Life, the universe and fantasy literature

Illustrator James Owen speaks at a panel discussion on illustrating for fantasy during Saturday’s conference. (Photo by Sarah Strobel Hill)

A barefoot princess in purple wandered into the lecture on “Disney’s Haunted House Presentation,” a vampire’s cape swished as he exited the panel on “Being LDS and Writing Horror,” and a BYU English professor had a happy reunion with his “once and future” students.

They all sought the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” the byline of a “panic-free” symposium for 31 years.The science fiction and fantasy literature symposium met in the Provo Marriott Hotel Feb. 14–16, continuing the fantastic tradition of generations of BYU students.

Participants in the three-day event called it the “Marion K. ‘Doc’ Smith Symposium,” after the BYU English professor who helped found it. They also attended panels, lectures, sing-alongs and a keynote address by author Megan Whalen Turner. Some even strengthened their magical abilities with costumes.

Turner’s keynote address focused on the evils of censorship in children’s literature rather than her Newberry Award-winning book, “The Thief.” In her first convention, Turner urged parents to trust their children’s reading selections, a topic choice that surprised people as much as her famous plot twists.

BYU students also attended and volunteered at the symposium. Diane Cardon, a linguistics major, and Brandon Jones, a Wyoming resident and BYU transfer hopeful, manned the table for “Leading Edge,” the BYU fantasy magazine.

Cardon said “Leading Edge” was started by the same group of students who founded the symposium. Well-known alumni authors included Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson.

Jones opened a past issue of the magazine and pointed to the editor’s names.

“Four out of five of these all went on to writing careers,” Jones said.

Nathan Langford, a senior studying math, was the symposium chair for 2013. He became involved with the symposium through his father, Jonathon Langford, who was the symposium chair while he was at BYU. This year, Langford’s father, sister and cousin flew out from Wisconsin for the symposium.

“That’s what makes the symposium special,” Langford said. “There’s sort of a continuity.”

Author Tracy Hickman speaks on camera about his books at the annual Life, the Universe, and Everything conference about fantasy literature. Photo by Sarah Hill.
Author Tracy Hickman speaks on camera about his books at the annual Life, the Universe, and Everything conference about fantasy literature. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

It’s not just a family affair, though. Langford pointed to other attendees who wore the green nametags identifying them as “chair emeritus.”

“People who have done this in the past have continued to stick around and advise,” Langford said.

One veteran fantasy fan was Steven Walker, a BYU English professor who was Langford’s father’s advisor for his master’s thesis. Langford’s father introduced Walker’s presentation, “Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle Earth’s Magical Style.”

Walker asked Tolkien fans, including his former master’s student’s two children, to try to draw the perfect hobbit. Walker explained that Tolkien’s style lets readers draw their own mental pictures.

In fantasy literature as in fantasy symposiums, each generation has a personal version of the same ancient world.

“I think it’s about inventing ourselves,” Walker said.

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