LTUE and the Mormon SF&F Community

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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20 Responses to LTUE and the Mormon SF&F Community

  1. Th. says:

    .

    BYU’s treatment of LTUE inspired one of the two truly unhinged angry-person letters I’ve written in my life.

  2. Ivan Wolfe says:

    The loss of Doc was the biggest reason BYU could get rid of LTUE. Doc was willing to go to the mat for LTUE (and the other venues like the Leading Edge and Quark) and didn’t care about his reputation. When BYU started pushing LTUE away, the faculty sponsor was more worried about staying in the good graces of the Dean than saving LTUE.

    Of course, I will never work at BYU (I actually wanted to, just to help out with LTUE, but life circumstances have stranded me in Arizona for the next couple of decades), so I don’t care. BYU was never all that friendly to LTUE, but from what my brother told me, they’ve become downright hostile (he told me that the Dean came and yelled at them for displaying past posters, because they mentioned that LTUE was sponsored by the College of Humanities in those years).

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      There have always been some who sniffed at sf&f and didn’t really feel it was worth the university’s time and attention. However, the overall administrative atmosphere was much more positive in earlier years.

      Would LTUE still be at BYU if Doc were around? Maybe, maybe not. Without denigrating in any ways Doc’s contributions — and his skill in keeping peace with the bureaucracy — there’s not really a lot that a faculty member can do when the dean says, “No, we’re not sponsoring this.”

  3. Thom Duncan says:

    Thanks for the memories. I had just moved to Utah from California in 1980 and saw the Leading Edge in its infancy (and won an award for a short story I wrote). For a short while, I was even a member of Xenobia. I have found memories of LTUE and served on at least one panel discussion as I recall. It was a defining period in my writing.

  4. Karen Evans says:

    My husband and I have been attending LTUE for the past 6 or 7 years, and have found it a wonderful place to network, learn new skills, and just generally hang out with people like us. I never attended BYU. We don’t live in Utah, but in New Mexico. We are published authors. And I belong, here on Facebook, to 3 different writers groups besides the LTUE page.

    We already have a great and friendly community that discusses all sorts of things. I don’t really think we need another one. One of the places to find it is at the upcoming conference LDS Storymakers, in May, held at the same venue that LTUE was this year.

    I don’t think you need to worry that there is no community support. There may not be as much Student support, but there are lots of writers, of all ages, committed to supporting LTUE. I would help more with the committee if I lived anywhere close, but I don’t. And sometimes, because I don’t live in Utah, I get a little bit of a cold shoulder, as if some people think that I should live in or near Utah if I want to support the symposium.

    • Mike Cluff says:

      As someone that lives in Idaho, but loves LTUE, I have also felt a little out of place. I lean towards the idea that a lot of the people at LTUE are from that area and see each other outside of the symposium and maybe they are wary of out-of-staters. Maybe I am just paranoid.
      Either way, I would love to be more involved in LTUE (planning, promoting, etc.), but there doesn’t seem to many avenues for someone not in the immediate area to show more support.

      • Mike, you are just paranoid. ;)

        Three years ago, I asked if there was anything I could do from Idaho and the committee was welcoming and put me to work. (I’d never even heard of LTUE before that year, though I attended BYU.) For LTUE 31, I served as Pitch Master on the writing committee and they did skype calls so I could be included. I’m now helping plan for next year–all from Idaho.

        By all means, if you want to help, feel free to volunteer.

        • Mike Cluff says:

          Well then. That explains a lot. I will let my counselor know about the paranoia thing.
          As for helping out… you can contact me through my website or let me know who I can contact and I will gladly volunteer.

  5. Mark Penny says:

    A site would be good. I’d help.

  6. Marny says:

    The “community of Mormon sf&f writers and artists” has definitely been supportive of LTUE over the years, but I don’t think they self-identify as such, even at the symposium. Most of those writers and artists identify as writers/artists and Mormon, but maybe only in passing or not at all as sf&f people, and the same for the general Mormon community.

    LTUE does have a Facebook group page, and we hope to foster more community outreach there. But it seems we haven’t really hit a critical mass yet, nor do we get much in the way of general discussion like you find on blogs. Is that sufficient for what Jonathan is proposing? I don’t know. We don’t even have all of the regular authors and artists as members of the group.

    The biggest problem is not in the creation of an organization or a site but in publicizing it and getting people to join.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Marny,

      That’s an interesting observation about community identification.

      Back when LTUE started, there wasn’t any sf&f being published in the Mormon market (with the exception of The Alliance, by Gerald Lund — anyone remember that?). Any Mormons writing sf&f were hoping to succeed on the national scene. We weren’t part of any community of Mormon writers that might have existed at that time.

      Nowadays, of course, there’s a lot of speculative fiction being published by DB (under the Shadow Mountain imprint), Cedar Fort, et al., particularly with a juvenile focus. Do those authors consider themselves as being part of the national sf&f community, or think of themselves as sf&f authors? I don’t know. I also suspect that while they may come to LTUE now, they aren’t primarily those who came up through the BYU sf&f community — unlike Farland, Sanderson, et al.

