Jul 7 2010 9:27am

Is it Urban Fantasy? For Example: Charles Stross’ Laundry Files

It is July, and July is urban fantasy month, which draws up the question: what is urban fantasy? What can you call urban fantasy, and how do you decide what it is, and what’s the difference between urban fantasy and a paranormal romance when people use the terms interchangeably? I define an urban fantasy novel, in generic, as a book with fantastical elements set in a modern and generally recognizable urban setting. That’s a fairly huge umbrella, I’ll admit.

Some of these books are about heroines running around with dashing vampires and broody werewolves stomping evil and having romances. Some of them are police procedurals, some of them are humorous detective stories, and some of them are dark twisty emotional dramas. I’m currently reading (in honor of his appearance as a guest of honor at the upcoming Readercon) the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross, and when pressed to decide what genre these books are, I think I’d say urban fantasy, despite the science and the technophile influences—which draws another point up on the “is it urban fantasy” argument. In a fantasy set in our timestream, our world, is the inclusion of tech and science a breaker that turns a book into a scifi novel, or is it still urban fantasy?

This series is currently three books and a few stories long. The Atrocity Archives is the first (which also contains the novella “The Concrete Jungle”), The Jennifer Morgue is the second (also contains “Pimpf”), and the newest book is The Fuller Memorandum (reviewed by Arachne Jericho here). There are also stories available on ”Down on the Farm” and “Overtime.” For those unaware of the series, The Laundry Files books take place in a very unique and weird universe.

The explanation in The Jennifer Morgue is perhaps my favorite:

“There’s only one common realm among the universes, and that’s the platonic realm of mathematics. We can solve theorems and cast hand-puppet shadows on the walls of our cave. What most folks (including mathematicians and computer scientists—which amounts to the same thing) don’t know is that in overlapping parallel version of the cave, other beings—for utterly unhuman values of “being”—can also sometimes see the shadows, and cast shadows right back at us.”

Those beings are, generally, of the Lovecraftian variety. Stross plays with settings and terminology from Lovecraft in a skillful and interesting way. Tentacular horrors are common in this series. Then there are the even-more-evil Nazis causing trouble all over the place throughout time. I’m calling “space Nazis” as a deeply scifi thing, but then you have the Lovecraft, which is in some ways science-fiction but in many others fantastical in nature. The method of summoning and Bob’s job—in “computational demonology”—also weld together seamlessly the fantastical and the science fictional: it’s about math and computers and science, but it’s equally about the ghosts of the vasty deeps.

So, I’ll call it science-fantasy for now. (There are more and more science fantasy books around lately, and I’m loving it.) That doesn’t even touch on the actual setting, which is a governmental bureaucracy in contemporary England with a twisty history dating well back and tangled up in WWII. In fact, every major country seems to have a Laundry of their own and there’s limited interaction and cooperation between them to keep the tentacular horrors a great big secret while still not letting them eat our brains. In his work, Bob ends up filling the role of a sort of detective and spy, though he isn’t really the type.

And that, the very modern and very recognizable world immersed in quotidia, is a thoroughly urban fantasy feature. It potentially could be real right here, right now, and we wouldn’t know—that’s about half of urban fantasy books. (The other half are the books like Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, where the world has become recently aware of the supernatural.)

So—are the Laundry Files books urban fantasy, or is it fair to call them such?

I say, yes. They feel like urban fantasy novels in the sense that, if I had to give a similar series, I would say Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, not a Lovecraftian horror novel or a multiverse science-fiction book. There’s a certain feel developing for many of the humorous-yet-dark urban fantasy novels that feature people who solve big, world-threatening mysteries, like Bob Howard or Harry Dresden. These books, while they may have romantic subplots, are rarely romances. I would arguably count Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan books in this category as well because—despite her relationships as they develop—the books are not strictly about the relationships and they don’t have explicit sex scenes, they’re about the mystery-solving and detective sort of work.

