My Ropecon Schedule

Ropecon is starting this Friday. I have a few program items that I hope I’ll be able to talk my way through coherently despite the sweltering heat.

On Friday, apart from puttering around the Pathfinder Society gaming area (in Takka, same as previous years):

  • 18:00 – 20:00, Klondyke: Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, I’ll be talking about the history of the British Empire from one Elizabeth to the other, how the Empire came to be, what happened to it and how all its myriad wars and crimes are excellent fodder for role-playing games.
  • 22:00 – 23:30, Room 26: With Ville Takanen, Miska Fredman, Samuli Ahokas and Jukka Sorsa, we will be discussing the present and future of our two gaming companies, Myrrysmiehet Oy and Ironspine, our games (especially the new Ironspine release Astraterra, which is absolutely great) and our future releases.

Additionally, I am doing the usual Pathfinder Society thing, helping games run smoothly and overseeing Saturday’s seven tables of Siege of the Diamond City, a game for up to 42 players. Overall, we have 34 tables of Pathfinder Society at Ropecon this year, mostly Season Five scenarios.

Apart from that, I may be reached either behind our sales table in Kaubamaja, hawking our wares, or in Cantina, enjoying a large pint of refreshing beer. There’s also a non-zero chance I will try and catch a program item I’m not participating in, such as one of the following:

  • Saturday 11:00 – 13:00, Auditorium: Our guest of honour Luke Crane expounds on the topic “How to write one to two books a year and not die”. This is relevant to my interests.
  • Saturday 20:00 – 22:00, Auditorium: Esa Perkiö, one of the most gifted lecturers we have at the convention, talks about yet another fascinating phenomenon of our world and how it may be applied to games. This time, slavery.
  • Sunday 10:00 – 12:00, Auditorium: If I’m awake at this ungodly hour, there’s Joonas Kirsi discussing the historical court intrigues of Japan. The reason he talking at this ungodly hour is that he’s good enough to be worth it.

See you there!

Review: Dangerous Games Trilogy, by Matt Forbeck

About a year ago, I joined a role-playing game film club. The unofficial club’s stated goal is to watch every movie, every documentary, every episode of a television series, every reality show, every damn television advert and fan production that somehow references role-playing games or larps. This is part sociological research into how gaming is presented in media and part turkey film appreciation.

We’ve watched a lot of spectacular turds, but that is a topic either for a later post or a teary-eyed rant at a convention bar sometime not too long before last call. For a taste of what we’re up against, see our host Juhana’s blog.

Anyway, in my opinion the best film I’ve seen there was The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Unlike most of the stuff we watch, it’s a genuinely good movie, made by people who understand not only their source material and the phenomena they are commenting, but also the limitations of their budget, the basics of filmmaking and screenwriting, and even comedic timing. (Better than Knights of Badassdom which was a bit formulaic and relied too much on CGI that wasn’t up to the task, or Zero Charisma which is a good film but tremendously uncomfortable to watch.)

What does any of this have to do with the post’s headline? Well, it turns out that Hands of Fate has a novel tie-in, a moment where a character slips from one work to another and then stumbles back, shocked by what he has found. Matt Forbeck, in his mad attempt to write twelve novels in a year, produced The Dangerous Games trilogy of novels. They’re short, NaNoWriMo length crime comedy thrillers, and they’re spectacular fun.

Mmm, graph paper…

Mmm, graph paper…

The trilogy comprises the novels How to Play, How to Cheat and How to Win, and traces the life of police-academy-trained game designerLiam Parker through three Gen Cons, each novel starting at the Diana Jones Award ceremony and then leading inevitably to murder and criminal investigations in the largest role-playing game convention in the world. Forbeck had fun writing this, and it shows. Well-known game designers, many of whom are undoubtedly his friends, are mercilessly stabbed, shot and thrown off tall buildings. Half of Ropecon’s former guests of honour make cameo appearances, such as Peter Adkison who ends up being Parker’s employer, and Frank Mentzer.

The moment when I truly fell in love with the trilogy was in the third novel, where Frank Mentzer gives Parker copies of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks as a minor plot point. I went “squee”. It should be stated that not many things can make me go “squee”.

What I think Forbeck really succeeds at is in presenting a strong sense of place and atmosphere at Gen Con, and conveying his own love of the convention to the reader. I have never been to Gen Con myself, but I can recognize the sense of community from Ropecon, the one event that gathers together all of Finnish gamerdom from the four corners of the land, where weirdness reigns, games are played and shop talked into the wee hours. That shared experience translates across the ocean, from gaming con to gaming con. That’s what makes this trilogy special.

They’re by no means perfect – I think the second volume suffers from the usual problems of the middle book in a trilogy, and the third is a bit too dark, but these are flaws I can forgive. Apart from all the stabbing and shooting and murder, that’s what a gaming convention looks like. It’s what a gaming convention feels like.

It also looks like they’re on discount at DriveThruFiction for the rest of the month. They’re cheap and short, 192 pages each. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.

Finncon 2014, Part I: A Little Song, a Little Dance…

The science fiction convention Finncon 2014 took place last weekend in the sunny city of Jyväskylä. Along with Ropecon, it’s one of the two conventions that I consider my home away from home.

It’s kinda like that, actually. Except with more aliens and alcohol-based humour.

I was originally only scheduled for one program item, the Hugo discussion panel on the Friday before the con proper. The Finncon Friday in Jyväskylä sort of gently eases into the convention, with only a single program track and a smaller venue at the Writer’s House, close by to the university buildings where the remaining two days took place.

