Convention Review

A Scandinavian convention through British eyes

Archipelacon was held on 25 - 28th June 2015 on Åland
between mainland Finland and Sweden. Peter Tyers provides
a personal account of this international convention.


About halfway between the Swedish city of Stockholm and the Finnish city of Turku lies the archipelago of Åland. There are daily ferries between the two cities and they stop at Mariehamn - thus making the town easy to get to from either country. And so of course a bunch of fans thought it would make a good place to hold a con - naturally calling it Åcon. When the town built a new convention centre, the Alandica, they thought it time to upsize Åcon and make it more international - and so Archipelacon was born.

At one time Åland and many of its neighbouring (and much smaller) islands belonged to Sweden but early in the nineteenth century they changed hands following the war with Russia. Realising the area was strategically important, the Russians encouraged the building of a sizeable town and thus Mariehamn came to be. Since then the national boundaries have changed again, Finland came into being, and Aland is now an autonomous region within Finland. Mariehamn has grown, and is still growing, with a current population of about ten thousand. It is the only proper town on Åland, the rest of the population being scattered through the small villages, settlements, and farms. It is home to both City Hall and to Åland’s government.

As a result of its political history, Swedish is still the official language and, as so often, English is also widely (almost universally) spoken. Whilst Finland is in the Eurozone, the shops and restaurants also accept Swedish Krona without quibble and bills in restaurants often come priced in both currencies (and I even managed to pay one bill with a mixture of the two).

The town is built on a promontory on the southern shore of the largest island. At this point the land is only a mile or so wide, sometimes less, meaning that one can easily walk between the town’s east and west shores.

Being mid-summer and enjoying warm, sunny weather during my visit, I found the town to be delightful. The central area (shops, restaurants, hotels, convention centre, library, and so on) consists of only a few streets, making it very compact. The town was quiet with wide streets and the wooden, older buildings were charming (and the newer buildings were mostly designed to keep the same architectural feel). In fact it was so pleasant that I would rather like to return just for a holiday, to enjoy the very quiet pace, and maybe hire a car to gently explore the whole of Åland. As it was, I was glad I arrived a couple of days early and had a chance to wander round and enjoy the place - and I was not the only one to do so.

Clearly the expectation was that members would arrive by ferry and the convention had done a deal with the Tallink-Silja Line for discounted group travel between Mariehamn and Stockholm, Turku, and Helsinki. The outward group travel was on the Thursday (25th) morning and the homeward either overnight on the Sunday (28th) or on the Monday afternoon and it was clearly used by the great majority of those attending. Indeed, until the large contingents arrived at Thursday lunchtime there was no evidence of the convention at all; then the committee arrived, set up quickly (and having already run a registration desk on the ferry), and the con was soon in full swing.

Unfortunately the organisers had not considered in any detail those making their own travel arrangements. Mariehamn has a very small airport with daily flights from Helsinki and Stockholm but they provided no information on this. In particular, those few who flew in were surprised to find that there was no bus service into town and no taxis; you had to find and phone a taxi company and ask them to come out and get you. A few words of explanation in the PRs about this would have been welcome and, indeed, it is a mark against them that it was overlooked. After all, nearly 20% of the attendees were from further afield than Finland or Sweden so for them flying at least part way was likely and flying all the way was a definite option.

Personally, I had decided that the ferries sounded like a good idea as I could treat them as mini-cruises (about five and a half hours each) and they provided a very good opportunity to enjoy the scenery and the innumerable small islands for which the area is famous. It therefore seemed sensible to make a holiday of the whole thing, flying into Stockholm for a few days of tourism before heading on to Mariehamn. Similarly, afterwards I left on the ferry to Turku then took the train to Helsinki for a few more days of sight-seeing before flying home.

Travelling on my own, my ferry arrived at Mariehamn’s terminal and, like those that flew, I immediately stumbled on the lack of an organised connection to the town centre or my hotel. I saw a bus/coach depart whilst I was still walking through the terminal - clearly not synchronised with the arriving ferries - and I saw no sign of taxis. Again the PRs had made no mention of getting from the terminal to the hotels and/or convention and this was another disappointing oversight. I assume that when the great bulk of the membership arrived as large groups on the ferries they either simply walked (less than a mile) or, with the help of committee members, knew from where to get transport.

