A space for us WorldCon science-fiction conventioneers bristle at the geeky sterotype. They are just folks who want somewhere to belong, a place at the cosmic party.


For many, "science fiction convention" are the three most chilling words in the English language, summoning the image of geeky guys in Spock ears flashing Vulcan "live long and prosper" signs and arguing about how many steps it was from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to the transporter room.

But here in the sun-dappled registration area of "Bucconeer," the 56th annual World Science Fiction Convention, there's not a Trekkie in sight and the people into "costuming" seem almost subdued, like the woman in the plunging white gown and angel wings.

True, there was a tall, burly man dressed in a shimmering blue robe, hair swept up in the distinctive, fan-shaped style of a Centauri on the popular "Babylon 5" TV series, with a duck under one arm. But most of the crowd here in the Baltimore Convention Center appears more sober-minded, with the Birkenstock and beard count off the charts.

The five-day convention (a k a WorldCon), which runs through Sunday, is the largest of its kind in the world and is expected to draw 6,000 fans from 26 countries.

It features panel discussions on all manner of science fiction topics, autograph sessions with big-name science fiction authors, science fiction art and history exhibits, science fiction folk-singing (called filking), movies and a large dealer room with hundreds of tables filled with science fiction merchandise.

One high-light is tonight's Hugo Awards -- a hybrid of the Pulitzer, Academy and Tony awards -- honoring the best science fiction novels, art and films.

In the meantime, Worldcon attendees are hoping to dispel the image of the science fiction crowd as nerdy, out-of-touch visionaries who need to do one thing right away, which is get a life.

"This is not a bunch of people sitting around discussing who's the better 'Star Trek' captain, Jean Luc or Kirk," says Bart Kemper, 33, a WorldCon spokesman.

Indeed, the seminars sound positively lofty, with such titles as: "SF and Anime: Western Influence and Eastern Refinement" and "Did We Win? SF and Its Takeover of Popular Culture."

"Science fiction is mainstream now," Kemper says almost wistfully. "It has lost some of its insular [nature], its ghetto mentality, its 'We're the only ones who get it, the whole world's against us' thinking."

As he talks, the burly man in the blue robe with the intense hair and the duck under his arm strolls by.

"Hmmm, I don't know what the duck means," Kemper says, in the same tone that an office worker would say: "I don't know if a yellow tie works with that shirt."

Kemper, a mechanical engineer and free-lance journalist in Baton Rouge, La., developed a love for science fiction as an Army brat in Germany. Berlin in the late '70s was a swell place to grow up, he says, if you didn't mind being bored out of your skull and depending on six hours of lousy American TV programs for your daily entertainment.

"When I left in '77, we just got 'Happy Days' -- and this was a big deal," he says.

To keep his brain from shriveling to the size of a cocktail olive, he turned to his dad's science fiction books and was quickly hooked.

He has attended every WorldCon since 1988, and when you ask him why, he gets this faraway look.

"We've lost most of our frontiers," he says sadly. "You just can't get on the horse and go to the frontier anymore."

But in science fiction, there are always frontiers to be visited, and sometimes conquered.

Only the Mundanes, those poor souls not a part of SF Fandom, lack frontiers.

An e-mail will do

At the opening ceremonies, a somber announcement is made: Special guest J. Michael Straczynski, writer and producer of the megahit "Babylon 5," will not be attending the convention. He has walking pneumonia.

The crowd is momentarily hushed. But when an apologetic e-mail from the great man himself is read, applause washes over the cavernous auditorium.

The Straczynski bulletin has not dimmed the action in the Dealer's Hall, where conventioneers are two and three deep at stalls selling everything from Xena the Warrior Princess T-shirts, porcelain Star Trek figurines (five for $150) and Excalibur broadswords ($329) to three-dimensional chess sets and porno fantasy novels known as Slash stories (Kirk and Spock as lovers, that sort of thing).

Fantasy is a growing science fiction sub-genre, and doing a brisk business is a booth called Graven Images, where a pleasant-looking man dressed in black T-shirt and blue jeans is making prosthetic fangs.

"We're oriented to the Gothic vampire style," says owner Ken Beauchemin, 25, a former dental lab technician from Nashua, N.H.

A set of single fangs custom-fit to go over your canines will set you back $50. A set of "Interview with a Vampire"-style fangs goes for $100.

"My customers come in three categories," Beauchemin says. "There's the fetishists, the S&M and B&D crowd. There's people into costuming. And there's people into gaming, live-action role play games where they dress as vampires."

Being fitted for fangs right now is Michele Jaye Solomon, 43, of Des Plains, Ill.

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