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Science fiction buffs party the light years away HEY, BEAM US UP!


For those of us still in the mundane world, as sci-fi buffs like to say, it was simply Balticon 26, the 26th annual convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society.

But for the science fiction-elect, a convention that ended yesterday in Hunt Valley was a 48-hour party -- "an excuse to express the childhood some of us never had," as Baltimorean Kathy Sands expressed it.

Partying, say old-timers like Robert A. Madle of Rockville, is the one constant that has been part of every science fiction convention from the beginning.

Mr. Madle should know. He attended the nation's first science fiction convention in Philadelphia in 1936 has been showing up ever since. The first convention attracted about 100 people, he said. Registration for the Baltimore convention this weekend exceeded 2,000.

"In the late 1930s, science fiction was a strange, unusual thing," said Mr. Madle, 71. "A magical world no one knew but us" -- a very special "us" that included Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Half of the people who attended that first convention ended up in Who's Who, Mr. Madle said.

"We were a very party-oriented group," said Mr. Madle, 71. "Every science fiction convention since has been party galore."

In the beginning, people who attended the conventions were primarily readers, writers and publishers who would get together to share new works and discuss ideas, Mr. Madle said. Now, he said, "conventions have graduated toward the media" with an emphasis on costumes, films and video cassettes.

"Star Trek really exploded science fiction into the average person's mind," he said. "They've become so big they have their own convention."

The changes over the years are not altogether good, Mr. Madle said. "There are so many different groups now, a lot of cliques. Some people's only interest is in costuming."

Costuming has indeed become such an important part of the Baltimore convention that a special masquerade is held each year on Saturday nights. Some conventioneers stay in costume the entire time.

On Sunday, for example, you could still meet people from any century or generation. You could converse with Cyrano de Bergerac, the thane of Cawdor, punk rockers from Britain, or flight deck officers from either generation of the star ship Enterprise.

The convention also offered small group discussions on virtually everything from a talk on "Future Military Uses of Space" to "Operas as Alternate History," to the "U.S. Post Office: Fact or Fiction. A postal employee explains the ins and outs of the USPS."

Conventioneers could also attend guitar workshops, listen to authors read their latest works, or take part in seminars such as "Alternate Sexualities in fiction and science fiction -- gay, lesbian, hermaphroditic, species with more than two sexes, syzygy, mitosis." More than 100 options were offered throughout the weekend.

Regardless, Mr. Madle thinks visual arts are being emphasized at the expense of the printed word.

"People seem disinterested in reading science fiction these days," Mr. Madle said with distain. "They seem disinterested in reading anything."

You couldn't tell it from the exhibits. It was true that people were selling videos, art, posters, guitars, T-shirts, swords, jewelry and glass sculptures, but book and magazine sellers predominated.

Buyers could spend anywhere from $1.50 for a button that said, "No, I'm from outer space. I only work here" to books and art objects costing more than $200. In between, zodiac earrings were selling for $10 and necklaces depicting the moon and the stars were going for $30.

Charles C. Ryan, editor of Aboriginal Science Fiction, was not only hawking his magazine, he also was selling "alien flowers" at $5 a crack.

What makes them alien? Mr. Ryan was asked.

"The colors," he replied. "Calling them 'alien' helps with the sale-ability." The use of "alien" also seemed to help with the sale of his magazine. It lists the publisher as "a crazy alien."

Mr. Madle was selling first editions of books and magazines dealing with fantasy -- some would say horror -- as well as science fiction. He offered a "beat up" first edition of Carrie by Stephen King for $200. One in mint condition, signed by the author, would bring $750, Mr. Madle said.

Deb Elliott of Philadelphia said she preferred the fantasy part of the convention to sci-fi movies and videos. Ms. Elliott started attending the Baltimore convention in 1979 and has been coming back ever since. "It's like an annual reunion," she said.

And an expensive one at that. In addition to the $35 registration fee, Ms. Elliott estimates she and a companion spent $400 on convention merchandise.

"I love the glass sculptures," she said. "I just can't resist buying a new piece each year."

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