SFX Weekender

Well, that was a blast. I just spent the weekend being a guest at this year's SFX Weekender at Camber Sands, not far from Brighton. I'll be honest - the location struck me as being a bit bleak and remote, although that was as much a function of the time of year and the howling winds sweeping along the beaches nearby as much as anything else.

There were a lot of people there, and it's easily one of the biggest cons I've ever been at, barring a couple of Worldcons. I understand there were between two and three thousand people there over two days, but if you told me there were more, it wouldn't surprise me.

Via Mark Newton's blog: giant robot terrorizes audience.
The moment I'll most remember? The rabbit-in-the-headlights experience of finding myself on a huge stage in front of several hundred people, and quite possibly more, hearing my voice boom out across this vast freaking hall, just an hour or two after Chloe from Tor had picked me up from the train station at Rye. I was taking part in a panel on 'science in science fiction' and, as interesting as it was, it was also just a tiny bit overwhelming. I turned to my right - I was bang in the middle of the line-up behind a long desk - and saw Stephen Baxter and Peter Hamilton. To my left, China Mieville, Paul Cornell and Kevin J. Anderson. All speaking with an air of confidence and erudition that was, for want of a better word, challenging.

Dear god. Rabbit in the headlights for sure. The sound wasn't as good as it could be and for much of the hour I was up there, the audience was in fact mostly invisible due to extremely powerful lights shining onto the stage. It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with a friend who performed in various metal bands way back in the Eighties; I'd asked him if he ever got nervous up on stage, and he replied that most of the time you couldn't even see the audience, so that took a lot of pressure off. He was right.

The sound problems - including a heavy echo across this vast, hangar-sized room - meant I had to keep leaning over to hear what people next to me were saying. Every time I turned towards China on my left, I kept getting distracted by the highly detailed tentacle tats wrapped around his arm. The rest of them had an admirable rapport with the audience, indicating they had considerably more con panel experience than I've yet managed to muster even in several years as a writer.

Given the circumstances, I made a point of not saying anything unless I could make it as clear and cogent and pointed as possible. Unfortunately, by the time I felt like I was starting to relax, the panel was just about over. And that was my only panel, apart from a signing session in the company of all the other Tor writers the next afternoon, which went about as well as I'd expected.

Me, Orbit's Anne & JC Grimwood, via the Orbit blog
Some observations about the con itself: I didn't actually see a great deal of it, since the majority of the time, myself and the other Tor writers were at a cottage our editor Julie Crisp had hired just down the road from the holiday camp. Tor UK threw a party on the Friday night, where most of the Orbit crew turned up, and a lot of other people. It got pretty crowded, and proved to be a good night. I had excellent company over the weekend - my editor Julie Crisp, Chloe and Amy, also China Mieville, Mark C Newton, Paul Cornell (with whom I shared a room), Adrian Tchaikovsky and, of course, the iridescently-waist-coated Peter Hamilton.

Here's one thing that did particularly strike me about SFXW: it reminded me so much of the conventions I first went to, back in the early/mid Eighties. My first ever con was in Glasgow, maybe in 1982 - an Albacon, I think - and I've gone to them more or less regularly ever since. Contrast that with a lot of pro writers at SFXW for whom this was apparently only their first, second or third convention.

Back in those days, you had all kinds of fandom present. There were people like myself who were primarily into fiction, but there were also Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans, comic fans, and every other kind of fan; movies, media, and books, all mixed in together. Over the next several years many of these groups evolved their own media-related cons and the attendance at specifically sf cons such as Eastercon grew more specific and also smaller. This led into what's been described as the 'greying' of fandom, as younger fans fail to attend.

SFXW wasn't like that at all. Those attending were split roughly equally half and half in terms of males and females, and the majority were also refreshingly youthful. There were even quite a few families. These are people who I suspect certainly read plenty of sf but love their movies, comics and tv shows just as much. On top of that, the organisers put on a terrific show the likes of which I have never experienced at any con. There was a sense of fun I haven't felt since I was a teenager attending my very first cons.

That's not to say I don't have one or two criticisms, though they are relatively minor ones. The SFX awards ceremony started off with dancing girls in bikinis. All I'm saying is, this is the 21st Century, folks, and for me science fiction is supposed to be about looking forward to an era of equality and balance. Instead I felt like I'd fallen into some sf-oriented version of a night club straight out of Mad Men. There was, at times, a level of objectification of women that made me just a tiny little bit uncomfortable. Or possibly more than a tiny bit. If you're going to have dancing girls, you might as well balance it out and have male dancers of a similar style as well, otherwise there's the risk of engaging in some pretty blatant stereotyping not only of the women concerned, but ultimately of the fans too. I know the portrayal of women in this way isn't a phenomenon limited to certain aspects of the sf genre - I've been to computer trade shows in Taiwan and, believe me, they're probably worse in this respect - not to mention endless newspaper shots of some new sports car with a half-naked model draped across it - but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

Also, I think I mentioned the location - a Pontin's holiday camp, in early February, for God's sake - was kind of bleak. Also, to put it mildly, out of the way. I had to fly down to London the previous night, stay in a hotel, get up at the crack of dawn, take a train to Brighton, then switch to another train to Rye that took waaaay longer than I thought it would, then get a lift from Rye to the camp three miles away. I can imagine the logistics of putting on an event like this are fairly horrendous, however, and with any luck the event will take off well enough in the future that SFX might be able to find a more central or urban location. It's a tribute to them that they managed to pull things off quite so well as they did given the circumstances.

If there's one advantage institutions like Eastercon still have, it's that they largely take place in hotels, which provide endless opportunities for socialising and meeting new people either in corridors, bars or at the many, many room parties. SFXW, on the other hand, took place in a large echoing hall (plus a tiny pub next door), physically separated from the rather barracks-like buildings surrounding it. Getting from one to the other meant fighting your way through a bitter, howling gale coming straight off the sea. Nonetheless, I think there's a very, very, very great deal trad cons could learn from an event like SFXW, and I came away thinking cons like this are going to lead the way in the coming years. It was enormously fun, and I'd do it again in a flat second.


Orin Thomas said...

I know the old joke "In Australia 100 years is a long time, in the UK 100 KMs is a long way" but it baffles me that it is a two day trip to get from A to Z when the UK looks so small on a map.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

I suspect, though I'm no expert, it has something to do with an essentially Victorian transport system that wheezes along these days - witness the near-collapse of much transport during a winter that many other Northern European countries seem to shrug off with barely a blink. Taiwan by contrast has a stunningly modern, cheap and efficient transport system, but it's also maybe less than thirty years old. Contrast that with the Heath Robinson tangle of the London Underground system that dates back to the 18th Century. They're talking about building a high-speed bullet-train style service here to connect north to south and I, for one, cannot wait.

Anonymous said...

There was, at times, a level of objectification of women that made me just a tiny little bit uncomfortable. Or possibly more than a tiny bit.

Yeah, me too. It was particularly prevalent in the Friday night cabaret thing, in which the blokes did all the patter and tricks, and the women just got to dance around in tiny outfits. Getting women from the audience up on stage for the sake of making sleazy jokes at their expense also did not endear the act to me. My friends and I eventually left the room, were we so uncomfortable.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Like I said, Alexandria, I didn't see more than a relatively small part of the con because I was squirreled away somewhere else, so I missed those jokes. That does sound rather worrying, however, and I'd hate to think things like this could give ammo to people who like to characterise sf fans as primarily terminally single males who dote on unfeasibly-breasted fantasy women.