High up in the literary ghetto, far from the momentous mainstream of the 48th International PEN Congress, the purveyors of science fiction sought comfort and camaraderie today.

"You see here an example of the freedom that genre writing provides," said sci-fi novelist Thomas Disch, surveying the empty chairs in the vertiginous Skygarden of the St. Moritz Hotel. "When there's no one listening, you're free to say anything."

The dozen or so in the audience tittered ruefully.

Disch, chairing the panel, noted that several PEN members he'd invited had declined to participate, among them Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who has said of science fiction, "Oh, I used to write that stuff."

A block away at the Essex House, in a confab that has acquired the weight of a United Nations proceeding, some of the world's most famous writers were considering "Problems of National Identity, Part 1." Meanwhile, up in the Skygarden, the talk was of space travel and literary prejudice.

"When I was young and in my unfallen state, I read everything equally," said panelist Leslie Fiedler, who is better known as a critic than as an apostle of science fiction. "Later I learned that there were two kinds of literature -- the kind that you could be proud of having read, and the kind that you had to read furtively, and be a little ashamed of having read."

And, indeed, the audience grew as the discussion went on. As many as three dozen stragglers wandered into the room before it was over. The five panelists -- all men, four of them wearing beards -- poured coffee from Disch's thermos into the water glasses PEN provided. John Calvin Batchelor, the clean-shaven one, smoked a pipe. Fiedler smoked a cigar, and at one point set his microphone on fire.

"Science fiction doesn't predict the future," said Fiedler once the situation had been taken care of. "It invents the future."

"It's the literature of upward mobility," Disch said. "It's for people who want to join the meritocracy."

One problem, the panelists agreed, is science fiction's reputation as children's literature.

"Science fiction never had an audience," said Disch, "rather, it had a congregation of devotees -- most of them young white males.

"Now it is partly deghettoized," he added. "It's now the reigning boom of popular literature, with the possible exception of the women's romance."

John Crowley, author of "Engine Summer," quoted the late Theodore Sturgeon, who, when asked to pinpoint "the golden age of science fiction," answered, "The golden age of science fiction is 12."

"If I had my druthers, I would always have been 12," said Batchelor, author of "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica." "I had more fun then."

Novelist Samuel Delany said that because it is marketed as children's literature, the fact that Disch's novel "334" imagined the AIDS epidemic years in advance was never pointed out by the publisher.

"Thank God it's children's literature," Fiedler said. But he bridled when writer Frank Conroy, head of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, stood up in the audience to brand the genre "escapism."

"Let me give you my favorite quote from C.S. Lewis," Fiedler told Conroy. " 'The only person to whom escape is a bad word is a jailer.' "