The Nordic Fan Fund

[Johanna and Robin Hobb]
Johanna and GoH Robin Hobb.
Photo: Ben Roimola

Tale of an Unexpected Panelist

I was chosen to be the very first Nordic Fan Fund -traveler from Finland to Sweden. Quite an honor, I must say, especially since I'm quite a new face in the Finnish fandom. Anyhow, off to Swecon Fantastika 2001 I was, excited to see a foreign sf-con. Here's what happened.
   If possible, avoid traveling to Sweden by boat on a weekday evening. The ship arrives in Stockholm way too early, so you can't both party AND sleep enough. And on weekday nights the bands suck anyway. That's why I had a delightful dinner with my fellow con-travelers (Ben, Susanna and Juha Pekka) instead and after one cider in the bar and a nightmarish 15 minutes of listening to a very, very poor band it was time to mosey back to the cabin and set the alarm. I hate early wake-ups.
   Miracles do happen. I got out of bed in time and even managed to have a bit of breakfast in the cafeteria. We were in Stockholm at about 7 a.m. One bad thing about hotels is that you can't get the key to your room so early in the morning. So, what was there to do? Not much. All the smart people were still sleeping and as the two earlybird tourists (I stayed at the same hotel with Juha Pekka) stepped out the hotel's front door after leaving excess baggage behind to the kind receptionist, the whole of Stockholm was kind of drowsy and just thinking about getting up. Luckily the Swedes have become American enough to have a Seven-Eleven store open in almost every street corner. And even better than that, a few nice coffee shops too. Morning consisted of several cups of coffee (which is several more than I usually drink at that hour, or any hour of the day, for that matter) and walking around. Stockholm is a very beautiful city and I began to wonder why I don't travel there more often, even though Turku is only a 12-hour boat trip away.
   We met Ben and Susanna later in the morning and spent a wonderful few hours shopping (SF Bokhandeln rules!) and eating lunch in a nice little place in Gamla Stan. Then it was time to get back to the hotel to get a bit of rest and refreshment before the con-program would begin at 5 p.m. We walked back to the hotel, which was not a very smart decision. I had a cold and the frisk walk along Drottningsgatan did no good to me. Later in the afternoon I felt a little feverish so I decided I had to learn how to use the Tunnelbana, the Stockholm subway.
   And by gosh, so I did. I had adamantly decided to speak only Swedish to the locals and to be quite honest, I was very proud of myself for managing to buy the tickets and understanding what the person in the toll booth had said. But every proud moment has its end. I wasn't at all as proud of the fact that I didn't manage to catch the same train as Juha Pekka. The doors closed right in front of me and I was left behind with our tickets... Well, of course the next train came within two minutes and I hopped in (still feeling a bit embarrassed) and in no time I arrived in T-Centralen, where Juha Pekka was waiting. We headed for Kulturhuset where the con was taking place, laughing at our pathetic attempt to travel by tunnelbana (oh well, we got where we wanted to, so I guess it wasn't all that bad...).
   After we all had "checked in" (I as a NoFF-person got in for free!) we went to see the first panel discussion. A culture shock followed. The panelists were discussing the Harry Potter phenomenon - in Swedish. Vivid memories of the first lectures (in Swedish) at Åbo Akademi University overwhelmed me. I understood only a few words of those lectures back then and I wasn't getting much more out of this panel either. It's an odd thing, the knowledge of a language. Sometimes you think you can handle it and then the reality hits you right in the face. It took me an enormous amount of concentration to follow the discussion. It was a relief when I noticed I could finally catch a few whole sentences - I hadn't suddenly lost all of my Swedish.
   The next program was already easier to follow. Listening to the Swedish fantasynovelist Karolina Bjällerstedt Mickos was quite interesting. She told about how she got rejected from the Swedish Writers' Association, because the committee that selects the members didn't consider her to write "real literature". As the Finnish sf-author Johanna Sinisalo had just last year won Finland's most valued literature award (Finlandia) with her fantasynovel, I was stunned. This just showed once again how hard it must be for a science fiction or fantasywriter to get acceptance among the mainstream authors and the larger public. Which, in my opinion, is such a shame.
   One curious thing about Swecon. The program went on till midnight. I've been to three Finncons and I had somehow thought that all cons work in a similar way - the last program ends around 6 p.m. or so. But not Swecons, obviously. Later I asked about it and found out that this late night format isn't at all rare at the Swedish cons.
