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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Marcus Worthen, as Char from Minecraft, and Mitchell Spencer look at The Zombie Nation cartoons at the CONduit science fiction convention at the Raddison Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 27, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — A few hundred people gathered at a Salt Lake hotel Friday for Utah's largest sci-fi/fantasy convention — CONduit — now in its 21st year.

Revenge of the nerds?

Dan Wells knows the sniggering these gatherings of adults costumed as their favorite fantasy characters often bring.

The Orem resident and BYU graduate is one of two Utahns up for the Campbell Award this year — the Hugo award for the best new sci-fi/fantasy author. His best-known work is "I Am Not a Serial Killer," about a teenage sociopath who kills monsters.

"For the most part, these are incredibly normal people with incredibly normal lives," Wells said of the convention-goers.

While many of the sci-fi fans filtering into the hall fit the popular geek image — frumpy, rumpled clothing, unstyled hair, glasses, clearly not fashion conscious beyond their occasional forays into werewolf-dom — Wells does not.

He wears a long-sleeve black dress shirt, untucked. His dark, slightly receding hair is swept back. He's closer to Edward Cullen than to Stephen King.

Wells points out that of the No. 1 grossing films over the last 15 years, "95 percent are 'speculative fiction.'" That's the insiders' umbrella term for everything from Superman to H.P. Lovecraft, and the many subgenres and sub-subgenres — anime, steampunk, military sci-fi — that crowd under the umbrella.

Howard Tayler agrees. He creates "graphic stories" — comic books and graphic novels that take a humorous, satirical look at society.

"There are millions of sci-fi fans out there who don't know they're sci-fi fans," Tayler said.

He's up for two Hugo awards this year. One for his satirical comic book series, "Schlock Mercenary," and another for a weekly, sci-fi podcast he does with Wells and another Utah sci-fi author, Brandon Sanderson. They get around 10,000 listeners.

Tayler is also a BYU grad who lives in Orem.

He sees society from an iconoclastic angle, taking swipes at "HMOs, boy bands and big box stores." Tayler continues the riff: places like Costco and Sam's Club make their customers present an ID to get in, and check their receipts as they leave.

"Sam's Club hates their customers and make them feel like criminals," he says, then admits he's one of them.

Tayler keeps a foot in both worlds. Every Friday he gets together with his pals to fantasize their way through hours of role-playing games. Then he goes to church on Sunday. Do his fellow churchgoers think he's a little odd?

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"My bishop follows my Twitter feed," he said. "I don't keep secrets from my ward."

On the rare occasion that someone questions the morality of role-playing, he gives them a lecture on the heroic mythological and cultural underpinnings of the "RPG" world.

These are stories that teach us about good and evil and let us act out those impulses in ways that are not harmful to society, Tayler said. "I'm not saying that at the next testimony meeting I'm going to get up and tell everyone about my latest role-playing game."

The convention runs through Sunday.

Email: lbrubaker@desnews.com