The Exact Opposite of a Shit Sandwich.

What the hell is wrong with this place? I leave town for one measly week and by the time I come back some bozo left the tub running and half the city’s underwater. Waiting for a taxi I couldn’t even get online to pass my galleys off to MIT: the airport servers flooded sometime during the extra hour or two we’d spent going round and round at seven thousand meters, carving paperclip contrails into the sky over southern Ontario. Driving into town along the 427— a major eight-lane metropolitan artery— was like driving along a black (albeit hypertrophic) country road. The whole west end of the city was dark.

All in all, kind of a crappy return to the homeland. Kind of a crappy trip out too, for that matter.

The official author photo in the Finncon program. This is only the second time I have been upstaged by a pink anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner.

In between those unpleasant bookends, though: man, what a great filling.

Caitlin has already posted impressions more eloquent than anything I could match; even the stuff she steals is never less than gorgeous. In my own cruder fashion, all I can say really just boils down to: Finncon was awesome.

There was a sauna the night before the con began: glorious torrid intervals spent baking like a steamed potato, intercut with plunges into the Baltic (the Gulf of Finland, technically, and not as cold as you might think; but the contrast was still enough to shock the body into rapture). There was a sky that never got truly dark. There were these horrific little things called Moomins, and  an endless astonishing cemetery (covered elsewhere) whose statuary ranged from cute to creepy to sublime.

The con itself was an unmitigated delight, a whirl of dwarves and dinosaurs and Ghostbusters mixed in with all the panels and beers. It was also the best-organized con I’ve ever attended (never before have I been handed a cell phone preprogrammed with vital numbers immediately upon stepping off the plane). Here’s an example: there was exactly one physical injury during the whole event. It happened immediately adjacent to the desk specifically set up to deal with physical injuries, and it happened to the person in charge of handling physical injuries.

She was dressed as Two-Face at the time; evidently there was some initial consternation when she showed up at Emergency.

Cheryl Morgan with her Certificate of Adoption by Finnish Fandom. Maybe someday I can get one of those.

I made the acquaintance of a kind of vodka with the look and consistency of used engine oil, but which tastes like licorice cranked up to eleven. I got reacquainted with people I’d first met only months before, across a single national boundary; with Cheryl Morgan, whom I first met two oceans and three years ago. (We convened the second triennial reunion of ASTNBEUS — the Association of Skiffy Tewwowists and No-fly-listers Banned from Entering the US. Pronounced “Astenbeus”, for you laypeople). With other folks I’ve known online for years, but had never met before in the flesh. I reacquainted myself with the con organizer I’d named Blindsight‘s vampire after (Jukka Halme bears little resemblance to Jukka Sarasti: think John Goodman with the delivery of James Earl Jones). I met a shitload of other Jukkas, who seemed to comprise at least half the lineup at my first signing; after the third consecutive request to sign their copy of Sokeanäkö to “Jukka” I started to think they were all just yanking my chain, but it turns out that Jukka’s a pretty common name in Finland.

I got to cuddle this.

I participated in a photoshoot in which I cuddled a carnosaur and vaulted over railings and stuck a tiny rocketship in my ear. (I don’t know how many of those images will ever see the light of publication — some of them, almost certainly, should not — but I’ll let you know.) I watched in awe as a phalanx of hot Nazi women strutted past in razor-edged uniforms, which gave me pause — I know cons are supposed to embrace diversity and all, but this seemed to be pushing the limits a bit — until I realized they weren’t there to promote a political ideology, but an upcoming sequel to Iron Sky.

This is Teemu, our "minder". Notice the sapphire liquid-nitrogen stare of the trained assassin. Caitlin and I were very well-behaved.

