Balticon: As fans beam down, Baltimore Science Fiction Society celebrates 50 years

Founding members Ron Bounds and David M. Ettlin (Courtesy Photo)

Many of the more ardent science fiction fans attending this weekend’s Balticon 47 in Hunt Valley, Maryland, would easily recognize the name, Jack L. Chalker.  The iconic author of Midnight at the Well of Souls left a lasting impression on the sci-fi literary scene.

David Ettlin distinctly remembers the winter day in 1961 when he first encountered Jack Chalker.

“We were stuck for nine hours in a snowbound Baltimore City transit bus.  Though we had never met, both Jack and I were students at City College.  He saw me reading one of those double-sided Ace science fiction books and struck up a conversation.  Jack told me about an entire world of science fiction fandom I didn’t even know existed.”

Ettlin was hooked.  What started as an extended conversation between two strangers on a snowbound transit bus grew to a small coterie of friends who bounced between informal basement get-togethers in Baltimore and more structured meetings in Washington, D.C.  Returning from D.C. New Year’s Eve in 1962, in the back of a Trailways bus, the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS) was born.

At a gala celebration this past January marking their half-century anniversary, the BSFS remembered early members David Ettlin, Jack L. Chalker, Mark Owings, Roger Zelazny, Jerry Jacks and Ron Bounds.  Of that group, only Ettlin and Bounds survive.

Bounds told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that, as a youth, he spent every waking hour reading science fiction.  “How much did (Robert A.) Heinlein foresee the computer?  He was talking about household robots long before they existed.  Edmund Cooper imagined the rumba vacuum cleaner, and Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea for communication satellites.”

Bounds, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University and then ended up working in the aerospace industry, says that science fiction has influenced his views of what is possible and what is not.  “Sci-fi is not always Hemingway, but who wants to read Hemingway all the time?”

Ettlin says he was lucky to grow up in the 1950s, seeing the post-World War II science fiction movies of that era with their lessons of what happens in an atomic bomb mutated world.  “These were great sci-fi movies.  There was only one movie I couldn’t stomach.  It was called the Crawling Eye.  I wish I could find a copy of that.  But look at a classic science fiction film that had a serious message, The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The original, not the newer one.  The original one was a thing of beauty and spoke to the dangers of atomic warfare.  And now we have a statue of Gort outside the Penn  train station in Baltimore.”

“When I think about the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, my memories aren’t so much of events like Balticon or author readings but the people who make up the organization,” says longtime member, Patti Kinlock.  “One comment I’ve heard over and over is that BSFS is like a community; people can disagree all they want, but they really do care about one another and offer help when needed.  Recently, one of our members had a stroke, and friends from BSFS stepped in to help her with managing her day-to-day affairs (transportation, finances, housecleaning and repairs, and more.).

One person Kinlock fondly remembers is founding member Mark Owings, who died in 2009. “Mark was a walking encyclopedia of science fiction knowledge.  I used to call him ‘Markipedia’.  If it had ever been published or broadcast, Mark knew about it.”

Kinlock says she turned to Mark Owings more than once for help with Balticon.

“One of the things I do for Balticon is design and edit the convention souvenir book, the BSFAN.  Sometimes getting guests to send a photo, bio, and other pertinent information before the publication deadline is like pulling teeth.  For Balticon 41, as the printer deadline approached, I realized I had never received the promised photo of one of our guests of honor, Jerry Pournelle. Mark Owings delved into his extensive book collection and found a Pournelle book with an old photo (taken by Mrs. Pournelle) on the book jacket.  Mr. Pournelle was amused when he saw the BSFAN and exclaimed, ‘I know that photo!’  For Balticon 43, I was trying to put together a bibliography for our guest of honor, Charles Stross.  When I showed Mark what I had garnered from Wikipedia, he immediately said, ‘Oh, that’s incomplete!’ and compiled a detailed bibliography for me.”

Kinlock admits putting together events like Balticon can be a tiring, time-consuming experience.  Luckily, bolstering the club today is an energetic group of younger writers who have come on board in the last few years.  Alex Harris, John Zaharick, Sarah Pinsker, Karlo Yeager and Eric Yount are part of this core.

BSFS members John Zaharick, Sarah Pinsker, Alexander Harris, Karlo Yeager and Ben Wang. (Anthony C. Hayes)
BSFS members John Zaharick, Sarah Pinsker, Alexander Harris, Karlo Yeager and Ben Wang.. (Courtesy Photo)

All of the young lions agree that one of the benefits of club membership is it allows them to get their work out to peers and to a larger community of writers.  Harris runs writing workshops along with a popular Anime club.  Zaharick, who occasionally pops up in Baltimore’s poetry scene, wants to be published someday and likes the helpful atmosphere the club affords writers.  Yount especially enjoys the camaraderie, saying he met the group through social media.

