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The passion and politics of sci-fi at Balticon 34


SO THERE I was Easter weekend, less than seven days out of the hospital, surrounded by so many Klingons I wished Captains Kirk or Picard or Sisko or Janeway would beam me out of there.

I should have been in bed, mind you, following the advice of no fewer than three doctors to take it easy in recovering from my bout with congestive heart failure. So why was I there at Balticon 34, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society's annual celebration?

Octavia E. Butler was why. The California-based science fiction writer -- one of the best in the genre and one of the few black ones -- was invited as the guest of honor. I discovered Butler a few years ago when I read her book "Kindred," an engrossing tale of a modern-day black woman transported in time to Maryland's antebellum Eastern Shore.

I gobbled up almost everything written by Butler after reading "Kindred." My favorite was "Parable of the Sower," a futuristic story with a black female teen-age heroine set in what the author called a "Third-World-ized" America. Soon Butler became one-third of a triumvirate of my favorite sci-fi authors, joining the late Isaac Asimov and Harry Turtledove, "the master of alternative history." I was determined to meet her, so I slid out of bed, drove downtown to the Omni and kind of stumbled my way into Balticon 34.

I found Butler sitting behind a table, graciously signing autographs. She's a tall, stout woman with an Afro hairstyle sprinkled with gray. She was dressed in black slacks and a print blouse, and her voice was deep but distinctly feminine, as she greeted her fans. I mumbled a greeting -- some drivel about how I was one of her biggest fans -- and then slinked off to await her appearance in the panel discussion on "The Use of Race, Caste, Culture and Sex in Science Fiction and Fiction."

The topic smacked of being extremely political. But sci-fi is hardly apolitical. Rod Serling -- of "The Twilight Zone" fame -- and "Star Trek's" Gene Roddenberry used sci-fi as a vehicle to produce stories on issues that television network executives were normally too nervous to tackle. As I drifted around Balticon 34 waiting for Butler's panel discussion, I was reminded of how astutely political sci-fi fans could be. There was a bumper sticker on sale that read "Remember When Conservatives Valued Privacy and Individual Liberty?"

"Those days may be long gone," I said to myself, thinking of the way some conservatives have gone ga-ga about New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is to repression what Michael Jordan was to basketball. It's clear that individual liberty is no longer a conservative agenda. Giuliani turned some parts of New York into a police state, with his cops stopping and frisking with little or no probable cause. That's a violation of the most basic individual liberty, but the way conservatives rushed to slap Giuliani on the back, it's a wonder none of them was crushed to death.

I had, I figured, worked myself into a state of high dudgeon not matched by anyone at the convention. How wrong I was. On the panel just before Butler's sat a man who argued that George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" should be redone so that it had a "slow, painful death scene for Jar Jar Binks." The room erupted in cheers.

Wait a second, I thought. I like the Jar Jar Binks character. Most "Star Wars" fans found him annoying, but that's precisely what I liked about him.

Butler's panel was, by comparison, kinder and gentler. But her most memorable comments came in her keynote address, delivered a couple of hours later. It was then that I learned one of my three favorite sci-fi authors had a Baltimore connection.

It was years ago when Butler arrived in Baltimore at the end of a three-day bus ride. She went to Traveler's Aid and asked for a hotel that was both cheap and safe. She was sent to one where housekeeping "didn't even dust the cigarette butts left in the room," she remembered, but was close to both the library and the Maryland Historical Society.

She made good use of both locations, researching the historical material she needed for her novel "Kindred." Her research also took her to the Eastern Shore, where she walked rural roads one day until her feet hurt so much she wrote one chapter of the book as she sat in a bus station because they could take her no farther.

The aches, the long bus ride and the research paid off. "Kindred" helped establish Butler as one of the premier sci-fi writers of her generation. Here's one Butler fan who hopes she doesn't make her April visit her last.

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