A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going back to Utah to attend the 31st iteration of Life, the Universe, and Everything: The Marion K. “Doc” Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy. My pleasure in attending was manifold, and only in part because I got to see my son in a position of responsibility that I held long ago. I also got to spend time with friends and associates whom in some cases I hadn’t seen in 10 years or more. And I got to see how something I helped inaugurate has grown and prospered since its early years — beyond I think the expectations of any of its founders.
Which led, inevitably, to meditations on LTUE itself, its future, and the future of the Mormon science fiction and fantasy community that now more or less calls LTUE its home.
LTUE was started by a group of students at BYU in the early 1980s with ambitions to write science fiction and fantasy. Beginning with members of the notorious “class that wouldn’t die,” over several years this community launched a student sf&f magazine, The Leading Edge, that continues today; a writing group, Xenobia, with at least two early members (M. Shayne Bell and Dave [Farland] Wolverton) who went on to national writing careers; and LTUE, known colloquially as “the symposium.”
Exactly what the symposium should be always has been a matter for debate. In part, it was a chance to wheedle money from the university to bring out well-respected science fiction and fantasy writers and see what we could learn from them. In part, it was an effort to make our own interest in sf&f respectable (both on campus and among fellow Mormons) by luring BYU professors into talking about the literature we cared about most and how it intersected with their disciplines. In part, it was an attempt to put on something vaguely like a science fiction convention by straightlaced Mormon kids who had in many cases never actually been to one.
From the beginning, LTUE’s focus was not exclusively or even primarily writing, but rather centered on the experience and interests of the intelligent and interested reader. LTUE also quickly developed an unusual organizational structure featuring a partnership between actively recruited student volunteer/leaders and more seasoned ex-students who have stuck around for decades in some cases to provide experienced knowledge and help. It’s a model that persists to its day — though as you’ll see below, I have doubts about how well it can last into the future.
LTUE has experienced a number of changes over the years. For this post, I want to focus on a couple that have important implications for the community of Mormon science fiction and fantasy readers and writers.
First is the almost complete disaffiliation of LTUE and BYU. I don’t know how many years it’s been since BYU actually provided any funds for LTUE, which is now financially self-sustaining. Over the last few years, the venue for LTUE has moved from BYU’s main campus, using rooms scheduled free of charge in the Wilkinson Center and other buildings, to paid use of BYU’s off-the-beaten-track conference center, to the Utah Valley University (UVU) campus, and finally this past year to the Provo Marriott. While LTUE continues to seek cosponsorships from BYU departments and other sources, it seems unlikely for a variety of reasons that the event will return to the main campus anytime in the near future.
I hasten to note that this push away from BYU was not sought by LTUE. Rather, it seems to be part of a generally chilled atmosphere at BYU regarding anything (a) seen as peripheral to mainstream university academics, and (b) not under the direct management of BYU administration. LTUE’s very autonomy, that made it a growth experience for many of us (and an attractive event for past university departments: you get a quality event with minimal expense and faculty effort!) now is a liability. I also consider it ironic that even as sf&f has become a more respectable field of study at many universities, BYU’s college of humanities has turned its back on this area, despite a history of noteworthy accomplishment by Mormon writers and scholars. But then, why should I be surprised? Much the same thing has happened to Mormon letters at BYU. But I digress…
Meanwhile, a distinct community of Mormon sf&f readers and writers has grown up, starting with that same nucleus of students (now long since graduated) who first started LTUE and The Leading Edge so long ago and added to since with a vast host of writers such as Eric James Stone, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and others who either were active in BYU’s sf&f community or were “discovered” and brought in at some point — often through invitation to LTUE. By design, LTUE has always been implicitly rather than explicitly Mormon, and has actively reached out to welcome non-Mormons as well as Mormons. And yet I think it’s undeniable that LTUE has long been, and continues to be, the “homecoming” event for the Mormon sf&f community.
Which brings me to the present, and the future.
So long as LTUE was officially a BYU event, held on the BYU campus, the Mormon connection wasn’t really a matter of thought. Ecumenical as any event may try to be, still an event held at BYU is inherently in some sense a Mormon event. Which those of us who started LTUE and have supported it over the years were mostly quite comfortable with: this is the particular community we belong to and feel a special desire to help prosper. We would not continue to care about what happens with LTUE — and volunteer to help from afar, train our sons and daughters to lead LTUE in turn, and come back whenever we can — if this were just another sf&f event, without any Mormon connection.
