Convention Review

The 2011 Eurocon – Stockholm, Sweden

The biggest Swedish SF convention happened to be one
of the best Eurocons of recent years


The omens at Heathrow were rather odd as I left for Sweden and this year's Eurocon. I shared my flight with the Britain's athletic team GB as they were to participate in the European championships being held in the stadium one block from the university at which Eurocon was being held…

Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology (a university) provided an interesting, yet functional venue for what turned out to be the largest yet Swedish SF convention and one of the best Eurocons of recent years. Let's be absolutely clear about this, running a 'successful' convention does not necessarily make for a good (or even a mediocre) Eurocon: though running a good Eurocon does mean that there will have to be a good convention.

Fortunately the Scandinavians – the Danish was as proved in 2007 and the Finns over the years with Finncon – have demonstrated that some Scandinavians are good conrunners. Now the Swedish too can say that they to have among their ranks a team capable of orchestrating a truly great celebration of science fiction.

You see Eurocons are special. True there are the Worldcons at which you can see many of the authors and personalities of our genre. But let's face it, the majority of Worldcon regulars are Worldcon regulars, and the international level convention facilities are these days standard: once inside you could be anywhere in the World. Conversely, Eurocons have a high proportion of first-time Eurocon goers, often they are held in a country that participants have never before, or at the most rarely, visited and you know that you do not know what you will expect, and the venue is unlikely to be an international conference centre unless the Eurocon is part of a European Worldcon (as was the Glasgow Eurocon-Worldcon in 2005): Swecon did not for instance have a fancy dress masquerade and the bookroom was part of the cafeteria with the stock simply stored overnight with sheets over it. Each Eurocon has its own character and even the best Eurocons are very different from each other with perhaps the only commonality is that they are organised to successfully get participants from various nations to interact with each other both on the programme and socially. This was one such Eurocon and if any of the committee are right now blushing at such praise then they need not: they really did acquit themselves most honourably and with the huge thanks of those that attended. Such folk need to be remembered and so for the record they were: Carolina Gomez-Lagerlöf (chair), Tomas Cronholm (treasurer), Britt-Louise Viklund (programme), Hans Persson (guest liaison), Sten Thaning, Mårten Svantesson (venue), Gunnar Nilsson (marketing, sponsoring and media), Anders Reuterswärd (webmaster), Johan Anglemark & Anna Davour (programme book), Therése Norén (reception) and Helena Kiel (volunteer co-ordination).

By now you may be vaguely beginning to suspect that this is going to be a somewhat favourable review of this year's gathering of Eurocon fans with those of the host nation. You could well be right.

Now Eurocons can be a bit of a hit and miss affair. Unlike the Worldcons, that have a semi-regular pool of international (though mainly N. American) conrunner ability to support each convention's own core committee, Eurocons are largely run by a team from the nation's own SF community. Guidance from the European SF Society, under whose auspices Eurocons are nominally run, is largely absent (something that is needed and for instance ESFS officer guidance might have avoided last year's gathering clashing with the New Zealand natcon and Australian Worldcon fortnight). The good side to this is that many Eurocons have their own individual character. The down side is that some (fortunately only some) Eurocons only minimally cater for visitors from outside the host nation, and have a programme that has just a few isolated items on European SF (even in just one case I know had only one loosely related European item).   However this year's Eurocon saw much integration of European nations with all panels including a mix of participants from a number of countries as well as programme items relating to genre works and fanac from various parts of Europe. This year there were participants from some 23 European countries from Ireland and Britain in the west to Russia and the Ukraine in the east. There were even a couple of N. American ex-pats and one participant came from the US itself.

The bar and cafeteria being next to the programme halls facilitated socialising as did a rather good Saturday night party put on by various convention bids. The warm-up gathering in Monks bar the evening before the convention proper was also an ice-breaker. (Though the live beer I was offered was worrying: British real ale is a live drink but at least it does not attempt to crawl out of the glass.)

And then there was the con's size. Now as a life scientist let me assure you that size is not everything but with 745 (including walk-ins and day registrations) this was easily the largest Swedish SF convention to date by a couple of hundred. Compared to other Eurocons 750 is sort of mid-range: the estimated 100,000+ attending the 1994 Romanian Eurocon firework display and laser show was a rarity as the entire city was invited (and in reality it was probably more like something well over 10,000+). And of course some Eurocons have been smaller at 200 or less. So 750 was a good size and enough that most items on the three parallel programme streams were reasonably attended while the book and games hall as well as the cafeteria/bar saw their share of bustle.

