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Fans gather to live out their fantasy

Appearing wholly unrepentant beneath his wide-brimmed black hat, Terry Pratchett lounges in an armchair as a prosecutor rattles off the charges against him before scores of spectators who are hanging on every word.

The bestselling British author of fantasy novels is guilty, the prosecutor bellows, of "the shame of being accused of `literature,' of taking shelf space from those of note," and, further, of trying to "pervert and corrupt the sensibilities of common reading folks." Pratchett grins and gives a thumbs-up to the crowd, which cheers lustily. "Order! Order!" the bewigged judge shouts. One woman cries: "What do you mean, `common'?"

She's got a point. This is no ordinary trial -- mock trial, actually -- and this is no ordinary Thursday night at the Hynes Convention Center. For one thing, one of the "witnesses" against Pratchett is dressed as Nanny Ogg, a witch from his "Discworld" series. Another of Pratchett's characters, a hulking brute called Coalface the Troll, would soon make an appearance, along with a guy in a propeller beanie, a woman in a Viking helmet, a chap in an orange space suit, a man wearing large wings, and dozens of witches, wizards, and jesters.

You have stepped into the alternate universe that is the 62d World Science Fiction Convention, a realm where it seems perfectly plausible that Pratchett's next move is to call Death (yet another character from his books) in his defense.

A spectral figure in black robe, hood, and skull's head obligingly steps onstage, whereupon Pratchett produces a small brush and commits an excruciating pun about "a brush with death."

The judge has heard enough. He pronounces sentence on the author: "He will be sent from this place and forced to sign books. And to greet many of you . . . a fate worse than death."

"Hey," a spectator says in an injured tone.

Listen, you need a thick skin to be a science-fiction fan. That, and a certain flexibility when it comes to defining the genre. That's because the World Science Fiction Convention (which runs through Monday) is further evidence that the boundaries between traditional sci-fi and fantasy have virtually disappeared. "A lot of what we do is very much a blend," convention chairman Deb Geisler says. "We have trouble defining what's science fiction and what's fantasy."

Not that many of the fans costumed for a "First Night" celebration to kick off the convention seem to care. "There's so much overlap that it gets hard to draw the line," remarks Andrea Evans, 40, a native of Australia attired all in black, as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series. "Science fiction has always been about the idea of the future, and that's an idea as old as mankind."

So the convention exhibits and seminars that are expected to draw as many as 7,000 fans to Boston focus as much on magic and myth, elves and enchanted forests, swords and sorcery, as on robots and rockets.

J.R.R. Tolkien and the "Lord of the Rings" books and movies are as hot, if not hotter, topics of discussion than such sci-fi giants as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury or iconic films and TV shows like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." The Hugo Awards, to be bestowed at the convention tonight, will be handed out in both the science-fiction and fantasy categories.

The bottom line is that in the 15 years since the World Science Fiction Society last held its convention in Boston, the sci-fi fandom has grown comfortable with such umbrella terms as "speculative fiction" and "SF&F," which stands for "science fiction and fantasy." Some fans look askance at the term "sci-fi," akin to the Beat Generation's view of "beatnik."

Of course, a fair chunk of the outside world looks askance at the science-fiction fans themselves. "The Simpsons" (where Homer saves Mark Hamill from crazed fans) and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" (where Triumph the Insult Comic Dog paid a memorable visit to a "Star Wars" convention) have had fun with the idea of sci-fi buffs as geeks and nerds. "There's still a bunch of us who are geeks and nerds, and we kind of like that," says Geisler, director of Suffolk University's graduate program in communications. "The Internet has made it kind of sexy to be a geek. Bill Gates is the ultimate geek, and how sexy is a billion dollars?"

"Let's face it, we live in a science-fiction world," she adds. "Ride the Red Line: About 90 percent of the riders are reading science fiction or fantasy. . . . A lot of contemporary authors are finding that scientific themes give them rich playgrounds for the imagination."

And contemporary filmmakers are finding them a creative and financial gold mine: Almost half of the top 20 box-office-grossing films of all time are either science fiction or fantasy, including four of the "Star Wars" films, "E.T.," all three "Lord of the Rings" films, and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The "Matrix" movies have also proven hugely popular (though "I, Robot," based on stories by Isaac Asimov, did not prove to be a blockbuster).

Even politicians seem to have taken note of the sci-fi constituency: Geisler says that before the convention began, she received a note from John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, "saying he hoped the convention went well."

"It used to be a proud and lonely thing, to be a fan," remarks Geri Sullivan, a graphic designer from Wales, Mass., attending her 11th convention. "People don't sneer at you now when they see you reading a science-fiction book."

Even at a convention of true believers, though, there is the occasional skeptic. One young boy drags his teenage sister over to meet Coalface the Troll. "Coalface, I'd like you to meet my sister," he says earnestly. "This is Coalface." She rolls her eyes and retorts, "I guessed," then walks away.

Conventioneers hail from all 50 states and 33 countries, and range from professors and librarians to high-tech workers to people who sell Christmas trees. Whether their particular passion is for costuming or anime, books or films, they are drawn by a common love for a genre that evokes a "sense of wonder," in Sullivan's words. "For me personally, it's very much the family reunion," she says, tossing off a "Hi, dear heart!" to a conventioneer as she passes.

To judge by the First Night festivities, science-fiction fans have a sense of humor about themselves and their obsessions. There are signs inviting fans to events sponsored by the League of Evil Geniuses and the Society for Creative Anachronism.

One exhibit, perhaps with a nod to the Republican National Convention as it wrapped up Thursday in New York and to July's Democratic National Convention in Boston, asks passersby to vote for the "First Citizen of Fantopia." The candidates are Robert Heinlein, Mary Shelley of "Frankenstein" fame, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. "Vote Mary Shelley -- She'll Bring Good Things to Life," reads one campaign sign. An advocate for Heinlein, spotting two young women, declares: "A vote for Heinlein is a vote for women!" Retorted one woman: "Not really. How many women are there in his books?"

A level of scientific and historical knowledge is assumed. As two men gaze at a metal contraption, one says to the other: "You recognize this, don't you? It's a mockup of the world's first liquid-fueled rocket, by Robert Goddard."

Samuel Markson, a 14-year-old from Lakeville, is dressed in the silver uniform of Klaatu, the alien played by Michael Rennie in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the 1951 sci-fi classic. "I like the complicated science fiction," Markson says. "We see a lot less gadget science fiction, and a lot more fate-of-the-universe science fiction."

And then there's the fate of the novelist. Pratchett is moving about the room, cheerfully serving his "sentence" as he meets and greets his fans (one fan says he is so renowned for interacting with readers that there's a joke about "owning a rare unsigned Terry Pratchett book."). No, it's his characters with whom Pratchett seemed to have had a beef, blurring the line between fiction and fact, just as the divisions between science fiction and fantasy have fallen. Just before sentence is pronounced on him, he casts a baleful eye on Nanny Ogg. "May I object to being prosecuted by one of my own fictional creations?" he demands. "I gave this woman life!"

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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