I managed to score free tickets to the SFX Weekender this year; not a difficult feat as there seemed to be hundreds of them, owing to a business model which involved giving me the tickets for free and hoping I would take the opportunity to book cut-price accomodation. I chose to pass on staying at Stalag Camber Sands, seemingly a wise choice as the nicest thing I heard about the accomodation was that it was clean, and instead I booked a cottage and persuaded Niall and Nic to join me in an expedition to see what the SFX cons are like these days.
The convention is a curious hybrid of literary and media convention (in the sense of convention styles, if not subject matter). I’d never been to a media convention, and I’m not sure I ever will go to a purely media event, as based on a weekend of dipping my toes in, it’s not for me. I went along to the Keeley Hawes Q&A, and it cemented my suspicion that while Keeley Hawes is a lovely person, and I am in awe of anyone who could keep their hairstyle so neat in gale-force winds, none of the questions or answers were that interesting. I learned that she did her Ashes to Ashes audition with a scratched cornea, and that she’s got her DI Drake nameplate on her desk at home, and that she likes Spandau Ballet more than Duran Duran. There were frustrating hints of something a bit deeper – she mentioned not watching Life on Mars, having thought it would be overly blokey, but the question of how Alex Drake really changed that was never asked, and instead they moved on to how sexy Gene Hunt was and how we all like a bit of “unreconstructed rough”.
I didn’t pay my £20 for a signing pass, either, as I was content to look at George Takei from afar rather than queueing up for his autograph, but a lot of attendees obviously did, and as the signings took place at the side of the main hall, the noise from the queues and the bar teamed up to make some of the Q&As nearly inaudible. Probably a limitation of the space, and they’re not going back to the venue next year, but it didn’t entice me to hang around in the main room, especially as it reached furnace-like temperatures on Saturday afternoon.
If the media side was a little disappointing, then there was an impressive roster of literary guests to make up for it. Saturday morning I saw the Q&A session for China Mieville, who was as interesting and thoughtful about his work as you might have though, and also can do a good impression of a TIE fighter. Joe Abercrombie, understandably excited by his presence on the bestseller lists, was entertaining and funny and seemed to be in the author-as-performer mode much more than Mieville. In between the two I caught the “Dual Britannia” panel about writing alternate Britains, which was an excellent 25 minutes before it had to stop to get the schedule back on track, and made me want to search out some of Kate Griffin’s novels. Probably the best panel was the one I caught almost by accident while looking for a quiet spot for lunch – the panel on comics outside the UK, with Tony Lee, Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills, and a couple of others whose names I missed, and while it was a little unfocused it was a fascinating discussion on how UK and US comics are going wrong and where the European scene is going right, and some recommendations for what’s good in the UK scene at the moment. All the participants seemed clued-up and refreshingly aware of just how much the superhero comic scene is failing to appeal to anyone outside their core demographics.
So I had fun, despite the windswept nature of Camber Sands and the general ambient tacky awfulness of Pontins. And it seemed like the hundreds and thousands of excited nerds were having fun too, and they skewed fairly young and female. With my Eastercon hat on, what I can’t quite figure out is whether the appeal is all for the media side of things, and the literary events are a pleasant sideshow that attract reasonable crowds taking a break from the main hall, or whether there is really a large group of fans wanting both. Part of the appeal of the weekender is presumably that it is dirt cheap – cram 5 people into your chalet and it’s under £100 per person for entrance and accomodation, which Eastercons are never going to compete with given the scale and venues they use, but some of the people asking smart questions of China Mieville on a Saturday morning must be potential traditional lit con attendees.
But it didn’t feel quite right, in some ways. The cabaret on Friday night was pretty spectacular and had a cool robot, but also failed to feature women as anything but scantily clad dancing girls and volunteers for the contortionist to sexually harass*. I was going to do the quiz instead, but all the tickets were gone before I even arrived in Camber Sands. The lack of name badges made it hard to know who anyone was, but maybe that was the point – it may have been just me, but I felt far more of a divide between invited pros and the everyday fans, partly because there were no panelists who weren’t industry professionals, and partly because the authors were more carefully herded and looked after by their editors than at other conventions. Probably so they didn’t have to eat the Pontins food, but it was different than I was used to.
I’m not going to race back for next year’s con (it’s twice as far away for a start) but I wouldn’t rule out a future trip.
* I left shortly before the end, so there might have been a surprise female act, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen.