A meander in two-and-three-halves parts.
Life, the Universe, and Everything 30, the Marion K. “Doc” Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy will be held February 9-11 (Thursday-Saturday) in the Sorensen Student Center at Utah Valley University. Membership is free for students; non-students can purchase one-day passes for $20 or a full three-day membership for $30 if they register before January 23—after which prices will go up. Please register early.
Guests this year will include James A. Owen (author of Starchild and Here There Be Dragons),
Richard Paul Evans, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, James Dashner, David Farland, and many, many others. Special guest Chris Schoebinger is an acquisitions editor for Shadow Mountain.
For those who have not attended the symposium, I can recommend it highly as both a useful and informative venue for writers and artists of all kinds, and as a safe and interesting introduction to sf fan culture. LTUE focuses on the practical business and theory of storytelling and publishing (with a distinctly science fiction/fantasy/horror bent), but also includes hand-on demonstrations of medieval fighting techniques, crafts, costuming, and live-action role playing.
As one of a relatively few “ser-cons” (serious conventions) LTUE has gained a strong reputation nationwide as a great value and a friendly event. Guests tend to be easily accessible, fans tend to be friendly, and programming covers a wide variety of interests. Now in its thirtieth year, LTUE is also one of the longest running events of its kind anywhere.
If you’re in Utah during the week of February 9-11, consider stopping in. You’re guaranteed to meet someone interesting, and the hallway conversations are often at least as interesting as the scheduled events.
LTUE is one of the two most visible manifestations of the Utah phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy (the other being ConDuit, an annual convention held in Salt Lake City, and featuring many of the same organizers and attendees as LTUE).
I first discovered this extended community my freshman year at BYU, when the first named iteration of Life, The Universe, and Everything was held in February 1983 (what I think of as Card-Con I; Orson Scott Card was a regular guest early in its history). While I had read sf for most of my life it had never occurred to me to seek an organized fandom, so the symposium was a strange, new experience for me. I found it fascinating to discuss art, science, and creativity with other LDS, and I became totally and completely hooked. Between the symposium, the campus sf club (Quark), and the campus sf magazine (The Leading Edge), the community offered a face for all interests.
The fact of that community was transformative for me. As a relatively shy person who had always felt generically outcast, this place where I could be LDS, a writer, and an sf enthusiast all at the same time was a more solid anchor for me than either religion or course of study. As a Chicago transplant I was still very leery of the whole Utah social/cultural experience; this was the first place where I felt truly comfortable since coming to Utah.
After a mission to Germany, I came back to BYU and got involved in the magazine (I was an aspiring writer who wanted to see how the acquisition process worked), which inevitably meant involvement with the symposium. It was an interesting time in the evolution of the community. Many of the initial organizers had started to move on to other things (graduate work, real jobs), and a new generation of participants had begun to take over the institutions they started.
As a representative of the first generation to come completely from the outside—after those three early institutions were created and had become essentially self-sustaining—I watched the painful transition away from original enthusiasm to next-gen operation. For us those institutions had always existed and the challenges were less about self-definition than about ongoing maintenance. We lived in the shadow of the founders, but (with very few exceptions) were not specifically beholden to them.
We were building on a foundation already established, not creating the foundations ourselves. That’s a powerful inflection point, and many organizations don’t make the turn. Evolving is a different skill set than creating.
I’ve ended up attending all but two of the LTUE symposia, and have been involved in organizing the last twenty-five of them. I’ve seen that transition play out time and time again, and have seen an entire generation of people (my own children among them) who take that solid institutional foundation as a given—unlike those who started it, or those of us who shepherded that first, difficult evolution.
Not unlike the AML or any other organization that has lasted beyond its first decade. The challenge of self-definition never goes away; it just changes shape.
Last year I participated on a radio show at KBYU with Dave Doering (the principle organizer of that first generation of sf institutions at BYU) and Howard Tayler (a successful local comic artist and podcaster). The host asked why Utah had such a powerful sf community, and I promptly launched into a preachment on how Mormonism was a storytelling religion and our interest in both true science and building communities offered fertile ground for the development of this particular subculture.
At that point, Howard somewhat impatiently explained that the real reason was that there was a large and well-established fan base from which the institutions naturally evolved. It had nothing to do with religion, but rather with a self-sustaining monoculture of sf writers, readers, and artists. The discussion moved on to other topics, but I was left a bit unsettled by Howard’s apparent contradiction.
At first I thought we were answering different questions—Howard spoke to why the community continued, where I spoke to how it originally formed. Still, that wasn’t quite right, because Howard seemed to discount the role of LDS roots in creating that community in the first place and placed full credit with the sf-ness of it.
Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Of course it was existing interest in sf (specifically writing sf) that caused people who happened to be attending an LDS university to gather and create a formal community. I tend to put a lot of store in the fact that it all coalesced at BYU a few short years after an injunction by LDS general authorities to be more engaged in the arts—which helped inspire LDS authors such as Orson Scott Card, who were just beginning to make a splash in the national market at the time.
The fact was that while there were pockets of fandom (especially in the Salt Lake City area) who ran reading groups and attended conventions together, there were few of the more visible and permanent manifestations of an organized sf community in Utah prior to that particular BYU class’s decision to create a club, a magazine, and a symposium. Those visible institutions enabled a more formal community to coalesce, catalyzed others to act to create their own recurring events. While those newer institutions owed no allegiance to LTUE or its companion groups, that doesn’t change the fact that a spark did come from LDS people at an LDS university that valued both creativity and community.
Not caused by LDS religion, but facilitated by it. Not controlled by LDS theological constructs, but enriched and encouraged by a religion that could tolerate the sf fan’s mindset, fascinations, and interests at the same time that it allowed authors to speculate on core existential questions without a crisis of faith. Not an LDS community, but a community that LDS could join (or form) without an unreasonable sense of cultural conflict.
Howard was right; the institutions formed because of interest in sf. I was also right; formal organization came because the predominant culture actively encouraged the formation of communities regardless of social or religion interest, and that seed helped catalyze the critical mass of general interest across a wide variety of otherwise unrelated subcultures. It’s unlikely that the mass of organization would have coalesced in this place if that had not been a strong value of the predominant culture. Once created, a different dynamic governs evolution than the one that sparked creation.
Healthy communities are in a constant state of evolution, self-definition, and fundamental transition. This interaction of old and new ideas is critical to retaining meaning and relevance, at the same time that such evolution can be painful for those invested in their current incarnations.
Whether discussing markets, venues, technologies, or techniques, the fact is that Joseph Smith had it right from the beginning—start with good principles, then let communities develop and govern themselves. If the communities you inhabit don’t meet your needs…then go create a new one.