Helsinki, Finland, July 5 – 7, 2013
Since I did not arrive until 10.30 at the Helsingfors airport I did not make it to the Opening Ceremony at noon. The discussion of the nominations for the Hugo Awards at 13.00 was classic, with Marianna Leikomaa moderating Tommy Persson, Cheryl Morgan and Jukka Halme. This time they started with the short stories since the novels were less interesting. There were only three short stories, due to the fact that a story has to have at least 5 % of the nominations in the category. ”Immersion” by Finncon’s GoH Aliette de Bodard describes a culture collision, in ”Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson husbands are eaten by their wives, and ”Ken Liu’s ”Mono No Aware” was inspired by Japanese aesthetics and considered sentimental. All three stories were considered good, and no consensus was reached regarding which should win.
Among the novels the only one I would like to read after the discussion is 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, although it is very long. The zombie book Blackout by Mira Grant, the typical Bujold novel, the one-joke novel Red Shirts by John Scalzi and the ”average, competently written middle-eastern fantasy” Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, being part of a series, seem less interesting. The panel would have liked to see M John Harrison’s Empty Space on the ballot.
The panel about sf and fantasy on both sides of the Baltic Sea was in Swedish (Fantastik på båda sidor av Östersjön). In Sweden fantasy for children and YA has been done before, e g by Astrid Lindgren and Maria Gripe, so Cirkeln (The Circle) was readily accepted by critics. The successful books by John Ajvide Lindqvist have made it somewhat easier for critics to accept also fantasy for adults, but Karin Tidbeck was not happy with the reviews of her sf or fantasy dystopia Amatka, since they always started by motivating the review by mentioning works by Karin Boye, Harry Martinson and P C Jersild. A common question in interviews is “Why do you write fantasy (and not “adult mainstream”)”. Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo was asked “why a vampire novel?” when she had written Svulten (Starved). Karin Tidbeck said that in Sweden good literature is “workers literature” as written in the 40’s by e g Moa Martinson. In a commentary on the tv series Game of Thrones the poet, critic and editor Göran Greider recently wrote that fantasy is a song of praise to fascism. Karin Tidbeck’s formidable success abroad has not been noted at all by the Swedish literary establishment.
Maria Turtschaninoff’s Underfors received good reviews in Finland. Possibly it was easier to accept than her other fantasy novels, since it is set in the real Finland, in “our” world. Selling her books in Sweden has not been easy, which might be due to the publisher being Finnish. Sara B Elfgren and Mats Strandberg considered that they had luck with their book series starting with The Circle, that has already been sold to many countries and translated to 22 languages.
The GoH Stefan Ekman talked about his life as a fantasy researcher. In his thesis he analysed the role of the setting in fantasy, and he is now doing research in several areas: 1. SF and medicine, together with a colleague in medical humanities in Lund. There are lots of patients and different diseases in sf. An example he mentioned is Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden. 2. He cannot let go of Tolkien, and is now mainly studying the letters. 3. The concept urban fantasy, which has undergone a shift in meaning from the 80’s till now. It is impossible to define but automatically criticises society. 4. Collaborating with an art historian he studies the portrayal of women in role-playing games and how this has changed over the years, e g in Dungeons and Dragons.
Stefan also talked about his thesis. It has now been published by Wesleyan as Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. He mentioned three kinds of limits: 1. Between the reader and the text, and on that border there is often a map, with names of places. 2. Borders against the ghastly world outside, like in Mythago Wood or Galadriel. This can be compared with the polders in The Netherlands. 3. Nature vs human culture and society, exemplified by China Miéville and Charles deLint.
In a presentation of Finland-Swedish fantasy four authors were interviewed by Ben Roimola. Jenny Wiik has recently published Bildbindaren (The Picture Binder) that is a book with a portal and internet, written mainly for pre-teenagers. She appreciated the feedback she got from the publisher, Schildt-Söderströms. Mia Franck had done research in the fantastic genres and has now written the novel Martrådar about mares which suck out the sexual lusts, after a writing course with Monica Fagerholm. She writes for youthful adults. Svulten (Starved) is Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo’s third novel and deals with obsession, decadence and idling. She has been interested in vampires for a long time, and this novel is a homage to the classic vampires, although female. Maria Turtschaninoff presented Arra at the last Finncon in Helsinki. It started with one person, and the world grew. Anaché takes place in a neighbouring country and also starts with the story of one person. The publisher considered it to be her best book, and I agree and am looking forward to read more by her.
