AN IMPERIAL GUARD out of Star Wars was just leaning over to kiss Maid Marian when a mostly nude and very stunning Princess Ardala strolled by, protected by Indiana Jones. Green Lantern stopped to stare, as did Severian the Torturer, and even a handsome well-groomed young man in a business suit whose name tag read "Remington Steele." Only Darth Vader refused a glance as he lumbered down the escalator. Perhaps he had his eye on a Muppet, or a belly dancer, or that rival Vader in the corner.

Going to a world science fiction convention is a little like wandering into the thieves' den of Jabba the Hutt: the sights alone are worth the trip. But there's a lot more, too. Over Labor Day weekend Baltimore hosted ConStellation, the 41st of the annual gatherings of the science fiction family. A big family, admittedly: some 6,000 readers, writers, and editors thronged Harborplace and the convention center to praise, argue, and gripe about science fiction.

This year an admirer of Stand on Zanzibar could sit down and talk with Guest of Honor John Brunner about its structure. "Stole it all from John Dos Passos," the sleek, dapper Englishman would cheerfully answer. In the Hyatt bar a computer hacker, a middle-aged scientist, and a fan of Dr. Who could argue over the greatest American sf writer. Is it Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, both of whom have dominated the field for nearly four decades and are again up for Hugo awards? Or is it the late Philip K. Dick, to whom a memorial retrospective was devoted on Saturday afternoon? "Blade Runner was terrific," chimes in a passing young woman wearing a black eye patch, "but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick's original novel) was a whole lot more." Another woman in her thirties, sporting a T-shirt emblazoned "Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society," leans across a waxy green plant. "Gene Wolfe is a greater artist than all of them." Momentary silence. Then the computer hacker answers flatly: "Wolfe's too elliptical; besides is The Book of the New Sun really science fiction? Wolfe calls it science fantasy. I don't know that it really should be thought of as sf proper." "Well, then, how do you define sf?" And off we go.

Such discussions go on constantly, from serious formal panels in the afternoon to rowdy bull sessions in hotel suites at 4 o'clock in the morning. At ConStellation, generals and sf editors debated space militarization. Test pilot Chuck Yeager talked about "the Right Stuff." Jim Henson fielded questions about the Muppets and the world of the Dark Crystal. Two Soviet authors described sf in Russia. The Lost Gonzo Horror Panel--including Alan Ryan, Tanith Lee, Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, and Doug Winter--tried to choose the worst horror movie ever. Contenders included They Saved Hitler's Brain and Two Thousand Maniacs Can't Be Wrong.. As one panelist dryly noted, "Close-ups of scalpings of women--this is what horror is all about." Another afternoon, George R.R. Martin directed a discussion of Space Opera, what many non- readers wrongly think sf is all about: robots carrying off platinum Jean Harlows with heroic Tom Corbetts going to the rescue, along the way saving the universe from an attack of the Bug-Eyed Monsters from Dimension X. Other programs focused on the history of fandom, sf art, space science, academic criticism, humor, computers, comic books, genetic engineering, pornography, planetary exploration, the fiction of the past year.

In fact, this year's "con" seemed especially filled with controversy. In his guest of honor speech Brunner proclaimed that sf had flourished on a faith in science and technology; but nowadays anyone could see that these had brought not the stars, but industrial pollution, overpopulation, Love Canal, radiation poisoning, deforestation, and the threat of nuclear destruction. Hence the dark vision of his own novels (especially, The Sheep Look Up) and his long-term political involvement in disarmament: "We have lost our innocence." By contrast, Dave Kyle--the guest of honor representing fandom-- called for a return to more fan involvement in the field, and for a science fiction that again promoted moral values, optimism, and lofty ideals. Which qualities, oddly enough, precisely characterized Soviet science fiction as described by comrades Ossintseva and Parnov.

At more zany talks, J.J. Pierce asserted that in their latest books Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein had taken to "acting like Khalil Gibran." John Shirley, doing his Don Rickles routine, lashed out that fans were "all badly in need of analysis" and that sf novels were "sleazy, disgusting books that probably incited sex crimes." Meanwhile, Scientologists provided free issues of To the Stars, a fanzine largely devoted to founder L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, which they felt had been wrongly denied a nomination for the Hugo (the Science Fiction Achievement Award). Rightly so, claimed the contentious Charles Platt, of The Patchin Review, who led a post-Hugo panel devoted to the burning question: "What's Wrong with the Hugo?" If, however, you didn't care for scientology and L. Ron, but were still looking for salvation, you could learn to "slack off' by joining J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and his Church of the Sub-Genius; as the buttons proclaimed "No Prob with Bob."