Let me start at the beginning. The first plus point is that the convention venue was cited just 30 minutes walk from Stockholm Central station. Here is my one criticism of the organisers in that that they did not say this on their website and instead encouraged us to use the underground metro. But thanks to zooming out with Google Earth I realised that by the time I had gone down waited for a train, travelled a couple of stops, got out changed platforms, waited for another train and travelled another stop, I would have been able to walk from station to hotel and see some of Stockholm; plus I realised that the pre-convention pub-meet was about half way and so I could scope that out before I dropped my rucksack of at my hotel.

It was a journey I was pleased to make especially as not only seeing part of the city I came across what I suspected was some glacial till. This was later confirmed by a geologist fellow 'A World After Oil' panellist to be an esker. (Ha, I've still got it. Stockholm, you can't simply hide your geomorphology secrets from me with a mere full-grown city: you need some sort of invisibility cloak combined with a holographic disguise, don't you know...) The Swedish conrunners had also arranged matters so that it would be daylight much of the evening: a feat that cunningly involved both Slartifartbas and plate tectonics, and wait a few billion years to locate Sweden at a high latitude. A biosphere evolution trick that meant that all the con committee had to do was hold the con within a couple of weeks of midsummer's day and 'hey presto' we would have a nice light and balmy evening with a baroque feel to it.

The Guests of Honour included: John-Henri Holmberg the Swedish author and SF translator and editor of its Science Fiction Forum;   Ian MacDonald as non-hosting European GoH (fresh from the success of his The Dervish House that the SF2 Concatenation as one of the best SF works of last year); Elizabeth Bear as non-European Guest and author of the Campbell-winning and Locus-winning Hammered;   the Fan GoH was Jukka Halme from Finland who is also an SF critic. A late surprise (always welcome) was the new writer Hanu Rajaniemi as a Special Guest: not only is his debut novel, The Quantum Thief,but as a Finn resident in Britain he was a most appropriate for a and especially a Scandinavian Eurocon. I understand that te British publisher Gollancz sponsored Hanu's travel fare for which we are all appreciative.

The programme was a god mix of talks, panels, readings and film. I sadly missed the panel on the future of e-books but was fairly certain it would not include science e-books which are taking a different tack to fiction e-books (and as a consequence lower royalties for their authors). And I was rights as Charles Stross told me after.   Similarly the 'How to Become a Published Writer' panel did not include how to become a published science writer…   I also missed the talk on 'Dark Matter' by Anna Davour, which was annoying as I really wanted to get a handle on this co-rotation of the Orion spur business.   I did though catch an interesting 'International Perspective on Fandom' with British, Dutch, Scandinavian, Russian and French fans. Clearly SF is alive and well in most countries, though France seems to have a gulf between its small national convention fandom of a few score compared with the larger several thousand SF Utopiales annual convention in Nantes. (We do not have such a split in Britain between the Sci-Fi London film fest and SF book fandom as the fest generously hosts the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Awards.) And Russian fandom, while only coming into its own since 1990 and the 'fall' of communism, is doing well.

I attended the 'Best Movies of 2010' panel which for the first 20 minutes got bogged down with this year's Hugo nominations for Best Dramatic Presentation before sense ruled with someone saying they were Hollywood crap. That burst the dam and suggested titles flowed forth mainly from independent studios from many countries, including as it happens a couple from SF 2 Concatenation's own recommendations for the best films of 2011. Then there was discussion as to why the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation nominations are so truly awful. Here the surprise conclusion was that it was our fault: more specifically the fault of Worldcon convention organisers who very much in the main do not have a developed sense of the genre in its cinematic form as they do its literary dimension, and so put on a low-profile film stream of the commercial stuff.