The GoH Aliette de Bodard was interviewed by Tom Crosshill, who started by calling her texts “new new wave”, a fresh kind of sf, where identity is important. She is French by birth, lived in USA for a long time and now lives in France. Her father is French and her mother Vietnamese, and she has been well aware of being different. She works as a scientist and computer engineer, and is moonlighting in writing. Still, there is not much hard-core science in her fiction. She is more interested in how science influences people.
There is a pronounced “non-western” aspect in her writing. She has read ancient Vietnamese and Chinese texts. They have a different history of literature, and in that tradition brotherhood and studying together are more important than love. The stories are less plot-driven, and concern family. When she has adopted these ideas she has got rid of most of the misogyny. In her universe there are different cultures, and she is trying to show that different cultures have different merits.
In addition to her sf she has written a fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, set in the Aztec culture before the Spanish invasion. It has devout warriors and magic that works. There is often a crime element in her books; they are speculative fiction thrillers. Regarding the state of the genre she sees two strands, the Golden Age stories emphasising science and ideas, and the more experimental stories. She appreciates the current discussion among authors, although it is not always friendly. Obviously I have to read On a Red Station, Drifting, in addition to the short stories by her that I have read and liked in Asimov’s and Interzone.
The panel On Writing took place in the hall Pannuhalli where a large ventilating fan dominated over the panellists and the moderator, Tom Crosshill. Still, I heard the Finnish GoH J Pekka Mäkelä point out that good writing leads to good reading, and that he makes a draught first and then the first and last sentences. Peter Watts tries to explore an idea when he writes, rather than aiming for entertainment. He considers himself to be a foul-tempered court jester, and he writes what he would like to read. And so does Aliette de Bodard.
The talk by Jakob Löfgren about fandom was interesting. It was called From fiction to reality. Fans under the microscope, and the speaker was a Ph D student in Nordic Folklore or ethnology at Åbo Academy. He started out by an attempt to define fandom with references to studies from the 90’s and the present century, but he did not mention the origin of sf fandom as we know it. With a lot of references he characterised fandom as based on affection, being playful, a social group and a participating culture. Fandom provides a common identity with its own cultural expressions based on affectionate play. The cultural expressions that he mentioned were cons, cosplay, fan fiction including slash, filking, and buying and collecting stuff. It also includes artistic communication in small groups, and it depends on tradition, with repeated events like cons. This description might be correct for fans of a special character or series, like Star Trek fans, Harry Potter fans and Sherlock Holmes fans, but I find it incomplete or even inaccurate for sf fandom, where fans and pros meet on an equal basis, pros quite often are fans and often have their origin in fandom where they started out by publishing short stories in fanzines. Even the Wikipedia article on fandom gives a better description of sf fandom.
Jakob Löfgren had studied fandom in the small British village Wincanton where Discworld fans celebrate Hogswatch weekends together with Terry Pratchett. He described an extreme variant of fandom where the people of the village took on the personality of characters in the Discworld books. This is pretty far from the fandom I know, even if there are masquerades at some cons.
The science journalist and sf fan Markus Rosenlund gave an entertaining talk called something like The twilight zone between science and magic (Skymningszonen mellan vetenskap och magi). He started by citing Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The risk of being burnt at the stake has been high for those who have challenged the present conceptions, and even today you can be ostracized for revolutionary ideas like cold fusion. He gave an overview of scientific revolutions with some entertaining anecdotes, like the one where Heisenberg and Schrödinger were driving a car and was stopped by the police. – Do you know how fast you were driving? – No, but I know where we are. – Did you know there is a live cat in the luggage boot? – No, but now we know.
SF as metaphor was discussed by Aliette de Bodard, Stefan Ekman and Markku Soikkeli with Tom Crosshill as moderator. SF can be read in different ways and what looks like a metaphor may actually be the described, imagined reality.
There should be a message and the text should deal with real-world issues, but not so much that it turns into mainstream. If the writer tries too hard with the message the text may end up as propaganda and is no longer interesting to read.
The predictive aspect of sf is not important and it is usually impossible to foresee breakthroughs. The text should instead deal with where we think the society is going now and what impact the technologies do to us as a society and as people. The text should make the reader think in new ways.
