Aug 19, 2017

It Can't Happen Here

But it did.

Last night a man brutally stabbed ten people in the center of Turku, killing two and sending eight to hospital. His motives are still unknown, but it appears he chose his victims at random. The investigation is still ongoing, but terrorism hasn't been ruled out.

My heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. The central market square is a place I visit regularly. This could have happened to me or any of my friends or family. I'm incredibly relieved they're safe.

When something like this happens in your home town, it gets under your skin, but that doesn't mean you should let it fester. This kind of thing is almost impossible to prevent, but we have to remember that the police stopped a terrorist attack on the Temppeliaukio church in the spring and are doing everything they can to keep us all safe.

Here are a few things about last night that make me proud to be Finnish:

First of all, the police response yesterday was very efficient: the call came at 4:02 p.m. and the police had stopped and captured the man at 4:05. You can't ask for a better response time than that. They shot the man but caught him alive (because in Finland the police shoot to stop not to kill, and even then as a last resort), which may help us understand why he did what he did and if there are ways to stop such tragedies in the future. If he's mentally ill, he'll get treatment, if he's a terrorist, he'll answer for his crimes.

Second, the authorities flat out refused to jump to the conclusion of terror attack before the matter had been thoroughly investigated, even though the manner of the attack fit and the fact that the perpetrator "appears to not be of native Finnish descent," but took immediate precautions in case it was. Our political leaders have condemned the attack and the President traveled to Turku last night to take part in a church service held to comfort people and help them grieve. The Turku University Hospital and the EMTs took the situation in hand, treating the victims and offering trauma counselling.

Third, many people risked their lives to help the victims. Swedish tourist Hassan Zubier rushed to help a woman bleeding out and got stabbed, as did Finnish entrepreneur Hasan Alazawi. A doctor stayed to perform CPR, and a woman tried to comfort the small child of the victim and helped contact the child's father. A bunch of bystanders grabbed makeshift weapons and chased the man with the knife away from the market square, screaming warnings to those in his path, probably saving many lives. It could have been much worse.

Yes, there are monsters out there. But there are heroes too.

I take comfort in that.


Aug 15, 2017

Worldcon 75

Yay, I made it through Worldcon in one piece! I'm probably the only pregnant woman ever to be totally okay with missing my due date... All in all, I'm glad I took the chance; the baby seemed happy to stay where she was and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. According to the organisers, this year's con turned out to be the second largest Worldcon ever, with 10,516 members and day passes and 7,119 people on site. 

On Wednesday the con site was very crowded and a lot of people missed the panels they wanted to attend, including me. I didn't get into the opening ceremonies or the Tea and Jeopardy podcast afterwards, but as both can be viewed/listened to online, that wasn't the end of the world. Not that much could have dampened my spirits anyway; I was just so happy that I could attend the con after being sure it would be impossible for me to go because of the baby. 

I caught a panel on fashion in science fiction, but unfortunately they had technical difficulties and didn't get much discussion in. By then I had wised up about the queues and turned up an hour early for the next panel I wanted to see: Creating Effective Dialogue with Elizabeth Bear, Nalo Hopkinson, Nina Niskanen, and Ran Zhang. Most of the things they talked about were familiar to me from writing books, but the panelists did have an interesting discussion about incorporating dialect in dialogue and also about how writing dialogue is different in different languages. Hopkinson and Bear had taught Niskanen at Clarion, and both seemed like they'd be great teachers, not scary at all. If I have a chance to attend a workshop with one of them, I definitely will. This time I didn't sign up for any workshops because I didn't want to take up a spot and then have to skip it if I started to have contractions or felt ill. I'd have liked to see a few more panels, but the ones I wanted were full, so I decided to check out the art show and the Hugo awards on display. Nice, huh?

Hugo awards through the ages.

On Thursday the organisers had limited the sale of day passes, closed down the sale of memberships, and negotiated with the venue to get a few larger rooms. It made all the difference! The first two panels I attended, In Defence of The Unlikeable Heroine and Appeal of The Bland Protagonist, were both interesting. I missed Nalo Hopkinson's GoH interview though, because I didn't want to lose my seat. (My friends later told me that there had been plenty of room, but you can't have it all.) I especially liked the unlikeable heroine panel and the way the panelists pointed out the double standard happening with unlikeable male and female protagonists. Have you noticed that most unlikeable female protags are conventionally attractive to compensate being so unlikeable? And how readers will forgive a male protagonist a multitude of sins while condemning a female protagonist for something relatively minor? (Case in point: Jaime Lannister vs. Catelyn Stark. One throws a child out the window, the other one dislikes her husband's bastard. Who do the readers turn on? You guessed it...)

I also made it to a panel on working with editors and one on military science fiction by women authors. By then it was almost five o'clock and I was so tired I went back to my hotel to rest.  

On Friday I made it to astronaut Kjell Lindgren's space medicine lecture and learned some fascinating facts, like how they have to be extra careful on the ISS about looking for things in small compartments (the CO2 builds up and makes you sick) and that all the calluses slough off the soles of the feet in zero gravity.  Can't wait to use all this stuff in a story! Turns out space medicine is mostly about prevention: they pick the healthiest candidates to go up, have them do regular exercise and eat specially designed food to keep them healthy, and take lots of test to catch any problems early. If something unexpected happens, they'd rather send the patient down to Earth than try to treat him or her on the station. 

