Close Encounters In Beantown

A Look Inside a Science Fiction Convention

It had been a long day, and Darth Vader was looking for a party. He turned to the winged woman beside him, and said raspingly through his iron mask, "Let's check out the one on the tenth floor."

Vader, his companion and 1500 other science fiction fans--many of them also in costume--had gathered last weekend at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston for New England's largest science fiction convention, "Boskone." It may be aliens and gadgets that attract most people to science fiction, but for the seasoned fans at the Sheraton the monsters and computers were just an excuse to socialize.

Of course, plenty of organized science-fiction activity greeted the fans. Discussion panels included authors such as Frank Herbert, Gordon Dickson, John Brunner and Larry Niven. Dealers offered used and out-of-print books, records, games, posters and T-shirts. A continuous film program featured classics from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "Bambi Meets Godzilla." An art show gave amateur and not-so-amateur painters a chance to show their work--most of which looked like a combination of Maxfield Parrish, Peter Max, and Marvel comics.

But much of this activity, attendees who were asked agreed, was a pretense for the discussions and parties that materialized in the hotel's rooms and corridors Friday afternoon, and only began to disperse as Sunday wore on. "Fandom attracts a type of person I feel comfortable with," said Leslie Turek '67. "Many science fiction fans are introverted people who can find a niche here and let themselves go," said Richard Gottlieb, a fan who has attended the last three "Boskones."

Ellen Franklin, an organizer of the convention, said that speakers, professional authors and special events lure people to science fiction conventions; later, they get hooked on more esoteric "fannish" activities, and become a part of the sub-culture. "Going to the world science fiction convention becomes their summer vacation," and fans maintain friendships from convention to convention, Franklin said.


The fans may feel comfortable together at their conventions, but their odd interests often separate them into small groups. One of the more unusual of these groups is made up of aficionados of Georgette Heyer, an author of 19th century novels of manners. This group held a formal dance at Boskone; another group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, regularly holds jousts and tourneys in full medieval battle dress. The conventions attract devotees of horror movies, computers, historical and military games, comic books, and even puns. For the latter, Boskone included a special pun competition.

The parties at which all of these specialists get together took place in hotel rooms jammed with people on beds, chairs, floors, tables and TV sets. Hosts publicized their parties with signs posted all over the hotel, and people eager to attend--or often just to grab a free can of beer from an ice-filled bathtub--wandered up and down the corridors and in the elevators, looking for rooms with tell-tale open doors.

The conversations at these parties wandered far from their starting points of science fiction, and late at night often ended up weighing the merits of different types of birth control, or considering the possibility of Maine seceding from the U.S. and forming an independent nation with Canada's maritime provinces. As the parties broke up, fans continued to wander up and down the corridors and sometimes formed "elevator parties," simply remaining in one elevator as it traveled, continuing to talk and drink.

But the most singular activity was "filksinging," the science fiction fan's answer to oral literature. A filksong--the name's origin is unknown--is a series of humorous lyrics based on science fiction or fantasy themes, sung to familiar tunes in a disorganized but spirited way. As the night wears on, the singing often degenerates to more widely know, bawdy lyrics, such as "Barnacle Bill the Sailor." But the most creative songs, including "Smaug, the Magic Dragon," "Cthulhu's Days Are Here Again," "Our Space Opera Goes Rolling Along," and "Bouncing Potatoes," circulate in different versions from convention to convention.

These filksongs are a small part of the literature science fiction fans pour forth. Most of it is in the form of "fanzines"--magazines ranging from mimeographed newsletters to slick monthlies. The creative impulse even led a group of science fiction devotees from Rhode Island to produce a musical called "Rivets Redux," based on Gilbert and Sullivan tunes.

The show lamented the decline in popularity of the pot-boiler technological science fiction that flourished in the '30s, as exemplified by the novels of E.E. "Doc" Smith, from whose "Lensman" books the convention takes its name. Many SF fans seem to look back fondly to this era of "space opera," and resent its being dismissed as "that old Buck Rogers stuff." At the same time, this genre has been revived, updated a bit and popularized by the movie "Star Wars."

Nevertheless, the replacement of "space opera" and technological science fiction by more sociological and humanitarian themes seems to be the main cause of the growth of interest in science fiction among the general public, said Richard Gruen, a fan who traveled from California to attend Boskone. "A story that used to talk about how to build a colony on the moon today would talk about how people manage under those conditions," he said.

One author who pioneered this transformation is John Brunner, who was Boskone's chief speaker. Brunner, in his books "Stand on Zanzibar" and "The Sheep Look Up," adapted avant-garde literary techniques to speculate on overpopulation and pollution. Brunner seemed to echo the feelings of many people at the convention when he told them, in a clipped British accent, "In my childhood I had the feeling that I was outside the existence of normal people. At a convention like this, I feel that all these strangers are on my side and I can relax."

But Brunner said he has lost much of his enthusiasm for writing science fiction. "There is nothing in my imagination to compete with the complexity of the real world," he said, and told the audience he intends to write more non-fiction. Most of the people at Boskone seemed to disagree with Brunner, although the convention itself in a way illustrated that complexity.

The other visitors at the hotel, along with passers-by from the Prudential Center next door, looked on the cavorting fans with a mixture of puzzlement and rancor. On Friday night, after a masquerade ball with disco decor, the fans--dressed up as characters from "Star Trek," "Star Wars," and their own imaginations--wandered about the hotel. They made a nice contrast with the other guests at the Sheraton, there for a Kiwanis Club convention.

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