Report: Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Part 2

…in which I tell you in my usual, self indulgent way what panels and talks I attended, what the whole experience was like etc. The full programme schedule is still available here. Part 2. covers Wednesday and Thursday!

Wednesday: Vacuum bubbles and stuffed squares

Vacuum bubbles

I was a bit surprised that Worldcon was a whopping five day event, and hadn’t really prepared for it… should have taken the week off from work but didn’t, so unfortunately the first three days I couldn’t attend the program during the day. But kudos to the organizers for packing a massive amount of events into all five days,  lots of stuff to experience and enjoy.

Running (well, taking the bus really) to Pasila after work, I excitedly got my Worldcon 75 -badge and strolled around for a while getting a feel for the  atmosphere and taking some mental notes:

  • Quite many people walking around but there seems to be lot of space unused
  • Yes, this… *checks how people are dressed* … is definitely a sci-fi and fantasy convention, the ratio of  geeks-to-normals is maybe 5 : 1
  • Whoa, some of these geeks are old! Cool!
  • Also some pretty hot geek girls, which is… nice
  • Fuck, I probably look too old and stupid to make any moves on those girls, better to forget any notions for now…. damn!
  • The fair centre restaurants seem empty and boring

Well, those were my impressions before I went to the see the talks in the conference rooms…
Worldcon 75 - the Trade Hall

As a science geek, my obvious first stop was the physics talk “Destroying the Universe with Vacuum Bubbles” by Arttu Rajantie, in which he explained how stuff related to the Higgs boson and quantum mechanics can, or rather *will* cause the end of the universe at some point. Nothing to be really worried about, though, just a theoretical event that takes places billions of years from now and accelerating the process seemed to require amounts of energy with the need for technology like machinery that can consume entire galaxies in order to speed things up, so… keep calm! Still, a nice snippet of science that has apparently already been used in some stories.

Read a brief version of the theory here (Cosmos magazine).

(Now, after a good start I decided to take a break and have a beer and plan my next move, because I hadn’t really checked the schedule in advance because… well, that’s just how I roll, I like to plan out some things but mostly improvise. Because I’m lazy. There, I said it.)

Next stop was going to be the “Infamous Bad Books Covers“-panel, which seemed interesting just based on the title, and then it was time to go home. Well, turns out  Worldcon had sold an unusually large amount of memberships in the last days, causing capacity problems in the individual rooms. Finland is a small country after all, and most of the meeting rooms are small, meant for maybe 50-100 people. With over 10000 attendees at the con there were certainly going to be certain events that more than 50 people wanted to attend, no matter what. Meaning, when I went to the panel half an hour before it started, the room was already full.

In the news (YLE): Worldcon75 restricts ticket sales amid huge queues

As I’ve been to some conferences before, this is sometimes just how it is – you can’t attend two interesting events in succession, but need to pause for one hour and start queueing well in advance for the next during the following hour. On wednesday the situation was probably worse than usually in these cases but the arrangers did what they could to smooth out things by getting more space from the venue (which is usually expensive) and shuffling supposedly more popular talks around… so, once you got into the rhythm of “one hour event – one hour pause – one hour event – one hour pause…”, it was easier to plan ahead.

Missing out on the bad book covers, I quickly checked the online schedule for a Plan B, and found it almost immediately – a panel called “Queer pirate smut fantasy” where some female authors discussed… well, precisely what the title says. Plan B definitely succeeded in providing a suitable level of entertainment, because of course I’ve always liked pirate stories. Who doesn’t?!

To sum the first day up: two nice talks, a cold beer and getting a feel for what the whole event was about.

Thursday: Scott Lynch, alien minds and the slushpile

Worldcon 75 talk on alien minds
Authors reading excerpts from their books might not sound that interesting, but on Thursday there was the chance to see and hear Scott Lynch live so that made the event compulsory for me. He is, of course, the father of the Locke Lamora fantasy books, a.k.a. The Gentlemen Bastards -sequence. With Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin he sort of forms the holy trinity of contemporary fantasy.

First, however, there was this guy I’d never heard of – Lawrence M. Schoen – reading stuff from his books. Both he and Scott Lynch were very funny and verbally gifted in person, making small quips all the time which made me think that somehow Americans are so much better at talking than Finns. Mr. Schoen’s reading seemed to revolve around some comical sci-fi series of his, and not knowing the main character I didn’t get that much out of his story other than what seemed to be something that fans of the TV-series Babylon 5 or perhaps Killjoys might enjoy. Mr. Lynch then took the stage, and he’s actually also a very broad shouldered and handsome guy in person (also a trained firefighter), so not all fantasy authors are these nerdy looking guys, you know! “Damn, if I only looked like that”, I thought.