I got to show my rodent-golden-shower slide, and argue about a book which purported to be about sending messages to the stars but which was really about sending messages to the earth. I was interviewed three times in three different ways: the standard Guest-of-Honor interview, an extended reminiscence for a video documentary called “Seeing the Future”, and — most unusually — a free-association interlude for something called “Cryosofa”, in which Hannu Bloomila would utter a single word or phrase and then record whatever came out of my mouth until my mouth stopped letting things out. The first word was “abyssopelagic”, which I’m not even sure is a real word; I think the last one might have been “cats”, which I’m pretty sure is. The ones in between included “John Brunner” and “Jethro Tull”. (My response to that latter stimulus was, in its entirety: “Eighteenth-century agriculturalist. Inventor of the seed drill.” Never has my self-restraint been so sorely tested.)

Nene Agneta Ormes, Swedish author, shows off part of her wedding tattoo. You should have seen the other side.

We rebonded with Sara Bergmark Elfgren and Mats Stanberg and Karin Tidbeck; we met Aliette de Bodard— who is quite small for someone so mighty— and Stefan Ekman, from the University of Lund. (Another cool thing about Finncon: it’s a conventional convention held in parallel with an academic conference that deals with more scholarly aspects of the genre. I kinda wish I’d been able to sit in on some of that.) I met J. Pekka Mäkelä, the “grand old man of Finnish science fiction” and Blindsight‘s translator; we gave a joint reading that went really well.

I even had my very first kaffeeklatsch. I’ve always shied away from those in the past, for fear that no one would show up. People did, this time. I was relieved.

But perhaps the most awesomely serendipitous moment came after my GoH talk. This elfin dude approached me as I was packing up, looked a little like John Helliwell back in Supertramp days: he had a piece of “intellectual spam”, as he described it, which he thought I might enjoy although I was welcome to throw it out as soon as he left the room “or even before”, if I wanted to. I took the charmingly-old-school sheaf of papers from his hand—


—and realized that I had actually read this paper a couple of months earlier, off the wall monitor while trudging on the Mill Of Treading. I remember because halfway through, Kaj Sotala and Harri Valpola mentioned something about interspecies brain-interfaces and I thought Of course! You’re not going to get this kind of tech without a whole shitload of people deciding to mindmeld with cats! And after falling off the back of the treadmill I went on to rewrite an internal Vatican report entitled “The Enemy Within”, containing the passage

The essential wickedness of this approach is perhaps best exemplified by the so-called “Moksha Mind” engineered by the Eastern Dharmic Alliance. Their attempts to “modernize” their faith — through the embrace of technology which has been (rightly) banned in the West — resulted in a literally soul-destroying hive which has plunged millions into what we can only assume to be a state of deep catatonia.  (The fact that this is exactly what the Dharmic faiths have aspired to for millennia does not render their fate any less tragic.) The misguided use of brain interface technology to “commune” with the minds of such alien creatures as cats and octopi — a practice by no means limited to the east — has also resulted in untold psychological damage.

Sotala and Valpola, 2013.

The guy who had handed me this paper was Kaj Sotala, of the University of Helsinki’s Computer Science Department. His coauthor, Hari Valpola, hailed from another part of Finland, but he happened to be in the building.

I bought them beers. I have their cards, and e-mail addresses, and a bunch of additional links that I see Kaj sent me a few days back although I haven’t had a chance to look them over yet. Last time anything like this happened was when a neurolinguist named Krystyna Chodorowska looked me up in Poland, but I knew she was coming because we’d been in touch over e-mail. These BCI guys, they just appeared out of the blue.

That’s the thing about cons. You never know who you’re going to run into.

J. Pekka Mäkelä rocks the PJs.

Teemu says he likes my prose. Caitlin reacts.

After over a decade of regular (almost reflexive) attendance at cons in the Greater Toronto Area, my enthusiasm has waned in recent years. So often, beneath the panels and the parties, there seems to be this faint whiff of sourness: someone banned for no better reason than someone else’s personal animosity; tribal squabbles between political factions; the same recycled panels year in year out. Focus on the literature, on the ideas, withers in the shadows cast by the latest Trek or Doctor iterations. Lately I’ve found myself skipping most of the local cons. They just aren’t that much fun any more, for all that I love hanging out with friends and fans.