Standing in the terminal’s doorway feeling somewhat bemused, I was approached by the driver of a mini-train and this saved my day. The said transport is a Toyota “jeep” towing a couple of carriages as a road train and every thirty minutes it does a circular run from the terminal, into town and past the hotels, up the beach road for half a mile, and back through town again. Not only did it solve my problem - it was FUN! They charge three euros to get on and you get off where and when you feel like it - so I decided on a tour of town before alighting! I think the con really missed a trick in not advertising this service; indeed, I think riding the mini-train should have been a programme item!

The main convention hotel was the Arkipelag, just across the road from the Alandica Convention Centre and also just across the coast road from the beach. It was full when I enquired so I chose the second nearest, the Hotell Savoy, and found to it to be an excellent choice. A pleasant room (with windows that opened!) and a decent, plentiful, continental breakfast, though its 'bar' was simply a few chairs in the foyer. I timed the pleasant walk from my room to the main auditorium to be under five minutes - about half the time it took to walk the length of ExCeL at last year’s Worldcon!

As the convention was arriving lock, stock, and barrel at Thursday lunchtime, there was nothing at all on offer for those arriving early, not even a suggested point to meet up for dinner. Whilst the dates of the con were well posted and they are not, after all, a tourist organisation, I think it would have been good if there was at least one con person there a day or two early to act as a meeting point for the early birds - after all, they were inviting an international audience to the joys of their location and such folks (nearly 20% - I repeat) are likely to add a few days holiday to the basic dates of the event. Another small mark against them. (Editorial note: Having a meet up the day before and after the convention is increasingly becoming a feature of Eurocons.)

With the con yet to start, I played tourist by taking several walks round town and along the shores - both delightfully easy and scenic. In the past, Mariehamn was home to a large shipping industry that transported goods around the world. The Åland Maritime Museum went into much detail of those days and was well worth the visit; furthermore the ticket allowed you on board the Pommern, the last of the great commercial sailing ships. Built in Greenock (Scotland) in 1903, the Pommern, a 4-masted barque, was bought by Gustaf Erikson in 1923 and remained active in his fleet until 1939, often making the annual run to bring Australian wheat to England. Eventually she was the last of Erikson’s tall ships still afloat and in 1953 his children donated her to the town and thus the museum. All told, the museum and the ship were well worth the full day I spent there. Interestingly, a couple of the crew from the huge cruise ship currently docked nearby were taking a good look at how their predecessors had lived - looking at them, I concluded that the old sailors were a much hardier lot than today’s offerings!

And so to the Alandica Conference Centre and Archipelacon. The con was capped at 800 and all the memberships were sold. The Alandica did not seem that large yet only occasionally, such as the end of programme items when everyone surged out, did it seem crowded. From the outside the building appears to be constructed from three intersecting cubes though this was not obviously reflected inside. However, the place was full of staircases and mezzanine floors and was a little reminiscent of Escher’s drawing “Relativity”. One upshot of this was that it made life difficult at times for those with mobility problems; whilst you could get to any floor (or half floor) by lift, no lifts served all of the floors and folks sometimes had to use one lift then make their way across the building to another lift to complete their journey. For a new building this is inexcusable!

The many staircases also had their quirks. Those going up from the foyer were in wood and had very well defined edges to their steps meaning that those with visual problems were well served. However, those going down from the foyer were in dark slate and it was surprisingly difficult to make out the step edges - again, inexcusable in a new building.

One entered the building into the foyer, which was home to the registration and information desks as well as a small café-bar and general lounge area. From here you could go down to the outside terrace which, at times, had its own bar and catering and was a very pleasant place to sit out in the sunshine and enjoy the company of one’s fellow fans.

The Main Auditorium could be accessed from the ground floor (floor 1) as well as from floors 2 and 3; it was large enough (600 seats) to hold the majority of the convention. On floor 2 was the Small Auditorium though it was in fact quite large (200 seats) and steeply ranked (in lecture theatre style). Also on this floor were the small rooms Ryssö, Håstholm (mostly Finnish/Swedish language programme items), and Bockholm (a silent space for those wanting a bit of peace and quiet).