The panel was great fun. 90 minutes with Guest of Honour Jukka Halme, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Tommy Persson and me talking about the nominees in the four fiction categories for the Hugo Award this year, moderated by Marianna Leikomaa. We all agreed that Ancillary Justice is the best novel and Wheel of Time is too damn long regardless of whether you like it. More on these in a later post that I already wrote up last night in a sort of a flow state before realizing that leading my convention report with 1,000 words of literary criticism is not an idea with merit.

I was also there to promote Ropecon, which led to a lot of sitting behind a table next to the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid table. Ropecon is in two weeks, and we handed out lots of fliers. It was interesting to note how many people were not really aware of the convention even though the overlap between Finncon’s and Ropecon’s target audiences is great and Ropecon’s been around for over 20 years now.

One reason I like Finncons in Jyväskylä (the hosting city rotates between Helsinki, Turku, Jyväskylä and Tampere) is that they’re generally smaller and there’s this social signal-to-noise ratio that is a lot clearer than in the other cities, where there are more people who just drop by on a whim or come to gawk at the spectacle (Finncon is free, so the threshold to do that is very low). Thus, a larger portion of the attendees are into the fandom. It feels like home. As the fan guest of honour Jukka Halme commented: “Fandom is love.”

Because I spent most of my time at the Ropecon promotion table and because it was frankly rather hot in there, I did not go see a lot of programming. On Sunday, I caught the duel between Shimo Suntila and Tuomas Saloranta for the title of the Last Trash Writer of Finland, where the two prolific (the Finnish small publishers are currently releasing anthologies at a sufficient clip that I can no longer afford to buy them all, forcing me to start writing short stories so I can get author copies – my first story is going to be in the Hei rillumapunk! anthology, which is coming out this autumn) authors and editors talked smack and went at each other with boffer swords. Judges were bribed, illegal weaponry was utilized, the electric kannel sang, and the end result was a tie.

“You interrupted my story, you scoundrel!”
“It was bad!”
“You’d still publish it!”
– harsh men, harsh language

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

I also managed to catch Jukka Halme’s guest of honour interview, though it was late in the day and I’m afraid I nodded off at one point.

The guests of honour, by the way, were magnificent. I might ascribe Finncon’s success with guests of honour to luck, but really it’s about skill and experience in first inviting cool and interesting people and then treating them with the honour they deserve, which in turn brings out the best in their own speeches, panel discussions and general attitude at the convention. They’re kept happy and in turn they make the attendees happy. This year we had Hannu Rajaniemi, the erudite author of the sublime Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince and Causal Angel; the just as erudite and staggeringly prolific Elizabeth Bear (winner of Hugos for “Tideline” and “Shoggoths in Bloom”); Jukka Halme, a great man of wit; and Scott Lynch, a man of great wit (and author of The Lies of Locke Lamora). Also featuring, as ever, a horde of other authors both foreign and local and the honourary Finn Cheryl Morgan, who reported on the convention daily (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).

And then there was the masquerade. Oh boy, the masquerade. I was asked to do some minor co-hosting for the masquerade a couple of hours before the event itself, with the actual hosting being done by Cheryl. I was just supposed to announce the halftime show, during which the judges deliberated and passed their final judgments on the contestants. The halftime show was Juha Jyrkäs reading poetry from his Kalevala poem workshop and excerpts from his own epic poem Ouramoinen, likewise in troichaic tetrameter.

Sounds easy? Yeah, well. Because of reasons, the length of the halftime was rather in excess of the amount of material that had actually been reserved to fill it, and our professional entertainer had a rather tight schedule himself, as he had to go do that thing professional entertainers do and head off to an actually paying gig. This left me with a mike, an audience and a somewhat awkward situation.

So, I improvised some stand-up comedy, danced a bit, sang a bit and was fortunately rescued by some of the masquerade participants who picked up when I could no longer come up with more material. I’d like to thank Laku, Paavo, Eemeli and all the rest for helping me salvage the situation. The audience was entertained.

This is one thing that I love about Finncon. The audiences are intelligent and understanding. There were a hundred people in the room and not a single heckler.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Mind you, I prefer the traditional model for the masquerade, where the awards ceremony is separate from the contest proper, giving the judges all the time they need. A halftime show like this requires a different skillset from panels and presentations. It calls for showmanship and stage presence, and I am not sure how easy it is to dig up the people who can pull it off. This is something to keep in mind for Finncon 2016 in Tampere and next year’s Archipelacon (because of reasons, there’s not going to be a Finncon next year so to fill the gap we’re banding together with the Swedes and producing Archipelacon in Mariehamn).

I also bought a pile of books. The sci-fi flea market is the bane of my existence. It’s not that it’s expensive, since it really is not, it’s just that carrying all the books home is a lot of work. I even picked up some French children’s comics because they were only one euro apiece. My French is not particularly good. Also, neener neener neener I’ve got The Causal Angel.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

This Finncon was the end of an era. It is the final convention of a nine-year period when there was a Finncon every year, the longest such unbroken streak in the history of the convention. Next year, we go to Archipelacon, while Finncon will make a victorious return in 2016, in Tampere.

So, that was Finncon. It was lovely, one of the most fun conventions I’ve been to. I am proud to have done my small part in making it happen, and proud to be a part of the community that produces such joyous events, and creates a place where people of all backgrounds can come together, united by their common interest in strange fiction and all of its modes of expression. It gives me this warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Photographs used with permission, courtesy of http://usvazine.tumblr.com/.