   I was already quite tired, but still excited to go and listen to the reading of GoH Robin Hobb. The reading was wonderful, but she was asked to finish up before she was actually done. The text she read was an interesting beginning for her next novel and I thought it was a bit rude to interrupt her reading just a few minutes before she would've finished the chapter anyhow. Oh well, I guess we were in a hurry to take a 10-minute break... After the break was the time to see Robert Rankin, another GoH, on stage for the first time. The interview was simply hilarious. The interviewer hadn't had long to prepare for the interview, but he handled things very well. Robert Rankin didn't make his job more difficult at all. He told us about himself and his works - and put up a good show while at it, too. He told us that he had had several jobs before beginning to write. "I just didn't seem to be able to make it back to work after going out for lunch" he told us. I couldn't resist - I had to ask if he ever considered going to a different diner... He admitted, laughing, that he hadn't thought of that. Well, I suppose we're lucky, at least now he's writing!
   The interview would've been a perfect end for the first con day, but at 11 p.m. began yet another panel, this time on embarrassing books. We stayed to listen to it, because Ben (who was the Fan GoH) was also participating in the panel. At that point, however, I was so tired that I barely could stay awake. But from what I understood, it became obvious that books that have bad sex in them are embarrassing. I would've thought there would be other kinds of embarrassing books too, but I was too tired to think about it.
   Boy, was I glad to get back to the hotel. I had decided to go to the con a bit later on Saturday, which turned out to be a perfect solution.
   In the morning I rang up a friend of mine who lives in Stockholm. We met for a cup of tea and a yummy piece of lemon-marengue pie and for almost a years worth of gossip. Thanks Marena, it sure was fun! After the tea break I returned to Kulturhuset, right in time to listen to Robin Hobb being interviewed by Ylva Spångberg, who has translater Hobb's work into Swedish. However, when we went into the auditorium, there was Robin Hobb all by herself and no con-people in sight. Susanna got someone to go and fetch the interviewer so the program could start in time, so the "two minutes left" sign wouldn't come too soon. Ms. Hobb is a very sweet, quiet kind of an American lady, who obviously doesn't want to make a fuss about herself, but still she was happily answering all the questions and being an excellent GoH. Which was proved again after the interview, when it was time for her signing. People had plastic bags full of her books and she signed them all. I got my Finnish paperback copy of the Assassin's Apprentice signed, with best wishes.
   Later we went to listen to what was supposed to be a reading by Robert Rankin. It turned out to be anything but a reading. We learnt how "big book is good book and small book is bad book" (an obvious way for a poor author to earn more money) and how Rankin doesn't like to be interrupted before he's done. I honestly think he could've been a stand-up comedian any day. He and his good friend (as I understood it) Jim, who I think follows Robert around and has heard every single one of his jokes a million times already, kept up a good show for us - until the conworkers began to test their DVD-player at the same time Rankin was still performing. Once again, not a very smooth move from the organizers.
   Then it was time for the banquette, which I eagerly waited for. I was hungry and I had paid a fair sum for the food I was going to get. It was slightly dissappointing, however. The food was good, but clearly overprized. And the cider I got was awfully expensive. But all in all, it was an ok meal - especially thanks to the good company. I was told that I was invited to sit at the GoH's table, since I was the NoFF representant. So I got to chitchat with both Robin Hobb and Karolina Bjällerstedt Mickos (for some reason, Robert Rankin wasn't at the same table at all). After the meal we were going to go to listen to Ben being interviewed, but instead we got stuck in the lobby talking to people. (Sorry, Ben!) We (I, Susanna and Irma) discussed with the Swedes about Finncon and Swecon, how it actually is possible to pull through a Finncon without a membership fee. It's a lot of hard work, for sure, but we didn't think it would be impossible in Sweden either. The Swedes seemed to disagree. Well, what can we do, if they don't want to have 2000 visitors in Swecon... :-)
   The last program of the evening was supposed to be some kind of fan program by Robert Rankin and Jim deLiscard. We all went to listen, ready to be entertained by something fun. I suppose the others were entertained while I suddenly became a part of the entertainment... Robert and Jim wanted to have a panel discussion, but there were only two of them, so they wanted some volunteers. Two guys hopped up and ran to the stage. I suppose they knew the two already on stage, so that was fine. Then there was only one chair left and Robert said he wanted a woman participating in the panel too. To my utter surprise I got volunteered by Karl-Johan and all of my friends... So up to the stage it was. I sat next to Robert and tried not to look too feverish.
