Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sci-fi weekender 4 (#sfw4)

The Cosplay finals at SFW4
Home. Dry. Warm. Clean. Unfortunately, these are all things to celebrate. But we'll come to the calamities later. Let start with the ace stuff.

Thursday evening my other half and I headed off to deepest darkest Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula to attend the fourth year of the Sci-fi Weekender, which used to be known as the SFX Weekender. SFX pulled out last year, I suspect because Future Publishing were having heart attacks at the perceived brand destruction being perpetuated by a couple of incredibly unhappy gobby geeks who didn't quite get the teething issues a new event will experience. In the end, no matter how much you love doing something, if it's not your main reason d'etre, you're going to quit. So off SFX went to 'focus on their digital proposition'.

Step up Chic who also run Hard Rock Hell, and a few other smallish weekenders revolving around rock music in some way. No, I don't quite know either. But from the very beginning of the SFX Weekender, Chic have been involved.

And now they're on their own.

The good...

Thursday night in the Mash and Barrel, the entire pub singing along to Bon Jovi, bizarre conversations overheard, lots of smiles at my t-shirt (Souffle Girl, most got the reference), massages being given as and when needed from a team set up by the door, and a very happy shiny chilled geeky atmosphere. Lovely. A few panels stood out - the urban fantasy panel, the here come the girls panel, Robert Ranking trying to interview Brian Blessed (and failing), the costumes and the effort gone into them. Watching the conga being led around the dancefloor by Pacman, followed by his ghosts followed by most of the rest of the dancefloor, the battle between Highlander and our friend Phil who had misappropriated his girlfriends whisk which belonged to her Dalek Jane outfit, Professor Elemental, Theremin Hero and the DJ Last Knight were all stellar. I've never seen such a bunch of happy geeks - think Jaguar Skills but with lots of geeky cultural references and you've got it. I turned around at one point to find 4 rows in front of the stage bouncing with their hands in the air and someone making the heart sign. Brilliant.

The trader area was stellar. It was stellar cos there was something for women to spend their money on. And so I did, on books and jewellery that I'd never find elsewhere. I could have bought a stuffed Enterprise, a knitted K-9 and a set of Russian dolls which were all the Doctors nestled inside each other one by one - but I was a bit more restrained than I usually am. 

Starbucks and the quality of food generally was brilliant. Reception and checking in was a breeze compared to last year at Pontins and the staff were in the main, incredibly helpful and friendly. We managed to have a laugh and joke with most of them and it really did make a difference. 

The bad...

Our caravan. We'd been sold it as VIP luxury. It was a freezing cold box which by midnight on Thursday had a growing puddle under the sink which backed onto the wall the toilet backed onto, a wet carpet, wet bedding, a mattress which I think was cunningly concealing cheese wire somewhere and a temperature in which I could see my breathe. I grew up in a house with no central heating. I was bone cold. And not drunk. I shouldn't have to get pissed to be able to endure accommodation I've paid for.

We were warned about the cold. Chic said pack extra if you're staying in basic accom. So why were we so flipping freezing when we'd paid the not inconsiderable amount extra to upgrade? Who knows. Certainly not us. Reception shut, security on the gate not interested, we froze and shivered our way through Thursday night and woke up as wet as the bedding covering us. 

Finally found someone to talk to about it after 5 hours sleep. Offered another caravan after pushing. The fire didn't work. Swore. Booked a hotel. Cue lots of dashing around and eating fast food as we'd planned to self cater and suddenly couldn't. Apparently we might get a refund. Nice of them to consider it.

Sound. Oh. my. god. A sound engineer who leaves such long silences that the acts themselves have to ask the engineer to start their music? Okay so teething problems on first night perhaps? No. Even worse the second night. Sound in the panels was appalling in the 'Spaceport'. Couldn't hear the audience questions through the mic on the floor so Paul Cornell ended up walking off the stage, asking the person to tell him their question, and then climbing back on the stage to relay it through his mic to the panel.

Laughable. Pathetic.

