The longer version, or wot I did on my weekend. There were lots of other things happening; I’ve just written about the events I attended.
The SFX crew did a brilliant job of set-dressing the inside of the Pontins venues. Passages were transformed into spaceship corridors and the main venue was hung with giant moons and stars. Troopers, transformers and aliens roamed the place, and daleks performed – er – standup comedy in the bar. The event was extremely well organised. Despite train derailments and pouring rain, everything ran pretty smoothly. The SFX weekender may not be as packed with panels or as writing-oriented as Eastercon and Fantasycon, but it is all about enjoyment, and it’s pulling in huge numbers of fans and industry professionals. It’s a blast.
Friday Arrival: The Pontins Welcome
I want to make it clear that despite their best efforts, Pontins in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the weekend. However, the first thing they do when you arrive is imply that you’re a bunch of thieving bastard vandals who can’t be trusted with a teatowel. They give you a form to record anything that is damaged or missing in your cabin, and if you don’t report it straight away, you are assumed to have caused the damage and will be grossly extorted to make up for it.
By the way, I’m not kidding about the teatowel. Pontins give you nothing. No towels despite being in a “gold” cabin. No tea, no coffee, or washing up liquid, no soap; even the salt and pepper shakers are emptied. Funnily enough, there’s an on-site shop selling all this stuff with shitty brands that you’ve never heard of. It also sells pot noodles, sweets, and anything that hasn’t been anywhere near a vitamin. On that weekend, they were doing a roaring trade in knock-off slankets and fleece onesies for adults, too.
To be fair, the cabin was very clean and warm when we went in (if a bit damp) and they did provide toilet paper of the sort that comes out one sheet at a time from a dispenser. They stopped short of filling it with the stuff that’s like greaseproof paper. Also, we had some electricity. Whether it was left over from the previous tenant or actually provided was unclear.
Friday 16:00: Gaie’s Book Signing in Bartertown
We sorted ourselves out just in time for Gaie to report to the Solaris stand in “Bartertown” and do her very first book signing, sharing the slot with Juliet McKenna. I got my pristine copy of Babylon Steel signed and wandered around the dealers’ room. Lots of books (surprise) but not as much merch as I was expecting. Or jewellery or LARP gear or corsets or masks or cloak clasps. (If you’re in that line, I reckon you could clean up; I’ve read that there were 6000 attendees there, cf Eastercon’s typical 500). Great to see Genki Gear and The Island of Dr. Geof there, though.
Also, there were pretty girls wearing silver swimsuits bedecked with fairy lights wandering around on stilts. Fuel for the gender-balance debate.
The Solaris stand sold out of Babylon Steel before the end of the weekend. Hooray!
Friday 17:00: Just a Minute
The classic Radio 4 game: talk for a minute on a given subject with no hesitation, repetition or deviation. Of course, for this game the given subjects were all SF related. The spirited contestants : Joe Abercrombie, China Miéville, Sarah Pinborough and Toby Whithouse. The somewhat beleaguered mediator : Paul Cornell. The developing grudge match between Mr. Miéville and Mr. Abercrombie led to illegal challenges such as “deviating from interest”, “deviating from the English language” and “that’s just annoying”. Highly entertaining.
Friday 18:00: No Giles
Due to the utter train catastrophe brought on by a de-railing, Anthony Head couldn’t get to the event. A shame, but unavoidable. Maybe next time?
Friday 18:10: The Inevitably Dire Canteen
It’s a canteen at Pontins. Of course it’s bloody awful. We were lucky enough to go in at a time when it was almost empty, though. At other times they simply couldn’t cope with the volume. Being veggie, I inevitably had dried-out tomato and cheese pasta, the last undersized portion chiselled from a corner of the warming dish. It was served with broccoli and carrots and if you’d eaten them blindfolded you’d have been hard pressed to tell the difference. Lesson learned : bring your own food.
Friday 19:00 The Kitschies Awards
Lively awards ceremony run by pornokitsch for books which “best elevate the tone of genre”. The prizes are bottles of Kraken rum and squishy colour-coded tentacles. A list of the winners is published here.
Friday evening : Bar & Queen Victoria Pub & Imaginarium
By the evening we were all flagging for various reasons: lurgification, knackeredness, and poor Gaie was recovering from dental surgery and suffering a triple whammy of painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. We had a couple of drinks in the (cheap!) bar, and dropped in on the 2000 AD party in the Queen Vic pub, which looked like fun. It’s pretty surreal to look through the windows of a cod-Victorian pub and see a life-size Jabba the Hut inside.
The Imaginarium cabaret was suitably odd, exotic and theatrical but despite a medicinal rum-and-coke dosage, we were in no state to appreciate it. We shambled back to the cabin.
