Ad Lib Column: Mike Shevdon

When urban fantasy author Mike Shevdon contacted me to inquire about the possibility to write an Ad Lib column on the sub-genre, I told him that I would only agree to run his piece if it added something to the debate. The column indeed looks at urban fantasy from a different angle, so there you have it!:-)

Mike Shevdon's forthcoming urban fantasy novel, Sixty-One Nails, will be published by Angry Robot in November 2009. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

There is a secret war raging beneath the streets of London. A dark magic will be unleashed by the Untained...Unless a new hero can be found. Neverwhere's faster, smarter brother has arrived. The immense SIXTY-ONE NAILS follows Niall Petersen, from a suspected heart attack on the London Underground, into the hidden world of the Feyre, an uncanny place of legend that lurks just beyond the surface of everyday life. The Untainted, the darkest of the Seven Courts, have made their play for power, and unless Niall can recreate the ritual of the Sixty-One Nails, their dark dominion will enslave all of the Feyre, and all of humankind too.

Open or Closed

As a writer of Urban Fantasy, I very much enjoyed Lillith Saintcrow's Angry Chicks in Leather article and the follow-up from Carrie Vaughn, Deconstructing Urban Fantasy. They provide an insight into why these particular forms are so strong within Fantasy at the moment and what it is we find compelling in them. In its quest to discover whether the kick-ass girls represented some flaw in cultural values, though, I think it perhaps missed the question of why it is that Urban Fantasy is hot right now.

First, we have to decide what we mean by Urban Fantasy and yes, we do have to include the kick-ass chicks with crossbows and pants you could could barely bend down in, but we also have to accept that they are a sub-genre of a sub-genre. Urban Fantasy has more to offer than Hamilton's Anita Blake and her Buffy-inspired chums. And yes, I know that Anita preceded Buffy, but Joss Whedon brought the genre to an audience far wider than it ever had before because it was on television, not in books. It used to be said that TV was killing reading but, in a twist of irony worthy of Whedon's creation, if you want more Buffy you have to read it. There's only re-runs on TV.

So if Urban Fantasy is not just kick-ass girls (or boys) in leather pants, then what is it?

The Fantasy part of is easy. The strangeness in the world is explained through the supernatural in the same way that if this were SF, it would be explained by science. Why is Anita Blake feared by the vamps? Because she's a necromancer. Doesn't Tanya Huff's Vicki Nelson fight against the demons because they're not of this world? Magic and the supernatural are at the core of Fantasy as they have been since Narnia and LOTR.

That leaves us with 'Urban'. It's a strange word to use in this context. We were just talking about the supernatural and discussing vampires and demons and then we're into cities and towns. It's not accidental. In Urban Fantasy the place is as important as the protagonist. You could walk around Harry Dresden's Chicago, tour Anita Blake's St Louis or discover the haunts of Felix Castor's London for yourself. Buffy's Sunnydale could be any one of hundreds of small American towns. At the heart of the genre, Fantasy is about imaging a world that is stranger and more magical than our own. It is about escape from the mundane and routine into a world populated by monsters and filled with danger and excitement. The world could be Narnia or Middle Earth, but that would be another world. You can go there for a while, but you're a tourist. You have to come back.

Urban Fantasy is where the real world, the one in which you clean your teeth, go to work, eat lunch and argue with your friends, meets the other world, the one with monsters and supernatural powers. What makes Urban Fantasy special is that the world we escape into is our own. It leaves us with the sense that normality is a thin veneer and if we could peel it back we would see another world beneath.

This is why Urban Fantasy is hot. We can imagine that if only we had eyes to see it, we would realise that our city, our town, is a magical place, easily as exciting and wonderful as Joe Abercrombie's Adua or Juliet E McKenna's Lescar, and we don't have to leave it when we close the pages. We live there.

But if we set stories in the real world, then what happens when magic starts happening and people notice? What do the police do when corpses turn up with twin puncture marks on the neck and no blood? Won't the public start to notice the howls of werewolves at the full moon? And if demons really are walking the earth, why isn't it in the newspapers?

Of course, the beauty of Fantasy is that reality is yours to change. If you want a St. Louis with notorious vampire clubs so that Anita Blake can strut her stuff, then create one. If you need a Chicago with magical crime for Harry Dresden to solve then tweak reality until it's there. If you can't find a small town for your vampire-slayer, then create Sunnydale.

