Sci-fi aficionados trek to convention Visitors talk books, art, films and Calif. cult

March 30, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of people dressed in wizard's robes, tight black denim and sci-fi garb strolled through the halls of the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel yesterday, discussing animation, astronomy, art and film -- and the 39 stargazers who took their lives in California last week.

Many of those attending the 31st annual Balticon science fiction convention, who were delighted to discuss literature, were quick to say that beliefs of members of the Heaven's Gate cult were not based on science, but on an ancient religion.

"Inevitably, the mass suicide in California has come up, but the subject is quickly dismissed -- it's just too depressing," said Steve Wannall, 26, of Germantown. "We're here to buy books and talk about books. We don't identify with the [Heaven's Gate] cult."

Nearly 2,000 people are expected to take part in the event this weekend -- most to meet their favorite authors, enjoy films, such as "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," and buy handcrafted jewelry and other artwork.

A convention highlight, an auction of artwork, will begin at 1 p.m. today. Sculptures, photos, paintings and illustrations -- including Ron Miller's drawing of the Hale-Bopp comet flying over ancient Egypt -- will be up for bid.

"The people who killed themselves in California are not the kind of people who come to our convention," said Dale Arnold, convention vice chair. "The cult's beliefs were not based on reality -- they had nothing to do with science."

Convention-goer Constance A. Warner said: "I'm not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that those people were seriously out of touch with reality. It's just unbelievable that anyone would buy into what [cult leader Marshall Herff] Applewhite was selling, no matter how good his Web site looked."

Applewhite founded the Heaven's Gate cult, which rented a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Members of the group believed their deaths would lead to a rendezvous with a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

The beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cult were rooted to the first century, an age when Gnostic philosophers advocated suicide as a quick means of transportation to the afterlife.

"Comets have always been considered supernatural events," said Jack L. Chalker, a science fiction author and co-founder of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, the group that organizes the convention each year. "But the theory that a UFO is trailing Hale-Bopp, that is purely an Internet phenomenon based on a photo taken by an amateur. It is not based on scientific fact."

The photo, taken last year, shows a star behind the comet. Several groups on the Internet, including Heaven's Gate, stated in Internet transmissions that the star was a flying saucer.

The convention continues today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $15.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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