Picture a normal, everyday, business-as-usual sacrament meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now picture it taking place inside a space station floating amid the “fusing hydrogen of the solar core, 400,000 miles under the surface of the sun.” For a final touch, imagine that a human branch president (the leader of a small LDS congregation) is preparing to address a gathering of mostly swales: gigantic, sentient amorphous beings formed of white-hot solar plasma.
What may seem even more unlikely than non-human LDS Church converts who exist inside stars is that the scene described above is the opening to a short story, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made,” which could pull off a rare double-triumph by making Eagle Mountain resident Eric James Stone winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards given this year for novelettes (short fiction between 7,500 and 15,000 words).
Generally speaking, the prizes awarded by the World Science Fiction Society (Hugo) and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (Nebula) are pinnacles of career achievement on the level of winning an Oscar. Horror novelist and Orem resident Dan Wells, a longtime writing group colleague of Stone’s, said that the double nomination for “That Leviathan” is “a ridiculously big deal.” “To be nominated for both is not unprecedented,” Wells said, “but it puts Eric in some really impressive company.”
Stone, who is in Washington, D.C., where the Nebula winners will be announced tonight (the Hugo presentation will happen in August, in Reno, Nev.), said that his sudden ascension to the forefront of sci-fi writing reminds him of the saying, “It takes 10 years to become an overnight success.”
“I started writing seriously in 2002,” Stone said, “so it’s been nine years.” Right on schedule.
When “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” first appeared, Stone, 44, wasn’t thinking about possible award acceptance speeches. “I felt very good just selling the story to Analog,” he said. Analog, on the other hand, is probably the most widely read science fiction magazine in the world, so “That Leviathan” didn’t entirely come out of nowhere to take the sci-fi world by storm.
Let’s start with an unusual location ...
Actually, it came out of a writing workshop. The creative process that produced “That Leviathan,” Stone said, was sparked by a workshop exercise at a writing convention. Stone was assigned to craft a story that took place in the center of the sun. As a plot complication, his protagonist was supposed to confront the problem of not being able to get a date. (Why that would occur to the instructor of a science fiction writing workshop is anybody’s guess.)
The religious angle was also suggested by the workshop, albeit indirectly. “We were supposed to base the main character somewhat on ourselves,” Stone said. After thinking it over, Stone realized that he couldn’t think of a time he’d read about “an active Mormon in the high-tech future.” Voila! “The main thing that I took from myself was being a believing Mormon,” he said. “And the fact that I’m single.”
Stone said that he wrote the first third of what is now “That Leviathan” and then “just kind of ended it” so he’d have something to show at the end of the workshop. The ending felt premature, however, to almost everyone who read it. Wells said that he remembers reading that first draft of the story after Stone submitted it to his writing group. “We didn’t have any constructive criticism for him,” Wells said. “We were just desperate to get the second half.”
The finished story only glancingly — though warmly — addresses the “can’t get a date angle.” Instead, branch president Harry Malan mostly ends up dealing with a moral and ethical crisis that arises out of a what may or may not amount to a sexual assault against one of the swale members of the branch.
Stone’s father, David, said that his family members are all devoted Latter-day Saints. “When I first read the story,” David Stone said. “I wondered whether a broader audience would find a character sympathetic who’s a Mormon branch president in the middle of the sun. Obviously, he handled that well.”
Janci Patterson, author of the forthcoming young adult novel “Skipped” and another writer who has worked with Stone in writing groups, said that, while “That Leviathan” has undeniably Mormon elements, it also addresses broad, relatable issues of faith. “The elements of the story that are religious are fairly universal,” Patterson said.
An elephant, a mouse and Mormon characters in sci-fi
The overwhelmingly positive reception of “That Leviathan” is both surprising and not surprising to Stone. “There’s certainly a reputation of science fiction and fantasy being somewhat hostile to religion,” he said. On the other hand, he said, the science fiction and fantasy community tends to be both inclusive and broad-minded. As well as being readily accustomed to weird tales.
“With sci-fi readers, if you tell a good story, they will like it,” Stone said. “They’re not going to automatically shy away from ideas that they’re not familiar with.”
Wells said that the religious content of “That Leviathan” actually makes it a bit of a throwback. Early science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Wells said, frequently wrote about religious characters and addressed religious themes. In that sense, Wells said, part of what makes Stone’s story seem fresh and startling is actually “a very old school science fiction thing to do.”
Stone hasn’t always been a writer, though he does still have the first story that he ever wrote. “My first-grade teacher typed it up for me,” he said. “It was about an elephant and a mouse. It’s not a very good story — I write a lot better now.”
He took creative writing classes in high school and college (including from the late, legendary sci-fi guru Marion “Doc” Smith at Brigham Young University), but went to law school after graduating from BYU and eventually stopped writing altogether for about 10 years. After doing a great deal of professional writing — “research materials, op-eds, press releases” — he circled back to sci-fi and fantasy after having an idea for a novel.
“I thought, OK, I’m going to start writing this novel,” Stone said. “I sat down and, over the course of a couple of nights, I wrote a very, very long prologue.” The experience convinced him to seek out a writing class, and he’s never turned back since.
As a writer, Patterson said, Stone has a knack for communicating character and ideas with remarkable succinctness. Despite being a writer of few words, she said, he always has plenty to say when evaluating the work of other writers, and always manages to be encouraging. “He gives really good feedback,” she said. “Eric tends to like what he reads, and then pick out ways it could be even better.”
“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” can be read online at Stone’s website, www.ericjamesstone.com — for free. “At this point in my career, becoming known is far more important than the money,” Stone said. “I want as many people as possible to read the story and, hopefully, like it enough that they’ll want to read more stuff by me.”