So Liam P emails that he has some free tickets to SFX Weekender 3, and who fancies going? While some people seem to think the SFX Weekender is the future of cons, I’m not convinced – though, to be fair, everyone claims to have a good time. Since this year it’s in Prestatyn, North Wales, and a good deal closer than the previous two in Rye, Sussex (166 km by road compared to 413 km, according to Google Maps), I decide I might as well see what all the fuss is about. So I say yes. Then a whole bunch of people pile in and start organising chalets – because SFX Weekenders take place at Pontin’s holiday camps – and I don’t know any of these people and it starts to seem less likely I’ll be in one of the chalets they’re arranging. So perhaps I won’t be going after all.
Then Lavie Tidhar emails me: three of them are staying in a nearby hotel and they need a fourth to make up two twin rooms. I check out the hotel – it’s definitely close and it looks quite pleasant. I agree. So it seems I am going after all.
Except the person I’m supposed to be sharing a room with pulls out two days before as he’s now staying in a chalet. I ring the hotel and get my booking changed to a single room. They agree too quickly, so I ring the next day to make sure… which is fortunate as it had all got garbled. But. Anyway. I have a hotel room.
I catch the train to Prestatyn via Manchester and it’s a painless journey. As I walk into Beaches Hotel, I see Lavie and David Tallerman, who have also just checked in. I dump my bags and together we head off to Pontin’s, a walk of about 800 metres. There’s a queue for tickets out the door at the main facility, so we blag our way in. Lavie and David’s tickets are with their publisher, Angry Robot, but I’d have to queue for mine – I’ve been told I just need to ask at reception, they’ll have my name on a list – but I’d sooner wait for a smaller queue.
After a pint, I head back outside to see if the queue is smaller. It’s not. It now stretches across the car park. But I have no choice so I join the end. Two hours later, I reach the front. And it occurs to me that perhaps I should ask at the Artists & Media window for the free ticket. So I do. They check but I’m not on any list. They give me a free ticket anyway. I’m in. And it only took two hours of unnecessary queuing. I go look for the others. They haven’t moved.
The Pontin’s venue consists of a foyer, which they’ve decked out with grey plastic panels and hazard tape to look science-fictiony; and a large main hall with banked seating at the back. Next to that is the dealers’ room, which is pretty large, though all the books on sale are new books. (I only buy one, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, so I can get it signed. I think that’s a con record for me.) There is also a lot of media stuff being sold. A passage leads alongside an amusement arcade and into another hall, which has no stage, but stepped levels to left and right with tables and chairs. There is a long bar running along the back of the room. And finally, there is the Queen Victoria pub. Everywhere looks a bit run-down and cheap and nasty. The function areas are painted black, like low-rent night-clubs. The beer is not especially cheap – £3 for a pint of lager, £1.90 during the 7pm – 9pm happy hour.
I later heard about 6,000 people turned up, though the Saturday was about twice as busy as the other days. Most people seemed to be there for the media side of things, but I met a surprising number of people I knew through written sf – including, in no particular order, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Michael Cobley, Jaine Fenn, Jim Burns, Peter F Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Ian Whates, the aforementioned Lavie and David, Sam Moffat and Paul Skevington, Donna Scott and Neil Benyon, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Sandy Auden, Andy Remic, editors from various publishers, Terry Martin from Murky Depths, Chris Teague from Pendragon Press, Roy Gray from TTA Press… I got to meet Jared and Ann from Pornokitsch for the first time, and also China Miéville and Joe Abercrombie. Others I spoke to include Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke, Liz Batty, Gareth L Powell, Paul J McAuley… and no doubt many more whose names I either didn’t catch or have criminally forgotten.
I managed to attend three programme items – well, two and a half. The Kitschies Awards ceremony, and then the pub quiz which followed. We came third, though this was chiefly due to Saxon Bullock, who knows far too much about sf films and television. And I sat through the first half of the space opera panel, before the heat drove me from the room.
People throughout the weekend seemed to flip between two states: drunk or hungover. I was back in my room by midnight every night, and up early for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, there was nowhere on the Pontin’s site to sit down and chill out. Everywhere was too noisy. I only managed to read a single book over the weekend, Betrayals by Charles Palliser. (It’s very good.) There was a canteen which sold food and coffee, but it too was large and loud. I seem to recall spending most of the time wandering from one bar to the other, walking to the hotel and back, going to chat to friends on dealers’ tables, and having snatched conversations in the pub. I ate lunch in the hotel bar on the Friday and Saturday – and it was very nice – but failed to eat in the evenings. The Gollancz party was fun, though somewhat compact. There were a lot of people wandering around in costumes, including some dance troupe in weird costumes on stilts. And there were Imperial Stormtroopers everywhere, often stopping the cars driving through the camp.
Having now survived an SFX Weekender, I’m not convinced it’s the future of cons as some claim. It’s a more commercial convention than a typical sf con like the Eastercon. There was no real time for reflection or quiet conversation – those were probably supposed to take place in the chalets. The cosplayers weren’t all that different to the masqueraders you used to see at Eastercon, though there were more of them – and, of course, the cosplayers’ costumes were (mostly) recognisable as media sf and fantasy characters.
The Thursday night was cold, but Friday was sunny and warm. I even went for a short walk on the beach by the hotel. It chucked it down all Saturday. And the heating was on full-blast that day in the venue, making it uncomfortably hot. How some of the cosplayers – especially the Wookie – put up with it is beyond me.
We’d known for weeks there was no rail service from Prestatyn on the Sunday. But someone clearly neglected to tell whoever had organised the replacement bus service there would be several thousands people heading home from SFX Weekender on that day. I got to the station at 10 am, and there were already several hundred there queuing for a coach. I’d been told a taxi to Chester would only cost about £40, so was cheap enough if split four ways. I mentioned this to the guys next to me in the queue. We decided to do that. I then saw Al Reynolds waiting in line for the replacement bus, so invited him on our plan. A couple overheard us, and they too joined in. We got a six-seater minibus, and it cost us £50 in total. Result.
At Chester station, I bumped into Mike Cobley, who was taking the same train as me, though not all the way to Manchester. He’d got a lift to Chester in a minibus laid on by Orbit for its authors. As the train moved out of Wales and into England, so snow began to appear on the ground. In Manchester there were several inches. It made the weekend I’d just spent in a holiday camp surrounded by Imperial Stormtroopers seem even more unreal and otherworldly.
Will I go next year? It’s going to be in Prestatyn again. I don’t know. Beaches Hotel is very pleasant and I recommend it. If I do go, I’d definitely stay there. But I suspect I need more of a reason than simply attending to do SFX Weekender 4. If I was selling or promoting something, perhaps it would be worth going. We shall see.