This is what is known as 'open' Urban Fantasy, where you are asked to accept that the world you thought you knew is just a little different. It shares a border with alternative reality fiction and it can be be an excellent vehicle for story-telling, take any of the examples above and many more besides. Indeed, the beauty of Sunnydale was that no-one who lived there believed in the vampires or monsters, even though they'd seen them. It took an apocalypse (the first of several) to convince them. The persistence of normality was a myth to which everyone subscribed, despite the evidence arrayed before them.

This expansion of the suspension of disbelief, from the reader, who must suspend disbelief for the purposes of enjoying the story, to the characters, who must now suspend disbelief to maintain the plot, is a problem that gets worse over time. The more supernatural events that occur in the open world, the more unlikely the character's disbelief becomes and the more tenuous the reader's hold on the world may be. As a result, the fictional world tends to drift further and further away from reality and we find ourselves drawn into an alternate universe where the disbelief can be maintained. Some of these universes are intricately constructed to mirror our own. Mike Carey's London where Felix Castor prowls the streets investigating ghosts and were-creatures is one of my personal favourites, partly because he maintains the link with the real world so beautifully.

The alternative is to have the supernatural element of the story occur away from public knowledge in a closed world. Examples of this might be Tanya Huff's Blood series where Toronto quietly has its own vampire or Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in which the protagonist becomes effectively invisible to the normal people around him. This vein has deep roots, going back through contemporary Fantasy like Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, both stories set in the real world but with magical events. Further back than that there are the folk tales; the old man met at the cross-roads who offers to buy your horse for a handful of shiny gold, the beautiful woman with whom you can spend but a single night, the feast under the hill that lasts a year and a day. These stories often have a strong sense of place associated with them. If you ever stand on Alderley Edge and listen to the eerie quiet that persists, you will get a real sense of why Alan Garner set The Wierdstone and the Moon of Gomrath there. Then you can walk along the scarp and have a pint in The Wizard, the inn which stood there long before the books were written and hear the local story which inspired the books. These are the foundations upon which Urban Fantasy rests.

Setting Urban Fantasy in a closed world presents a different challenge to an open one. Disbelief in the supernatural is accepted - spiritualism lost much of its credibility in the 19th century and only in Iceland is there a widely held belief in the existence of elves. Instead, the writer must constantly ask themselves, "What would the consequences be if this really happened?". In Sergei Lukyanenko's Watch series the Night and Day Watches fight out their battles in a twilight space that cannot be seen by mortal eyes, constantly concerned that the battle remain hidden. This adds an additional tension into the story and provides a limit to what the magicians can do. It is the same problem in Men in Black where the existence of aliens is held back from the public to allow people to continue in their normal lives. Maybe that makes MIB an example of Urban SF.

So, if there really are faeries, why aren't they ruling the world and shaking the foundations of human civilisation as in Mark Chadbourn's World's End? If vampires exist, why aren't humans hunted as in I Am Legend? An important aspect of closed Urban Fantasy is that the world as we know it persists and therefore there must be limits. This can be as a result of tension within the hidden world, which in Lukyanenko's Watch series translates into neither the Dark or the Light being able to gain the upper hand, or because of some inherent weakness, such as a vampire's aversion to sunlight or a werewolf's reaction to silver. Whatever it may be, that constraint is important, since it maintains the consistency of the imagined world with the real one.

Is a closed world better than an open world? You may as well ask whether one genre is better than another - it depends entirely on how well it's done. For my own writing, I chose to write in a closed world. I enjoyed the challenge of creating a world hidden in plain sight, but I also wanted to leave my readers with the sense that they could walk around a corner one day and see something inexplicable, and perhaps they might not simply blink and dismiss it as a trick of the light. At that point they might start to wonder whether their town, their city, was a truly magical place in which to live.

1 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

I think that there is too much urban fantasy, or the perception that there is too much. It seems to be everywhere. And the quality seems to vary so much. Personally I just couldn't be bothered to wade through the options unless word of mouth were involved.

I think fantasy books work best when the two worlds (real and fantastical) are mostly separated, like Neverwhere or Harry Potter or Covenant. One of the main themes of Buffy was the attempt to live normal lives away from the demon slaying.

I have only been reading fantasy for a few years but already I'm starting to get bored with it. I get comatose just reading the blurbs sometimes posted on this site. I praise the genre's lifelong fans. It is only the fact that so many series are ongoing do I still take an interest. Hopefully new novels and authors will come out that make me eat my words.

Sorry for the long post.