Future imperfect for science fiction fans: Martin Wroe dons his Campaign for Surreal Ale badge and joins delegates at the Helicon convention in Jersey

AN American woman is selling snarling dragons sculpted in polished bronze, each holding an opal in its claws, for pounds 300 apiece. Near by, a German stallholder is offering authentic Sudanese dress swords, 3ft long and encased in leather scabbards. A snip at pounds 100.

All around, hundreds of people - mostly in beards, glasses, stone- washed jeans and black T-shirts with fluorescent heavy-metal designs - are buying sacred science fiction texts. Most wear large round badges with slogans like 'Whoever dies with the most books wins' or 'CAMSA - Campaign for Surreal Ale'.

Business at Helicon - the annual European Science Fiction Convention held in the Hotel de France, Jersey, over the Easter weekend - is booming. Not surprising, given that many of the 1,060 delegates, who have travelled from all over the world, have not been able to get hold of decent SF merchandise until recently.

Musca Adrian has travelled with a group of 45 from Romania, including members of the country's H G Wells Science Fiction Club. 'All the young people love SF even though it used to be censored,' he said.

Yuri Savchenko, from Moscow, is selling hand-painted Star Trek dolls, where you take Captain Kirk's head off and Mr Spock appears in his belly.

Helicon is a dream come true for Mr Savchenko, who still remembers when SF literature in Russia was used 'for hiding anti-totalitarian or anti-Communist ideas'. These days there are 200 SF clubs in Russia.

SF is the approved abbreviation of Science Fiction - aficionados go into hyperspace at the mere mention of the phrase 'Sci-Fi' which, like 'cyberpunk', 'hard SF' and 'space opera', is a category of the SF genre.

Mr Savchenko is into 'social SF', meaning that he is mainly interested in 'societies of the future, perhaps because of the problems in my society at present'. A poster in the hall announces: 'Available now - the Future'. But the look of the delegates promises the mid-Seventies. The future is not nearly as available as the literature for other SF 'cons' - fandom-speak for the regular conventions.

Vocon, a Douglas Adams convention, is coming up, as is Mexicon 5 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire; Wincon III in Winchester, Hampshire; and Conadian in Canada.

Delegates come to meet other believers for drinking and mutual in- joking about space-travel and nano- technology (micro-technology). Some, according to Sue Mason, a white witch dressed in black who carries a toy fox everywhere, come to find a partner.

Most saw the light and were converted to SF at university when they were reading science. Almost all work in computers. Most have brains the size of undiscovered planets.

Otherwise it is unclear who these people are. They could be someone's neighbour or relative; on the other hand, they may be time-travellers who have returned from the future to find out how close to the truth SF writers got just before the end of the world.

'Some people just go round from convention to convention,' said Phil Bradley, a librarian and computer teacher who was selling a range of Celtic T-shirt designs which, he said, everybody would be wearing in the future. 'You could go to an SF convention every weekend if you wanted to,' he added.

Some are deadly serious about the future. The man on the panel at the Sabotaging the Ecosphere seminar pleaded that 'we've got to make this spaceship liveable, we can't go back to being noble savages'.

Jack Cohen, a Fellow of the Institute of Biology and heavily into SF for 25 years, suggested that oil tankers from the Middle East should not go back empty but filled with Western sewage to spread on the desert.

But it was foolish to ask him if SF was charting the future. 'What's the future?' he snapped. 'There is no future. There's lots of futures, we will all inhabit the future differently.'

The future for SF, as the dragons and swords illustrate, is that fantasy and horror titles are eclipsing it in the shops.

The trouble is that the other SF - science fact - has been developing so rapidly that writers are steering away from the near-future in favour of the far-future. The present is too fantastic to believe. Unfortunately, as a delegate at the Fantasy seminar pointed out, the near future is easier to sell.

John Brunner, the British guest of honour at Helicon and an SF veteran of 40 years, wrote the first cyberpunk novel about 10 years before cyberpunk was invented, according to the Helicon chairman Tim Illingworth.

'We're all travelling to the future,' said Mr Brunner, 'and I'd rather go as a tourist, no matter how unreliable the guidebook, than go as a refugee.'

He said SF literature had increasing social relevance. Telepathy, for example, was actually a metaphor for total communication, while contact with aliens was a parable about the need to overcome intolerance and racial hatred.

Mr Illingworth, bearded, long- haired, bespectacled, 'got into fandom' at Cambridge University in 1976, about the time when readers of the books of the future started looking like the past. Mr Illingworth said that 'SF's task is not to predict the future but to prevent it'.

Iain Banks, the acclaimed mainstream novelist, who writes an SF title every other year (inserting an M between his first name and surname) was one of several authors at Helicon as a fan, not a speaker.

In the Nineties, he suggested, SF was increasingly about virtual reality and nano-technology as well as a big revival of interest in Mars. 'If science fiction ever did promise a new age then it has been postponed.'

As for the mid-Seventies factor, Mr Banks is unperturbed. 'Sure we have our standard quotient of nerds, but nerds in SF are of a much higher quality. Give me an SF nerd anyday.'

(Photographs omitted)