Balticon to celebrate 40 enterprising years


Some recall it as a bash for a few dozen out-of-town pals. Others remember debating whether science fiction could ever really be classified as literature. Most agree the first meeting of Balticon, the convention staged by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, happened on the top floor of the old Lord Baltimore Hotel, and that by the end of the weekend, the group had lost money.

It has been 40 years since the inaugural convention, and even for minds used to probing the mysteries of distant galaxies, four decades can blur a lot of details.

"I have to admit it's a little fuzzy," says founding member Mark Owings, 61. "Time has a way of doing that."

But one fact stands out clearly: Balticon, which celebrates its 40th birthday this weekend with more than 300 hours of readings, role-playing computer gaming, movies and more, has, by the standards of science fiction conventions, endured. Starting tonight, the four-day fete will draw about 2,000 fans to the Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, easily 20 times the audience of its first venture.

"I never thought it would last this long," says Owings, a longtime BSFS member who was hard at work yesterday planning discussion panels for this weekend. "But I'm glad it has."

Sci-fi "fandom" - those folks, young and old, who live and love the genre - might disagree on why, but most have a sense of sci-fi history and see conventions like Balticon on a timeline dating back to the 19th century. Many call Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1816) the genre's first masterwork. By the time of Jules Verne, who published Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, science fiction was becoming a recognized classification. By the mid-1930s, popular magazines like Astounding and Wonder Stories were addicting American teens. Soon these wide-eyed readers were gathering in each others' living rooms to talk time travel and deep space with others who understood them.

Those gatherings morphed, in time, into the earliest "conventions," including the one historians call the world's first, the 1936 "PhilCon," where a dozen or so kids stayed up late talking in a Philadelphia living room. PhilCon is still the world's oldest annual science fiction convention.

Today, there are at least three conventions somewhere in the U.S. every weekend, says Dale Arnold, 47, the current BSFS chairman of the board. Few are as reliably large as Balticon, which drew its biggest crowd (2,700) in its 10th year, when Isaac Asimov - the raffish, Russian-born biochemist and author of some 270 books - was the guest of honor. Since then, Balticon's attendance has generally hovered between 1,500 and 2,000 per year.

The largest science fiction convention, 68-year-old WorldCon, drew about 6,000 people to its 2005 fest.

Ron Bounds, 61, an organizer of the earliest Balticons, recalls the late 1960s, when it was the goal of BSFS simply to book 10 rooms at the hotel site - enough to score a free conference room - and to bring in an author whose autograph everybody wanted.

The modesty of the surroundings, and their relaxed feel, did nothing to stem his enthusiasm.

"When else in life, then or now, do people actually get together to discuss books?" says Bounds, a satellite designer for Sirius radio in New Jersey. "Us younger folk would drink some, because that's what young people do, and then we'd stay up all night arguing ideas till our brains, or our kidneys, gave out. It was all about intellectual stimulation, and it was delightful."

At themed panels and in late-night bull sessions, sci-fi fans are liable to take up all manner of speculative questions on time transport, space travel and the future.

"Balticon has people debating every literary and philosophical concept coming down the pike," Arnold says. "Space development and activism are always big. Now that we're starting to see the biological sciences more, what is the nature of pets? What would you do to make them better?"

Miriam Winder-Kelly, 53, a retired Baltimore civil engineer who has been to every Balticon since 1976, has planned this year's science track, in which quantum physicists and other researchers present their work and lead discussion of its implications for the future. One panel has the title, "Is God Hiding in the Quantum Foam?"

"It ponders where science ends and religion starts," Owings says.

In the early days, Balticon had just one "track" - a single attraction at a time. Balticon40 is a 12-track fete, "a circus with 12 rings," says Michael Walsh, a part-time sci-fi publisher and a veteran of more than 300 conventions worldwide. "You rub shoulders with people of all kinds of disparate interests."

This year's convention will feature an art exhibit containing more than 1,000 pieces, live-action role-playing games (some could last all four days), a children's program, including "master storytelling," a Klingon feast and performances of "filk" music (sci fi-themed folk).

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