      I’d like to see a vision of the Mormon sf&f community that encompasses both groups, though admittedly I still would prefer to see LTUE as an event focus first on sf&f in the context of distinctive genres with a national focus — not least because (a) that’s where our roots are, and (b) it’s where all the volunteers so far have come from. Put another way: while I don’t want to impose a litmus test on anyone, my interest here is in promoting a community among those who self-identity in some sense as sf&f writers and readers. If individual readers and writers don’t see themselves that way, they probably don’t have any real interest in or need for such a community. And while we may welcome their involvement, they aren’t part of LTUE’s core constituency either.

      • Stacy says:

        I’d say that most of those people would probably identify with the children’s book community and then either the LDS or SFF communities (or both) as secondary to that if they’re writing for the national market, and then flip LDS/children’s (including YA–”juvenile” is an outdated term) if they’re writing for the LDS market.

        And most of those people have already connected on FB (I’m friends with something like 300 of them), though I don’t know that there’s anyone organizing it all. It’s a lot of fragmented conversations about whatever is of interest to those small groups, which works in general, though I suppose doesn’t provide a central place to get news out to the entire community.

        A lot of us pros working in the field just don’t have the time to be working on a convention committee (especially from afar) but are glad to participate when invited to. Many might not even think to volunteer for the committee because they just don’t see it as something they’re needed for, because it’s always been a student-run thing with the same circle of former-student volunteers. I would bet if more people were needed for it, if a call went out to writers in the community to serve on the committee to choose and assign panels, or help out with something else specific, locals, at least, who had the time and inclination would probably feel more needed on that end. However, a lot of us (local or not–I’m not local) just don’t have the extra time, so we depend upon the community of passionate readers and fans to bring us in to be content providers during the actual weekend when they’d like us to be there.

        Note, also, that few of us working professionals in the field who aren’t in Utah can make the trip without some sort of financial consideration (cost of travel, etc.) so LTUE being able to charge to provide for the GoH and pay for the venue is a great change (though they’ve always covered the costs of the GoH; I was one in years past–but being able to sustain that independently is important). I’ve only been able to come in recent years myself because the English dept at BYU (with coordination from a few former teachers) often brings me out the same week to speak to English and illustration classes about going into publishing.

        I might add: I think those who are involved on the committee have been doing a great job, especially in the transitions to keep it alive in the past few years. There’s been some confusion and some frustrations on occasion, but I think LTUE is coming out into a stronger position.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          This raises an interesting question. If a lot of the professionals coming out to LTUE don’t self-identify primarily as sf&f writers but rather as children’s/YA writers and/or members of a more general Mormon writing community — which is the community of “passionate readers and fans” who have been doing the organizational work to put on LTUE?

          At the moment, it sounds like one group (hardcore sf&f fans) is putting on an event that now largely serves a different group. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as everyone feels that they’re getting what they want to out of their involvement. Given the recent institutional changes with respect to BYU sponsorship, however, I think there needs to be some long-term shifting of the workload.

          One option is that LTUE could go back to focusing more purely on sf&f. That would seem to be a shame, though, given that everyone seems to like what LTUE has to offer now — and counter to the theme of inclusiveness that has always been part of LTUE. (Not to mention that moving to a hotel venue more or less commits LTUE to maintaining a large paying membership base.)

          Another alternative is to more actively recruit from the communities being served. If many of the children’s and YA/primarily Mormon writers are too busy writing to help organize an event, what about their readers/fans? A call to local writers who attend LTUE in the past asking them to mention LTUE volunteering on their blogs and Facebook accounts might tap into new pools of potential volunteers.

          The potential downside to this, of course, is the question of focus and control. If a lot of the people running LTUE have no special interest in sf&f, obviously that will have an impact on the event. And yet a middle road ought to be possible. Decisions, decisions…

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I agree that the problem isn’t in starting something but rather participation. Stripped to its essentials, all that’s really needed is (a) a way of disseminating news and information, and (b) a comprehensive and publicly available set of links to important sf&f related resources (e.g., writer’s websites, etc.). But in order to have the kind of impact I’m calling for, it would have to have a broad following at least among Mormon sf&f writers.

    • Mike Cluff says:

      I am on the Facebook page, as well as the members of my local writing group, we would love to promote and share LTUE. Have you considered getting official ads or banners, making them available to the public and providing people like me to have an aesthetically pleasing link on my site to LTUE? NaNoWriMo does something like that and it works quite well for them. Give us ways to help and we would.

      • Marny says:

        Nice suggestion. I will bring it up to the committee.

        • Stacy says:

          I would second that, and also note that in years past the website has been horrifically awful—like, programmed in 1995 awful. It was better this year, but having a good website with up-to-date information is always a good thing (and a challenge).

  7. Mark Minson says:

    Perhaps the right answer isn’t in a blog or a Facebook page (although I do love the FB page and good things are happening there), but a forum. That would allow dissemination into groups by category and not just lumping SF and Fantasy together. It would allow for a central place for meaningful announcements that don’t get buried down the news feed by rampant self-promotion. I’m guilty and I don’t even feel bad about it. :)

    I’ve been to LTUE for the last 3 years and found it deeply satisfying and helpful. I’m still trying to get published so Marny will put me on a dang panel. :) On the whole, I believe the direction is good but poor Marny can’t do it all and getting a committee together that can help plan and organize and on which younger writers can be added will go a long way to making LTUE a viable event into the future. Afterall, isn’t that where some of our writing is taking us anyway?

  8. I’d be willing to help.

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