Wednesday 8 February 2012

The SFX Weekender

I spent the weekend in Prestatyn, along with about six thousand other people, attending the third SFX Weekender. This was my first time at an SFX event, and also the first time I'd been anywhere near what might be termed a "media" convention - certainly a world away from my experiences at Eastercon, or indeed almost any of the more literary-orientated events in the SF calendar, which tend to the "low key" end of things. Even the Worldcon, which has its share of costumers and VIP guests, couldn't compare to the Weekender. As others have remarked, the demographic was very different to the usual experience, skewing toward a much younger audience, and with what struck me as a fairly even gender balance among the attendees. (Less so with the guests and "entertainment", but that's also been well reported elsewhere).

I'm grateful to SFX for inviting me. I think it's important to go into these things with the right mindset. This is Pontins in Prestatyn, not the Atlantis in Reno. So dial down those expectations. I was mighty glad that my chalet was heated, and although the decor was a little distressed, and there were some interesting mold colonies in the bathroom, it was more than adequate for a couple of days. There was extra bedding. There was a television that worked, and a kettle. There was hot water on the saturday. On sunday it was no more than tepid, but I put this down to everyone rushing to have a shower before checking out in the morning.

Equally, having done my homework, I wasn't surprised to find that the dining options on site were rubbish. Fortunately there were a couple of decent restaurants in town, which was not a long walk from the camp. My colleagues from Orion (Jon Weir, Gillian Redfearn, Simon Spanton and Marcus Gipps) took excellent care of their authors, ensuring there was a ready supply of takeaway pizza and chinese in one of the chalets. Less brilliant, but impossible to resolve on the weekend, was the complete absence of tea or coffee in the main entertainment area. There were a couple of bars (I found the service perfectly OK and friendly, though others have moaned) but I'm not one for drinking alcohol during the day and nor am I overly fond of soft or fizzy drinks. Basically, I'm a writer. I'm a machine for turning coffee into fiction. As an aside, there's much talk of making SF events more inclusive, but I wonder how effective these efforts can ever be when so much of SF culture seems to resolve around alcohol? There are times when British fandom seems to be little more than the literary wing of the Campaign for Real Ale.

What would also have been nice would have been an area to sit down and have a quiet conversation. My abiding memory of the weekend is struggling to hear people, be they on panels or in the bars. It was loud, all the time. But, it was also pretty good fun. I saw a lot of basically happy people. I met some good friends and made some new acquaintances. It certainly feels more "buzzing" than Eastercon and many of the usual Eastercon faces were present, but it's too soon to say whether or not the Weekender will supplant that long-running tradition.

I didn't have too much to do all weekend. I was asked to moderate a panel on space opera, a topic I'm frankly sick to death of, but I think we managed to drag out a few interesting nuggets during our allotted time. My thanks to my fellow participants. There was a minor "moment" when I irritated my friend Jaine Fenn by raising the issue of gender disparity among SF writers, but the fault was all mine; it really had nothing to do with the focus of the topic and it was thoughtless of me to bring it up. Apologies all round.

After that, I joined fellow panelist Peter Hamilton for our joint signing session, which I think went very well. I've known Peter for twenty years, at least (did we meet at the Harrogate Mexicon in 1991, or was it a year later, during the launch of the In Dreams anthology?) but our paths have crossed remarkably infrequently in all that time. Peter is a delightful chap with a warmly appreciative readership, and I've always felt that he paved the way for the likes of me by showing that British SF writers could tackle books of truly monumental scope and not need to apologise for it. Thanks to everyone who showed up at our signing, and thanks to Peter for being good company and sending a few of his readers my way.

Saturday night found me drinking with editors Simon Spanton and Marcus Gipps, whereupon we got into a fascinating chat with a pair of couples who'd come down from Manchester. From what I could gather they'd scored some tickets to the event despite having no prior interest in sci-fi or geek culture - they'd come along purely for the hell of it, to see what it was all about. And they seemed have enjoyed themselves, which is great - exactly the kind of "outreach" there ought to be more of. After that, I ended up propping up the bar with the inestimable Jim Burns and our mutual drinking buddie Gary, talking of Jet Provosts, English Electric Lightnings and suchlike. Honestly, you had to be there. Or maybe you were glad you weren't.

Sunday morning brought anticipated travel chaos. There were no trains to Chester, and the replacement bus service couldn't cope with the demand of several thousand fans. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be invited to share a taxi with Ian Sales and a number of other friendly souls. Thanks! I still only just caught my connecting train, and it was another six hours before I was home, so I shudder to think how late I'd have been without that kind offer.

Would I go again? Depends on the coffee, I think. A chill-out zone, like a hotel lobby, with some comfy chairs and a coffee stand, would make a vast difference. To me, at least.


  1. Whoa! My 2 favorite authors had a joint signing session?! Curse you England! Why must you be so far away!

    1. Damn, when did they move the English/Welsh border?

      Those pesky English stealing our towns.

    2. Sorry! Ignorant American unfamiliar with UK territories :$

  2. When I was checking out after The SFX Weekender 2 I was almost out of the door when a young lady thrust a piece of paper into my hand wanting to know who should be at the SFX Weekender 3 in 2012. Instantly I knew, only two names: Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks (I know he doesn't fly but it's close enough to Scotland to go by train). I'm glad they took my suggestion (and likely that of many others) onboard and you were invited along. By the sounds of it you enjoyed it.

    My mates who came along last year balked at the idea of staying an a Stalinist gulag in Wales and paying for the pleasure this year, which is why sadly I missed it.

    Last year at Camber Sands there was plenty of coffee, whilst the accommodation sounds similar. The fast food joint on site ran out of food on Saturday night as if it had been attacked by hungry locusts, or perhaps greenfly?

  3. Pontins? Oh, I'm not sure. I'm more a Butlins kind of woman. Yes, I'm talking Skeggy. Beautiful beaches.

    Al, you make it sound rather grim. And I do wish you weren't so circumspect. Whatever could have happened with the entertainment? A quick google reveals nothing.

    Now I'm worried. I've committed to Eastercon, my first comm, ever. Luckily, I shall be meeting up with Ian Sales.

  4. "Basically, I'm a writer. I'm a machine for turning coffee into fiction."

    Loving this! (note to self: drink more coffee...)

  5. A whole culture that has passed me by. Thank goodness I can enjoy reading good science fiction without having to commit to welsh gulags torture (actually I took the family to that pontins for a weekend break a few years back! ).
    Easy does it now on the real ale. I was reading your work last night with a pint of hobgoblin and they were quite comfortable bedfellows.