SFX Weekender – The Con Comes of Age

Pontin’s. In Wales. In February. Eight (yes, eight) trains and eight-and-a-half hours from Sutton – by the time I rolled in, a G&T was necessary and the travel chaos was having a similar ‘blitz spirit’ effect to the chalets at Camber.

The weekend’s been maniacal, fantastically busy – we’ve had non-stop a stream of signings, as well as a huge array of fans and costumed characters, buying t-shirts and goodies and books. We’ve met John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; we’ve seen Daleks and K9s and giant Predators and hot girls on stilts. We’ve seen robots, large and small. We’ve seen Steampunk, we’ve seen superheroes, we’ve had a large amount of beer. We’ve seen Pat Sharpe and Craig Charles, spinning their tunes, getting us all up to dance our arses off.

Thanks go to all of the publishers and guests who signed for us, to Suzanne and the girls for letting me nab chalet space (and bacon), to Gollancz for letting us nab taxi space, and to Alasdair Stuart for extremely well-timed coffee runs (did I mention we were busy?)

Memorable moments include Al Ewing’s tunes, Raygun Rankin’s ink and Sam Sykes’ thighs (don’t ask). Oh, and the gorilla with the unlikely banana.

Through all of the event though, there was a common theme of conversation. Namely – the face and content of the ‘SF con’ is changing. Angry Robot’s Lee Harris drew the difference between the ‘fan convention’ – the cons that we know and love, the ones at which we see the same faces, the same friends – and the ‘commercial convention’. The SFX Weekender was the latter, it was more like Kapow! than it was like EasterCon – it’s a con that’s opened out to new ideas and new demographics, to more people and younger people, to new blood and enthusiasm. China Miéville said the ‘Geek Pound’ is still strong – and he’s right.

SFX got the mix right; they’ve effectively blended the traditional ‘book con’ (panels and signings) with geek-cool celebrity, with cosplay, with props and monsters and movie culture, with music, with glamour, with in-jokes and eye-candy… all of this explodes out of the traditional mould and comes together to bring us something new.

We like it. The Con has come of Age.







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The SFX Weekender

The second SFX Weekender – the second visit to Camber Sands – and this time you know what to expect…

Yes, the Mouth of Hell.

You know you’re in the middle of nowhere, scoured to the bone by wind and sand. You know your teeth will be chattering as you run to and from your tiny chalet, lost in the nightmare maze of concrete walkways. You know to pack your towel, your sleeping bag, everything you’ll need for a weekend’s indoor camping. Just like you know the carpet in the Main Void will stink from years of liquid abuse, and the velour on the benches in the pub will be worn to a shine by generations of drinkers’ bums…

But hey, you go – because you also know that you’ll have a fantastic weekend.

Favourite moments include the steampunk costumes of the actuator girls, the new take on an old act done by the eerily bendy Chris Cross, Dan Abnett allowing himself to be strangled, and Titan the Robot (of course). Craig Charles spun a spectacular set, Terry Pratchett was greeted by a cheer that raised the roof (‘never give up, never surrender’) and I met my son’s favourite canine celebrity.

Props go to the publicists, authors and artists who supported the utterly loopy signing schedule at the FP table – and the space we had to host it in. I’ve never had to contortion six names into a three-foot gap before (and, please, I’ll never have to do it again). Likewise props to the unnamed security guard who let us escape on the Friday night after nearly eleven hours on our feet – and to those who blessed us by bringing much-needed humour and beer.

Oh, and to those who asked? Yes, my head did fit into the saucepan.

Black Library publicist Andy described the weekend as ‘The Land That Time Forgot’, amused by the irony of the situation. Here we are, he said, science fiction readers and watchers and fans, looking to the future, and we’re stuck in something out of a 1950’s timewarp. Horror author Wayne Simmons observed that same irony as he talked about the progressive nature of the event – blending books and toys and comics and signings and music and panels and cabaret into something new that kicks down the doors of ‘fandom’.

Last year, the whole ‘chalet’ experience added to the event – giving a strong sense of ‘surviving disaster’ team spirit. This year, that legend became a Branding-point, with teasing tweets and wind-up conversations bringing anticipation and laughs of horror. Knowing what to expect, we all got into the spirit of things, swapping tales of terror from our scrotty, student-level digs.

Yes, I had to wash my hair in a saucepan – but it’s exactly that experience that turns the whole weekend into one long festival – a celebration of geekery in all its forms.

Well done, SFX!

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The SFX Weekender: Sensory Overload!

Where can you find a half-dozen hot dancers on four-foot actuators, their endless changes of fantastical costumes towering over the assembled mass? Where can you find Tom Baker’s sincerity, love and dry wit – and James Marsters’ American accent cussing the sparkly vampires of ‘Twilight’? Indeed, where can you find Aliens shagging the foyer – and a red-faced fan couple shagging in the TARDIS?

If I told you it was in a bedraggled and shabby ‘Hi-De-Hi’ holiday camp, you’d think I’d been on the little pink pills. But, no pills – this was the SFX Weekender at Pontin’s in Camber – a sensory overload where ‘surreal’ became an inadequate word to describe increasing layers of wackiness.

By day, we were defended by the Forbidden Planet trading table – able to see over the heaving seethe of fans to the talks and panels of the main stage. Not only Tom Baker and James Marsters, but Gareth David-Lloyd, Lis Sladen, Gerry Anderson – all of whom the business has met before. An impressive line-up – and one that had the Weekender’s attendees queuing for signatures in great fan-serpents of patience, winding across the floor.

And it wasn’t only about the celebs. A series of talks and panels by the best in speculative fiction and comic book talent gave the weekend another level of appeal. A thank you to the guys and girls of Gollancz and Tor UK for dropping by our table, and lending us their support and time.

I should also insert a special thank you to Dave Gibbons for, not only signing for us, but this – the moment which made the weekend of Watchmen fan Gus: –

By night, there yet more layers – from a teenage compulsion to play the arcades to donning an evening dress to hit a sweaty dance floor. The DJ set was played by Pat Sharpe (a name ever-associated with children’s TV and that god-awful mullet) and decorated by male dancers shedding sparks from angle grinders, actuator girls covered in the most glorious CyberDog-esque LEDs and a miniature Lucifer, enticing us all us to dance our way to certain doom.

So we did.

With a wealth of costumes and performers everywhere we turned – from fan to pro, frock to Stormtrooper, confident card magician to blue-painted Na’vi – the SFX Weekender was all about layers – more than I’ve ever seen at an industry event. But however many there were, there was that same sense of community that comes with the bigger common interest – that comes with being a fantasy island, secure away from the real world. That, perhaps, is why the nostalgic seediness (and peculiar ‘Prisoner’ atmosphere) of the Pontin’s Holiday Camp worked so well.

Part Fan Con, part SF/F Con, part costume parade, part rave, part quiz, part signing, part chaos and all wonderfully surreal, this was an ambitious, wide-appeal winner. No-one had known what to expect… what we got, was everything.

Well done to Stuart and the SFX team. We look forward to next year!

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