This is how they sleep on the station. Notice the puffiness of the face caused by fluid redistribution in the absence of gravity.

Another highlight was the Military SF: Pro-War or Anti-War panel with Joe Haldeman, a living legend. I also made it to Nalo Hopkinson's GoH presentation where she read excerpts from unpublished work. Intriguing. Can't wait to read more of her work. I also checked out a panel on monsters, which was fun. 

And of course I attended the Hugo awards. Extremely cool. 

On Saturday I made it to the Legacy of Buffy panel, a lot of fun and very nostalgic. The panel was so full that not everyone got in, so I guess Buffy is still going strong. Then I went for the Finnish Weird panel and a panel where authors talked about their cats. (Yes, really.) Again, I missed out on the extremely popular world-building panel with George R. R. Martin, but was first in line for the Joe Abercrombie interview, so that turned out okay. Abercrombie is a very entertaining speaker, so definitely go see him if you get a chance.

After the interview I hooked up with my Finnish critique group for some writing talk over smoothies and then headed to my last panel, Does Familiarity Breed Contempt in Horror?, before the Masquerade. 

My husband and I had decided to skip Sunday's program earlier, and it was nice to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before catching the train home. There's one good thing about being very pregnant when attending a con: I did almost no shopping despite all the glorious steampunky goodness on display at the trade hall. The idea of having to carry anything extra around with you while dealing with backache and joint pain etc. is a good deterrent. 

All in all, a great experience. I'm definitely happy I went, even though I caught a cold somewhere along the way. (The infamous con crud, maybe?) Hopefully it'll pass before the baby decides to make an appearance. The next Worldcon is in San Jose, but it'll be held in Dublin in 2019. Here's hoping I'll get to attend that one too.  

Aug 8, 2017

Worldcon in Helsinki!

It's almost Worldcon time! The con is held at the Messukeskus convention center in Pasila from tomorrow through Sunday. The registration opens at nine a.m. and the program begins at noon, but there's plenty to see in the evening too. Guests of Honor include Johanna Sinisalo, Nalo Hopkinson, and Walter Jon Williams, but many more authors will be participating in panel discussions, signings, and workshops.

Check out the program here:

Don't have a pass yet? No problem! You can still buy a full membership or opt for a day pass sold at the door.

Aug 7, 2017

Giants and Uncertain Atmospheres at the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum

Gas Giant by Jacob Hashimoto 

The Wäinö Aaltonen Art Museum is having a really good year. Their exhibitions tend to go for the more "out there" stuff, some of which is amazing and some just going for the shock value; the shock value stuff tends to leave me cold, but art is subjective, of course. Fortunately, the current exhibition, Jacob Hashimoto's Giants and Uncertain Atmospheres, soars right into the "amazing" category.

Hashimoto's work is colourful, fun, and inspired by science fiction and video games, so it's right up my alley. He uses a lot of kites in his work, like the installation pictured above. A photo can't do it justice. You need to experience the scale of it to really get a feel for how beautiful it is. 

Super-Robots and Celestial Mechanics

I liked the mix of Japanese minimalism and playfulness. Kids would love this exhibition. Some of the pieces reminded me of fractals and vintage video games, and I loved the use of science fiction elements, like references to wormholes and spaceships.
   This one has the feel of '50s science fiction cover art.

The Air Smelled of Subversion and Boundaries, All Glitter with Bright, Sourceless Light

This piece showcases Hashimoto's interesting technique. Are the shadows cast by the piece part of the piece, or just coincidental? Could one construct a story based on the visual representation here? And don't you love that title? 

The exhibition is open until September 24th, if you want to check it out. 

Aug 5, 2017

Finnish Ingenuity

The news are so depressing these days, all doom and gloom about North Korea's missile trials, the latest stages of the Trumpocalypse, and how climate change and overpopulation will kill us all. Sometimes it feels like nobody is doing anything to solve these problems, but that's not true either.

Here's a few bits of news that won't make you want to curl up with a bottle of tequila:

Finnish scientists have found a way to make protein out of thin air and electricity. Are we on our way to eliminating world hunger? The process is powered by solar energy and it's ten times more efficient than photosynthesis-based methods, like growing soybeans, for example. On top of that, it should work in arid areas where farming is impossible, it doesn't use pesticides, and it doesn't produce greenhouse gases. Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? The scientists speculate that the technology should reach commercial capacity in ten years. And hey, could this be used in space, too?

You can read more here: 

The Finns are also working on how to use the moisture in the air to create renewable electricity that could be used to charge cell phones, for example. It has to do with zirconium dioxide-based nanocomposites and the build-up and discharge of electricity on water droplets in the atmosphere.  

Here's the article in Finnish:

The research is done at the Lappeenranta University of Technology in collaboration with partners from Europe and the US, and you can read more about it here in English:

Maybe we're not doomed after all?

