Convention Review


Helsinki
The 2017 World SF Convention

The 75th World Science Fiction Convention was held in Helsinki,
Finland, 9th – 13th August 2017. Peter Tyers reports.

 

Room Is Full - Please Do Not Enter

 

In anticipation of my trip to the Worldcon I was looking forward to writing about the great convention the Finns had run - but it was not to be. Whilst it is true that, as you would expect at such an event, thousands of fans had a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, the convention itself was somewhat disappointing on several counts. In part it was those thousands of fans - the convention just could not cope with the numbers; like Loncon 3 (2014) it was a victim of its own success. The sign 'Room Is Full - Please Do Not Enter' was seen outside far, far too many programme items.

The 75th Worldcon was held in the Messukeskus Convention Centre in Helsinki. The event did not have a name, having gone with the current trend of simply being Worldcon NN as there are those that say that Worldcons as a whole need to establish a business identity and be seen as a progression from one event to the next and therefore need a number but not a name. (Shades of The Prisoner, anyone?) Even so, I think they also need a name to identify them in the eyes of fandom such as, perhaps, Worldcon 75 - Helcon or Worldcon 75 - Finncon. How will we remember which was which in years to come? Indeed, how will we remember the upcoming ones over the next few years; San Jose next year is merely Worldcon 76 rather than ConJose 2, and the year after’s in Dublin will be Worldcon 77 rather than, say, Lepricon… See, confused already?

The Guests of Honour were John-Henri Holmberg (writer, publisher, and critic), Nalo Hopkinson (writer), Johanna Sinisalo (writer), Claire Wendling (artist) (who was unable to attend due to illness), and Walter John Williams (writer). The toastmistress was Karen Lord (writer and teacher), the science guest was Ian Stewart (honorary wizard of the Unseen University and Emeritus Professor at several real universities), and there was also special guest Kjell Lindgren (astronaut and GOH of Sasquan in 2015 (who had participated from the International Space Station)).

But first - the location. Helsinki is the capital city of Finland and the Greater (or Metropolitan) Helsinki area covers about three hundred square miles and is home to a total population of about 1.4 million. It is on the southern coast and there are a plethora of small islands just a little offshore; in the summer months this makes it a paradise for sailing and small ferries ‘round the bay’. It has a large harbour and welcomes cruise ships as well as the large ferries which ply between the city and Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), and Stockholm (Sweden) via Mariehamn (in the Finnish Âland Islands), and which, incidentally, brought many fans to the convention. Helsinki’s Vantaa airport is well served by a number of airlines though taxis into the city proved to be very expensive for those not using the much cheaper option of the train into the city’s main railway station or the equivalent buses.

Although not officially the centre of the city, the railway station may be regarded as the central point from which most people measure distance and assess relative locations. For example, the harbour (with its colourful street market, old market hall, and boat trips) is ‘ten minutes walk from the station’, and hotels are usually described similarly. Personally, I like the city and think it a good place for a holiday visit.

The Messukeskus is about 2 miles north of the main railway station though only a few hundred yards from the Pasila railway station (the first stop after leaving the main station). There is not a lot in the way of nearby hotels; there is a Holiday Inn incorporated into the Messukeskus building (though the convention understandably reserved this for those with disabilities or access problems) and there is a Sokos hotel on the far side of the Pasila railway station (making for a walk of about three quarters of a mile or a bus run). There being little else nearby, most folks therefore found hotels in the city centre - and they were scattered all over the place. Often the first question you asked on meeting a friend was ‘where is your hotel?’. (The second question was, "have you managed to get into a programme item yet?".)