Scott Lynch didn’t read anything related to his bastard gentlemen, but instead an excerpt from a forthcoming anthology short story.  He has a really great writing style, and the tale of the – apparently – unlucky swordsman sucked you right in with its narrative. I highly recommend the Locke Lamora books as they are something special definitely, but it was also nice to hear something outside of that realm as well.

Next up, after a pause (because the queues, y’know) I listened to another science talk:  What science can tell us about alien minds.  It revolved around contemplating what the odds are that conscious minds evolve on different worlds. The examples were definitely familiar stuff from my biology days, and the talk almost turned into a lecture on primates at some point perhaps even going slightly off the rails. But the conclusion of the talk was probably that yes, minds developing through evolution is not too improbable an event as to make the situation on Earth a one-off happening. In fact, on our world other animals beside humans have been found to have some form of consciousness, like squids. But readers of Lovecraft already knew that…

Last but not least, I listened to an enlightening talk with some publishing house editors about “the slushpile“, i.e. when unknown authors blindly send their manuscripts to publishers with the hope that the brilliance of their submitted work just shines through the text… and really, I sort of guessed but had no idea that it is *so not* the way that talent gets found. At all. Writers almost always come through agents who the editors know, and even then their works are most of the time dismissed.

Apparently, a lot of the writing sent to the slushpile seems to be quite bad anyway but some good tips were given if you still want to try: write the best stuff you can write (without typos), send in your manuscript in *paper* and just the first 30 pages or so… if it’s good excellent, you’ll perhaps (even then unlikely) be contacted for more. But, getting a name elsewhere and an agent seems to be a better way to start your career.

So, writing and getting published as a total unknown by just sending in your manuscript does seem like a gargantuan task!

After this talk I so did not feel like quitting my day job to become an author – back home to sleep and an always enjoyable bout of office work the following day before Worldcon REALLY began!

…to be continued in Part 3.


Report: Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Part 1

…in which I tell you almost nothing about Worldcon itself, skip to part 2 for that.

Worldcon 75 at Messukeskus in Helsinki

Introduction (with boring details of my non-existent fan credibility – why make it this long? Yaaaaawn…)

My first exposure to a science-fiction and fantasy convention was way way back in my high school years in 1993, when I accidentally read somewhere that Terry Pratchett  was visiting Helsinki. He was my #1 favourite author then so that piqued my interest and even two friends from school tagged along as well. The event took place in Vanha ylioppilastalo (“Ye Olde Student House”) in the city centre, and immediately as we walked into the crowded building a couple of guys dressed as Star Trek officers pushed ahead of us shouting “Make way, make way, Starfleet coming through!” Me and my friends looked at each other and were like “whaaaaat the fuck is this…”.

It was a brief but fun visit as we listened to Pratchett’s Guest of Honour -speech in which he, IIRC, was talking about fandom and made one particular comment that went something like “Star Trek fans are the lowest form of life on earth”, drawing laughter from the crowd as my friends and I exchanged cunning nods, thinking of those Starfleet guys. Fun fact: without attending that event, you’ll have a hard time fully appreciating one of the small footnote-jokes in Pratchett’s novel Soul Music.

The first real con I properly attended was Finncon in 2009, Helsinki yet again. Not that many Star Trek uniforms anymore, cosplay was now a thing and this was an anime event as well so cue all kinds of Japanese comic-/game character outfits. The scene had really changed since 1993 and it was now cooler to be a fantasy/science-fiction fan – I secretly wished I was a teenager in this new era as there were plenty more members of the opposite sex geeking around now.

Finncon ‘09 was an absolute blast, with a great evening party as well. George RR Martin, Alastair Reynolds and Adam Roberts were all very interesting author guests that you actually had time to chat a few seconds with during book signings and you saw them up close in many events including the evening party. I even talked randomly with some strangers there, which almost never happens in Finland, and I’m not a great conversation starter either so it was really rare for me – probably as rare as strangers in Italy *not* talking to each other on a bus ride.

So I had this pretty good feeling that these kind of events might actually be my spiritual home. Especially as the author talks about writing sort of made me have aspirations of actually turning some of the story ideas bouncing around in my head into reality.

