THE WORLD SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTION

"LORD VADER WANTS YOU to join the Imperial Guard," read one poster. An intense young fan of weird tale author H.P. Lovecraft sported a button proclaiming, "Campus Crusade for Cthulhu." Tee-shirts were emblazoned with the slogan: "I have abandoned my search for truth and am now looking for a good fantasy." Periodically, the word would go out that it was time to organize "an expedition to freak mundanes."

A mundane, for those of you who are, is the term used to describe people who don't understand the passion of science fiction fans. And mundane is, moreover, the last word one would use to describe that mixture of Roman circus, writer's workshop and fraternity party that is the annual World Science Fiction Convention. Noreascon II, the 38th annual Worldcon, took place over the Labor Day weekend at the Sheraton Boston Hotel and brought together some 6,000 fans of all ages from the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia. For four days the halls of the Sheraton and the adjoining Hynes Complex resembled the nightclub scene in Star Wars . Probably 10 percent of the daily crowd dressed in some sort of costume. The very first person I noticed, while making my way into the convention, was a moody young woman, attired in a black velvet gown and carrying a blood-red satin cushion on which reposed a gleaming human skull. Morgan La Fay perhaps. Later, I ran into Alex and one of his droogs from A Clockwork Orange , glimpsed a David Bowie lookalike, with Crayola-red hair, as The Man Who Fell to Earth , and made way for the Queen of Air and Darkness, who swept through corridors, scarcely deigning to notice mere mortals.

The most important activity of a Worldcon, though hardly the most colorful, is the extended discussopm of science fiction as a branch of literature. Writers, editors, and readers gather to talk about the history of the genre and to participate in panel discussions on subjects ranging from "The Craft of Writing SF" through the building of alien cultures and worlds, on to "The Closed Open Mind -- Homophobia in Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories." The culmination of this aspect of the convention is the presentation of the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, commonly known as Hugos (after Hugo Gernsback, a founder of what he called "scientifiction").

The 1980 Hugos, given for works published in 1979, contained few surprises. The Fountains of Paradise , by Arthur C. Clarke, author of such classics as Childhood's End , won for best novel. Barry B. Longyear gained the Hugo for his novelette, "Enemy Mine," and also received the Campbell award for most promising new writer. Sweeping the shorter fiction categories, Goerge R. R. Martin won both for best novelette with "Sandkings," an unforgettably scary tale of an unpleasant man who acquires some strange pets, and for best short story with an account of future heresay, "The Way of Cross and Dragon." The best artist, and a blue-ribbon winner at the con art show as well, was Michael Whelan. A Hugo for the most outstanding nonfiction work, given for the first time this year, went to an indispensable reference, The Science Fiction Encyclopedia edited by Peter Nicholls. Alien received the prize for dramatic presentation. (One room of the con was devoted to the art work of H. R. Giger, the artist-designer of that film.) Other Hugos were awarded to Charles N. Brown for his fanzine, Locus ; to editor George H. Scithers for his work on Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine ; and to Bob Shaw for best fan writer and Alexis Gilleland for best fan artist. Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 , received the Gandalf Award for Grand Master of Fantasy.

Sf conventions, which now run up costs approaching $200,000, originated back in the 1930s when a few fans and writers would gather to talk about their shared enthusiasm for science fiction. This continues to be the dominant social reason for conventions, in part because this form of speculative literature also continues to be -- wrongly -- dismissed as kid's stuff, wish fulfillment, or pulp trash. Consequently the writers still come to mingle with their admirers and would-be rivals. At parties, in corridor discussions, on panels one could meet Frederik Pohl (Gateway ), Robert Scheckley (short story writer and fiction editor of Omini ), Joan Vinge (The Snow Queen ), Philip Jose Farmer (Riverworld ), rakish Alfred Bester (whose The Demolished Man received the first Hugo in 1953), and Vonda McIntyre (Fireflood ).

Robert Silverberg, author of the recent Lord Valentine's Castle and toastmaster of the convention, managed opening night ceremonies with considerable aplomb, his precise diction only occasionally hinting at world-weariness. Guest of Honor Damon Knight, a trim Santa Claus dressed in jeans and sandals, in his keynote speech joked about his life in science fiction, touching on his triple influence as an editor of the Orbit anthologies, author of such classic stories as "To Serve Man," and founder, with James Blish, of serious sf criticism. His wife Kate Wilhelm, also a Guest of Honor and a past Hugo winner for Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang , spoke more seriously, her gentle voice almost breaking with emotion at times, about how man defines his reality and the present danger of too narrow a definition.