Evening entertainment. Having been pwned by the quiz last year we avoided and went to the 'Main Void' both nights. Friday consisted of exactly the same acts as we'd seen 2 years before. I'd literally seen Chris Cross's show, word for word, and Mental Dave's rabbit must be feeling very claustrophobic by now. Area 51 did their usual. It's become their usual. It's done beautifully and well, but it's their usual. Saturday night involved what I can only describe as a car crash as Robert Rankin and some bloke who used to be a comic czar in the 70's tried to be funny and weren't, doing things they'd clearly not rehearsed or planned, and frankly, the only reason I didn't leave was that the quiz wasn't going to be any easier this year. For two hours I sat as questions were asked, crowd participation was requested but reluctantly given (the clue was there guys, I'm sorry, if you're dying, quit) and a funny quiz which I'm sure was funny on paper just pissed me off as slide after slide had spelling and grammar errors all over them. 

Healthy food on site. Fixed once Starbucks got a food delivery on the Sat. What the hell happened on Friday? 

Cold. I don't mean to bang on about it, but which flipping idiot thought it was a good idea to have the air-con on full blast all day in the Main Void? When it's 3C outside? The pictures of people in waterproofs and jackets huddling together that I've taken speak volumes - I assume someone was just ignoring the Twitter stream pleading for warmth.

Guests. People who've been in sci-fi shows in the last 10 years? We think zero. Loved the authors, loved the author love but it's just not quite enough to keep me going for two days. The consistent emptiness of the VIP area of the Main Void should speak volumes about the popularity of the panels scheduled in there. If no one is turning up, you're doing something wrong.

And now for the shit bit. Sorry. You might want to skip if you're easily offended because this, I'm afraid, is where the rant really starts.

And the really, really ugly

Lads shouting 'get your tits out for the boys' at Chase Masterton. Loudly. From the back of the Main Void. The slight racism in the opening number on the Friday night at the Imaginarium. The child abuse jokes on Saturday night. Never mind the repeated Pope jokes. I thought I was going to a sci-fi convention, not a comedy night which was trying to be as offensive as possible.

For the record, I'm a very lapsed catholic. Make jokes, that's fine. But you went too far. There's a line and you crossed it and it pissed me off.

Segregation based on the amount of money you can afford to pay. VIP seating and VIP only signings. I didn't realise until we got there that only VIP's could initially get signatures but that this has been changed at the last minute to allow people to pay for signatures. The separate seating was uncomfortable, mostly because there was nowhere near enough seating for those non-VIP bods who wanted to attend certain events, meaning they'd paid money to stand up for a very long time. It led to people not engaging with what was happening on the stage, quite understandably, and making lots of noise. Again, quite understandably. It repeatedly got busy at the back with people standing, whilst literally rows and rows of seating were free in the VIP section.

The crowning glory was during the Wool authors talk where there was a grand total of about 20 people in the entire VIP section, and someone at the back had to shout their question because security wouldn't let them come down to the microphone at the front of the VIP section.

It  made me feel excruciatingly, horribly uncomfortable. A lack of seating for all is inexcusable.

Swearing. Loudly and freely and offensively at 11am in the morning when there are kids in the audience. One family walked out. I'm surprised more didn't. 'It's a family show but use your nouse, some of the evening shows might not be suitable for kids'???? You might want to mention to guests BEFORE they've turned the air blue that it's a family show, hmmm?

Atmosphere generally which I think is tied to the first point. When you give tickets away and start cross advertising rock weekenders to sci-fi geeks and sci-fi weekenders to rock bods...well I know both groups super well so I am pretty sure that's not where the problem was but there was definitely a feeling which changed from Thursday/Friday to Saturday of being in a zoo. I went from feeling incredibly comfortable to feeling a wee bit uncomfortable. Like I was being stared at, and yes, laughed at and judged and looked down on. Well, actually, it wasn't directed at me. But I heard it directed at others and it wasn't nice. Geeks and nerds (real ones) spend a lot of their life, as do many sub-cultures, putting up with this shit in their every day lives. Going away to geek out on your fave shows and authors is supposed to be okay, hell, it's called the Sci-fi Weekender for a reason right? I don't wanna hear 'cool' boys dissing someone with facial disfigurations at a Weekender event ever _ever_ again. Geeks don't judge. They don't laugh at people, they include them (mostly, we'll get to geek cliques and how horrible they can be to outsiders some other time I think), they embrace them. It's an open church. No one gets left behind. We're losing that. Lose it completely, and you've lost the soul of the event. The heart and soul of it.

Care needs to be taken in where you advertise with something like this. I don't know what went wrong but I can make a guess about free ticket competitions and tickets being passed to other people and actually, the people who ended up going not being the people who'd necessarily choose to go to something like this and actually ending up finding it all terribly funny and silly, and not in a good way.