If they felt like Finncon (or, for that matter, Kontrast in Uppsala last year), I’d be front of the line for every last one of them.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair to the home team. Maybe there’s just as much pettiness and backbiting in the Skyrimesque lands of the Nords, only I’m unaware of it because I’m not from around there (not that I’d describe myself as a card-carrying member of “the Canadian SF community” either, mind you). Or maybe there really are significant differences. Maybe the relative youth of the Finnish SF community, or its smaller size, or the respect accorded by government funding bodies (can you imagine the Harper gummint supporting a Canadian science fiction convention?) contributes to a kind of exuberance. Maybe the longer darker winter nights foster a greater sense of community.

For whatever reason, I woke up this morning — profoundly happy to be back in my own bed, mind you, once again surrounded by my stuff and my beloved mammals of whatever species — and nonetheless found myself missing that mythic place on the far side of an ocean, missing people I’d only known a few days, missing a town where night never fell the whole time I was there.

I had a blast. I can’t wait to get back.

Someone gave me this awesome bobtail squid, but she never signed her name.

This was taken sometime around 1:30 a.m.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday July 10 2013at 07:07 pm , filed under On the Road, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

13 Responses to “The Exact Opposite of a Shit Sandwich.”

  1. Next time, try the licorice ice cream 😀
    (or Salmiakki flavored, same diff)

  2. “There were these horrific little things called Moomins”…

    WHAT!!!! Them there is fighting words.
    Little My is going to smack you into next week. :-)

  3. Moomins ARE NOT HORRIFIC. (OK, Tove Jansson’s books are quite popular in Poland, too, so I guess we’re used to them. :-))

    Also, you obviously need to visit cons in Europe more often.

  4. Welcome home!!

  5. That “Cryosofa” feature will be published in Tähtivaeltaja magazine sometime this year. And you were great. Mouth worked beautifully!!

  6. […] that vein, here is Peter Watts being forthright as usual (warning, contains photo of me). And here is Caitlin Sweet being much […]

  7. Re: the brain interface thing, check John Crowley’s _Engine Summer_. It’s not quite the same since the interface is between a human receiver and a kind of recording-of-a-consciousness. Plays an interesting role in one of the three communities in the book.

  8. When I was doing the translation, it was easier to imagine Jukka Sarasti looking like Jukka Halme than the person the surname Sarasti comes from (as far as I am told).

  9. “a book which purported to be about sending messages to the stars but which was really about sending messages to the earth”


  10. You’d never encountered the Moomins before? I remember the English translations as a child in England. They’re a thinly disguised plot element in one of Bruce Sterling’s short stories, The Littlest Jackal.

    Try them on your kids.

  11. @Peter Watts, re: “Teemu”. I should point out that this is the exact same technique by which they domesticated caribou. Even the reindeer are deeply mystified and start behaving themselves. 😉

    Additionally, the Finns were some of the most innovative “early adopters” of use of “wearable computers” (aka “beltcomm” or “cellphones”), which isn’t too surprising in the context of the fact that Nokia was a major employer there. See also Linux, yet-another awesome thing coming from Finland. I still have my Nokia 770, an “internet tablet” from 2005, which did about everything any modern “smart phone” does, except for actual phone functions. But even before that, the Finns pioneered the use of cellphones to access credit accounts to operate vending machines, or act as controller devices for automation such as garage-door-openers, etc. My point being, that with so much of their economy essentially based on making science fiction into reality and then marketing it globally, you have to expect them to give some proper respect to both the authors and the fandom.

  12. Glad you enjoyed it, glad you enjoyed Kontrast, in Uppsala.

  13. Oh, sorry – that was me. The bobtail squid. I did make it after all (though not by bike). And see, it wasn’t anthrax! *cough* *cough*

    (The reason I spoke so uselessly quietly was because that was the first time I did that again for some years, monosyllabics uttered at random cashiers notwithstanding. I apologise; it must have been infuriating.)