While all this was going on, films were running continuously from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.; blockbusters like Alien, previews of Brainstorm and Indiana Jones, old classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the Huckster Room dealers were doing a great trade in paperbacks, gadgets, posters, fanzines (Energumen, Xenolith, The Enchanted Duplicator) and buttons. "The Way to a Man's Heart is with a Broadsword"; "I've Been Seduced by the Chocolate Side of the Force"; "Graduate of the Darth Vader School of Personnel Management." There was even a booth for Blake's 7, a British sf program that blends the thrills of a spaghetti western with the wit of Dr. Who. Its loyal fans have begun an intense campaign to bring the show to the United States. Small publishers also stood out in the bazaar: Underwood-Miller, which has republished master-stylist Jack Vance on acid-free paper in handsome hard covers and recently begun a series of sf bibliographies (Roger Zelazny, L. Sprague de Camp); Stuart Schiff, editor of Whispers, the premier magazine of horror, whose most recent publication is Robert Bloch's Psycho II (much different and better than the movie); Don M. Grant, specialist in horror and sole publisher of Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger; and Alex Berman of Phantasia Press, which has just issued a limited edition of Asimov's latest, The Robots of Dawn. All these publishers produce handsome well-made books, often signed by the authors, beautifully illustrated, and eagerly collected. Illustration, of course, has long been an important part of sf--but relatively neglected by collectors. Most paintings and sketches in the art show could be purchased for a few hundred dollars or less; but you would need $15,000 to buy multiple-award winner Michael Whelan's acrylic original for Arthur C. Clarke's 2010.

Other high points of the weekend included 2001: A Space Opera by Washington's own Alexis and Doll Gilliland, and Sunday night's Crab Feast, complete with an instructional comic book titled "Beautiful Steamers" by Baltimore writer and con toastmaster Jack L. Chalker. The Masquerade, as usual, dazzled with costumes worthy of Broadway or Las Vegas: Besides show-stopping original set pieces (derived from the Tarot and the novels of Tanith Lee), there were re-creations of characters from Star Wars, two sexy Winnowills from the comic Elfquest,, an even sexier Female Warrior, skimpily and breathtakingly attired in black leather, a red-wigged Little Orphan Wookie and Daddy Starbucks, and those popular favorites,tion. He The Smurf Hunters --barbarians carrying spears upon which tiny Smurfs had been shishkebabed; one warrior even chewed thoughtfully on a half-eaten morsel.

For the most part, the Hugos offered few surprises; and, as toastmaster Chalker remarked, "they still look like hood ornaments." Isaac Asimov's Foundation's Edge, a sequel to his Foundation trilogy of the early '50s, received the award for best novel; as Asimov remarked later on, his "victory may be a triumph of nostalgia." Joanna Russ' marvelous "Souls," in which a medieval abbess turns out to be something quite other, and more, than she knew, won for novella. In the novelette category, Connie Willis' "Fire Watch," which earlier had been honored by a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of Ameria (SFWA), took the laurels; it tells of the efforts of a time traveler to protect St. Paul's Cathedral during the London Blitz. Spider Robinson received the short story prize for "Melancholy Elephants," with a plot about the difficulty of discovering a totally original sf plot.

Like more mundane conventions, ConStellation's real action began after 10 p.m. with the parties--at the SFWA suite, in hotel rooms, given by fans, by pros, by editors, by Hugo losers. They went on nearly all night, every night. One could chat at once with Joan Vinge (The Snow Queen) and C.J. Cherryh (Downbelow Station), whose novels received Hugos in the past two years; step on the toe of Ellen Datlow of Omni magazine; trade quips with editor Pat LoBrutto of Doubleday and information with Tappan King of Bantam; run into Craig Strete who palled around with rock legend Jim Morrison; listen to the throaty voice of the sexy Tanith Lee (who wore a medieval chain-mail headdress and a blood red locket); say hello to such sf giants as Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, and Gene Wolfe, or to editors Lester and Judy Lynn Del Rey, Ellen Asher of the Science Fiction Book Club, Susan Allison of Berkley-Ace, Ben Bova (formerly in charge of Omni), and Jim Frenkel (who's starting a new publishing house, Bluejay Books). One evening, Gardner Dozois and Howard Waldrop--two of the funniest people in sf, no, in the world --deejayed a sock hop. There were rumors that Jim Baen might leave much-liked publisher Tom Doherty to become the new editor of Timescape. Hot new writer William Gibson confessed that he wrote "urban science fiction" intended "for people who don't get out much." Jerry Pournelle was heard to mumble that one panel was composed of "Trotskyites, all Trotskyites." The redoubtable Timothy Robert Sullivan convincingly claimed to be Arlington's only Thai sf writer, Somtow Sucharitkul. Even the semi-legendary sf scholar, editor, and bibliographer E.F. Bleiler wandered about for a few days. And Ex-Timescape editor David Hartwell sported a button saying "Not Jim Baen." One afternoon--in the middle of a drink with John Sladek, famous for his sf parodies--this tired reporter looked up to see a Viking Longship attack a tourist boat in the port of Baltimore. It scarcely registered as anything unusual.

By Monday morning everyone, even those not in costume, were beginning to resemble hangers-on at Jabba the Hutt's. Five days of autograph sessions, author forums, readings, all-night parties, workshops, slide shows, press conferences, movies, fast food, heavy drinking, flirtation, and hustling do take a certain toll. But no matter, all families can be exhausting. Science fiction writers and readers possess an enthusiasm and sense of community seldom met with in the literary marketplace. And, as ConStellation proved yet again, they sure know how to have a good time. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Convention costume contest; Photos by M.C. Valada; Picture 4, Isac Asimov; Picture 5, John Brunner; Picture 6, Connie Willis; Copyright (c), by M.C. Valada