The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, August 27, 2003


Seeing Mars from Uppsala


I've recently returned from Sweden, where I was one of three Guests of Honour at Swecon 2003, held 15-17 August at the Angstromlaboratoriet, the physics building at Uppsala University. The other writer GoH was Alastair Reynolds, and the fan GoH was P. C. Jorgensen. I travelled with my wife Carol, who joins me in thanking Swecon and the fine SF bookshop SF-Bokhandeln for their generous hospitality. We stayed in the Eklundshof hotel, a very nice place about five hundred metres from the con.

Wednesday 13/8/03

We flew from a warm Edinburgh to a very hot Heathrow, and then on to Sweden: over the North Sea, then over fields, then forests all the way to the edge of the airport, Arlanda. It's a bright, airy, modern airport with great curving metal ribs under the roofs and a control tower that looks like it came from Tracy Island. Maria Jonsson and Sten Thaning met us and drove us to Uppsala. It's a small university town, with few buildings over four storeys; its skyline is dominated by a bulky red castle with dome-topped towers, and the distinctive double spire of the cathedral. We passed through the centre and on to Eklundshof to drop off our luggage, then to Johan Anglemark's house on the edge of town. Johan had prepared dinner for us and for a dozen or so fans. Chili con carne, followed by ice cream with warm cloudberry jam and punch (caloric punch), chilled. Lots of conversation. As one might expect, Johan has an impressive number of books and two cats.

Thursday 14/8/03

Woke in the morning to find the water was off, and that I'd forgotten to pack my shaving gear. Breakfast was self-service, with rolls and rye bread and crispbread, hams and cheese, and pots of pickled herring and caviar as well as cereals, dried fruits, and jams. Walked to the nearby gas station for wipes and razors. The path took me past the Angstromlaboratoriet, a linked series of large red brick and glass window and metal strut buildings, outside of which shoals of bikes were parked. Back at reception I got an explanation of the water problem - mains broken. It came back on just before we left, at ten.

Walked in to town along the river bank, past houseboats and other boats, turned right at the bridge and then took the second or third left into main shopping street. The first shop we noticed was a thrift shop, where Carol bought a skirt and blouse and I sifted through old books. We had coffee and doughnuts at a pavement cafe, wandered through a mall and bought an umbrella at Stadium, the sports shop, as showers threatened. Met Sten at the station, as arranged, beside a big and rather odd statue of what looks like a couple dancing on top of the heads of much larger naked and priapic figures and various complicated symbolic instuments. He bought the tickets and joined us on the train to Stockholm. Stockholm is much livelier than Uppsala. Maria was waiting for us at the station. Walked up, past the big Lutheran kirk opposite the station, to Cafe Kondittori Bellman where we had coffee and pastries. Then walked down a long shopping street across bridges to the royal palace, guarded by young soldiers doing their military service, and on in to the old town, Gamla Stan. The SF-Bokhandeln, at the sign of the spaceship and dragon, is a fair way down one of Gamla Stan's long and very narrow streets. It's big, well-organised and has a huge English-language section. At the bookshop we met Al Reynolds and his partner, Josette, and the owners and staff. Maths (pronounced Matts), one of the owners, took me and Al through a low door down stone steps to an ancient cellar, where he and a man called Kristian and a woman called Tove interviewed us over a thermos of coffee. Carol and Josette went off with Maria and Sten, shopping. After the interview we had a successful signing session, up at the back of the shop.

After the signing we had drinks in the basement bar of Sally's Place, where one beer and one glass of wine cost 125 SEK. (10 pounds). Then the SF-Bokhandeln people took us out to dinner in a very good restaurant, again downstairs. Walked back in the rain showers with Sten, Maria and Therese, who had baked the Tiptree bake sale cookies. Train to Uppsala, where Sten fixed us a taxi to the hotel.

Friday 15/8/03 and onward

Carol and I went into town and had a take-away lunch while people-watching in the mall (it was raining outside.) After finding the Uppsala English Bookshop we crossed a bridge to the town's cathedral, the double-spired Domkyrkan. We walked around it, looking at the tombs of various kings (all of whom seem to be called Gustav Adolf), of the biologist Carl Linne, and of the visionary theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.

The Uppsala English Bookshop has a better SF/fantasy selection than most bookshops in Britain, and the quality of its general stock is likewise high. The signing went well and afterwards we all ducked through rain and piled into cars along with boxes of Al's books and mine and made for the Angstromlaboratoriet. Registration was on the door, and quick. We walked through halls the size of turbine rooms to the con's central site, a big room with a lot of tables, around which fans were already gathering and drinking beer. All except most of the fans we'd already met, who were on the committee and running themselves ragged, as they did all weekend.

They did a great job of it. Warm thanks to them all. It would be tedious to recount all the panels, but it was far from tedious - in fact, it was a joy - to participate in them. The English-language stream of the con seemed spontaneously to shape itself into a single long conversation about the future, about space and space opera, about the Singularity and alternatives to it. Everybody's English shamed my insularity. We lived for three days on beer and microwaved dinners and Tiptree cookies. It was great.

On the Saturday night Carol and I were walking back to the hotel with Al and Josette, and I said something about Mars, and looked south and there it was, bright and red and close. A few minutes later, as we walked between trees, Josette pointed up and said, 'There's the space station.' And there it was, a swift spark.

After the con Carol and I stayed on for a few days. We visited Stockholm again, and then again, and the beautiful island of Vaxholm in the inner archipelago; spent a day in Uppsala going around the ancient burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala, and the garden of Linnaeus where you can see plants labelled in the format Genus species L. and realise they were named thus by the man himself, the Adam of science in his own garden; and the Museum Gustavianum with its precipitous and evocative anatomy lecture theatre and its cabinets of curiosities. On our last day we went to the Vasa Museum, built around the great doomed ship, a tall massive bulk surrounded by as conscientious and vivid a reconstruction of its context as could be made. You walk around it, level upon level, you read label upon label, and gradually it makes sense and fills your mind.

Sweden is like nowhere else I've been. You can - literally - set your watch by the trains. Almost everyone looks healthy. Maybe it's the welfare state, maybe it's the ubiquitous bicycling, maybe it's the high price of booze. Whatever, and whether or not it's the future, it works. Visit it if you can.

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