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Breaking up stereotypes is hard to do. When a dozen women writers get together, people still think "children's books," or "romance novels." Not many think "speculative fantasy and science fiction."

They will, however, if the Utah women who've been winning national awards and publishing in national anthologies have their way."Traditionally, science fiction writing has been `hardware' oriented," says Julia West, a recent winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future competition. "But science fiction publishers are looking for more focus on character, and traditionally women have stressed that. When my husband and I write together, I work on the people, he works on the hardware."

West just finished her degree in anthropology at the University of Utah and is at work on a series of five interrelated novels.

"I'm fascinated by cultures," she says. "I love to invent them."

Why Utah would suddenly become a national hot-bed of female "speculative fiction" writers is a question asked by East Coast publishers, prominent authors and by the local women themselves. At national awards ceremonies the joke is that you need to have lived in Utah in order to qualify. And several big-name publishers actually come here recruiting women writers - the way baseball scouts visit the Dominican Republic looking for shortstops.

Several theories abound about the phenomenon.

"Women and minorities have been central to science fiction since the very beginning, that's one of the genre's real contributions," says M. Shayne Bell, a prominent Utah writer. "As for Utah and all the women science fiction writers here, I wonder if it isn't the old frontier mentality at work. The pioneers. Women in the West have always had to work side by side with the men. They're just doing it in different ways now."

Beverly Widder, a publicist for the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, offers this: "Maybe the women really aren't coming to the front," she laughs. "Maybe the men are just receding. Actually, I think the truth is women writers are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I've been surprised at all the women winners we've had. And young women. There have always been women involved at science fiction conventions - dressing up as characters, working the dealer rooms. They're just showing up as authors now."

Locally, almost to a woman, the writers mention a strong support system; a writer's colony mentality that not only offers support but dry-eyed criticism. Carolyn Nicita, who is hard at work on a "hyper-novel," attributes her success to that sense of community.

"There is really a lot of networking," she says. "We all support each other. In fact, we have to make sure we keep our writing groups small so we don't get inundated."

And, interestingly enough, each writer tends to get some time in the sun. There's a pass-it-around feel to the group. Virginia Baker, for instance, was on the "leading edge" locally. She took first place in a contest back in 1989. Those were heady days. Her winning story was the first story she'd ever written. After that, her career in science fiction was in full launch. Today, she finds herself edging away from science fiction and more toward horror stories.

"Being a woman science fiction writer then wasn't something you thought about," she says today. "I was just a writer. And I got a lot of support from Shayne Bell and Dave Wolverton."

Currently the "hot potato of fame" is in the hands of Susan Kroupa, who teaches at Brigham Young University. Kroupa is a national contest winner. She also has a short story in a popular anthology.

"One reason Utah may produce so much science fiction and fantasy is those are genres where you can write openly about religion and get away with it," she says. "You get to create entire systems of belief, whole religious structures.

"The number of science fiction writers clubs help, too. Sometimes I'll have an idea I think is original and somebody will say `That's so old. That idea came out in a '30s pulp magazine.' By linking together we can cover each other's blind spots. That really makes a difference."

The list of names ticks on and on. Barbara Hume is from Virginia. Pat Bezzant comes from Montana, Lyn Worthen comes from a military family. Elizabeth Boyer, Michaelene Pendleton, Kathleen Dalton Woodbury, Diana Lofgran Hoffman, Diann Thornley, Melva Gifford, Charlene Harmon are all in print, with Woodbury - a former Utahn - now making big waves in California.

And for readers looking to get a taste of their work, there are several sources. One of the most readily available is a recent anthology of LDS science fiction edited by Bell. (See review above).

At 378 pages, the book moves quickly. In science fiction, if you don't write with "velocity," you move on to other things. Hume, Nicita, Baker and many others are represented there. A taste of the typical quickness of the prose and the ability to hook a reader early can be seen in the opening paragraph of Worthen's story, "Rumors of My Death:"

I was sitting in my usual booth at my favorite diner, casually reading the Deseret News, while I sipped my sugar-free, imitation, orange-flavored breakfast drink, when I spied a picture of myself on page B5. Not the kind of guy to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to see what The News had to say about me this time.

They said I was dead.

In the end, it will probably be several years before we know what effect this sci-fi sonic boom has on local literature, or on the writers who produce it. For now, the whole starship enterprise is something of a romp. As Hume tells it: "I was writing science fiction long before I came to Utah. It's fun to shatter people's expectations."

And for the many women writers turning to speculative fiction, all expectations are being met very quickly.