The less serious panel Speculative tv-series was led by Eemeli Aro, who asked the public for ideas for new tv-series which the panellists then had to describe. The panel consisted of Syksy Räsänen, Karin Tidbeck and Caitlin Sweet, who entertained us with stories about daycare of baby vampires and space sheep. Still, this is not the kind of programme item I like best.
East is calling – State of Moder Russian SF: Last year 776 original sf books were published in Russia. This was mentioned by the two Russian fans Alexandra Davydova, who is also a writer and game constructor, and Irina Lipka. The presentation showed that there really are quite many Russian sf authors, and a lot of sf is also translated from English. Unfortunately many translations are done very fast and also not by professionals and involving piracy. There is a lot of fantasy for mass consumption. Not much Russian sf or fantasy has been translated into English, but exceptions are Metro 2033 by Dmitri Glukhovsky, the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko and books by Max Frei. Serious authors dislike to have their books labelled sf. And if they have written sf before they easily ”forget” them. Just like in Sweden.
We saw a film based on Karin Tidbeck’s short story “Who is Arvid Pekon?”, entitled Kim jest Arvid Pekon? since it was made in Poland. It was made by a Swede, Patrick Eriksson, who went to a film school in Poland. He found a complete old switchboard in the cellar of the school, and used it for the filming. In the story old-time phone operators are answering calls. The film was very good and even scarier than the story.
The Sunday programme was not as well-filled as those for the other days. In the morning I listened to a panel called Soundtracks for books, led by Jussi Ahlroth. While writing, the authors listened to playlists or music chosen by others in a café or pub. Nene listens to scores from movies she hasn’t seen – if she has seen them she gets disturbed. She also listens to Philip Glass. They talked a lot about music that I don’t know, and also commented on lists of music on the back of some books. No one in the panel listens to music while reading, which I find strange. When I read I often listen to music that I know well, like string quartets by Beethoven or Shostakovich.
Other aspects of reading practices were discussed in the panel How do we read?, moderated by Merja Polvinen. Interestingly, the entire panel was irritated by too extensive descriptions of characters, e g faces, hair colour etc, and I agree with this. They visualise when reading, and this dominates over hearing, although bells or music may be heard. Merja distinguished different types of reading: skimming, scanning and deep-reading, but Tommy Persson did not consider the first two as reading – he reads every word even when reading purely for pleasure. Stefan Ekman admitted to being a story junkie and descriptions of places stops him in the track. He can also deep-read and spend an hour for a paragraph. Nowadays I can enjoy quite extensive descriptions of nature even if it slows down the story.
Johan Anglemark interviewed Sara Bergmark Elfgren and Mats Strandberg, the successful authors of The Circle and other books in the Engelsfors series. It was nice to listen to, but did not add very much to what I already knew.
Once more Tom Crosshill was used as moderator, this time in the discussion entitled Writing in a foreign language. The authors Tom Crosshill, Aliette de Bodard, Karin Tidbeck and Emmi Itäranta shared their experiences of writing in English although their native tongue was Latvian, French, Swedish or Finnish. Karin Tidbeck learnt English by playing World of Warcraft. She has translated her stories herself and found that Swedish is comparably passive, almost paraplegic, and cannot be directly translated. She also point out that there is a lot of cultural baggage in a word that is never fully understood by a foreigner. Emmi Itäranta had been to a Creative Writing course in England. She found it helpful to write in both languages in parallel. Finnish has a small number of words but a complex grammar, whereas English has an extensive vocabulary. For Aliette de Bodard it was revealing to have her work translated into French, which has much longer sentences than English. She also thanked God for the Internet, that has taken down a lot of barriers. It is now much easier to publish in a foreign country.
Naturally there was a lot of talk between programme items and at the party on Saturday evening. I especially enjoyed the discussions in that evening where a Chinese fan, some Swedish fans and some Russian fans talked about fandom and conventions in our countries. I have bought a membership in the Russian Eurocon that takes place in St Petersburg in 2015, and look forward to it!
This was an excellent Finncon. Many thanks to the organisers! In central Helsinki I saw alien creatures so obviously the entire city was involved in the convention. Next year Finncon is in Jyväskylä which is less readily available from Sweden. Still, I hope to go there!
Läs också Johan Jönssons utmärkta rapport!