Convention Review

A Scandinavian convention through Swedish eyes

Archipelacon was held on 25-28th June 2015 on Åland
between mainland Finland and Sweden. Karl-Johan Norén provides
a personal account of his family's trip.


Archipelacon was great, and what's better, it spawned a huge discussion within Swedish fandom on how to best evolve our own convention culture, and make more cons that give such an overwhelmingly positive response. But lets start with some background.

For a long while, Finnish fandom has been slowly opening up internationally. It has been large and dynamic since the beginning, but with only sparing contacts with the rest of European fandom, and always doing things in their own way. Eventually, contacts with Swedish fandom led to the idea of a joint Swedish-Finnish con on Åland, the Åcon. This was successful and so a second was organised and it has been running roughly annually since 2007. Åcon is a small, hotel-based con with a decidedly serconnish [serious and conscientious], but still a relaxed, feel.

But Åcon has always been limited to circa 80 members, and Finnish fandom is accustomed to thinking big. In fact, I think it is incapable of not thinking big. One piece of evidence is of course Finland's 2017 Worldcon bid for Helsinki. Another evidence is that when they finally set out to do a 'normal' con (unlike their Finncons, which are run on very unique lines), they came up with Archipelacon: a 800-member con in Mariehamn on Åland (an archipelago between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic sea); a place where hardly any fans live. And this was very much a Finnish-run con, despite there being committee members from Sweden, Norway, and Germany. At the same time, it was very international in outlook, with members from great Britain, the US, Japan, Russia, Spain, Denmark, and many other countries across Europe.

Programming was almost entirely spoken, with panels, lectures, and presentations. However, it covered science fiction and fantasy across all media: both literature, films, music, games, and comics were discussed in depth. It ran in several tracks, usually with two main tracks in the auditoriums, some smaller items in smaller function rooms, and then an academic track as well, organised by FINFAR. In the evenings, they had a concert, a burlesque show, and a masquerade, but spoken programming ran until 9 pm each day.

The thing with large cons is that they start gradually, and when it also uses group travel that is used by most con-goers, that start become even more gradual. Wednesday evening we had an extra pub meeting in Stockholm, starting already at 4 pm (when the pub opened). My daughter Hulda and I had spent the early afternoon in the Stockholm Museum of Natural History and arrived just before the pub opened, finding several waiting fans outside.

There were plenty of Archipelacon-goers in attendance, but also some local SF fans who weren't going. We met up with my wife Therese as well (who had been off buying cosplay supplies).

Thursday started way too early, as the ferry left at 7.10 am, and we had to be there at least half an hour before that. i.e., we had to get up at 5 am! The resident bar addicts were wrought over that the bars didn't open until 10 am, while Hulda was quite happy with making a new young friend, as they went out exploring the ferry and playing in the kid's lounge.

There were lots of fans on the ferry, and we become quite spread out with many retreating to cabins for the first part of the journey, so we never really got a critical mass of fen gathered in one place until close to the end. (Who would have thought too many bars would be a problem?) The ferries crossing the Baltic are huge, and can easily carry thousands of passengers.

We also got the first and only real scare of the con, when we heard that some luggage had fallen on Jo's (George R. R. Martin's assistant's) arm during embarkation, possibly fracturing it. The ship's medic had splinted the arm, but it turned out in the end that she had not been badly injured.

The con opening ceremony, which was short and to the point, got some lustre by an opening piece from Skyrim played by Quinsonitus, a Finnish brass ensemble specialising in geeky music. The Guest of Honours were also introduced: authors George R. R. Martin (USA), Johanna Sinisalo (Finland) and Karin Tidbeck (Sweden); scholar Gary K. Wolfe (USA); and fan Parris Mcbride (USA).

I then set out to explore the con space, which made me quite worried about us being too crowded. With no programming, almost all the members were milling around in the public spaces. However, as the programming started the crowding lessened and never returned. But I believe the committee was very wise to cap the membership at 800 people.

Alandica, the conference centre, was centrally located in Mariehamn (but then, just about everything is centrally located in Mariehamn), and quite modern and functional. On entrance, one was met by a gorgeous, scrap metal statue of a three-eyed raven perched on a medieval-style stock (which was auctioned off for charity during the con; the stock was fully functional) and the combined reception, info desk, and cloakroom. Beyond that was a bar and lounge area, with an outdoor terrace and another bar outside that also served barbeque. Since the weather was very nice during the entire con, the terrace proved quite popular.