Entitlement attitudes. No. You are not more important than me. I am not more important than you. I will get out of your way if there is somewhere to go. Barging, pushing, cutting me up...stop it. Just stop it. And if the stall you want to get to is busy and full of people, don't push in front of people, squeeze them out, then moan you're all hot and bothered and it's really crowded. Poor old you. It must be so hard being so inconsiderate. If you want to chat about work and the boss who's pissing you off, don't do it at the back of an author panel where the sound is shit already. If you want to have a shouting match with your friend, the back of the Main Void during a show which requires people to hear what the performer is saying isn't the place to do it either.

In fact, I think that last point is tied to the one before it. There were some highly unpleasant people present at this Weekender who thus far had been noticeably absent. Short of putting the Weekender on the moon, I don't think geographical location can change this. I do think educating people in the way they are expected to behave, giving people confidence to challenge that behaviour and that security will back them up if it's flagged  is really important in stopping this getting out of hand. If you didn't experience any of this, you're probably wondering what I'm talking about.

You probably spent your weekend in the film room. It seems that that's where all the geeks hid out  for most of the weekend and unfortunately we never quite made it down there. Something I regret because we wont be back.

I am reasonably sure this is where we bow out. Four years, over £1,000 spent and we just don't think Chic can iron out the ugly. Bad I can deal with. But ugly, I can't. So, adieu. We might be back. But I suspect instead, we'll be heading to some of the cons which are a wee bit less well publicised and which are populated by people who are kind, good, shiny and welcoming.

Sad. Very, very sad.


  1. My wife and I have never been to one of these but keep being invited by a friend who seems to 'win' tickets every year. The unimpressive guest roster had never enticed us to make such long journeys. We have been to 9 Starfury weekends and have always enjoyed them. They aren't as broad, usually quite specific shows, but we'd recommend them as being extremely friendly, and usually just a few hundred people. Invasion 3 is the next one in May.

    No dealers, though.

    1. That's brilliant, we've been looking at Starfury for a bit actually, but I've just booked for Nine Worlds which looks absolutely epic ;O)

  2. Never been to one of these before.

    The cold was brutal. Waking up and seeing your breath, then a tired shamble outside to stand in the sun to warm up faster than the terrible gas heater (they would set things on fire if too close, yet the heat would not reach you sitting on the sofa bench 1.5m away). I mean those trailer/caravan things are clearly for summer use with their single glazing, etc and it really showed. Our shower was broken and was ironically always too hot to stand under.

    Craig charles was brilliant as expected but he came on too late. Half the crowd had cleared out by the time he arrived.

    Absolutely right about the panel guests though. The best talk was the one on russian sci-fi but it had only a handful of people in it which was disappointing. The quiz was ludicrous. The winning team had 11 sitting at their table (teams max 8) and seemed to focus too much on one show.

    At least there was Manborg!

    1. I am glad but sad that it wasn't just us. At moments, it really felt like it was and we were cursed! I completely missed the Russian sci-fi panel, and am quite gutted that I did :/

  3. Went to the SFX Weekender last year and the only thing that stopped it from being a complete train wreck was the presense of SFX. The reason I didn't go to this one was the fact that the best part of the Weekender experience had pulled out.

    1. We did give serious hesitation to paying our balance, but decided to give Chic one chance to sort it all out.

  4. Excellent blog post and I have to sadly agree with a lot of it.
    Having slept on the event and talked it through with a lot of SFX Weekender veterans we agree that Chic had the opportunity to make this event theirs and raise the bar. Instead they fumbled it badly and luckily had the momentum from SFX3 as well as a more-than-decent crowd (on the whole) to carry them through it.
    I'm going to put up a decent post on their forum now. I have booked to go again. The majority of my lot havent. If Chic appear to be listening to feedback then I'm sure we will confirm the booking for the rest of my gang.

  5. I think that's an interesting point. What worries me is that they've appointed moderators for the forum with no transparency on the process which means we don't know if Chic will now stop reading the forums entirely, and rely on their moderators to feedback the 'important' stuff to them.

    They don't appear to be able to cope with the channels they've opened for interaction and feedback. But I'll not pre-judge, and I'll do my best to make sure I am constructive in suggesting ways they can improve the event next year.

  6. I confess. The person that Paul had to come off the panel to hear put their question was me. You are so right about the sound in there, it was terrible all weekend.