I've always been one to take fiction to heart -- particularly science fiction, so I was put off by "The Empire Strikes Back." It began my summer with the notion that in the future, according to George Lucas, two particular skills will be most admired: maneuvering -- driving a space craft -- and marksmanship -- firing on yet-to-be-revealed aliens.

Somehow I'd secretly hoped social dancing and making pleasant conversation would be the predominant popular arts out among the stars, but the prospect of a tete-a-tete with Carrie Fisher jammiung about to the WookyStomp made me reconsider.

Yoda or no Yoda, I am now able to accept these less-than-civilized so-called futuristic priorites that are really as old as the code of the West . . . and through a transformation I would never have been able to predict at the beginning of the summer -- I am ready for the challenge of outer space.

No, not because of a sudden or exotic baptisim in the Air and Space Museum fountain, or because of a close encounter, nor even because I have been drinking a lot of Tang -- but, and this is difficult to admit, I have become a Space Invaders junkie.

You who have no idea what I am talking about are probably just like I was: one of the gray-faced feds who wears sensible shoes, drives a sub-compact in the carpool and lives in a soon-to-be-condo low-rise in Arlington. Yes, right there among you who consider yourselves cultivated, I watch PBS, subscribe to The New York Review of Books and own a good food processor.

I vacation on the Vineyard and have monograms on my shirts, sweaters and sheets. Pinball, I'd always thought, was vaguely declasse -- somewhere between Harleys and tattoos.

My upbringing was one which preached that you shouldn't slip a coin into any slot that would not reap gum, stamps or silver. Pinball, or so I thought, was the exclusive realm of hoods and subteens, and for all I know before Space Invaders it was.

Move over leatherettes and boppers. What began as a camp diversion is now obsession.

Space Invaders is a screen filled with registers of multicolored aliens marching across the screen and occasionally spitting bombs down on your firing mechanism. With two controls you may duck and dance between protective barriers, or fire at the descending phalanx from between them.

The more you pick off from the electronic procession, the faster the game moves. The machine palpitates with a telltale -- and adrenalin-producing -- heartthrob.

Other than a lot of laundry money, the only requirement is hand-eye coordination. (And you can see how coordinated the experts were who scored hundreds of thousands of points more than you did; the screen showing you how to play posts the high score for that machine.)

Judging from others huddled at the rows of star stations, Space Invaders may become as classic a pastime as the yo-yo, the Frisbee and roller-skating.

Space Invaders are springing up everywhere except, so far, where they should be -- in airports and dentist's offices. They are proliferating, however, in suburban malls. The mediocrity of the latter setting has been taken to task on film ("Dawn of the Dead" and "The Blues Brothers"), but within those temples to consumerism, Space Invaders functions in more than one significant way.

The obvious is as a baby-sitter. But, as I have pointed out, the game has a particular appeal for adults and (yes) saves me money.

Before, I couldn't get out of Springfield Mall without a bag from Garfinckels. Now I can go there without even so much as an urge to window shop . . . that mall has two good game centers, plus you get a free game if you turn in your stub from any of the mall movie shows.

In these days of cutting back, Space Invaders can be a cheap date, but it is strictly Bring Your Own Luke Skywalker or play Solo. This is no-hustle scene. Players are intent on concentrating; it's not the pick-up scene that made me resist backgammon. *tAlso, if you have a late-night craving to do something, or for a novel alternative to the nightcap, there are all-night drugstores with the videohypnotic.

There are, of course, variations of the game, each seemingly more ingenius and challenging: more extraterrestial noises, multidimensional fields of space, more satisfying explosions, making Space Invaders, durable but not all that new, even as a cult.

The Pop-Punk Pretenders have celebrated it on the AM airwaves and it was limned this summer in The Village Voice: the ultimate sanction of pop-chic. So have I really gone so far astray?

All I can say is that cum Darth, I'm ready, by George, for the fleet and to face the future.