Still, more than book talk attracts people to an sf convention. Movies, dozens of them, were screened around the clock: Sf classics of the 1950s like Forbidden Planet , Hitchcock and George Pal retrospectives, Star Wars , the hilarious Attack of the Killer Tomatoes , and lots of shorts, among them the classic Godzilla Meets Bambi . Besides the film rooms, special places were also set aside for playing Dungeions and Dragons and for "Filksinging," songs about science fiction such as the twangy "Mama don't let your babies grow up to join star fleet."

At the center of this intergalactic bedlam throbbed the dealer's area, in more forthright days called the huckster room. Dozens of booths and tables displayed paperbacks, fanznes, blasters, swords (no naked blades, warned the con guidebook), toy fire lizards, glittering jewels. Dealers hawked Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival for a tidy $400, an early issue of Astounding for $200, reproductions of the shooting script for The Empire Strikes Back for 15 bucks. On the floor below, the art show exhibited paperback cover paintings, interior illustrations, models of starships and monsters, in all the work of some 250 artists, including Michael Whelan, Tom Maitz, Alicia Austin and Thomas Canty. (A sign warned "Please don't touch the art. If we catch you, not even Obi Wan can save you.") A special series of paintings, representing the Tarot deck, was also on display; many artists contributed to this long-term project of fan Bruce Pelz, a special guest of honor.

In fact the Tarot gave the con one of its themes, since several of the lecture halls were labeled Wands, Pentangles, Swords etc. In one the indefatigable and cuddly Isaac Asimov spoke about his beginnings as an sf writer under Astounding's John Campbell, the preeminent editor of the '40s. Asimov also complained that people now think his name a pseudonym because it sounds so "science-fictiony." Later in the same hall, enfant terrible Harlan Ellison, wearing a red nylon gang-leader jacket, kept up a Vegas-like patter for two hours; he traded insults with the crowd ("creativity of a storm drain"), mocked Star Dreck: The Motionless Picture , and gloried in his successful plagiarism suit against a major motion picture company (he won nearly $300,000).

Premiering at Noreascon II, Jeanne Robinson's, "Higher Ground" depicted a dancer's yearning for the freedom of motion available to a performer in space; constantly pulled back to earth, she finally breaks aways from the tug of gravity and swirls effortlessly across the floor. This mixed-media performance included electronic music, screen images, and ideas adapted from Stardance , the Hugo-winning novel written by Spider and Jeanne Robinson. But the zenith of the con's visual splendor occurred at Saturday night masquerade. Every year some dozen or so desingers vie with one another for the most elaborate, beautiful and dramatic effects, spending hundreds of hours and dollars. Star pirates, metallic warriors, lizard men compete with galactic empresses and extraterrestrials from Antares. The Judge's Choice this year went to Kathy and Drew Sanders for their dazzling Aztec costumes, which featured a huge winged rainbow-hued god who could draw his turquoise and yellow plumes into a circular skyburst. But the real crowd-pleasers were those impetuous dancing fools, the Disco Klingons, and a breathtaking beautiful woman, dressed in a honey-colored, low-cut Wonder Woman outfit, cradling a ray gun -- "The Golden Warrior." She was the dream of every teenager who ever yearned over a Frazetta cover.

No convention is complete without parties, and few fans went to bed before 4 a.m. Nights were spent in drinking and intense conversation. There were parties for artists, for writers, for fans of Dr. Who and Star Trek , even for The Friends fo the English Regency (a bit out of place, I should have thought, but there they were). The most elegant convocation, under the auspices of Gregg Press, took place on the Boston Tea Party ship; with guitar and flute music as background, one could nibble canapes and chat with Tom Disch about his Hugo-nominated, On Wings of Song , meet representatives of French publishing houses, or discuss the latest novels with David Hartwell, one of the most admired book editors in the business. Best bets for next year's Hugo -- at least so far -- seem to be Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer and Greagory Benford's Timescape .

But next year the Worldcon will be in Denver, even closer to the stars.I hope I can make it. It is, pardon the expression, out of this world.