Thursday, August 9, 2012

Geek & Sundry's Story Board: Urban Fantasy

I've learned that I love panels. They are akin to miniature lectures and there's always more to learn if you pay attention. So, this week, Geek & Sundry launched the first episode of their show Story Board, titled "Urban Fantasy: Threat or Menace?" It's not a traditional panel, but a "hangout" - I'm going to call it a panel.

Patrick Rothfuss (Kingkiller Chronicle) hosted with Jim Butcher (Dresden Files), Emma Bull (War of the Oaks), and Diana Rowland (White Trash Zombies) as guests. The whole thing was just over an hour long and well worth the time. It was obvious that they had a lot more to talk about, and it's a shame that it had to end at the hour mark. 

During the course of this panel they discussed several questions and I had several thoughts of my own that I wanted to put out there. Anyone is welcome to chime in with their own thoughts, here. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother sharing!

What Qualifies A Story As Urban Fantasy

Emma Bull opened the discussion saying she felt that to be an urban fantasy a story needed to be set in a city. Diana Rowland disagreed, saying that it only required the story to be set in the real world. Jim Butcher kind of wrapped up the discussion saying that the whole thing was really about bringing magic and monsters and other scary things to modern audiences.

For myself: If a story is not set in an Urban Environment, I don't feel like it should be called Urban Fantasy. This harkens back to my post about covers - like the cover, a book's shelving (what genre labels are REALLY for) promises something. Urban Fantasy promises two very specific things - not one or the other. It might be meeting the qualifications of Fantasy, but if there's no urban setting there should be no Urban label. Even the requirement of the Real World is a little shaky. Emma mentions Fritz Leiber's city of Lankhmar as a good example of a setting for what she'd consider non-Real-World Urban Fantasy.

This is also a good and solid example of how broken the idea of genre can be when you start talking about specific novels. The Wikipedia link there for Lankhmar lists the genre as Sword & Sorcery and Fantasy. (David Boop said, at Denver Comic Con, that genre is  dead and tags are the way to go. I tend to agree for pretty much these sorts of reasons.)

The City Is The New Forest (attributed to Delia Sherman)

There was talk about the Forest, and the City of modern days being the Forest of older stories.

I don't feel very strongly about trying to identify stories by genre, when I don't feel that genre is the right way to organize things, but there are certain aspects in Urban Fantasy (and within several other, related genres) that I find deeply interesting. Late in the panel, these authors discussed the gap that genres like Urban Fantasy are filling in the human psyche, in our need for stories. It is suggested that these stories fill our need for the Fairy-tale - which Rothfuss defined as "set in the Real World where something Other intrudes on that Real world" - and Emma Bull suggested that, instead of Fairy-tale, these stories fulfilled a need for Myth, becoming Contemporary Myth.

I don't disagree, but I think at this point, the topic started splitting hairs. Fairy-tales, Mythology, and Folklore share a very strong and central spirit. We've come to treat Mythology as "a way of explaining phenomenon in the world in the absence of science" - but what about the Minotaur? What about Io? What about a dozen other myths that don't serve to explain anything? And Fairy-tales have been relegated to the role of Moral Tale, when that's not at all what they were. Folklore may be a better compromise...

I don't think any of these things are necessarily accurate, either. People are disenfranchised with their regular lives, they need escapism. Urban Fantasy, just like Epic Fantasy, just like Science Fiction, and all the labels in between, serve as a source of that. Urban Fantasy is just much more easily digestible, which leads us into the next part...

World Building in Epic Fantasy vs Urban Fantasy

Rothfuss suggested that one of the major draws of Urban Fantasy was the lower amount of world-building required (this results in less effort for the audience to immerse in the story - they know the setting). Of course, Urban Fantasists disagree, but I find the arguments on their side of the fence to be fairly weak. Yes, the Urban Fantasist is still required to provide description - as Emma Bull said, "Not everyone has been to New Orleans." - but they are not obligated to create an entire world. We've been living one and building one for tens of thousands of years that they get to use.

By no means am I saying that Urban Fantasists have to do less work. No, not even a little bit. There's a lot of research required when you are working in the real world, but this fact remains -

Urban Fantasists do not have to build the world from the foundation up in the same way as Epic Fantasists. There is world development and a required good use of setting, but the Real World provides a vast body of foundational material that the Urban Fantasist doesn't have to create or explain.

Consider, for a moment, the things an Epic Fantasist must think about and create that an Urban Fantasist may take for granted:

  • Geography
  • Ecology
  • Cosmology
  • Physics
  • Geology
  • Biology
  • Cultures (and all that entails)
  • Meteorology
  • Population (Flow, Growth, Expansion)
  • Societal Structures
  • Technology
  • ...conventions of time-frames: paved roads, wheeled transport, electricity, water services, etc...

Needless to say, the list could go on. I might've spared you some -ologies if I'd thought about it...

Sex - Where's the Hot?

The panel also discussed sex in Urban Fantasy vs Epic Fantasy. I don't have much to say about this topic, I'm afraid. Rothfuss said it best, "Sex is important to the characters, but it is rarely important to the plot." There's a balance that a lot of authors don't know how to keep.

Of interest: Rowland said she was yelled at for not having sex in one of her novels, whereas Rothfuss was yelled at for having it in one of his.

Sex seems to be expected in the Urban Fantasy genre, and they attribute this to its close relation to Paranormal Romance. I admit to having a reluctance to go too far into these related genres specifically because of this relationship. For example, I have read 16 of the Anita Blake novels. In the beginning of the series, there was a very good ratio of story to sex. When the sex started to actually get in the way of a story, I stopped reading entirely. I hope Urban Fantasy doesn't fall into that trap.

If you want erotica, go to the erotica section.


No literary discussion involving monsters, magic, or other such things would be complete without mentioning zombies. To wrap things up, I bring you this quote from Jim Butcher, with which I heartily agree:

"In the zombie apocalypse, it's not the zombies I'm worried about. It's the other survivors. Those are the guys who are gonna getcha."
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