"It's a bit of culture shock, you know. Most of the time I sit out there on my third of an acre in County Wicklow and nobody notices me. Then I come here and people say, 'You're the dragon lady,' and crowd around me. It's a revelation to me."

That's Anne McCaffrey being interviewed recently at the Balticon, a science-fiction convention held in the Baltimore suburb of Cockeysville, Md., where she was the main attraction that drew approximately 1,000 fans. McCaffrey has been writing science fiction since 1954, but only in the last few years have the fans been showing up by the thousands to meet her and hear her talk. She owes it all to dragons.

The McCaffrey dragon (bred for special purposes by the people of the planet Pern) is a special sort of creation and almost singlehandedly (aided a bit, perhaps, by Peter, Paul and Mary 15 years ago) she has begun to overturn milennia of prejudice against this misunderstood minority group. The anti-dragon lobby has a clear and simple line of attack: Dragons are nasty beats, interested only in wreaking havoc, breathing fire and devouring damsels. McCaffrey's creations are more like the legendary Puff, although she claims that the song exerted no conscious influence on her.

"What we're talking about in the dragon-human relationship is love," says McCaffrey, "and love is the most important thing in the world. Your dragon is more than a pet, it's a friends for life; it loves you and you alone, no matter what you do; it understands and accepts you completely. Would you settle for a dog or a cat or even a horse, if you could have a 25-foot telepathic dragon?"

There are no other animals quite like McCaffrey's dragons, though she will concede that there are aspects of both the dog and the horse in them. True, they do breathe fire (after they have eaten the proper kind of fuel), but they do it only to defend their world, which they and their riders patrol, guarding against an ecological disaster that rains down periodically from outer space.

"The dragon-human relationship is a symbolic one, not a matter of dependency," McCaffrey explains. "It's a true partnership. You hear a lot of people talk about partnership, but you're more likely to find it with a dragon."

Nobody knows exactly how many readers have been turned on by McCaffrey's dragons, but her first four books on the subject (two for adults and two for juveniles - but none of the readers seem to pay much attention to the distinction) have sold well over a million copies - a phenomenal figure in the relatively small, cultish world of science fiction. Many copies are passed from hand to hand among fans until the pages are tattered into unreadability. The Fire-Lizards Cometh

Before happening upon the dragons - and a direct line to the universal unconscious - McCaffrey had been writing for years (Gothics and other kinds of books as well as science fiction) with moderate success. The dragon phenomenon still has her a bit breathless: "I started a short story and 468,000 words later I'm still writing. It's the kind of gold an author dreams about and later regrets. People now are always asking 'When does the next dragon book come out.'"

The answer to that question is that "White Dragon," the third book in the adult series, will be published in June. McCaffrey's contract calls for six dragon books in all, including three juveniles. "The publishers say there will be a seventh," she remarks. "Let them say it." She also is working on a series of novels about a planet with warm-blooded dinosaurs ("I've done all that research and I want to use it"), another Gothic and a story about horseracing in Ireland. "White Dragon," she confides, will have quite a bit of material on the small fire-lizards who are interesting but less heartwarming than the dragons.

Anne McCaffrey was born on April Fool's Day an unstated number of years ago in Cambridge, Mass. Raised in New Jersey and educated at Radcliffe, she began writing science fiction to finance her three children's college education. Then, in 1970, she was divorced and suddenly found that her writing had to support her family.

"I moved to Ireland," she explained, "because I wanted someplace safe for my kids and my aged mother, and New York wasn't it. There was a bad drug situation at the local high school, and one of the girls there had her face slashed to ribbons. I didn't want that for my lovely daughter. I also wanted a place to live that was fairly inexpensive. Ireland offered all of it. I had been there before, so I knew what I was getting into."

At least she knew some of it: "You would never believe the problems that face an unmarried woman with an irregular income who wants to buy a home in Ireland." The bankers became much easier to handle after she showed them a contract and they understood how much money can be made writing about dragons. She got the house and named it "Dragonhold" "because the dragons paid for it."

