WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

The 75th World Science Fiction Convention took place in Helsinki and seems to have had the second-highest attendance ever: more than 7000 people in the Messukeskus convention centre, 2000 of whom had (like myself) never attended a WorldCon before. There were 250 programme items only on the Friday between 10 am and 10 pm, so there is no way that I’ll be able to tell you everything that went on. (Check out the programme here.) Instead I’ll tell you the bits I enjoyed the most, plus some observations.

The WorldCon crowd was incredibly diverse even if you disregarded the cosplayers. Men and women and trans folks, old and young, white and brown, Western and Eastern and Sikh. Two couples that caught my eye, for instance, were a skinny Japanese guy and a well-favoured black lady who wandered about hand in hand, and a Scandy couple with their baby in a buggy where both parents wore dresses and lipstick but one appeared to shave daily. And the attendees awarded N.K. Jemisin the Hugo for best novel for the second year running. The Puppies movement of 2013–16 that wanted white masculine conservative technocratic Hugo winners, not a bunch of brown-skinned women and gay people, is well and truly an ex-parrot.

Awards that made me particularly happy (because here’s where my candidates won) were Hugos for Ursula Vernon (novelette), Ursula le Guin (related work) and Lois McMaster Bujold (book series). Also, my dear friend Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf won the prestigious Big Heart award for services to fandom, joining the august ranks of for instance Robert Bloch, Andre Norton and Jack Williamson.

The most interesting events I attended were Sonja Virta’s talk about Tove Jansson’s illustrations for The Hobbit, Karoliina Korppoo’s talk about boardgames in Finland, Kevin Roche’s talk about quantum computing and the Hugo prize ceremony.

The funniest events I attended were Lee Moyer’s presentation of weird and ugly book covers, Charles Stross’s reading from his forthcoming Laundry novel The Labyrinth Index (highly satirical – it has Nyarlathotep as main inhabitant of 10 Downing St.), the panel on mistranslations and the panel on Stockholm-Helsinki ferry culture.

My own programme items – a talk about crackpot archaeology in Scandinavia, a panel about Medieval reality vs fantasy, two Q&As about archaeology in the children’s room – all went super well, though the grown-up events could easily have filled much larger rooms than the ones we had been assigned.

I also enjoyed the short film programme, the art show and the socialising. I was lucky: my talk was one of the first events at the convention, so people learned early to recognise my face and several came up to me for a chat. Two of these conversations were particularly surprising.

1) The tall paunchy greybeard whom I didn’t recognise until minutes into the conversation, when I realised that he was an old Tolkien Society buddy that I hadn’t seen in a quarter century, and whom I remembered as a lanky beardless redhead.

2) The friendly Finn who had heard only 20 minutes of my talk before he and many other floor sitters were kicked out because of the fire safety rules, and who found the talk super interesting and wanted to hear more despite himself being a big believer in dowsing and several pretty far-out ideas about archaeological sites.

This was a super big, super rich and super well-organised convention. I found so much to do despite knowing nothing about the guests of honour and despite having no interest in several of the main strands of the programming (notably TV shows, comics, academic lit-crit and how to write fiction). Two years from now the WorldCon will be in Dublin, a city to which you can travel cheaply from Stockholm. I’ve never been to the Republic of Ireland. I’m thinking now that I’d really like to go to the con with my wife and then rent a car to spend a week at small-town B&Bs around the country.


Hiking In Abisko

Abisko national park is in the mountains of extreme northern Sweden, Sámi country, reindeer country, where half of the year is lit by constant sun and the other half is frigid darkness and aurorae.

Getting there takes 17½ hours by train from Stockholm Central. There’s a sleeper train with no changes, so if you only count time when you’re conscious, the trip takes 10 hours. You can fly to Arlanda airport and get right onto this train without making the detour into Stockholm. And the trail head is next to the platform when you get off.

Some friends and I went up hiking over the Mid-summer weekend 22–27 June, spending three nights in Abisko and two on the train. There are many huts and hostels in the area, so none of us brought a tent or a sleeping bag. Only Mårten brought a portable stove – to make espresso.

You don’t actually even need to bring a water bottle. There’s clean water in every stream. We arrived right at the start of the area’s hectic summer, with meltwater rivulets everywhere, innumerable flowers and a bewildering variety of bird calls. Very few mosquitoes bothered us. The treeline is near, so the landscape varies dramatically as your path lifts and dips. With a GPS or map and compass, of course, you needn’t even follow paths. The King’s Trail suffers from erosion, so the less people use it the better.