At the same time, over the years LTUE has become to some extent a victim of its own success. Nowadays, it’s the premier sf&f event in Utah — bigger than anything held in Salt Lake City. Which is kind of ironic, because back when we started, BYU’s sf&f community wasn’t really a part of the larger Utah sf&f community at all.
LTUE’s sponsorship by BYU also for a long time enabled the organization to “dodge” certain institutional necessities, such as a clear-cut governance structure, corporate identity, and separate bank account. Obviously, that’s no longer the case. And yet very little has happened along those lines except a certain minimal formalization necessary in order to allow things to continue as much as possible as they have been. To a surprising degree, LTUE is still being run as if it were a campus event watched over by long-time nonstudent den mothers, godfathers, and the like. Which — as long as it works — fine. But I don’t really know how long this model will be sustainable. For one thing, without a campus home and community, how effectively will LTUE be able to recruit new generations of student leaders? How long will it be worth the old-timers’ while to put in the effort to do so?
One thing I find particularly striking — looking at who actually puts in the effort to organize the symposium — is the large-scale lack of organizational involvement on the part of the many communities that now benefit from LTUE. So far as I can tell, no one from Salt Lake is on the symposium committee. No actively publishing sf&f writers and artists are on the committee. No non-sf&f writers are on the committee, even though “word is out” that this is the best bargain-for-its-bucks writing experience in the area. No Utah-area fans are on the symposium committee — except those whose identify as part of that community is rooted in their past LTUE involvement.
Part of me is kind of happy with that. After all, it more or less ensures that LTUE will continue to be what it has been. Part of me is kind of annoyed. And part of me worries that this isn’t really a sustainable model — because as a general rule, the people doing the work in any volunteer effort need to feel that they’re getting out of it something that makes it worth their while. The current symposium “old-timers” whose names are on the accounts, who provide wisdom and make sure things get done that are necessary to put on a successful event, have been motivated in large part by the desire to help younger students have the same kind of experience we had. If that stops happening — if LTUE ceases to be a student event — why should they continue to shoulder the institutional burden?
Make no mistake. LTUE is in good health. Attendance this past year was an astonishing 1300. They even made a little money — despite higher costs due to a hotel venue, low membership fees for an event of its kind, and a very high percentage of unpaid memberships (all full-time students, panelists, volunteers, and past symposium chairs get in free — and there are more of us than you’d think). There’s already an organization forming up for next year. However, I think there are some long-term decisions that need to be made (either explicitly or by default) over the next couple of years that will help determine what LTUE will be going forward.
Which brings me to the Mormon sf&f community.
Back when we first started LTUE, BYU was the only conceivable center of a community of LDS science fiction and fantasy writers and readers. Nowadays, that community exists — and BYU isn’t really a major part of the action. But I haven’t seen a lot of efforts to create a new center. There is no functioning formal or (so far as I know) informal organization of Mormon sf&f writers. Not even an email list. No community blog. To a great degree, there hasn’t needed to be — because there was LTUE.
I hasten to note that the community of Mormon sf&f writers and artists has been very supportive of LTUE: through their attendance, their active presentation at events (which in turn attracts paying attenders), their enthusiasiam, and even in a few cases their checkbooks I believe. However, I think that with the future of LTUE in transition, it’s a good time to think about whether there would be value in putting something else in place — not only to provide ongoing support for LTUE, but also as a forum for communication outside the event and a way to help sponsor and promote non-Utah-bound efforts like the Monsters and Mormons anthology and Mark Penny’s proposed Lowly Seraphim e-collective.
It wouldn’t have to be a formal organization. In fact, it probably would work better if it weren’t. A common blog might be enough. What it would require — in addition to people to do the actual work (which wouldn’t have to be that much) — is involvement from those who are part of the old community already: not just or even primarily the LTUE-ers, but authors and artists and others.
Would I like to see more widespread involvement from the Mormon sf&f community in LTUE organization? Heck yeah. But what I realized was really lacking this past year in my efforts to support LTUE from afar was any venue or structure for putting out a request for help/involvement. Communication first; formal organizational structure later (if at all).
And that, I think, is the choice we in the Mormon sf&f community face. Are we going to continue as we have, with entirely informal networking and a kind of unspoken assumption that LTUE will continue to hold the center? Or will we start to put other structures in place? Regardless of what happens with LTUE in the future, I’d like to think we’re ready to take that next step.