It’s not every Saturday night that you find yourself eating chips in a dark room, surrounded by people dressed as superheroes and stormtroopers, pretending that you know the words in a mass sing-a-long to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was, in a word, surreal.
With our new genre list building, on a freezing Friday morning publicist Ben Willis and I packed our bags, left the Headline office on Euston Road and headed to North Wales for must be the UK’s geekiest convention: the SFX Weekender. The journey was suitably epic – think Lord of the Rings, but with a derailed train instead of a dark lord – but the time passed quickly thanks to some excellent company, courtesy of the editors from Gollancz and American author Sam Sykes (whose books are now most definitely on my ‘to read’ list). Almost seven hours after leaving King’s Cross we arrived under a darkening sky at the gates of the Pontin’s holiday camp in Prestatyn. Not the most promising start to a weekend away, I’ll grant you, but we steeled ourselves and stepped inside…
Once we had checked in we headed to the one place we knew we’d find some fellow publishers: the bar. Sure enough there they were and, after a swift drink, we headed over to the Kitschie Award ceremony, which shone a light on some very deserving talent.
Friday culminated with a party organised by Tor, Macmillan’s SF imprint. It’s a bit of a blur to be honest, but I remember a glorious victory, followed by a crushing defeat, in a doubles pool tournament played out on a rather wonky table; a conversation with the guys from Fantasy Faction; drinking Japanese whisky with Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Joe Abercrombie trying to distribute pizza to a baying crowd; and being sent on a mission to find beer by Peter F. Hamilton. It was a brilliant evening. I met old friends, made new ones, and shamelessly cornered some of my favourite authors and, I fear, bored them half to death with questions they must have been asked a thousand times.
The next day, any trace of a hangover was blown away by some excellent panels on world building, space opera and urban fantasy, which were universally well-attended. Fellow Hachette imprints Orbit and Gollancz organised another party that evening, and what felt like a thousand people crammed into a chalet and tucked into a Chinese takeaway. I found myself jostling for space with a bit of a hero of mine, the author Alistair Reynolds, and we had a conversation about the future of science fiction. Ben and I left the party just in time to catch the beginning of the SFX Awards, and were very glad we did, as the first award of the night – for ‘screenwriting excellence’ – went to a Headline author: the obscenely talented Neil Gaiman. He was at home in the US and unable to pick up the award in person, but provided a fantastic acceptance speech on video (which you can see here).
Looking around the cavernous main hall later that night, as hoards of costumed figures jumped around to a DJ set from Craig Charles of Robot Wars and Red Dwarf fame, I couldn’t help but smile. Sci-fi might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but can you image any other convention where bestselling authors not only sign books for their fans, but also trade dance moves with them? I scuttled off to bed shamefully early, but I heard tales of Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville tearing up the dance floor until the early hours with a giant robot and the Stay Puft MarshmallowMan.
There were around 4,000 die-hard fans at the SFX Weekender this year. Of course they weren’t all there for the authors – you should have seen the queue for Brian Blessed’s autograph – nor do they represent the average SFF book buyer, but I had a blast hanging out with them. I admit I felt like a bit of an outsider initially, but then it struck me: this is a festival of outsiders, a celebration of otherness – with such an eclectic mixture of people that it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have felt out of place.
I’m already looking forward to next year. Now if only I could decide which Star Wars character to go as…
Posted by John Wordsworth, Editorial
Neil Gaiman: @neilhimself
John Wordsworth: @theworrierpoet
Ben Willis: @BenWillisUK