I was only on one panel, 'A World After Oil', and that was to provide it with a 5 minute (I did it in four) PowerPoint introduction. (I provided an info dump of graphs of energy supply, energy intensity per person and industrial data as to fossil reserves and energy options), The panel was ably chaired by Helena Kiel with much sense talked by panellists. The panel included: someone from the oil industry; a geologist; a physicist; and a humanities person (who demonstrated he did not understand the Club of Rome Limits to Growth Report, yet it is such a small report and so easy to read and now with the benefit of over a third of a century's hindsight we can now see that its baseline forecasts for agricultural output, population growth and global GDP were spot on!); and myself (as someone into human ecology and the environmental impact of energy use). By and large most of the key points were ably covered and the panel was surprisingly – given the global challenge facing us – optimistic.   My own two solo talks seemed to go down well: 'Bioastronomy' and 'Exobiology 2.0': 'Exobiology' was once again given to a packed hall and resulted in my being offered by appreciative audience members much free beer after. (Note to self: in future request that a similar talk be put on at the beginning of the convention.) In 'Bioastronomy' I showed among other things: how the Victorians used flower gardens as clocks with flowers opening at different times of the day (as the Earth rotates); how corals chart the Moon's orbit about the Earth and the Earth's about the Sun; and how in turn you can use coral fossils to calculate the length of day in dinosaur times as well as the distance from the Earth to the Moon in such long-gone times. I also quickly did Milankovitch Earth orbital parameters as deduced from foraminifera.   In 'Exobiology 2.0' I quickly reviewed the Drake result as my various audiences gave in 'Exobiology 1.01' talks given from the late 1970s to the Denmark 2007 Eurocon. Then I moved on to biosphere evolution, Carter's critical evolutionary steps with the recent Watson & Lenton snowball interpretation. Finally I addressed the tension between divergent evolution (pentadactyl limb) and convergent evolution (shape form and function of Ruscus spp. and Caulerpa spp., as well as the Mammalian/Cephalopod eye) and related these phenomena to likely exobiology.*

Socialising was done in the cafeteria and bar areas next to the two principal halls. The former also saw the bookroom and a small gaming area. Much of the Saturday was sunny and so the veranda outside the bar became a socialising, drinking and smoking area: Judging from my past experience of both types of fandom, Eurocon fans seem to indulge more than Worldcon fans. Much socialising was also done in the Saturday evening parties that in part overlapped the Swedish premiere screening of Lunopolis. The Saturday evening parties owed much to the spirit (literally) that many European fan groups brought, as well as to US-American Kurt Baty's set-up marshalling these said groups within the party hall: the Kurt has experience with running US-bid parties at Worldcons. As for what was there, the Croatians had this wonderful orange wine as well as their version of plum brandy (popular throughout the Caucuses) and the Russians and the Ukrainians had various types of vodka (the pepper vodka was interesting – so thank you – but not an experience I'll rush to repeat). The Brits, touting for a Worldcon in London for 2014, had scotch whiskey. The Brit team later told me that they almost ran out of registration slips such was the interest in this bid.   Meanwhile venue rules (and probably Swedish law) did not allow any alcohol to be consumed outside the party hall while smoking was not allowed in it. The party hall was also rather warm and crowded. This meant that there was a constant cycling of people coming in to have a nip or two of some nation's tipple before going outside to chat: the Finns outside had taken to some very large J. R. Ewing type cigars. I had the pleasure of meeting many including a young lady from the Ukraine who said she enjoyed the British series Misfits (currently the best new British SF television offering and if you liked season 1 of the US series Heroes then Misfits is worth checking out: dare I say it, it is far better). I also met some old friends from Hungary and Russia and met for the first time some folk I had only previously known by SF reputation, one such person being Tero Ykspetaja who blogs things SF in Finland as 'Partial Recall'.

Being a university based Eurocon, there were plenty of places to eat nearby and of course a must to try was Swedish meatballs: remember Babylon V and every sentient species having a version of what on Earth is Swedish meatballs. However all too soon it was the final evening and a dead dog party held in a pub near Stockholm's central station. Sadly it was raining and we were all forced in-doors which meant that some could not get in: I met Jim Walker (part-time SF2 Concatenation columnist) and Martin Hoare (the 1984 British Eurocon co-chair) on my way back to the hotel as they had been a couple of the unfortunates who could not gain entry.

Of course in the mix there were the 2011 ESFS Eurocon Awards of which some of us at Concatenation were particularly pleased being involved in category nominations.

And that largely was it. Of course, I have left out some of my own personal highlights which not least included: all too briefly meeting Swedish SF grandmaster Sam Lundwall as well as former Unicon 1 and fellow UK student SF fans from the late 1970s Mike Christie and Richard Vine, but then all 745 of the delegates must have their own highlights. Meanwhile the burning question that has to be asked is when will the Swedes do it again? And, if they do, will they give us an extra day?

Next year it is Croatia, and after that its back to Kiev, Ukraine in 2013.

Jonathan Cowie

Also here is our news report of the 2011 Eurocon.


* For future public understanding of science event organisers, in a four or five years time I hope to have 'Exobiology 3.0' which will tie the previous talks together and then produce a synthesis that extrapolates Martyn Fogg's interdict hypothesis as a solution to the Fermi paradox. Of course other interesting relevant discoveries are likely to be made between now and then and so also included.


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