Check out the Swedish Tourist Association’s mountain hiking site.

London Vacation

Got back last night from a six-day stay in London with wife & daughter. YuSie had rented a flat in Southwark for us via Air BnB, so we had a good base of operations. I fell ill with a bad cold halfway through our stay, which explains the complete lack of museum visits and rock gigs, but I still managed to do some fun stuff. (Left to their own devices, it turns out, the ladies will sleep late, eat big meals, shop for clothes and ride buses for fun.)

  • Outsiders in London portrait photo exhibition in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields. Lovely work, interesting subjects, and I had a long interesting chat with the photographer Milan Svanderlik. The church is denominationally vanilla CoE but has apparently long had quite a radical social agenda. Homeless people were napping in the pews.
  • Browsed in used-book stores, didn’t find anything I wanted.
  • Bought a blue woolen engineer’s cap at Laird.
  • Harrods: amazed by Egyptian escalator, flabberghasted by art department where you could buy enormous tacky statues and original Matisses. The place looks and feels like it caters mainly to the families of Arabic oil princes. Western humanities graduates will find the department store vulgar in the extreme and Harrods will not care because we are not where the money is.
  • Sunshine boat ride from Westminster bridge to Greenwich, highly recommended.
  • Guided walking tour of Spitalfields street art. Apparently the area has become a graffiti Meccah quite independently of the fact that it’s long been a famous curry Meccah known as Banglatown. I wonder what the inhabitants think of the street art imposed on them by elements of the majority population.
  • Musical: Matilda. I’m not a big fan of the form and I wasn’t happy with the production’s class-society subtext. But Tim Minchin’s tunes are catchy and everyone put in a fine performance. Craige Els absolutely killed as the horrific school headmistress Trunchbull.
  • Chinatown: I told Jrette, “This is why your Mum teaches you Chinese. There are Chinatowns all around this planet. You can walk into any one of them and be recognised on sight as someone who belongs there. Then all you have to say is ‘Dumplings please'”.
  • London Eye ferris wheel: a pleasant half-hour’s bird’s eye perspective on Westminster and Southwark. I just wish it was downstream in the Roman City.
  • Parks: Paddington St. Gardens, St. James’, Green Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens
  • Meals: noodle soup, dumplings, dim sum, Bangladeshi curries, pub lunches, fried chicken & chips, full English breakfast

Three Days In Estonia

Spent Wednesday through Friday in Estonia at the kind invitation of Marge Konsa and the Institute of History and Archaeology in Tartu. Gave a lecture on computer-aided statistics for burial studies (here’s my presentation), then went to Tallinn, where Jüri Peets and Raili Allmäe showed me the finds and horrifically battle-damaged bones from the two 8th century Swedish mass burials in ships at Salme on Saaremaa. Also had time to meet with my grad school buddy Marika Mägi and do a lot of sight-seeing. Pics on Flickr!

The vibe in Estonia is optimistic and self-confident. Plaques about EU funding are everywhere. Much fewer run-down buildings than last time I was there, in January of 2002. But there is still a lot of squalor. The post-Soviet world has a particular kind of patchy microsqualor. I found a juicy bit just a stone’s throw from the seat of government and the country’s most expensive apartments. This comes not of poverty, but of uncertainty about ownership after property was nationalised and then de-nationalised. Decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people still don’t quite know who owns certain property, and before they do, nobody will renovate it.

Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.

Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.

Tartu is very much like Uppsala and Lund, down to the details of academic culture. Though mensur ritual fencing was never as big at the Swedish universities as in Tartu. I was interested to learn that among the student fraternities / nations there before WW2, there was a Jewish one with a proud Star of David on their velvet cap where other fraternities had similar symbols. Today only the more conservative and nationalistic students join fraternities, and they tend to be organised by academic subject rather that the origins of the members.

I visited the students’ jail in the attic of Tartu university, full of graffiti in German and Latin from c. 1900. There were five of these detention rooms, but four perished in a fire in the 1960s. Apparently the walls were frequently whitewashed, so with the right methods you could probably image many older layers of graffiti there.

On my way home I flew in an Air Baltic Bombardier DASH 8 from Tallinn to Riga. It’s a Canadian 1984 model.

Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.

Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.