The main auditorium, which could seat up to 600 people, could be reached from ground level. The first floor was open to the longue area, and had entrances to the auditorium balcony, the small auditorium (seating 200) and two smaller function rooms. The various con information tables (Eurocons, Finncon, and the Helsinki in 2017 bid) and dealers had their tables here as well. The second floor had some more small function rooms and the used bookstore that Alvarfonden, a permanent Swedish fan fund, runs. There was also a silent room, for people dealing with con overload. The level below ground held ample rest rooms and logistics, dressing rooms and the green room.

I spent most of the afternoon socialising, mainly with old friends but also with some new people. (But I'm terrible at remembering names, sorry about that.) I listened to the beginning of Nordic Weird with Johanna Sinisalo and Karin Tidbeck, but had to leave early as Therese were on her way to listen to the Deep Space Overture.

(I really appreciated the fact that one could enter and leave the Main Auditorium from the back, by going up a stairs: it helped to cut down on noise from outside and was suitably discreet. The auditoriums also had proper double doors; they helped impede noise and sound from the outside.)

The Quinsonitus concert apparently was a huge success, everyone I talked to said they had enjoyed it immensely.

The next day, Therese wasn't that interested in the morning's programming, so instead took Hulda to the nautical museum a little up the road. I listened to Worlds of Water, supposedly about the rise and fall of Viking Age Åland, but in reality about what happened on Åland right before the start of the 'proper' Viking age, from circa 550 AD. Kristin Ilves was an excellent lecturer and active archaeologist, so we got really cutting-edge stuff, and she even called out for help for her excavations of a big and newly located hall on Åland next summer.

The highlight of the talk was that a climatological disaster in the mid-500s caused a drop in population all over the Baltic area, except on Åland, where it instead increased. She also mentioned signs of subdivisions of and political centres on the islands. And lots of seals. Basically, she set out to dismantle the old conventional wisdom about the late iron age on Åland, as a backwater with little of interest.

Then I listened to parts of the Swedish fandom presentation by Åka and Patrik. It was a little unfocused, since the audience partly were foreign fans, partly Swedish neos. But they did a decent presentation of the current state of Swedish fandom and ended in a classic manner: with a slide show over Swedish fans and fan activities. Lars-Olov Strandberg's slideshow used to be a staple at every Swedish con for a long time. I really hope we can have one at Confuse, our Swecon this year.

Next was 'Life in Fandom' with Gary K. Wolfe, George R. R. Martin and Parris McBride with Johan Anglemark (moderating). It was a short introduction to fandom followed by plenty of funny anecdotes of fandom in the 1970s when it was still more counterculture than today. Highlights included having the Secret Service busting a fannish night-time skinny-dipping pool party, and when Parris related to how she and George met for the first time. It ended with Parris enjoining us to go out and make new friends.

Therese and Hulda were finished by the nautical museum by then, so we had lunch at the nice Thai restaurant 'Eat'. Therese went to the con while I took over caring for Hulda. We listened to the talk 'Digital magi' [Digital Magic] by Jenny Wiik about her fantasy and SF pictures, but Hulda was bored after a while: she liked the parts about composition and blending real images as a base for a new illustration, but there was too much talk for her about the literary background and inspiration of each picture.

'Digital magi' was one of several programme items which were held in the public library of Mariehamn, which was located just north of Alandica. These items were all in Swedish (Åland is a Swedish-speaking region of Finland), and open to the public. The library also served as the location of a small exhibition of fantastic pirate-themed art, which was made as part of the con. I believe this public outreach proved successful, and it's something I believe more cons should do.

Hulda and I retreated to the lobby, myself to have a beer or two—the local brewery Stallhagen had some quite nice varieties – with Hulda mostly drawing. The good thing was that I could chat quite a bit of other fans, while Therese went to various programme items. (Konopas, the fan-developed electronic programme-presentation system, is quite handy for con planning, we simply noted down everything than any of us could be interested in and then discussed things. Every con should consider using it for its programme presentation.)

Sometime during the afternoon, I logged onto Google Plus and saw that the US Supreme Court had released their verdict on same-sex marriage in the United States. I showed it to Dave Weingart, and he and the rest of the Americans at the con spent the rest of the day in happy rapture.

I listened a bit to the NOFF (Nordic Fan Fund) auction, since I had donated a binder with quite a few of my filks, a selection of Swedish filk songs and a few foreign ones. The fan Anders Bellis wasn't his usual loud self (his voice became progressively worse during the con), but he and Marie-Louise still managed to break their old sales record, in large part due to various items donated by George R. R. Martin and Parris McBride. My binder with collected filk went for €20 to a Finnish fan, about the minimum price I had decided it should go for (yes, I bid for my own binder). I also managed to buy back the infamous Kosmos Double, that I myself had donated to NOFF back when it was getting started.

