For the "class that wouldn't die," the current status of science fiction at Brigham Young University has been a long 18 years in the making.
In fall semester 1979, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card was scheduled to teach a class in BYU's English department but couldn't. Instead, approximately 16 students who enrolled in the class were taught by Marion "Doc" Smith, considered by many to be the father of science fiction at BYU.From the 14 weeks of that class came just about everything relating to science fiction and fantasy at the school today.
"(Smith) did such an excellent job," said Shayne Bell, a member of the class who has gone on to become an award-winning science fiction writer. "It changed all of our lives, basically."
After the semester, Bell called each of the students to organize Xenobia, a writers group that is still going strong. Later, members of what Smith calls "the class that wouldn't die" organized the science fiction symposium "Life, the Universe and Everything." Class members also founded a journal to publish their work.
The 16th annual symposium began Thursday and concluded Saturday at BYU. Several members of that 1979 class, including Bell, were invited to make presentations at the symposium. All the students in Smith's class have published stories in the 18 years since he introduced them to the genre.
"There were a lot of people with similar goals," Bell said. "A lot of us dreamed about being writers."
At the time Smith taught the first science fiction literature course, many students, professors and administrators at BYU discounted science fiction as a waste of time. Students had no outlet for publishing their work, and some were even persecuted or harassed for being interested in the genre.
But today, "Life, the Universe and Everything" is the largest symposium of its kind in the country and is one of the largest academic conferences at BYU outside of Education Week.
The genre is much more readily accepted on campus than it was 18 years ago. Several academic departments combine to sponsor the conference and to publish "The Leading Edge."
"We've been on the cutting edge of what's acceptable at BYU in some respects," said Smith, alluding to reprimands from administrators in past years. But today, "science fiction is alive and well at BYU. I predict a very good future for it."
When one listens to Smith talk, it's easy to see how 16 students were so captivated in 1979 and why many more have been since then. His passion for science fiction flows with every word.
"Science fiction is that form of fiction that has yet to be demonstrated as fiction," he says.
Or, "Science fiction is a way of just holding a mirror to the present reality."
Or, "Science fiction writers do something more significant than predict the future. They shape the future."
The 500 or so conferencegoers insist it's a valid academic conference, not just a bunch of "trekkies" getting into costumes and playing "Dungeons and Dragons."
"There's still a lot of people who, when they think about it, all they think about is people dressing up as Klingons," said BYU student Lee Allred. "Really, it's learning about the universe."
Organizers say that despite resistance from some BYU officials in the past, the science fiction symposium perfectly complies with BYU's mission. They even quote statements by early LDS Church prophet Brigham Young to justify interest in science fiction.
"Our symposium is very unique," said organizer Heather Monson. "It's one of the only science fiction symposia that takes an academic approach, and it's the only one where you can introduce the religious aspect."
The academic nature of the symposium means organizers invite BYU professors from various departments and other experts to lecture about such wideranging topics as ethics, Asian studies, history of books, war tactics, Judaism, mythology, geology and relationships.
But it's the religious aspect of science fiction that may be what makes it so popular at BYU and among members of the LDS Church generally.
Participants at the conference said the belief that living beings inhabit other worlds and the idea of humans getting to the point where they can create worlds attract many Latter-day Saints to science fiction. Also, the concept that good defeats evil is something many church members find attractive about science fiction.
"Science fiction is not quite so weird to us when we start talking about someone dropping in on a neighboring galaxy to see what's going on," Smith said.