Utahns devour and write a galaxy of fantasy fiction

It may be the culture. It may be religion or the landscape. Maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever the reason, Utah has some of the nation’s most prolific producers and ravenous readers of science fiction and fantasy, known in the book world as “speculative fiction.”

Organizers of the Utah Book Awards, given annually for outstanding recent work about Utah or by Utah authors, discovered this two years ago, when they put out the word that writers in the genre were welcome to enter the fiction division.

“We just got overwhelmed with genre entries,” said Julie Bartel, teens’ librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and a member of the Utah Center for the Book committee that chooses award winners. The contest garnered twice as many speculative entries as mainstream ones.

Science-fiction author M. Shayne Bell became a finalist that year, even though judges had little experience with genre fiction. Science-fiction and fantasy authors “are really asking important questions, but they look more like entertainment,” said Chip Ward, who heads the Utah Center for the Book. “If you’re not used to that genre, it’s hard to know if it’s really serious or not.”

Last year, for the first time, the Utah Center for the Book created a category for speculative fiction, with an award partly funded by CONduit, Utah’s largest science-fiction convention.

The number of entries for the award highlights the number of science-fiction and fantasy writers in Utah. “Getting into the convention side of things, you realize how many writers there are who live here or have ties to here, and how many people here read science fiction and fantasy,” said Bartel, a CONduit board member. “You start to wonder why.”

   
A religious influence

Many science-fiction and fantasy authors in Utah are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which may seem paradoxical, since Mormons are known for being pragmatic and conservative.

The Mormon culture is “a little repressive, but it’s also a culture that believes in things you can’t see, things you take on faith. Whatever side of the religion question you come down on, it works really well,” said Bartel, who is not LDS. “Where so many people spend so much time thinking about the big questions, it’s got to have some influence.”

Links between the church and science fiction can be traced largely to one man and one LDS institution. Marion “Doc” Smith, a professor in the English department at Brigham Young University, taught a science-fiction writing class for years before his death last year. That class produced many published writers, including Bell and Dave Wolverton; a publication, Leading Edge, printed by the English department; a science-fiction and fantasy club; and an annual symposium called “Life, the Universe and Everything.”

After Smith’s retirement, English professor Sally Taylor and linguistics professor Linda Adams began advising the club and symposium, which draws about 500 people every spring.

“Philosophically, one reason that Mormons do so well in science fiction is that, I think, science fiction is one of the genres people are writing in that has the highest ethical standard. . . . There are codes and rules and honor that I think fits well with a believing people,” Adams said. Mormons also believe in a “premortal existence” and an afterlife, and that this is not the only world God will ever create. “A lot of things that seem fanciful to other people don’t seem so out of the ordinary to the LDS,” Adams said. “As a Mormon, it’s not hard to believe in something you can’t see and hear and touch right now.”

Television and film also show evidence of Mormons’ interest in science fiction, Adams said, noting that 1970s TV series “Battlestar Galactica” had many LDS writers. She has even found an occasional Mormon influence in episodes of “Star Trek.”

“The fact is, as a Mormon you believe that there is life on other planets. We’re kind of a science-fiction religion,” said Wolverton, who studied poetry and literature as well as Smith’s science-fiction classes at BYU.

About 20 years ago, Wolverton sent a story to the Writers of the Future contest, a worldwide competition originally set up by science-fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and won the grand prize. Based on that, he got a three-book contract with a major publisher — a success story almost unheard-of in the literary world.

“It was a little overwhelming at first,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in St. George. His first book landed at No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list. “All of a sudden, I had this reputation I had to live up to.”

Wolverton is one of a sizable group of Utah residents who have won or placed in the contest. “It’s been a joke that so many Utah writers have won Writers of the Future,” said Susan Kroupa, who selects fiction for the Orem public library and has written many speculative-fiction stories.

Like other writers, Kroupa believes speculative fiction is a good place to explore ethical issues. She counts Orson Scott Card, who is LDS, as one of her influences. “I realized the issues I wanted to talk about — moral, societal and cultural things that were interesting to me — I saw how well he handled in his science fiction and fantasy. It seemed a more acceptable place to examine that than in mainstream writing.”

Card, who lived in Utah before moving to North Carolina a few years ago, says he’s not surprised to find Mormons interested in the genre. “We have no qualms about the idea of life on other planets, faster-than-light travel, ancient ‘lost’ civilizations, supernatural events with natural explanations,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in an e-mail message. “We view all problems as solvable, and regard human nature as being fundamentally good and humans as capable of far more, intellectually and morally, than we have yet seen in history. These are attributes of mainstream science fiction, so Mormons are comfortable in that milieu.

“However, the reason is really deeper than this. . . . Science fiction allows writers to deal with all the most powerful, troubling and/or difficult religious, moral and cosmological issues. Where else can you write apocalyptic, eschatological, epistemological and redemptive fiction with any kind of clarity?”