This lack of nearby hotels meant that most convention members commuted from somewhere in the city centre and to help with this the con gave everybody a free travel card which covered all public transport in the area (including some of the ferries to the islands) over the period of the event. Earlier on I had been told at one of their convention tables that it would also cover the days around the con for those wanting to engage in a little tourism, though this proved not to be. The train ride from the main station to Pasila took only a few minutes and the very frequent trains made this an easy and popular option though, of course, there was some walking at either end. Unfortunately, the Pasila station was in the midst of some very serious rebuilding works and it was in something of a mess though the authorities had succeeded in keeping it open and everything running. Another popular commuting option was the quite frequent tram system with the no.s 7A, 7B, and 9 stopping right outside the Messukeskus (though the 7A and 7B suffered some disruptions involving linking buses due to road works). The city also has a Metro but it proved of little use to us on this occasion as its route goes nowhere near the Messukeskus. Commuting, though, meant that you had to get up earlier than usual to catch the start of the morning programme or miss half of it (the latter proved a popular option).

Whilst most members took the commuting in their stride and accepted it as part of the colour of the city, there were those that complained about the lack of nearby hotels and will doubtless hold it against the convention, especially if the Finns bid for another Worldcon in the future. Enquiring at one of their convention tables in earlier days I had been left with the definite impression that the trains were so good and the city centre hotels so convenient that one would be able to easily nip from the convention to one’s city centre hotel room and back as quickly as if it was a walk to a nearby hotel (no more than a 20-25 minute round trip) - this assurance was, shall we say, given through rose-coloured glasses.

The Messukeskus is basically a good place for a convention; it has the large halls and many meeting rooms that you would expect and there is a choice of eating places within the building (and these were quite good for a convention centre - and way, way better than the miserable excuses found in many American convention centres). The Programme Book included four floor plans showing the layout of the building; these were accurate and very handy though they desperately needed a fifth plan to show how they fitted together - on the first morning many folks spent quite a while wandering round trying to piece the place together and the question ‘do you know where we are?’ was often heard. However, the Programme Book completely failed to tell us where to find the nearby Pasila Library and the Rauhanasema (Peace Station), homes to a few of the programme items, and in the end somebody went out and sellotaped homemade cardboard signs and arrows to street lamps and walls.

Entering through the main doors one came into a large foyer area which was home to Registration and the convention’s information desks. Even though I arrived during the first morning, the peak period, Registration was very quick. We had been emailed a barcode to print and bring with us; this was waved under a scanner, your personal label was printed and stuck onto your badge, you were given your plastic bag of goodies (programme, souvenir book, and the like), and you were on your way. To the right one entered the long corridors which led to the meeting rooms (i.e. programme items) whilst to the left were the large halls and the two-level food court. Next to the main entrance was the Holiday Inn and its corridors ran straight into those connecting the meeting rooms. The hotel also housed the Terra Nova restaurant and bar, the latter having a popular outdoor seating area.

The convention made use of all twenty three meeting rooms (or so, it depended how the walls were configured), providing for a total audience of about two and a half thousand. Not all of these were for the mainstream programme; some of the smaller rooms were used for the children’s and teens’ programmes and various small workshops. The dedicated cinema seated about a hundred. The convention used four of the large halls; Hall 1 provided ranked seating for four thousand and was used for the Hugo Awards Ceremonies and the Masquerade, Hall 3 was pressed into service to provide extra space (900 seats) for programme items, Hall 4 was used for the Dealers, and Hall 5 housed the fan areas. The Dealers’ area was well populated though there were fewer tables than I would expect at a Worldcon, and the hall, which was open to the general public, was also used for book signings (so it was easy to buy a book and get it signed, although the queues for some authors were very long). The fan areas included a large seating area, a small café, a games area, fan tables, the usual Worldcon exhibition and display of Hugos, and the art show; this last was very small and I was very unimpressed with what art there was (the average Eastercon provides a significantly better show).

The convention proudly posted the figures '10,516 members and day passes, 7,119 warm bodies on site' and this makes it one of the largest Worldcons ever. It was just second to Loncon 3 in terms of overall membership (Loncon counted 10,718). In terms of those actually attending it was second only to LACon II in 1984 (8,365) and relegated Loncon 3 to third (6,946). Thereby lay one of its problems - they just had not planned on so many people being there and this resulted in aspects of the event being significantly overcrowded.

