metropolitan life: stand by for the alien invasion

AS SCIENCE FICTION FANS DESCEND ON GLASGOW FOR THEIR WORLD CONVENTION, NICHOLAS BARBER NOTICES THAT THE OLD GANG (GREEN ANORAK, NO GIRLFRIEND), IS A DWINDLING BREED - WE ARE ALL INTO SCI FI NOW
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IMAGINE if hundreds of Ferengi and Cardassians were stuck in the same building. Picture the consequences of a Romulan and a Klingon jostling for space at the same bar. And what if a Dalek and a Cyberman were to bump into each other in the corridor? Frankly, it doesn't bear thinking about. There'd be green blood everywhere before you could say Warp Drive.

Consider, then, the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention, which takes place in Glasgow next weekend. The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre will be filled with fans of hard, fact-based SF; with people who dress up as Martians and inevitably get photographed for smirking newspaper articles; with collectors and comic fans, actors and authors; film fans who sneer at Star Trek, Trekkies who sneer at films, and "Con Runners", who believe that the convention is an end in itself and that the science fiction is secondary.

All of these varied lifeforms are tarred with the same stereotype by a prejudiced world. The Dr Who fan may know less trivia than the football obsessive who can reel off the goal-scorers in the Liverpool v Everton match of 1883, but it is still the SF freak who is written off as a Gang: Green Anorak, No Girlfriend.

Gail Birnie is the producer of a Channel 4 documentary about the convention, Beam Me Up, Scotty. As she boldly went where no television researcher had gone before, her preconceptions were left behind. "My image of science fiction fans had been of people in anoraks with Jesus sandals and Metallica T-shirts, whereas there's an amazingly broad range of people, from management consultants to university professors to waitresses to civil servants. People keep saying to me, 'How's your Trekky programme coming on?' But there's so much more to it than that."

So why do we think of acne-ridden nerds in National Health glasses? Jan Vincent-Rudzki, editor of the television SF magazine, TV Zone, blames the good old-fashioned Luddism that has made our nation what it is today. "Society ostracises science fiction fans, in the same way as it does scientists in general; it reaches back to the Industrial Revolution," he says. "It's a very British thing. In Japan and America it's different."

Even if you're the type who reaches for the TV zapper the moment you see a laser gun, you won't be able to avoid the genre at the moment. The schedules are packed with The X-Files, The Outer Limits, Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Babylon 5. Multiplex cinemas are showing SF and fantasy on every screen: Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Batman, Power Rangers, Waterworld and, if you want to stretch the definition, Casper. Computer geeks are being pushed off the Internet by business people and hip young dudes. The clubs vibrate with techno music, bookshelves sag with William Gibson and Iain M. Banks.

And to complete the SF takeover, Channel 4 has scheduled a Science Fiction weekend to run concurrent with the Worldcon. In charge of the project is Stuart Cosgrove. "It does seem to be an amazing Summer of Science Fiction," he says, "in the same way as you could call '76 the Summer of Punk, or '67 the Summer of Love."

We're all SF fans, whether we admit it or not, as Gail Birnie realises: "I initially felt that I didn't know anything about science fiction, then I realised that I'd seen Star Trek and Red Dwarf. The same went for literature. If you're somebody who reads at all, you've probably read science fiction."

The co-chairman and organiser of the Worldcon - this year entitled Intersection - is Martin Easterbrook, a 43-year-old computer technical support specialist, who reports a cooling of the once-fierce rivalries of SF clans "The big change came when the Star Trek people came in, in the Seventies. The fans of SF literature, who were almost entirely male, were very supercilious, until they learnt that the Trek fans were almost entirely female. Then they decided it might be a good idea to go to the same conventions as them after all."

Now, says Graeme MacDonald, a physics teacher ("I suspect that my interest in science comes from Star Wars rather than the other way round"), the SF community is "characterised by tolerance to other people's lifestyles. The whole genre is about being receptive to strange ideas, after all."

Easterbrook characterises SF fans as "very open-minded and generally very quiet. You tend not to notice them unless you encounter them in large groups." It's this kind of Close Encounter that has been Easterbrook's hobby for 20 years. He has been involved in putting together conventions since "1976 or '77", although this is the first time he has ever tackled anything of Intersection's scale.

"A national convention will have about 800 people attending, and the total turnover is pounds 30,000 to pounds 40,000. A world convention has a pounds 450,000 turnover, and we're expecting 5,000 people. Nobody does it who realises how much work it's going to be," Easterbrook says.

Intersection has taken three years of organisation, although plans were started in 1987, when Britain hosted its last Worldcon, in Brighton. As for the Olympics, cities make bids to host the convention, and these are voted on three years in advance. Next weekend's Worldcon is one of the first in Europe since the Iron Curtain was removed, and Easterbrook is expecting more than 100 Romanians to step into the alien world of Glasgow.

Weather permitting, they won't be needing their anoraks, although the comedian Stuart Wallace, former president of the Edinburgh Science Fiction Society, insists that Gangs do exist. "It's quite good if there are some around, because they make you feel good about yourself. I don't wear an anorak myself, no. I wear a cool Damon Albarn-type jacket."

8 53rd World Science Fiction Convention, tickets and details: 0141 248 9999

8 Channel 4's sci fi weekend begins on Saturday 26 August, 8.30pm

sf fans: the lifeforms

THE DR WHO FAN

Ian Levine, the producer of 33 UK chart hits, including some by Take That, Bad Boys Inc and the Pasadenas, is the world's leading authority on Dr Who. His passionate love for the programme led to a well-documented worldwide search for copies of the episodes that the BBC had destroyed. He managed to save 50 episodes, though 110 remain missing.

He was even a script consultant on the show between 1982 and 1985, before his animosity towards the producer, John Nathan-Turner, forced him to quit: "Dr Who had eight producers up until 1979," he says. "There were always fresh ideas coming in. But in 1980, Nathan-Turner took over and kept going right until the bitter end in 1989.

"I just hate everything he did to Dr Who. He's a light entertainment producer and he was inspired by Morecambe and Wise, so he kept putting in guest-stars - Joan Sims, Nicholas Parsons, Beryl Reid... Hale and Pace! That really was the final straw. John Nathan- Turner is the man who single-handedly killed Dr Who."

THE STAR TREK: THE

NEXT GENERATION FAN

David Barr is devoted to Captain Picard's crew, but "sniggers" at the original Sixties programme: "The acting was poor and the special effects were laughable. As soon as there was any sign of danger they'd start playing loud, ridiculous music and Kirk would wave his arms about and beat the hell out of some beast. In The Next Generation they try to be more diplomatic."

THE SF LITERATURE FAN

David Pringle is editor of Interzone, which publishes science fiction stories: "Media SF tends to consist of old, stale ideas reworked from books that came out 30 years ago. With TV and film spin-off novels proliferating, the worry is people may end up reading nothing else."

THE BROWSER

Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP Member of Parliament for Perth and Kinross, is coy about her addiction. "I don't approach it very critically," she says. "I just think it's fun."

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