(the lazy fuck I am, of course nothing much happened after that initial burst of creative excitement)

Worldcon 75 – thoughts on geekiness

Kriko at the Worldcon
Now, enter 2017 and as I for many years had followed the blog posts of the reasonably famous fantasy author George RR Martin I knew that this historic event called Worldcon was going to come to Finland, no doubt partly as a result of GRRM enjoying the 2009 Finncon as much as I did. Messukeskus in Pasila is not the most scenic location so I was a bit worried about that, but there are not many go-to places in Finland for events of this size. I really liked the old cable factory the ‘09 Finncon was held in but that place would have been too small. Still, I was actually worried that people wouldn’t come to Finland at all, but happily (and slightly unfortunately for some of my friends who were interested in one-day tickets) that proved to be an unwarranted fear.

So, I bought the First Worldcon membership and joined in on the fun. Now, what exactly happens at a convention? It’s not really different from the kind of seminar events that you sometimes attend to in the line of your studies or work – there are displays of artwork or other geeky stuff (think: posters at a science conference), a commercial area where you can buy books & stuff, rooms with panels or talks to attend and larger auditorium events like the award ceremonies or famous author interviews (“key note lectures”). And instead of, say, doctors meeting at the Nebraska Colon Cancer Research Seminar XVII, you will instead be surrounded by colleagues of another kind – fantasy and sci-fi -geeks.

It has to be said, that I had never before seen so many geeky people in one place (and some of them really old dudes!)… and it was kind of cool. I felt like I was home again. Somehow this was akin to a pathologist finally being able to enthusiastically have a conversation about dissecting dead people over a cup of coffee and blueberry muffins with strangers from different countries like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Worldcon 75 - one of those Jawa guysGeeks, nerds… now, as an aside, using those words is something I’m a bit cautionary about as there is a slight difference in the meaning of “nerd” and “geek”. Both terms describe, in my opinion, that a person is interested in something that is considered a bit outside of the Gaussian distribution of predictable stuff you’re supposed to be interested in, like sports or fashion. An interest that has a component of non-useful unrealism attached to it, very much also a certain innocent playfulness like the games of children. Or a field of interest that is just plain unsexy in the eyes of the general population, like entomology.

In my mind, the term “nerd” is just slightly more negatively perceived while “geek” is a more positive description of this kind of person with out-of-the-usual interests – meaning, 1) nerds are personalities so deeply entrenched in their peculiar interests that they can’t adjust to normality anymore and 2) geeks are nerdy but can be just like normal sociable people as well, and might even be handsome/cute. Hence, “nerd” is related more closer with the word “freak” in how I see it used in popular culture.

Now, I’m not sure if I see myself – or more importantly, if other people see me – as a nerd or a geek, but I’ve always considered myself a cool nerd/geek, nonetheless, like now attending the con dressed in italian clothing and smelling subtly of Issey Miyake. And I can talk about other stuff than sci-fi and fantasy as well, like… well, insects for example.

The point of all this being, as I watched these sci-fi and fantasy fans of all ages and countries walk around the fair centre, and while reading the – very American-style – official rules promoting good behaviour at the con (like any normal people would have to be reminded of that) I had this moment of clarity when I realized:  “Oh, just a few decades ago these people (= us) might have been bullied at school and/or considered total weirdos because of these geeky interests… and many of the people here have probably lived through those times, and *this* is their safe place”.

I just had that sudden thought. And then it was gone.

Now, where was I… ah, yeah, maybe time to go through some stuff that actually happened at Worldcon 75, like the Hugo awards!

Worldcon 75 Hugo award

(Next up: Worldcon 75 – Part 2, where I tell you about a lot of stuff except maybe you still won’t hear about the Hugo awards…)

Report: Rally Finland – a rite of passage for Finns.

Rally spectators

I’ve never been that much of a car buff, honestly. As a kid, yeah sure, but later on in life environmental ways of thinking caught up with me and I wasn’t really a big fan of motorsports or basically anything involving the petrochemical industry.