There was, I am told, something of a late surge in memberships and they had not kept an eye on these sales nor had they thought about the consequences of all those extra people. Furthermore, many of these later memberships were one-day passes, spread across the period of the convention, and this meant that the folks concerned were mostly new to Worldcons and would want to go to everything, thus meaning that from the moment the doors opened there would be a high demand for programme items and a similar high demand in seating space for the audiences. Many Worldcons hit the ground running with a full programme starting on the first morning; however, this year the programme did not really kick into gear until after the Opening Ceremonies in the later afternoon. The first morning featured a fairly small number of items and these were mostly science items (a major draw for newbies) in small rooms. Like many members, I found the ubiquitous 'Room Is Full - Please Do Not Enter' sign outside everything I tried to go to and I completely failed to get into anything until the early evening, by which time the programme had swung fully into action and there was now more choice of items and more rooms in use.

I even failed to get into the Opening Ceremonies, which was hardly surprising as they put it on in a room holding a mere four hundred. Indeed, despite the convention giving me a ‘get in anywhere’ press pass (the advantages of being a SF² Concatenation reporter), I was still unable to get in. There were municipal fire officers in attendance and when they said a room was full, it was full! The convention had no wiggle room; the fire safety numbers were strictly enforced (and I really cannot complain about keeping the audience safe). For the Closing Ceremonies sets of partition walls were removed thus allowing a thousand to attend - but again it was not enough. Perhaps they should have had more confidence in these events, added some extra ceremony, and made use of Hall 1. Clearly, they had been very lax on capacity planning and I heard they only asked the Messukeskus about room capacities after the convention was running and they saw the queues. For example, when you have a real, live astronaut on stage and giving a talk - put him on in a large room! He will be popular!

The convention was not blind to these problems and, once they realised, they severely restricted the sale of further memberships, which by now meant mostly day passes. They also pressed the Messukeskus into releasing a couple of extra rooms (actually parts of Hall 3) and moved some of the more popular items into them. I would add that they were very apologetic about this and, indeed, I have never come across a convention that was so prepared to admit its mistakes and promptly apologise for them, both before and at the event.

Despite being unable to get into the majority of items I had earmarked, all was not lost. Professor Arttu Rajantie (of London’s Imperial College) talked about ‘Destroying The Universe with Vacuum Bubbles’, an area of astrophysics I had not come across (and we were mercifully spared the mathematics), with other science items including ‘Under Pressure: Exploring Oceans Beyond Earth’ in which the panel discussed the other oceans (not usually of water!) to be found in our solar system, and Kevin Roche tackled ‘Really Weird Science: An Introduction To Quantum Computing’ with a professionalism that was both informative and entertaining. Kjell Lindgren (our astronaut Special Guest) and Jenny Knotts provided several interesting items including ‘The Kjell & Jenny Show: A NASA Astronaut And His PAO’ (Public Affairs Officer) in which they talked about both his mission and the public relations side of his work, ‘How Much Do You Know About NASA’ (we learnt that they eat real food not the tablets and pastes of early science fiction, sometimes ice cream is flown up but must be eaten immediately as there are no fridges(!), and Velcro is the answer to almost everything), and the ‘Kjell Lindgren Postflight Talk’ (with a photo of a small Hugo floating in the observation cupola of the International Space Station).

Ian Whates chaired the touching panel ‘Remembering Tanith Lee’, a chance for a few of her colleagues to reminisce on someone who was both a great author and an extremely nice person, following which a few of us gathered in the Terra Nova bar to raise a glass or two in her memory. Bob Silverberg, Professor Ian Stewart, and other stalwarts discussed ‘Science Fiction Gone Wrong’ in which they admitted to some of their errors and explained why, sometimes, you just have to ignore the science if the story is to work. Bob and Ian also joined Ian Watson’s panel ‘It’s More Complicated Than That’ in which they discussed getting things right and telling the full story. ‘Travel In Science Fiction And Fantasy’ provided an academic look at stories which require a long journey in order to tell their tale (Lord Of The Rings, for instance) and was held in the nearby Pasila Library (a pleasant place which was worth a quick visit in its own right).

