Guesting in Moominland

In Finland, the SF fanzines are in mourning for two departed authors: Tove Jansson, the Finnish lady famed for her Moomintroll children's fantasies, and Douglas Adams – who's very big there. Every bookshop has copies of his novel Linnunradan Käsikirja Liftarielle, and the SF club in Jyväskylä calls itself 42.

Jyväskylä hosted this summer's national Finnish SF convention, whose guests included Jonathan Carroll, performance artist Stelarc, me, and Richard Stallman of GNU fame – software wizard and foe of copyright. Not only is Finland the home of the free operating system Linux, they run free SF conventions too (with help from sponsors). So with less than a tenth of our population, the Finns lured well over 2,000 people to Finncon '01, while the British national convention managed only 814.

Jonathan Carroll, a very private person, unbent in an interview and told how he'd been been asked to draft a Hollywood scenario based on his offhand proposal about a dying girl, a unicorn, and magic. "Wonderful idea, high concept," the movie moguls said, and enthused even more when they saw the write-up: "We love it! ... But can we drop the magic and the unicorn and make the whole thing more like When Harry Met Sally?"

I couldn't resist asking whether the antique painting of that grotesque dog Old Vertue featured in Carroll's The Wooden Sea really existed. "It's there on the cover!" he expostulated. "But artists can make things up," I said suspiciously. Apparently it's a genuine, historical painting, although the only copy Carroll has is a newspaper clipping. "And none of the reviewers saw the connection between Old Vertue always returning and the hero's teenaged self coming back," he said: "I thought that was so obvious." "Yes, of course," I lied.

Meanwhile, Finncon was part of an international arts festival that raged through Jyväskylä all week, including Belgian slapstick, French jugglers, Italian musical parody, American clowns and dancers, and a splendidly tasteless black-comedy troupe called Spymonkey from exotic, far-off Brighton. Even more macabre than Spymonkey was the local pub Ye Old Brick's Inn, whose anglophile bar featured a large, depressing mural of the British royal family (including Princess Di).

The guest I was most nervous of meeting was Stelarc from Australia, whose artistic performances used to consist of suspending his naked body from terrifying, flesh-piercing hooks. He was great fun in person, though, explaining with relish how he couldn't get permission to appear in public in New York but did it anyway, nudely dangling from hooks several storeys above a crowded street until 12 minutes later a small army of police arrived to stop him.

Stelarc has since gone more high-tech, building himself a mechanical third arm and a walking robot platform, both controlled by electrical stimuli from his own muscles: "I really wanted an extra arm on each side, but this one cost $20,000 to develop ..." Of course I congratulated him on solving the ancient Zen riddle, "What is the sound of three hands clapping?"

His next offbeat idea was to place the body under outside control via muscle-stimulating electrodes, and four hapless Finncon members were wired up as a demo – unable to resist raising, bending or twisting their arms as the merciless voltage from Stelarc's control-box took over. Anyone who knows SF fans can imagine the later scenes of overacting in pubs: "I'm trying terribly hard not to lift and drink this beer, but Stelarc has overridden my nervous system... glug, glug."

A future Stelarc scheme is his Third Ear Project, surgically constructing an extra ear on his cheek, made of actual flesh and perhaps able to emit RealAudio sounds from the web – but doctors are reluctant to operate. "Maybe I'll have it put somewhere easier, like on my forearm. Then I'd always have something up my sleeve." My own suggestion was to modify one's facial structure by simple overeating, an artistic plan which I called the Third Chin Project. It says a lot for Finnish hospitality that local fans all dutifully laughed at this feeble gag. What wonderful people.

After Finncon's closing party (all the smoked salmon you could eat), there was a last pub session where hapless guests were introduced to a deadly local liquor tasting like liquorice dissolved in ouzo with a hefty dose of salt. Important note: it's unwise to sit up drinking with Finns and visiting Swedes until darkness falls, because in those latitudes it doesn't ...

David Langford was startled that even in small Finnish towns, the newsagents sell SFX.