deadly Sins panel talking to people, I wasnít able to follow the guest party into the show and got stuck behind a vast horde of teenagers. Later on Otto got me into the tech balcony, but I missed most of the show. What I did catch was the end of the cos-play. I understand that such things now have standard rules, but I really donít understand them. For something like 64 entries they gave out only 6 prizes. Thatís an awful lot of disappointed people who may not have got enough encouragement to try again next time (and believe me they need encouragement Ė most of them are like frightened rabbits on stage). There was also one entry that we all agreed was head and shoulders above just about everything except the winner, but it didnít get a prize at all. Very odd.
Thus entertained and in a good mood, the guest party went off for dinner. We were told that we were expected back for some sort of convention get-together in the evening. It turned out that what was meant was some sort of amateur cabaret. Our new pal, Eemeli, who was chief guest liaison, did a fabulous impersonation of Steve Irwin investigating the natural history of fandom. There were filkers. The version of Teddy Bearís Picnic using the Ambergris Festival of the Great Freshwater Squid was very funny. Ann took a video, so you can watch it here. The lyrics, for any other filkers who want to try this one, are here.
The best part of the evening, however, was the Mad Scientist Laugh Competition. This was very funny indeed. Iím not sure how well it would work as a standalone, but as part of an evening of entertainment it was just fabulous. Jeff, Stepan and I all tried out luck, but we were well out-laughed by some of the Finns. The minute I saw Mari-Pilvi Junikka enter I knew we had no chance Ė the girl has superb stage presence, as evidenced by her masquerade win at the last Finncon. But even she was outdone by Timo-Jussi Hamalainenís superb impression of Dr. Strangelove. Once again Ann had the video camera out. You can see us all make fools of ourselves here.
Other conventions should try this.
The day kicked off with a panel on non-Anglo science fiction, which included Ann VanderMeer, Stepan and myself. It went fairly well, although we tended to wander a bit. The highlight was having Pedro Garcia Balboa turn up with sample copies of The Tales of the Unicorp, an anthology of Spanish-language science fiction translated into English.
Next up was a panel on SF and the Mainstream, featuring Jeff, Justina and Stepan. It also featured what for many was the star event of the convention: a guest appearance by top Finnish novelist, Leena Krohn. To put this in perspective, it was rather as if Margaret Atwood had turned up at Torcon 3 and given a speech about how important giving a free rein to the imagination is to fiction. Iím hoping that Krohnís speech will be made available to a wider public at some point (Merja Ė any luck?).
The café at Paasitorni sold alcohol and was consequently out of bounds to persons, cat-beings, transformer robots and magical girls under the age of 18. That made it a pleasant haven to which we could all retire to have lunch with Leena. After that, I spent the afternoon getting Emerald City #132 online (thank you, convention staff, for the connection and place to work). Finally there was a dead dog, at which Jeff tried to kill us all with Romanian moonshine, I fell in love with Finnish tar liqueur, and the convention presented the guests with some fabulous presents. Eemeli, having been talked out of bidding for a Worldcon, announced a literary relaxacon instead and was astounded when we funny foreigners started throwing Ä20 notes at him. (It is an ancient Worldcon tradition, Eemeli, and like many things in life it is all Stephen Boucherís fault.) A grand time had been had by all. Jukka was allowed to collapse with exhaustion.
I continue to be astounded as how well the Finns run conventions. Paasitorni wasnít really big enough for a convention of that size, but Iím told that the only alternative was an aircraft hanger style exhibition center that would, of course, have been a programming disaster of Intersection proportions. This is doubtless saving Finland from having to run a Worldcon. Helsinki just doesnít have the facilities.
But I think that if they put their minds to it they could do it. They dealt with the crush remarkably well, and the only major mistake I saw them make was have the program book list panels by room rather than by time. It was a very smoothly run con.
Having said that, I donít think it can go on the way it has. The anime crowds are just too vast, and in many ways they want a very different type of convention to what we are used to. A lot of them would be much more comfortable with the sort of commercial media convention you get in the US. And while Iíd like to see them lured away from that sort of attitude, Iím not sure that a classical SF convention is the right way to do it.
What Iím hoping is that the anime fans in Finland can learn from the fan-run anime convention in the US. That way theyíll be able to wean their people onto a more panel-based style of convention, and hopefully get more guests. In the meantime Finncon should probably go its own way, but should still have some anime programming in the hope of keeping hold of some of the people who attended the joint event. It isnít easy to split up a convention like this, but people managed it in the Bay Area with BayCon and Fanimecon. Hereís hoping that the Finns can do it too.
Postscript: A Recommendation
One final thing before I leave Finncon. On our last day there we made one of those discoveries that are all too rare these days thanks to the globalization of foodstuffs. We found a great new beer. It is called Saku and it is brewed in Estonia. It is apparently unavailable in the US. The companyís web site refers mysteriously to "regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security." Iíve also seen complaints online that the quality is highly variable. But what we had we liked. Jeff and Ann are much more serious beer connoisseurs than I am, and Justina probably drinks more beer than me too. We all liked it. Recommended.