Most evenings the programme reduced to just a few items, which was unfortunate as there was still quite a demand. I was lucky enough to - just - get into ‘Adequate Bimboes’ (having spotted the one remaining empty seat) as there were only five items running by then. It featured a number of scurrilously edited videos, some definitely for the adult audience, and was at times very funny. It was followed by the old favourite ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ and under chairman Lee Harris it did not disappoint; it could have gone on for quite a lot longer! By later evening most of the Messukeskus was closed though the Filk sessions ran from ten until midnight in the room nearest to the Holiday Inn.

There was much that looked very good but which I missed. Sometimes this was because I just cannot be in two places at once, but all too often it was because the room was full and, by then, it was also too late to get into any of my alternative choices. The 'Room Full' message will remain an abiding memory.

The two main evening events were, of course, the Hugo Awards Ceremonies and the Masquerade. The Hugo ceremony was not overly inspired and, somewhat encouraged by the hard seating, I left halfway through. The Masquerade attracted about thirty entries but the standard was not generally that high, though praise must given to the winner ‘Dwalin The Dwarf’ and also to Miki Dennis, a close runner-up.

For those not wishing to attend these events, there was unfortunately not much else in the way of evening programme. Some took the opportunity to go out for dinner and, as there was little in the way of nearby restaurants other than the (often full) Terra Nova, this meant travelling some distance such as into the city centre and, of course, frequently they did not return to the convention afterwards.

For those staying into the evening, the Winter Garden (a large room and bar) was home to various bid parties, slightly reminiscent of the Fan Village at Loncon 3 but not nearly as good. It was horribly oversubscribed with long queues for free drinks tickets (a blessing given the prices) and even longer queues for drinks. For those nipping next door to the Terra Nova bar, the queue was out of the door and into the hotel foyer. They had a total of six bartenders for the whole convention! It really was quicker to take the train into city and find a pub.

This is not as silly as it sounds; Helsinki has some very good pubs within ten minutes walk of the main station. It would have been a very good idea if the convention had nominated such a pub as a general meeting place for those in the city centre. For example: St. Urlo’s is used by local fans and is the home of their regular meetings, Black Door had a good range of interesting beers, the Sori Taproom had a line of twenty-four taps, and Kaisla featured not only the largest selection of beers in Finland but was also very large and with a great atmosphere for fan gatherings. The last three share a stop on the no. 9 tram route directly to/from the Messukeskus.

The convention finally came to an end with the Closing Ceremonies, everybody was thanked, co-chair Jukka Halme performed an excellent impression of Bob Silverberg, and the gavel was duly passed over to Worldcon 76 in San Jose (California) next year.

Some headed into the city for dinner, others to the Dead Dog Party. The Dead Dog is traditionally for those who are not rushing home and tends to be a quiet affair, though Loncon 3’s proved to be a large and excellent party in the Fan Village. This year’s was held in the nearby Sokos hotel and, it being taken as a major event (and with very cheap Mexican food on offer), was very popular - in fact it was stuffed to the gills. It was so full they were soon turning people away, including the convention’s own staff - which I thought was a very poor show! Admittedly they opened up another floor of the hotel facilities after a while but by then it was too late, many had headed into the city, never to return to what was left of the convention. Personally, I joined the exodus and ended up in St. Urlo’s with a bunch of the local fans and convention staff, followed by a late-evening final gathering in Kaisla.

Summarising, I had a good time at the convention and in Helsinki itself. However the Finns had been unnecessarily lax in several areas of their arrangements; the inability to get into programme items was very frustrating, the journeying back and forth between the city centre hotels and the Messukeskus could get a bit wearing, the lack of nearby restaurants for a good lunch or dinner was disappointing, and the lack of sizeable socialising areas with well-served bars was a significant downer. In addition, Finland is hideously expensive. If the Finns wish to hold another Worldcon they will need to sharpen their act considerably and, of course, we will need to save like crazy to afford their prices.

Peter Tyers

 

Elsewhere on this site on our seasonal news page, other Sasquan coverage can be found that includes: brief comment on the programme, film programme and our usual comprehensive listing of science programme items. Plus there is news of the 2017 World SF Society business meetings.


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