Friday Night: How to Get Warm Enough To Sleep in a Pontins Cabin when It’s Below Zero Outside
Well, since the Pontins cabins are made of cardboard and spit, the fact that you’re indoors doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. Anyway, here’s what you do:
- Drive, or get a kind friend to drive you, so you can take a mummy style sleeping bag, your own duvet and a spare chenille throw with you.
- Put on flannel pyjamas and ski socks.
- Unzip your sleeping bag and lay it over the bedsheet. This will stop the cold creeping up through your back. Spread the hood out over the pillow. Leave the foot bit zipped up so you can tuck your tootsies in there when you’re ready.
- Put the duvet provided by Pontins over the sleeping bag.
- Take the spare duvet from the other single bed in the room and put that on top.
- Fold the double duvet you brought from home in half and put it on top of the other two duvets.
- Grab the chenille throw in one hand and insert yourself under the 3 duvets, with your feet in the bottom bit of the sleeping bag.
- Wrap the chenille throw around your head and neck and pull the sleeping bag’s mummy hood up over it.
Voilà! Or, you could try these things one at a time like I did until you eventually get warm enough. Nighty night. Hope you don’t have to get up for a pee.
Saturday Morning: Panels and the Gender Balance
I dropped by the “Sci-Fi Legends” panel and “What is Urban Fantasy” but didn’t take a whole lot in. This is no reflection on the panels or the panellists and absolutely a comment on my general feeling of crappiness.
This might be a good point to mention that there was a debate running about the gender balance at the conference. Some people felt that scantily clad women, or in fact, scantily clad anybodies are not really necessary. I find that less of a concern than the lack of female writers represented on the panels. Lizzie Barrett has written about this; you can read her piece on the Gollancz website here.
Saturday 13:00: Ready! Steady! Flash!
This was one of my favourite panels of the weekend. Four intrepid writers: Paul Cornell, Stacia Kane, Tony Lee and Juliet McKenna undertook the daunting task of writing complete stories on a given subject in 5 minutes. But that’s not all – while they were writing the compère performed a comedy routine and played very noisy games with the audience.
I remember with particular fondness Tony Lee’s complete rhyming poem about Anthony Head missing the con because he was saving the world from zombies.
For the final round, it was the audience’s choice of subject. A poet took the mike to recite a work which involved a loud impersonation of a motorway crow while the determined writers wrote stories about unicorn sandwiches. By this point, Stacia Kane had got to grips with the fact that the audience wanted bad puns, comedy and smut and excelled herself at sinking to our depths.
Brilliant. I hope they do this again next year.
Saturday 15:00: Brain Blessed Q & A or “DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR EARDRUMS, DARLING. YOU’LL GET USED TO IT!”
I have written about this elsewhere. By turns hilarious, inspiring, moving and slightly odd. (Rule Britannia, Britannia rules on Mars!) I would have happily paid the weekend’s fee just for this one hour. I want to be Mr. Blessed, and I know many other ladies came away wanting to marry him. The man is a walking inspiration and has charisma enough to overflow the massive “Main Void” auditorium. I heartily support the movement in the SFX forums to make this an annual event.
Saturday 16:00 : It’s Not a Story, It’s a Map
Gaie bravely took to the stage in the vast and packed “Main Void” for her first ever panel. She joined Juliet McKenna, China Miéville, Sam Sykes, David Tallerman and Ian Whates for a thought-provoking discussion on world-building in fantasy. How much research is too much? How much does an author need to know about how everything works? Interesting to get a spectrum of views, if not much consensus, from the panellists.
Then drinks, of course.
Saturday 18:00 Screening- True Blood
Took place in a large room with tiered balconies set with tables and chairs. Quite a good arrangement, despite the faint ground-in air of seediness, and desperate Pontins “fun”. (None of that at the SFX weekender, but its ghost could be felt lurking in the corners in this room.)
1. Why does somebody come to a darkened screening if they’re going to be texting on their bloody lit up mobile phone the whole bloody time? If you don’t want to watch it, get out. Harrumph.
2. Not enough naked Eric. Or Eric not naked enough. Actually, both.
Saturday 22:00: The Maskerade Ball
This is the big event, and it feels like a big event. People dress up. They really dress up. Just google “SFX weekender 2012” and click on images to take a look at some of the ingenious costumes. Mr. Cave Troll, I salute you. There were men with angle grinders showering sparks over women doing their own grinding in flashing light-up bikinis and stilt walkers with giant Amy Winehouse and David Bowie heads and Craig Charles on the decks looking as though he couldn’t be having a better time and the dancers bouncing beachballs and and and… it was all very exciting. Where else can an old fart like me dress up in costume, wear a mask, and dance like a madwoman around a gigantic, light-up robot? It was like being in my own fantasy sci-fi nightclub. A fitting finale to a great weekend.