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Literature: Science fiction gets some respect as a collection of rare volumes arrives--under guard--for exhibit at antiquarian book fair in Convention Center.

February 13, 1998|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The armored car that rumbled up to the Los Angeles Convention Center on Thursday wasn't carrying cash.

It was delivering proof that the musty world of rare-book collectors is being laser-blasted into the 21st century by authors whose musings over the past 300 years sometimes turn out to be eerily on target.

Armed guards escorted a portion of a priceless, 80,000-volume science fiction collection into town to be exhibited at the weekend-long California International Antiquarian Book Fair, which opens at 4 p.m. today.

It is the first time that books from UC Riverside's Eaton Collection--the world's largest cache of works on space travel, future technologies and utopian fiction--have ever been shown outside the university library.

In the past, many serious collectors have thumbed their noses at science fiction, contemptuous of the idea that Martians, robots and time travelers could share the spotlight with Cicero, Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

"I think it has a lot to do with the image of science fiction fans wearing aluminum foil on their heads and sitting on city rooftops waiting for Zotar the Warpmaster," said Mark Hime, a Century City book dealer who specializes in first editions of the classics.

" 'Frankenstein' or 'Dracula' are classics. But scholars will never give them the recognition they give to 'The Sun Also Rises' or 'Grapes of Wrath.' I think it's just sour grapes, frankly."

The 14 boxes of first-edition science fiction books on loan from UC Riverside include both "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." There are other rare volumes, too, such as a 1897 first edition of "The Invisible Man" by H.G. Wells and an unusual asbestos-covered version of the more recent "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury.

Nothing from the Eaton Collection will be for sale during the book fair, which alternates yearly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But many of the 228 dealers who have registered--perhaps emboldened by word of the display--have brought science fiction books to sell alongside their regular specialties.

Howard Rootenberg, a Sherman Oaks dealer who is an expert on rare medical and science books, is bringing a palm-size volume called "The Discovery of a World in the Moone," a 1638 book that is considered the earliest treatise on the possibility of space travel. Asking price: $4,000.

"I'm into science, not science fiction," acknowledged Rootenberg, president of the Southern California chapter of the Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America. "But I think science fiction is a valid specialty. First editions of them are as collectible as great books, or medicine books."

Dealer John Windle of San Francisco suggested that a better name for the science fiction genre might be "speculative fiction."

"A lot of what they've written about in the past has come true," Windle said, comparing "Frankenstein" with recent cloning experiments and Jules Verne's "Trip to the Moon" with U.S. space exploration.

Besides the Eaton Collection exhibition, other special events at the fair include a free appraisal of visitors' old books between noon and 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission to the fair is $5.

Sidney E. Berger, head of special collections at UC Riverside's Rivera Library, said the armored truck will return for the science fiction books at the fair's close at 6 p.m. Sunday.

Berger said he spent more than $800 for the Brinks truck and guards Allen Wild and Curtis Meigan.

"This stuff is irreplaceable," Berger said, cradling a stack of old H.G. Wells books lovingly. "My neck would be on the chopping block if they got lost."

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