Now the three children, ranging age from 18 to 25, have finished their education - with an assist from the dragons. She can remember years when the living was thin (for example, a plaintive remark from her daughter a few years ago: "Mother, wouldn't it be nice to eat pancakes because we wanted to?"), but that daughter is about to take her degree (in equitation science), and the economic problems seem to be over. Hunger for Wonder

"I never had any illusions about the literary quality of my stuff," McCaffrey muses. "I did something I liked and did it fairly well. I try to do it a little better each time. I happened to write something at the right time and it caught on. I know how lucky I am."

Her timing seems doubly felicitous, in addition to the happy chance of creating the dragon concept at time when readers were hungry for it. She has become a leading figure in science fiction at a time when it is booming (nearly 15 percent of all fiction titles published in this country last year were fantasy or SF), and she is a woman in this formerly male-chauvinistic field at a time when women seem to be taking over.

She thinks the two phenomena may be linked. "Perhaps women are taking a leading role in science fiction because we have become more interested in human relations than in space and technology. Some of these women have scientific backgrounds, but they are more interested in exploring the limits of human relationships, and maybe women are better at that than men.

"People are afraid of science - they don't understand a lot of it, because it want's taught to them properly, particularly to women in my generation, and they're afraid of what they don't understand. For about 10 years, science fiction has been explaining to people what their lives will be like in a technological universe."

She also believes that science fiction supplies something that is missing more and more in daily life and other kinds of writing - a sense of awe, wonder and adventure.

"Our life today has lost something - the sense of wonder; there is so much cynicism, so much scandal. The enduring tragedy of Watergate is that America lost its gloss, its air of wonder for the rest of the world. Now, there is no place else in the world to go for that feeling, so people are going out of the world."

The hunger for wonder is reflected, she believes, in the success of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars," but true to form Hollywoodis now approaching the phenomenon from the wrong direction. "I hear they're planning to remake 'The Blob' and revive a lot of the old Japanese monsters. What they should do is make more good, swash-buckling movies . . ." she broke out into lusty redition of the "Star Wars" march theme . . . "that sort of thing. People want heroes and adventures." Her own book, "The Ship Who Sang," is under option to a Hollywood studio, but apparently they don't know quite what to do with it. She hopes somebody will make a television series out of it. Black Market Eggs?

Meanwhile, the dragons are the dominant element in McCaffrey's life, and she is wondering whether she wants to write more about them after her current contracts are fulfilled. Clues planted in earlier books open the possibility of a number of story lines - a black market in dragon eggs, for example, not to mention time-travel and the exploration of other planets through the dragons' ability to "go between" - that is, to teleport through time and space. There is also the possibility of further technological development on her imaginary planet Pern, which has an essentially medieval technology and social structure.

She is not sure she wants to do any more dragon writing for a while, but is still turning over the background in her mind. "The important thing is that any new developments have to be logical and consistent with the premises from earlier books. I set myself parameters and I have to stick with them."

The dragons also have invaded her private life - they appear on her stationery, her bookplates, a lot of her jewelry including some rings, and spectacularly on a T-shirt that she had printed in Ireland and gives to fans who do research or special favors for her. One such fan, in Arizona, recently dug up a point of information she wanted on what sapphires look like (gritty? embedded in clay?) when they are dug up out of the ground. Two others - both scientists - joined her in an intensive three-day discussion in which they mapped out an entire planetary ecology for her series on warm-blooded dinosaurs.

One friend who is not a fan, since he does not read science fiction, is Russell Coope, professor of geology at the University of Birmingham (England). "I give him a problem," McCaffrey said, "and half of him is saying, 'What am I doing,' but the other half is so fascinated he begins to work on it."

He gets a dragon T-shirt, too, whether he wants it or not.