WASHINGTON'S most prominent science fiction writer was almost certainly Cordwainer Smith, the pseudonym for Paul A. Linebarger (1913-1966), an expert on psychological warfare. Smith's first story, "Scanners Live in Vain" (1950), is regarded among the dozen true classics of the sf short story.

Eventually, Smith went on to create an entire future history, "The Instrumentality of Mankind," imagining a distant future in which animals would be reshaped into "underpeople." Many stories -- including the lyrical and heartbreaking "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" -- chronicle how the underpeople gradually win their civil rights. Noted for his poetic prose (sometimes verging on sentimentality), at his frequent best he is a superb writer: "The Best of Cordwainer Smith" is a good introduction. Real admirers should note that bookseller Robert Madle purchased Smith's library and still has a few choice items left.

A sidelight. In 1955 Robert Lindner published "The Fifty- Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales." The longest of these, "The Jet-Propelled Couch," recounts the science fiction fantasies of a young man who escaped from intolerable social and family pressures into a space opera universe of elaborate detail. Eventually, to effect a cure, the psychiatrist entered that fantasy world with his patient, widely believed to be the young Paul Linebarger.

The area's most unusual science fiction writer is probably Somtow Sucharitkul of Alexandria. The first Thai commoner ever to attend Eton, Somtow (as he is universally called) took degrees in music and literature at Cambridge University. When he first came to this country, he spent most of his time composing (he is the founder of neo-Asian post-serialism) but soon became interested in science fiction. Within a couple of years he had won the John Campbell Award as best new writer in the field. The author of more than a dozen books, Somtow is best known for his Inquestor sequence and for his horror novel (under the name S.P. Somtow) "Vampire Junction." His most recent book, just out, is a young adult fantasy novel called "The Fallen Country."

Ted White is Washington's best-known sf editor. Important as a fanzine editor and writer (Stellar and Void), he went on to become an assistant editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science, then editor (between 1968 and 1978) of both Amazing and Fantastic. These last were edited out of Washington, where White grew up. In 1979 he became editor of Heavy Metal, an adult comic magazine with an emphasis on science fiction and fantasy. Most recently, he was editorial adviser for Stardate, a D.C.-based multi-media magazine devoted to sf and gaming.

Other notable Washington sf people include writers Charles Sheffield (currently president of the Science Fiction Writers of America), David Bischoff (editor of Stardate), old masters Charles Harness and Sterling Lanier; and Harry Warner, historian of fandom. As a young man, jazz expert Willis Conover was a friend of the legendary H. P. Lovecraft (and has written about their correspondence); attorney Douglas E. Winter doubles as a leading authority on horror fiction, with a special interest in that tangentially sf writer, Stephen King. Younger sf professionals include Richard Grant, whose first novel, "Saraband of Lost Time," has been widely praised; A.C. Crispin, who novelized the television mini-series "V"; and new writers Brenda Clough, Stephen Spruill and Paula Volsky. Baltimore's most famous sf personality is Jack Chalker, a prolific novelist and an authority on the science fiction specialty press.