After the auction and the concurrent 'Zombies, Necrophiles and Spiralling Penises' talk (Therese reported it was standing room only in the Small Auditorium), Therese took Hulda home to the hotel with the idea that I could go to the parties. However, the impossibility to get it reasonably dark in the hotel room meant that Therese had to ask me back to help. Hulda didn't fall too sleep until after 11 pm, but I did make a quick visit to the parties (and the pool!) afterward. Sadly, the pool turned out to be closed by the time I arrived, so I didn't stay long, especially since the party hotel held plenty of mundanes. I did manage to find some drunk Finnish fans belting out drinking songs, and joined them with 'Nikolajevs längtan' (a song about a kosmonaut stuck in a spaceship without a toilet, sung to the tune of the Soviet national anthem) and a few other songs, having a great time.

Saturday I got up reasonably early with Hulda, and had breakfast together with Anders Sandberg where we discussed multilingualism, switching between languages as context switches, brain research, and other sundry subjects before I had to leave. I listened to Stefan Ekman's talk 'When the Map is the World', about his research into maps in fantasy books. It was quite data-filled, but very much also covered how the map and the various map elements fill different roles in the book, and how they relate to each other. It's pretty clear he has done his research here.

Stefan Ekman was but one of many SF and fantasy scholars in attendance. Finnish fandom have run a regular academic conference in conjunction with their Finncons for several years now, and with no Finncon this year it was held here instead. I didn't have the chance to visit the academic track (it was open to all members of the con), but they had capable scholars like Stefan Ekman, Farah Mendlesohn, Cheryl Morgan, Jerry Määttä, Anders Sandberg, and Gary K. Wolfe involved, apart from many Finnish scholars that were unknown to me.

Getting out from Ekman's talk, I noted a big queue forming up. That was the George R. R. Martin signing queue. I quickly squelched any plans to get a book signed, but Therese was made of sterner stuff, having bought a collection of his A Song of Ice and Fire prequel novellas in Swedish translation for Hulda. I finally found her in line, outside the building, but in company with two nice Viking re-enactors from Åland and Marie and Magnus, so at least she didn't lack for company.

I had planned to bring Hulda to the talk 'Verklighetens Jurassic Park' at the library, but Therese elected to go instead. I could take a closer look at Mariehamn's public library, which was quite nice and airy, and used the SAB classification system, before I went back for more socialising. Then all of us joined the Pride Picnic (Finnish fandom apparently regularly participates in the Helsinki Pride Parade, but this time it was on the same weekend as Archipelacon). We also finally discovered the nice small playground just outside the conference centre, which made Hulda very happy.

The one programming problem with Archipelacon was the relative lack of kid-friendly stuff to do, but 'The Map of Us / Fantasy Portraits' turned out to be quite the hit. While Hulda added to the map (who we joked should be turned over to Stefan for a close reading) I queued for the fantasy portraits. Pau Norontaus did a wonderful quick portrait of Hulda as an astronaut.

Therese had gone to listen to 'The Disabled Heroes in Lois McMaster Bujold' by Edward James, which she very much liked, but after that we all went to have dinner together at Dino's, being joined by Marie and her daughter. Dino's steak burger was quite nice, but they forgot to bring us our beers (and wine, in Marie's case). After that, I had to hurry back to prepare for the one panel I was part of: "Filk of Three Nations'.

Dave Weingart (USA), Päivi Itäpuro (Finland), and myself (Sweden) were to talk about filk music, and how it is done in our different fandoms. It was to be followed by the "International Filk Session and Singalong" hosted by Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo and myself. However, Johanna had trouble with her USB stick and none of us were able to fix it in time before the panel started. We had done decent preparation via e-mail, so the main issue was deciding on which US songs to include in our presentation. Dave had had decision angst when he realised hardly any of the US songs were known in Finland or Sweden, and he had no idea which US sing-along tunes were known here.

While preparing in the Green Room, the Game of Thrones Burlesque was ongoing in the Main Auditorium, and the Green Room was between the stairs from the scene and the dressing rooms. We were paraded with a long sequence of scantily clad people covered in ketchup, much to our amusement.