The road for LDS writers has not always been easy. Tracy Hickman, a devout Mormon, began his career writing role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons — considered dangerous by some church members. “I was called out of church one day by a member of the stake presidency who took me out and sat down with me and asked me about my work, asked if there was anything about my work that was contrary to my beliefs,” said Hickman, author of more than 50 titles, most of them in the Dragonlance series. He believes problems lie not in the genre but in a few individuals who misuse it.

“Everything I ever wrote, I always made sure that it was a story of ethics and a story that taught morality.”

A community of believers

Not all of Utah’s speculative-fiction writers are LDS, which leads many to believe other factors are also at work. Ken Rand, who teaches writing and has published numerous stories including the collection Tales of the Lucky Nickel Saloon, once counted and came up with at least 50 Utah writers in the genre. “Yes, many Utah science-fiction writers are Mormon. . . . But there are and have been many Utah science-fiction writers who are not Mormon. And how do you account for the many atheists in the genre, including Heinlein and Asimov? The genre is a huge umbrella.”

Rand (who is not LDS) says it may be partly the landscape itself, which inspires him. “I write a lot about the West, mostly Wyoming, but a lot of my stories are set in, or somehow related to Utah, particularly the west desert. I loved that landscape, where you could be in a spot and look around and know there is nobody within a hundred square miles of where you are.”

Rand and others also say the helpful community of writers in Utah keeps the genre strong. “The feeling of community among science-fiction writers comes from the fact that we’re all fans — from the newest writer to the biggest publisher — we all love reading this stuff,” he said. “And we help each other. Paying forward is not just a cliché, it’s something we do regularly as a habit, as a commitment to the betterment of the genre. The way it works: If I teach somebody who becomes a Great Writer, as that writer goes up, so does the entire literary field, and so do I with it.”

For every Utah writer, there are many more readers. L.E. Modesitt, a prolific author whose 2002 science-fiction book Archform: Beauty won the first speculative-fiction Utah Book Award, attributes the genre’s popularity among readers partly to the state’s young population. Science fiction and fantasy are popular with teenagers, a group that makes up an oversize chunk of Utah’s people. It is also a group notoriously reluctant to read. According to librarian Bartel, if teens read at all, it’s likely they’re reading speculative fiction.

“A lot of teens that I’ve talked to just lately here have mentioned that they’re reading about important things” in science fiction, Bartel said, from cataclysmic battles to important social questions. “They feel like they don’t have that sort of a big thing in their lives.” In real life, “You can’t go out and discover another country. . . . Getting a job and going out and becoming an adult doesn’t seem that big or important.

“There’s a disillusionment that kids go through when they realize they’re not going to become king of the world, they’ll become an accountant or something. A lot of mainstream fiction doesn’t address big questions like that.”

Ruth Hanson is chairwoman of the Reading for the Future program, which asks fans and authors to donate science-fiction and fantasy books to schools and libraries to encourage reading. The program also sponsors workshops and activities to teach educators how to incorporate speculative fiction into curricula. “It’s really good for certain people, especially teenage males who are bored,” Hanson said. “It’s a way to ignite the spark of imagination and invite them to explore things that in the real world it might be emotionally hard to deal with.”

Hanson believes the genre is popular throughout the state because people here tend to be technologically literate, and because Utah has a high rate of literacy in general.

Another draw for speculative fiction: Compared with those in other genres, speculative-fiction writers tend to eschew gratuitous sex, violent images or foul language, making the books more appealing to Utah audiences.

“There are only a handful of authors who really do that in the field. . . . As far as I know, none of them live in Utah,” said Modesitt, who is not LDS. “I don’t do graphic violence. I don’t dwell on chopped-up intestines and that sort of stuff.”

And where sex is concerned: “If you know about sex, I can’t write it as well as you know it, and if you don’t know about sex, I’m the last person you should find out about it from.”

For most readers, the genre is, most important, an effective and entertaining form of escapism. After a Modesitt book signing last week, Dave Willoughby said he reads speculative fiction to explore “other lands, other worlds, to see what would happen there. I can see this world just by opening my eyes.”

Kristina McIntyre, who leads a monthly science-fiction/fantasy book group at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Sugar House, agrees with many authors when she says regardless of fans’ age or religion, they read it mostly because it’s good stuff. “A lot of us grow up with stories about heroes and magic, and it kind of speaks to the mythology that’s inside everybody,” she said.

   
Flights of fantasy

L.E. Modesitt and Ken Rand will speak about writing speculative fiction at the Great Salt Lake Book Festival, Sept. 13 at noon at Salt Lake City Library’s Main Branch, 210 E. 400 South.

The event is free and open to the public. For information, go to www.utahhumanities.org.

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