Floor 3 was home to the small rooms Fiskö and Ramsö (both often Finnish/Swedish language programme items), as well as a used book dealer. Corridor space on the two upper floors was used by various stands and dealers (including delicious, locally made chocolates), book swaps, and the like, and sometimes became overcrowded when there were queues for programme items. There were also a few items in the local (and rather nice) library, just a couple of minutes walk away.

A bad point about the small rooms is that their layouts (whether by the architects or by the way the con had set them up) meant that the speakers/panels were by the doors and everyone entering or leaving had to push past them and cross in front of everyone else - normally the doors are at the back making the entry and exit of audience members much less disruptive. It was such a bad problem that after my first attempt I just gave up going to anything in any of the small rooms and confined my attendance to the two auditoriums.

The con officially kicked off at 4 pm with the Opening Ceremony, which was quite quick and efficient. We were introduced to the Guests of Honour: authors George R. R. Martin (USA), Johanna Sinisalo (Finland), and Karin Tidbeck (Sweden), academic Gary K. Wolfe (USA), and fan Parris McBride (aka Mrs. G. R. R. Martin) (USA). This was followed by 'Fear And Loathing in Hugoland', a panel discussion on the nominating of and voting on the Hugo Awards, with particular attention to recent problems of certain people attempting to hijack the system. A little later we were treated to a most enjoyable concert from Quinsonitus (a Finnish chamber music ensemble) with pianist Saana Lljin - all with an SF theme of course, and an interesting take at that.

As usual at cons the majority of my time was spent outside of the programme, at dealers’ tables, exhibitions (including the art exhibition at the Library), getting meals and drinks, and, of course, catching up with old friends as well as getting to know some new ones - always an enjoyable aspect of a convention. However, it was so easy to nip into and out of the Main Auditorium, and quite easy with the Small Auditorium, that I caught at least parts of quite a lot of the main items. GRRM made an excellent guest; not only was he often around in public places and very approachable, he was also on a significant number of programme items - which these days means that Game of Thrones came up a lot, including both a reading by George and a discussion with him. He was also on the Life In Fandom panel along with Parris (who made some interesting counterpoints - it is always interesting seeing a couple reminisce together). Parris also spoke well on the Anglo-American Fan Culture panel.

When The Map Is The World looked at why it is important that a map, if a book has one, must be properly drawn and tell you something useful and realistic (within the confines of the story) but unfortunately it had an obviously small audience - one of the problems of using the large Main Auditorium. Indeed, sometimes the Small Auditorium had a larger audience than the concurrent item in the main one, thought to be fair it is hardly easy to predict the audience size for many items (Game of Thrones = large, Maps = er?). And the same applied for the other rooms; basically the convention centre has two large spaces which were sometimes difficult to fill plus several small rooms which overflowed with considerable ease. For the convention’s use, it really needed some rooms that were of an intermediate size: not too large, not too small.

'Writing Science Fiction And Fantasy For Film' provoked interesting exchanges within the panel and gave Ian Watson the chance to reminisce on working on AI with Stanley Kubrick. Ian, by the way, along with Christina Macia, was promoting next year’s Eurocon in Barcelona. 'Mad Scientists' sounded interesting but had disappointingly little mad science in it, whereas 'What To Watch' gave a fairly cynical (and much enjoyable) perspective on what has been on TV recently and what is shortly to come, along with well made, bulleted Good Points and Bad Points (e.g. the good points for Gotham included that it had good sets and was well acted, the bad points included that it was a good idea ruined). 'Revenge Of The Daughter Of The Bimbo Panel' was actually just one presenter who showed us entertaining samples of the many weird and wonderful things to be found on the Internet; unfortunately, as is so often the case these days, the presentation was slowed down by not knowing how to work the technology and needing a “fixer” to be constantly at hand. Incidentally, if you have not seen the 'Doctor Who/Time Warp 'production by Hillywood productions (available on YouTube) then you really should - great fun and impressive production values. (Editorial note: Errr… it was one of our featured vid links a year ago.)

The programme book was well produced and had a decent programme grid; not only that but it was easy to find being right in the middle. However, the programme listings were arranged, per day, by rooms rather than time, making comparisons of items (which shall I go to next?) unfortunately confusing, which was a shame and received some adverse comments on at the time.