Camaraderie always has been a feature of the BSFS.  Kim Weston, a retired Baltimore City Public School science teacher, was an active member from 1964 to the mid 1970’s.  Weston cited Chalker as being a big influence in getting him to consider teaching as a career.

And according to Ettlin, “There have been people who met and came together because of the BSFS.”

“When you create things like a club, it creates pathways in which people get together, and it strangely influences the rest of the real world.  I would have never met my first wife were it not for a correspondence we developed because of a publication that I put out through the national fantasy fan club.  And none of that would have happened were it not for getting stuck on a bus with Jack Chalker.”

Publishing for sci-fi fans not only played a part in Ettlin’s personal life, but it also started him on a career in journalism.

As a writer for The Baltimore Sun, Ettlin was edified when one year he was assigned to report on Balticon.  Unfortunately, his editor was not thrilled with the resulting feature.  “The problem was people were complaining that I was taking it too seriously.  They wanted me to write about bug-eyed monsters.  I thought the most interesting part of the convention was the interaction with the authors.  I met (Issac) Asimov for Sunday brunch after he agreed to sit down with me.  As we were sitting there talking, there was a whole changing cast of characters who would join us.”

Happy Birthday to BSFS. (Courtesy Photo)
Happy Birthday to BSFS. (Courtesy Photo)

Ettlin’s interviews with prominent writers provided him with insights well beyond those enjoyed by the casual fan.  He recalls that three-time Hugo award winning author Clifford D. Simak felt betrayed by the space program.  “He said that after we landed on the moon, we just stopped.  He was frustrated that he wouldn’t live to see Man get to Mars.”

Like Simak, David Ettlin is still hoping to see Man get to Mars.  Still, he is amazed at the changes in technology he has seen over the last half a century and at the enduring power of the club he and his friends started so long ago.

“We were just teenagers when we got started.  The only aliens we ever saw were Baltimore’s famous water bugs.”

“When I found science fiction, other kids were getting on the Buddy Deane show.  Some people called me an escapist, but I could live on another planet.  Maybe it made a lot more sense to look at the world through that kind of filter.”

Baltimore Post-Examiner asked Ettlin what, after 50 years, he has ascertained from looking at the world through that quixotic filter?

“I’ve discovered proof that time travel exists.  But there are only two drawbacks.  One is that it only goes in one direction. And the other, it happens too fast.”

Balticon 47 – The Maryland Regional Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention happens this weekend, May 24-27, 2013.  The convention will take place at the Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, Maryland 21031 (Phone: 410-785-7000).  Directions and other information may be found here.  Information about the Baltimore Science Fiction Society may be found here.


4 thoughts on “Balticon: As fans beam down, Baltimore Science Fiction Society celebrates 50 years

  • August 8, 2019 at 2:13 PM

    what a delight the early BSFS was…and looks like, still is! Meetings were to be looked forward to, often in Jacks’s rambling house on Liberty Heights, sometyimes squeezing into the tiny living room at Mark’s house near the now defunct Babe Ruth memorial Stadium…and the kindness of David Jack, Ron, and all the others in gently helping a young teen explore the world of SF and fandom–a big part of my ‘mispent yout’ !

  • May 25, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    Was very pleased to see this article. And yes Eva, it was nice to see the contributions Jack made to Baltofandom (and Lunarians, and WSFA, and….) I have known virtually everybody mentioned (and even shared house with two of them under different circumstances & times) from my 16 years in Baltimore [fandom] from 1971 to 1987, and am of course saddened by the loss of so many by now; I am hoping to be in Baltimore in late Oct-early Nov 2014, and would love to catch up with Dave, Ron, Kim and everyone else i knew in BSFS and WSFA while I’m there. Where do Ron & Dave live nowadays? Tried sending a msg to Ron via FB, but got no response, and he has a minimalist site there.

  • May 25, 2013 at 6:16 AM

    I got to meet Jack Chalker at 3 or 4 cons I think, and have read every one of his books. I liked the way his characters were always changing bodies and how he was suspitious of “The system” , he cautioned us to watch the politicians and not to become lazy and apathic.

  • May 24, 2013 at 5:25 PM

    I am Jack Chalker’s widow. Thank you for this, it’s always heartening that Jack touched so many lives in a positive way.

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