Jul 31, 2017

Reading The Classics: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary 1857 (hi-res).jpg
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Gustave Flaubert's 1857 novel Madame Bovary is considered one of the first novels to represent the style of literary realism (as opposed to romanticism). It tells the story of Emma Bovary, a 19th century desperate housewife who tries to escape her mundane existence by having affairs and buying things she doesn't need and can't afford. Spoilers ahead, beware!

I have to say, Emma Bovary is one of the most unlikeable women characters I've come across in literature so far. She's selfish, callous, mean to her husband and daughter, materialistic, vain, and a total drama queen. Not that there are many likeable characters to be found here; maybe Charles Bovary, the kind but dull husband, or the daughter, Berthe? The rest are a deplorable bunch. There's Rodolphe, the serial womaniser who seduces Emma and then casts her aside, Leon, the clerk with whom Emma has her second affair, Homais, the town pharmacist and frenemy to Charles, and Monsieur Lheureux, who sells Emma goods for credit and manipulates her to buy more and more things while at the same time offering credit to her husband until the Bovarys are completely ruined.

Emma is easy to despise because she makes so many stupid decisions during the story. She's never content, always yearning for something more. She doesn't appreciate her husband or enjoy watching her daughter grow up and is always fawning after the fripperies of wealth and totally unrealistic romantic expectations that her illicit lovers can't hope to live up to. There's a feeling of being stifled and trapped about her, mentally and physically. At first she's happy at the prospect of marrying Charles and escaping her father's humble farmhouse, but then the realities of marriage set in. Her extramarital affairs help her feel alive for a moment, but then they, too, start to feel as dull as married life. Then she tries to fill the void in her soul with materialistic things. In the end she takes her own life and is at peace in her final moments, having at last escaped.

I have to wonder, would things have been different if Emma had lived in the present? Perhaps she'd be a career woman sleeping around to fill the emptiness within, or a young stay-at-home mom trying to keep up with the Kardashians by ordering designer bags and clothes on the internet with money she doesn't have? There's something about Emma's ennui, dissatisfaction, and materialism that feel very contemporary. How many of us are really satisfied with our lives? We, too, escape into fantasies and use shopping to lift our spirits when we're feeling low. Many spend over their means and are up to their ears in credit card debt. But it is true that women have other options than being a mother and wife these days. Would Emma have found a career that gave her life purpose? Could she have been truly happy?    

Many have complained about Flaubert's long and meticulous descriptions, but I quite enjoyed them. Unfortunately my French isn't good enough to read the book in the original language, but as I've studied French it's easier to see that some parts that feel overly sentimental have to do with the translation. I did have a hard time seeing why this book is considered to represent realism, though. The plot is full of melodrama and the ending is almost Shakespearean: pretty much everyone dies/is cast into destitution. Maybe the descriptions of club foot surgery and life in a small town in France in the 1800s are the reason. And Emma is certainly not a romantic heroine.

I wonder what Flaubert really wanted to accomplish with this story. Is it a cautionary tale to scare women into being meek and faithful little housewives, or was Flaubert trying to show how narrow the role of women was at the time and what it could lead to? Somehow I suspect the former. Apparently he also despised the bourgeoisie with their yearning for social climbing and making money, and while he was at it, he also made fun of the silly romantic novels they read by making those one of the causes Emma acted like she did.

On the writerly front, what did I learn? I felt the descriptions were worth studying, even if they're probably too long for the modern reader. And there's a fine line between drama and melodrama. Drama goes over better. I also felt the opening and ending were weird: the story opens with Charles as a boy, but he's not the main character, and it takes quite a while for Emma to appear on the scene. Is this the best way to proceed? Is Flaubert trying to make the reader feel more sympathy towards Charles by introducing him first? The ending, on the other hand, drags on after Emma's death with long passages about Homais and his business affairs while stating the fate of Charles, Charles' mother, and little Berthe in a very clunky and callous way that feels like "Hey, look, here's the moral of the story." Nobody likes being lectured to.

Once again, not a book I enjoyed or would read again, but I can see why it's considered a classic.

Classics read: 31/100


Jul 23, 2017

Coffee and Cake: The Qwensel House Café

The Qwensel House Café is located in the inner courtyard of the Pharmacy museum near the center of Turku. The museum is only open in the summer (from May to the end of August) and at Christmastime, but now is the best time to visit, I think. 

The café is located in a 1700s house that survived the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, a rare occurrence for a wooden house of the time. Maybe the house's proximity to the River Aura had something to do with it? The house is named after Wilhelm Johan Qwensel, who bought the house in 1695 when he moved to Turku from Stockholm to work in the court of appeal.   

The café serves homemade cakes, pies, and pastries along with coffee and tea. 

I tried a savoury cheese-and-tomato pie this time, which turned out to be a good choice, although the sweet treats my friends had looked really good too.

Definitely a café to visit as much for the atmosphere as the food. I'm thinking it would be a great place to write some steampunk or historical fiction, but bringing a laptop here would be sacrilege; this is clearly notebook-and-pen territory. If you have the time, do check out the museum, too.