First, an extremely compact pre-history: the Finnish convention tradition is rather a short one. The first convention (that identified itself as such), KingCon (1982), was a Swedish–Finnish cooperation, starting with Swedish fans taking the ferry to Finland and continuing in Helsinki. The second convention was TamCon in 1985 in Tampere. These were traditional, small, meeting-of-fandom conventions, with some programming, movie showings, etc.
The Finnish national convention, Finncon, has been in existence since 1986, so it is a relatively new convention. From 1989 on it was held biannually, but recently most years have seen a Finncon. Itâ€™s been most often held in Helsinki; four times in JyvÃ¤skylÃ¤, two times in Turku, and this year for the first time in Tampere.
Finncon isnâ€™t just a label given to a regional convention that would have happened anyway: the organizers set out to do a national convention from the beginning (and in the spirit of cooperation I mentioned yesterday, there isn’t bidding for the con—the first one to volunteer usually gets to organize it, with help from fans from other cities). One important aspect of Finncon has been—in addition to providing a meeting place for fandom—to bring science fiction to the general public and raise awareness of fandom. For this reason, Finncons donâ€™t have a membership fee; anybody can stop by and come see what this thing we do is all about. Because of this, the conventions are also large—nowadays itâ€™s not unusual to have 5 000 to 8 000 unique visitors at the con. To find the funding for such a convention—and with no membership fee to boot—is naturally a daunting effort. Our fundraisers have risen to the task: Finncons are funded with grants from the government and various cultural organizations, sponsorships from publishers and other companies, and also by selling vendor space and ads for the program book.
As Finncons have grown, itâ€™s become possible to have more guests of honor, and weâ€™ve had plenty: among others, Jeff VanderMeer, Justina Robson, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Hand, Ellen Datlow, Cheryl Morgan, M. John Harrison, Charles Vess, Farah Mendlesohn—and thatâ€™s just counting the last three Finncons.
Thereâ€™s also a lot of programming going on at a Finncon. For example, the Helsinki con in 2006 had over 100 program items in total. Nowadays there usually is at least one program track constantly going on in English, so the convention is very foreigner-friendly (meaning that if you just happen to be traveling in Finland some summer and want to come visit and see what a Finnish convention looks like, youâ€™ll have plenty of program items to watch. Due to the beginner-friendly nature of Finncons there’s usually quite a lot of introductory programming aimed at casual attendees, but there are also program items about literature, fandom, science, movies, etc. at the con, so it should offer something for everybody. For a few years now it’s also been a custom to organize a writers’ workshop and a sf researchers’ meeting at Finncon, along with meet and greets of several fannish groups and communities.
In recent years, Finncon has been organized together with Animecon, the largest gathering of manga and anime fans in Finland. This accounts for a large share of the huge amount of visitors, but unfortunately also presents quite a challenge of finding suitable venues and enough organizers to put together this enormous event. There’s also been a lot of discussion in fandom lately about whether organizing such a huge event is the best way to serve those interested in science fiction, whether members of fandom or just interested readers walking by. Weâ€™ll see how the trend continues, but at the moment it seems that after several years together with Animecon, 2010 will see a Finncon stand alone again.
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Another notable, and the most international Finnish convention is Ã…con, held in Mariehamn, the capital of Ã…land (a group of islands on the archipelago between Finland and Sweden). It’s been organized two times so far, and Ã…con 3 is scheduled to happen next May. Ã…con is very different from Finncon: it’s a “normal” convention that has a membership fee, its size is capped at around 100 members, the target group is fandom, and the convention is very relaxed, with only one program item running at a time. The programming doesnâ€™t usually start before noon, which is good because the convention is held in a hotel, and the hotel bar is usually in good use until closing time (and the rooms and hallways after that).
Although Ã…con started with the Finns it’s always had a large number of members from other Nordic countries (especially Sweden) and serves as a meeting place for the Nordic fandom. The second and third Ã…cons have also had committee members from both Sweden and Finland, so it’s a fine example of Nordic cooperation. Ã…con has a history of excellent Guests of Honor: the first GoH was Hal Duncan (who almost succeeded to drink the combined forces of Finland and Sweden under the table) and this year we had the pleasure of meeting Ian McDonald (who also was a jolly and entertaining guest, even though he insisted on breaking the tradition and actually sleeping a little during the convention). And I’m very happy to say Ã…con 3 has just announced Steph Swainston as its GoH, so the excellent series of interesting authors continues next year.
Due to its focus, the convention is much more fannish, and thereâ€™s usually some fandom-related programming along with the â€œseriousâ€ literary items and the â€œnon-seriousâ€ items (quiz shows and such). It also seems to generate a lot more random sillines than other, more formal conventions. If you want to see a small town overrun by fans who buy the stores empty of Hello Kitty items, take photographs of convention members painted pink against the backdrop of the huge ferries going between Sweden and Finland, participate in William Shatner karaoke, have serious book discussions in the wee hours of the morning as part of the official programming, or just spend all night sitting in a hotel corridor drinking booze and talking science fiction, Ã…con is the place to be. Oh, and the whole convention is in English, so speaking Finnish or Swedish is not a requirement.
Some other, smaller and more regional conventions are TamFan (a biennial fantasy convention in Tampere, organized by the smial Morel of the Tolkien society), ESCON (YA-oriented convention in Espoo), and TÃ¤htivaeltaja-pÃ¤ivÃ¤ (an occasional minicon hosted by the excellent TÃ¤htivaeltaja zine). In addition, the Finnish fandom has a couple of “relaxcon” picnics (one in Tampere and one in Helsinki) every summer, where fans from all over come meet each other, sit in the sun (or rain, as quite often is the case), play games, and drink some beer (it wouldnâ€™t be an sf gathering otherwise). Every winter thereâ€™s a meeting of all the sf societies and clubs in Finland in Tampere (which I mentioned yesterday). People tell each other of their plans for the coming year, plan for joint ventures, and socialize. Itâ€™s not considered a convention, but could just as well be called the Finnish Smofcon.
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I’ve been to conventions in Finland, and also in Sweden, Denmark, The United Kingdom, USA, and most recently also in the Czech Republic. What I think sets Finncon apart from all the other cons I’ve seen is its outward attitude, the reaching out to the general public to show them what sf is (and so I’m again back to the themes I talked about yesterday). Instead of “just for us”, we’re putting the convention out there for everybody to visit. I think you could say it’s a bit like a “Worldcon lite”, without all the baggage. Of course, Worldcon members are mostly active fans and therefore the con creates a much stronger feeling of community (which to me is what makes them so great), but we have the size, the multifarious programming and the huge amounts of people. And better press.