There were also a few 'outside' events. The convention organised a coach trip to the gourmet restaurant Smakbyn, about twenty minutes away, where we got the chance to savour a “wine” (I would have said cider) and a small variety of spirits made from apples. Some were definitely more enjoyable than others - a purely personal opinion and therefore much discussed as we sipped and compared. The restaurant also boasted an interesting food/kitchen shop. Meanwhile others on the coach instead visited the nearby Kastleholm castle, steeped in seven hundred years of history, and often home to Swedish royalty. Unfortunately there was not time to visit both. Back in town, Mia åkerfelt, a local fan and student of architecture, took a couple of parties on a walking tour of the central area, pointing out many houses of interest and describing the history of the town from its foundations under the Russians to the present day, along with some interesting insights into how the houses were originally built and lived in. Surprisingly one of the older-looking houses proved to be one of the newest, the owner wanting to preserve the town’s character of old wooden buildings. Amusingly, some of the older houses had been fitted with balconies as it was understood that visitors, part of the fledgling tourist industry, appreciated such things - however, you would have to climb through windows to use them as nobody had thought to create doors out to them.

The programme finished at nine every night (six on the last night), presumably this being the deal with the convention centre. Meanwhile, there were parties every night in the large poolside area at the con hotel; there were even people in the pool! The parties were fairly low-key in party terms but provided a good opportunity for everyone to get together every evening and, the weather being fine, this worked very well. For those feeling a little cold as the evening wore on, the hotel provided a plentiful supply of outdoor blankets (something I noticed in outdoor restaurants throughout my trip).

It was easy to loose track of the time in the evening as, being only a few days past midsummer and so far north, the sky never got completely dark. Walking back to my hotel not too short of midnight I noticed the setting sun was still catching the tops of the masts of the yachts in the nearby marina. Sometimes one just had to say “time for bed!” and get on with it.

I have always assumed that people who go to conventions want to meet other people, otherwise why spend a weekend in a place full of other people? Strangely (to me), it seems that there are a few people who want to be there but wish to remain totally private, to not have to meet or talk to others. In an attempt to help such folks, the con had some coloured clothes pegs that could be attached very obviously to your badge indicating your desire to be left alone. I asked the info desk how many they had issued and the answer was hardly any, if any at all. It is nice to know the convention cares about such things, and I know there are times when we all feel like a bit of peace and quiet, but I remain concerned that there are, or may be, folks I am mixing with that I have to be careful not to talk to or even, presumably, make a passing comment. It does beg the questions of how much privacy you can expect in a public place and what is reasonable - an ongoing topic of much discussion.

Despite there being 800 fans in attendance (assuming they all came), there seemed to be remarkably few of them around town when out and about. The convention centre did sandwich lunches, there was sometimes a barbeque on the Alandica’s terrace, the Hotel Arkipelag’s Garden Restaurant was sizable and popular, and there were a number of local restaurants, cafés, and bars in nearby streets and at the marina, yet nowhere ever seemed at all crowded, especially given that we were obviously not the only people in town. The ability of the town to effortlessly absorb the numbers added to the relaxed feel of the place. Hungry? Just wander out and find somewhere friendly looking! I particularly enjoyed the Wood Oven Pizza and Bagarstugan Café & Vin, a rather nice little coffee and cake shop hidden discretely in what had once been a simple wooden house just a couple of short corners from the convention. I would also recommend Pingviini ice cream, very tasty and available in a wide range of interesting flavours - it was often was sampled (purely for research you understand).

The one thing I have not mentioned yet is cost. Scandinavia is not cheap! At a guess I would say to allow for everything costing about 50% more than at home. Sometimes you think a last beer to finish the evening off would be nice then realise not only how much it is going to cost you but that the glass will be a lot smaller than the pint you are used to.

All in all I enjoyed both the con and its location and if they run another I shall be very tempted to attend! It had a few weak points but it was a friendly and relaxing convention in a very nice place. And next time I would book some extra days to enjoy Mariehamn and the rest of Åland!

Peter Tyers

See also Karl-Johan Norén separate report.


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