Rally timeYet, in Finland you can’t escape the legacy of the Formula One and Rally icons – even if you don’t follow any sports, the moustached faces of Keke Rosberg and Juha Kankkunen are as instantly recognizable as any household item, like Melitta coffee filters or Sultan condoms.  It’s like motorsports was somehow embedded in my DNA as well, because in spite of every instinct saying “motorsports is just big money silliness and boys playing in a sandbox with bigger toys and it *sucks*!”,  my heart always skipped a beat when seeing a sporty Peugeot 205 and I had dreams of sitting in one gliding at inhuman speeds on sandy roads, dressed in a racing overall and baseball cap with a big moustache to complete the look…

(OK, that last bit starting with the dream was maybe slightly fabricated, but you know what I’m getting at)

Meeke (2016)So, I have this childhood friend who’s quite a rally fanatic, to whom I annually answered “no” when he asked me if I wanted to join them for a trip to the rally. It was sort of a tradition, once he even phoned me from the rally and shouted “listen to this sound!” and held his phone towards the road when a rally car passed by at full speed, thinking it might be like an elk’s mating call in my ears. I was maybe amused, but not very impressed then as I was currently enjoying a very, very nice view in Lofoten, Norway. (And by view, I mean actual scenery and not a woman if you were thinking I was insinuating something…)

But then I recently reached a point – crisis point, some might say – in my life, that basically got me thinking that “What the fuck, I have nothing to lose, life is slipping away and I there are so many things I haven’t experienced yet”.

Meaning, in the summer of 2016 I actually answered “I do” and went to see the Jyväskylä rally for the first time in my life. And in 2017, for the second time. And, as a result, it might be that I’m now possibly a better man, or at least a better Finn because of it. Why? Because I have taken part not only in Finland’s biggest international annual sports event, but I also experienced a part of the culture that has always been there in the shadows forming my identity as a Finn. Maybe it also helped strengthening the bond with my rally friends, maybe it even got me closer to understanding my late dad (who was crazy about motorsports and passed away when I was 5 ) and the psyche of the Finnish male in general? The fuck I know, but here’s what I learned.

The Real Rally Way

Rally camp (2017)

So I joined the expedition, which consists of a small group of friends who rent a campervan for the occasion – a maximum of six people. Now, this group has a true and tried strategy that to me sounds more honest and hard core than the way most people visit the rally nowadays.

Usually you have to pay for a rally pass to visit the special stages, where there are spectator areas strategically laid out on the best places and where people crowd and drink beer from vendor tents and generally have a good time. The public roads that are being used for the special stages are closed well in advance, so only people with rally passes can walk afterwards to the designated places.

Well, the Real Rally Way™ consists of not paying for hotels or rally passes, but driving the campervan the day before the road is closed to some place along the stage where it is possible to park the van and set up a camp in the woods. Eating, drinking and Real Men™ -talk ensues. Then come the morning, we go and watch the rally (two runs usually with some hours between them) and when the roads are opened again, we set course for tomorrow’s special stage.

This requires some work and experience of things, i.e. planning which special stages to visit and then actually finding a suitable spot on the special stage road itself before it is closed. This is trickier than it sounds as the campervan is pretty large and suitable intakes along the road are hard to find. Especially since most small forest roads are blocked with logs, ropes and warning signs by local inhabitants who don’t apparently want rally fans on their lands. Of course, our group always behaves nicely and cleans up its trash so it is irritating that idiots who behave badly probably have caused some backlash against the Real Rally Way™.

The Essence of It

Of course, like in any good trip where you hang out with a group of friends intimately for some time (when you wake up in the morning, some other guy’s hairy naked butt is probably the first thing you see), after the shared experience you are an even better group of friends than when you left home.

Of course you enjoy plenty of good food and drinks while you’re at it. And if you want some partying, there’s a real carnival-like mood in the Jyväskylä city centre. So yeah, in a typically finnish way, this is a good excuse for consuming large amounts of alcohol again. We camped in the city during the Saturdays of both years; on my first trip we even visited some actual bars as I met a friend from work who’s from Jyväskylä, but this year we basically just hung out in a park and chatted amongst ourselves, and thought that the woods were actually a better place to be in. We were there for the rally, after all, not the party.

Transition stage Oittila (2017)

You also get closer to the rally drivers than in Formula One, for example, especially during the transition stages. So even if it is a big competition with  substantial money involved, the drivers & co-drivers feel more down to earth and humble than most top athletes, which is a good thing in my book.

But why sit in the woods and watch as a car passes by for a mere few seconds, spitting gravel on you? Because that is what basically happens, you only see a small part of the road and the rally car for a second or so. Well, because that’s it. The essence of rally. It is so impossible, the speed with which the cars fly by on roads you yourself can drive on normally, and that growling sound – like a dragon flying over the forest… somehow, it is awesome.

Experiencing the rally in Jyväskylä is therefore a quintessential Finnish experience. Or in other words, rally is like… well, like drinking huge amounts of carbon based fuel and shitting out a diamond.

Transition stage blues (2017)