[Johanna in the unexpected panel]
Johanna in the role of the unexpected panelist. The one next to Johanna on the right is GoH Robert Rankin.
Photo: Ben Roimola
   I was way too sober and sick for the panel. The guys did offer me a bottle of vodka (which I didn't drink, by the way) and later a sip of something-rather, but I still felt a bit out of place. Even the beer someone bought me (thank you!) didn't help much. The guys were joking around and my brain just hurt from trying to come up with something to say. I was especially quiet (although laughing) when Jim and Robert decided that the pyramids are the peaks of puffins (do you realize it took me two weeks to come up with a translation to that word - I had completely forgotten what puffin was in Finnish...) and flying saucers are the hats of invisible giants... Not to mention the sermon Jim gave, quoting the Bible, with a very selective attitude. But still, it was the absolutely strangest and funniest part of the con for me. Sitting next to Robert Rankin wondering whether or not magic exists and if it did, would I rather have internal or external magical powers. So thanks for the guys who volunteered me - it was fun, although fun in the slightly-panicky-way.
   The day had been long and Hotel Oden was as near to Heaven I could get that night. Sixth floor room, you see. Wonderful bed and nice dreams, a perfect ending to a strange day.
   In the morning I packed my things and headed for Kulturhuset with Juha Pekka. By this point I had become better acquainted with the concept of the T-banan and was optimistically thinking that one day I could maybe learn how to master the use of this vehicle, if I just had the time to stay in Stockholm.
   The program began with a panel discussion about books that should be considered as sf and continued with a discussion with Robert Rankin and Robin Hobb about their electronic fans. Only Robert didn't make it to the stage. I still don't know for sure why, since he obviously was already at Kulturhuset - he sat in the lobby with his friends when we got out from the auditorium. Go figure.
   The best part of Sunday was the masquerade. (NOT the musical performance before that, I'm afraid...) Swecon has obviously succeeded in something Finncon usually fails with. There were quite a few participants in the competition and the costumes were, most of them anyway, magnificent. Historical dresses, fantasy characters... I especially liked the noble elf, he had the right attitude and maneuvres, looking down on the commoners. But the victory went to a very f(el)ine costume, too. The wild cat that stormed around the stage was a winner from the start.
   Everything has to come to an end, and so had the good times in Swecon also. It was time to hear the closing words of the con from the chairperson Carolina and give the GoH's their diplomas. After that, the dead dog, of course. Only, I didn't get to see a Swedish dead dog party. After we Finns had eaten dinner, two of us (namely Juha Pekka and I) had to get to the Viking Line terminal to catch a boat home. I was dead tired and after just a bit of tax free shopping and reading in the cabin (I bought the Book of Magic by Neil Gaiman from SF Bokhandeln - I just couldn't keep my hands off of it...) I fell asleep and when I woke, we were almost in Turku and I had to start thinking about work, since I had a bit less than two hours before I had to be at the bookstore opening the doors for the early customers... Awful.
   I must say that being the first "Noffare" ever was a fun experience. My travels and accommodation were paid by the funds raised by the Finnish sf-people and sf-societies, which made it a lot easier for a poor student to make the decision to go for it. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and I saw how Swecon differs from Finncon. It was interesting to observe how other people run a con and I plan to keep this experience in mind now that I'm the chairperson of the next Finncon, Finncon 2003 in Turku.
   Finally, I'd like to thank the Finnish fandom for sponsoring me, a few people for their nice words when voting for me, the Swecon organizers for everything and naturally my friends for being such good company on the trip. It sure was fun, I think I might travel to a Swecon again some day!

Tackar, Johanna Ahonen, den första NoFFaren

PS. I'm so sorry this isn't in Swedish, I thought it would be easier for me to write in English. And besides, this report would've been another two months late and ten times more boring, if I wrote this in Swedish. Förlåt mig. :-)


[The guests of Swecon]
The guests of Swecon 2001, from left Ben Roimola, Pierre Christin, Robert Rankin, Robin Hobb and Karolina Bjällerstedt Mickos.
Photo: Johanna Ahonen