I opened the panel by singing 'A Filk Melody', later on Päivi sang 'Winterfell' as an example of the Finnish tradition of writing filks for their GoHs at Finncon, and Dave chose 'Hope Eyrie' as his number, enjoining us to join into the chorus. In between we talked about what filk is, how it has developed in the USA, Finland, and Sweden, its themes, its relation to other types of music, and what it's about. I think it went well, and we had an active but small audience (about 15 people, though I didn't do an exact count). Johanna had still not managed to fix her USB stick, so I sang 'Our Con on the Way to the Con' – written for the occasion of Archipelacon – while she did some last-minute attempts (which didn't work). So we had Dave lead us into 'Banned from Argo' while I tried, and did manage to get it into a working state (it was filled up with invisible files).

We didn't talk too much about US filk history, instead we plugged for Gary McGath's Tomorrow's Songs Today. But we did manage to cover how the Finnish fannish music is focused on choirs and sing-alongs, that Swedish filking used to be mainly about fandom itself, and so on.

Several people left after the panel, but we had more people drop in during the filksing. Some of the songs we sang were 'Never Set the Cat on Fire', 'HAL's song', 'Ditt hem är fandom' (where 'everyone' sang their own melody of 'This Land Is Your Land', to Dave's consternation as he tried to accompany us on guitar), 'Spaceballs', 'Pappersframmatningen är trasig' ['The Paper Feed is Broken'], 'The Mended Drum' in honour of Sir Terry, Time Winds Tavern and several Finnish songs whose titles I sadly forgot. Dave got to close the session with his own 'The River'. Everyone seemed to have had a good time.

Meanwhile, Therese and Hulda had taken part in the masquerade, as Bobby and Dean from Supernatural. In her Bobby costume and new beard hardly anyone recognised her, and they had enjoyed the masquerade a lot. They plan to practice some sort of scene and enter more masquerades later on.

We went back to the hotel together before I returned to Dino's where my fellow panellists and a few other fans tried to get some dinner while the troubadour abused songs with too much amplification. We went over to the party at Hotel Arkipelag, but the Brotherhood Without Banner ran their party with far too much amplification too, especially at the start. I had hoped to find a quiet corner for some filking, but that didn't happen.

Sunday proved to be the only day when all of us were at the con early. Therese visited the 'LGBT Superheroes' presentation (which had to be moved to a bigger room), and later I listened to 'Conrunning in America', where Michael Lee described his experiences, mainly from running CONvergence in Minneapolis. Therese then went to a few more panels and presentations before we had pizza for dinner and I helped carry Therese's stuff to the bus. She had to take an earlier ferry since she started work again Monday evening.

A bizarre moment was when Bellis and I had to try to explain Roscoe to a bunch of other fans, including some veteran fans from the USA.

Hulda and I could see the closing ceremony, where one winner of the masquerade turned out to be missing (Loki), one invisible (Bilbo, though it was more a case of the presenter not being able to see her), and one present (Darth Maul). Then it was time for the Dead Dog Party at Arkipelag, which turned out to be the most enjoyable one. Not too loud music, and no mundanes all over the place. I and Hulda secured a sunny spot in the corner, and sat around chatting for several hours.

On Monday we had time to visit the museum ship Pommern and eat lunch with Marie and Magnus before it was time to board the ferry, while we said goodbye to all our Finnish friends due to board the ferry to Turku. On the ferry back, Hulda and her new friend played happily, with Hulda being taught Minecraft, while I could spend quite some time chatting around with the other fans.

All in all, an excellent con! The programme was a little thin on items that fit me, but Therese enjoyed it immensely, and all the items I did go to were of high quality. I could only see a few minor issues, and most of those were fixed without any fuss. I'm especially glad that I managed to meet more of the fans from Malmö, Dave, and Päivi!

So how come that Archipelacon was such a success? Basically every attendee has given enthusiastic and rave reviews. I believe there are several factors that contributed. One was of course that Archipelacon was a very well-organised and planned con, in a venue that was perfectly sized and suited to the con. Another was the combination of several great guest of honours, who all could bring something good and distinct. A third was that the weather in Mariehamn was quite lovely during the entire weekend, while most places in Sweden and Finland had had poor weather earlier during the summer.

But I believe there were other factors at play as well. One is that Finnish fandom is among the most dynamic, diverse, young, and socially aware in Europe. This meant that Archipelacon never was dominated, socially or in the programme, by old timers who had seen and heard it all. At the same time, the size of the contingents from Sweden and from Brotherhood Without Banners, the placement of the con in a new and unknown location for most attendees, and that this was a new type of event for Finnish fandom, meant that no group dominated the con or could force their interpretation of it onto anyone else. Everyone was equally a stranger, but at the same time in a friendly and positive environment.

Archipelacon showed not only that fandom is a way of life, it showed that fandom can be great.

Karl-Johan Norén


Karl-Johan Norén is a Swedish fan and filker.

See also Peter Tyers separate report.

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