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/.

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Finncon 2013

I’ve been silent here for two months now. This has not been my intention, but life has a way of placing distractions in our path, and especially my life has been noted more than once to be strange. Since the last post, I’ve been to Prague and spent three weeks in Edinburgh, and chaired a three-day, 160-attendee student event. That particular one was an event that redefined the concept of “stress” for me. I’ve been overwhelmingly busy and finding things to write about, let alone mustering up the energy to write about them, has been a secondary priority at best.

However, now the convention season is properly upon us and though I’m still overwhelmingly busy, they do give me material to write about with no extra effort.

Yesterday ended the three-day science fiction convention Finncon 2013 in Helsinki. It’s not strictly-speaking a gaming convention, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed to digress into related fandoms. Especially if they come with singing dwarves. There’s a gaming bonus at the end!

Finncon, for me, was the “easy convention” of the summer, which meant that my workload was limited to the duration of the convention and included no organization or management duties. I had a few hours of various gopher duties (“gopher” being local slang for general-purpose convention worker of the kind that mans sales desks, lifts heavy objects and runs the thousand little errands that make a convention work), and what seems to have become my thing at Finncon, hosting the masquerade. With both the other big Finnish cons I do every summer, Ropecon and Tracon, I’ve managed to accumulate an impressive collection of duties.

As a gopher, my convention actually started the day before the convention started. Before the guests can be allowed in, the convention has to be built. Tables and chairs and knitting corners and flea markets have to be set up, which involves a lot of heavy lifting. It’s the most exercise I get in a year. All this got done on Thursday, and was then undone on Sunday evening, after the con closed.

Due to my multitude of duties, I actually didn’t have time to watch a lot of the programming beyond the program items I had to gopher for. The first item I had time for was the traditional Hugo Awards panel, where four critics and fans with enough time to actually give an honest go at reading everything nominated discuss the nominees and give their preferences and predictions on how things will turn out. I’ve always found it an interesting talk, and this year it was even moreso since I’m registered as a voter this year and have actually read some of the stuff, and will be chugging through as much of the rest as possible over the next month.

For my part, I think the novel category was overall rather disappointing, but will probably go to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. Short story goes to Aliette de Bodard for “Immersion”, as it should, though Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” gets props for a powerful, visceral ick reaction. The graphic story category is interesting this year since Phil Foglio bowed out after his hat trick and for once, there’s no Girl Genius album to take the prize. Personally, I consider Locke and Key 5: Clockworks by far the best of the category. I’m still working my way through related works and haven’t yet even taken a crack at the novellas and novelettes, and I fear I won’t have time for all the categories.

The other thing I got to see on my own time was titled Gone But Not Forgotten, a Friday-evening memorial panel in remembrance of all the people the fandom has lost in the past year, writers and fans alike. It’s been a grim year and several veritable giants in the field have passed away, such as Boris Strugatsky, Harry Harrison, Ray Harryhausen, Jack Vance, Richard Matheson, Iain Banks… Banks, especially, went far before his time. It is good to remember them, how they changed the field and contributed to it, how they were all around great people.

I also got to gopher for half of a discussion between the eco sci-fi writer Risto Isomäki and the guest of honour Peter Watts, which turned into an interesting “Biggest Pessimist” competition as they discussed the various ways we’ll probably end up killing ourselves as a species, and the traditional Bimbo Panel, which was strange and funny.

And then there was the masquerade. We had some pretty amazing costumes this year, including a really impressive Tony Stark and a Ghostbusters team. However, what really takes the prize from me (and took the prize for Best of Show as well) was a company of dwarves. Here’s a video of them on the stage.

We also very narrowly dodged an embarrassing and awkward situation through sheer luck. When I was writing the script for myself (I’m absolutely rotten at talking on stage without a script), I juggled two choices for the speaking in the dwarves. There’s the one I settled for, which you can hear on the video… and then there was the song “Misty Mountains”, which you can also hear on the video. It’s a good thing I went for original material. Basing the script too heavily on quotation about the masquerade character always carries the risk of great minds thinking alike and pre-empting the contestant’s own speech or performance, and the presenter should never upstage the contestants.

What you don’t hear on the video is that I do the presenting in both Finnish and English. Since one of our guests of honour, Aliette de Bodard, was French, I’d also prepared some lines in French, but unfortunately she was not part of the judges’ panel.

The guests of honour, by the way, were great. In addition to Aliette de Bodard, we had Peter Watts, Stefan Ekman and J. Pekka Mäkelä, and additionally as guests there were Caitlin Sweet, Nene Ormes, Sara B. Elfgren, Mats Strandberg, Karin Tidbeck, Tom Crosshill, and the ever-present Cheryl Morgan. They were funny, they were intelligent, they were warm, they were gracious and they were approachable. One could not have hoped for better. (Though it’s a dream of mine to some day see Neal Stephenson at Finncon.)

Some of Aliette’s work is available through her website. Peter has an entire novel, Blindsight, up under a Creative Commons licence. I gobbled it up overnight off my laptop screen, and loved it. It’s as cheerful as a wake, and provoked James D. Nicoll to comment that whenever their will to live grows too strong, they read some Peter Watts. I cannot comment on the other writers, since I have unfortunately not read their work (yet!), and a number of them write in a language that I do not, strictly speaking, know. Well, good excuse to improve my Swedish.

It was a good convention. Finncon, along with Ropecon, is one of the places where I feel truly at home, where everybody is a friend, where I can just walk into the restaurant and sit down, and good company will almost spontaneously manifest. It’s where a dinosaur on the yard is just business as usual, the convention security has nothing to do, and we all share the love of reading. Me, I bought 28 books.

This is a distinction from American conventions, as I understand. Finncon is primarily a literature convention. Other media are not excluded, but there is more stuff about literature than, say, film, and it’s especially visible in the guest lineup. Eleven people, and they’re all authors, editors and translators. I’m not sure if they’ve ever even tried to invite, say, a Star Trek actor, but I know they’ve never had one. I hear things about American conventions, and they always sound very different from what we’ve got going in Finland. I’ll be seeing it for myself at San Antonio in a couple of months, when I’m going to Worldcon to help with the Helsinki Worldcon bid for 2015.

Yeah, we intend to bring Worldcon to Finland. It’s not yet a done deal but neither is it an unrealistic ambition. We’re good at this, and I feel that if we’re given the opportunity, we can pull off a great Worldcon.

The Game Content

In compliance to Joesky’s Rule, I now present the outline for an alternative D&D rules variant related to us by Cheryl Morgan at the dead dog party on Sunday.

The variant is designed to be played in a bar, preferably well stocked and affordable, which probably makes this unplayable in Finland. In fact, it might be accurately described as a D&D drinking game. Instead of rolling dice, characters have a specific thing or way that they must drink in order to perform in combat. It’s a four-class system.

  • Fighters are the easy class, as usual. Fighters drink beer. The faster they down their pints, the better they fight. The DM can be equipped with a stopwatch or they can just eyeball it. By the time they’re fighting the BBEG, that’s what he’ll be doing anyway.
  • Clerics drink wine. To cast a spell, the cleric must identify grape varities in wines by blind tasting. At higher levels, they can graduate to whiskies.
  • Wizards must create mixed drinks based on the spells they cast. I figure the old standby fireball could just be done with a shot of Fireball, though.
  • Thieves can drink anything… as long as they don’t pay for it.

I suppose the ruleset could be refined further, though I also suppose that whatever you do with it, the end result will be pretty far from any conventional definition of “refined”.

Anyway, good convention. Next up, Ropecon in a couple of weeks!