These are the books I call urban fantasy. The early Anita Blake series qualifies, too, though now they fall under the part of the umbrella I call “paranormal romance”—those are the books that are concerned with sex and relationships above the rest of the plot, though they are often also mysteries or feature crime-solving. Some are more directly involved in the tropes of the romance genre than others, but they’re also fairly recognizable in the tone and “feel.”

I wonder if there will be an uptick in these urban “science-fantasy” sorts of books that involve more technology? That’s where Charles Stross’ series differs from things like The Dresden Files, which avoids technology via the wizard’s quirk Butcher mixes in (they screw up electronics). He not only has the influence of Lovecraft, he plays with tastes of cyberpunk.

Urban fantasy itself is a genre that combines many others, and that’s why it’s such a hard thing to classify. It can mix mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, commercial fiction—the only unifying factor seems to be the contemporary setting, but recent books like Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine feel like urban fantasy but are set in different time periods. I think this is the heart of its popularity and what makes the books so fun. They can be so many different things to so many different readers yet still be unified under an umbrella term. “Urban fantasy” is almost as wide a term as “fantasy” or “science fiction” for how much space it can cover thematically.

So, yes. The Laundry Files are urban fantasy, and so are the Anita Blake books, and so are Sherrilyn Kenyon’s books, and so are things like Holly Black’s newest YA White Cat. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it, right? I hope to see even more, and even greater variety. (Secret: It’s what I’m writing right now, too.)

The Laundry Files might be my current urban fantasy pick—but what’s your favorite, and what makes you consider it “urban fantasy?” How do you define the genre when you’re shopping and reading?

Artwork by Malcolm McClinton from The Laundy Files RPG

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
kev mcveigh
1. kev mcveigh
Urban Fantasy is one of those irritating terms that seems misused more than correctly applied these days.
The essential aspect for me of UF is that the urban landscape must play a role, must be clearly defined and intrinsic to the fantasy. Wizard of The Pigeons evokes and,invokes Seattle in a way that Twilight makes no attempt to.
I'd argue that UF can't be secondary world, even though this excludes the likes of Mieville, Gentle, Harrison, etc. The city can be active, as in City Come A-Walking, or passive environment but it must shape Fantasy by affecting the characters in a way that another or stock setting might not.
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo
@kev mcveigh

I think that's one subset of urban fantasy, and one of the oldest parts of the genre--the Emma Bull and de Lint end. While all urban fantasy is recognizably modern in setting and usually features a city or particular real-life setting, not all of it feels the same way that, say, Elizabeth Bear's "Blood and Iron" feels. (She is very into evoking the city as a character.) The Laundry Files books totally evoke a particular part of urban cubicle-working soul-sucking life.

(I'd argue Twilight is so far into romance territory that it bears no resemblance to an urban fantasy novel, really.)

The definition has evolved as the genre evolved over the past fifteen or twenty years. I heard/used the term "modern fantasy" for awhile there but it faded out and sort of coalesced with "urban fantasy." (I still think "modern fantasy" is more evocative but I didn't get to decide. *g*)
Phoenix Falls
4. PhoenixFalls
I use the term like kev mcveigh; I use paranormal romance the same way you do and then use supernatural noir to describe the Jim Butcher-style stuff that everyone else has come to describe as urban fantasy.
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo

You know, when I'm recommending Dresden Files to customers at my bookstore, I usually say "it's like detective noir with magic!" so that works for me. *g* I feel like "urban fantasy" has become the term for the really big umbrella and then there are smaller spokes inside it, like paranormal romance, books about cities, etc.
kev mcveigh
6. AllenLEdwards
So, there's a rule somewhere that I haven't seen, but it should go like this: all genre's, however specific, end up subdividing. It's an application of the Infinite Onion concept.
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
So, I'm going back through the books I've read that are SFF by general nature trying to determine if I've read anything that could be UF and not have realized it...would something like "Bareback"/"Benighted" by Kit Whitfield or "Sunshine" by Robin McKinley be UF or something else? Not that it really matters since they're awesome books regardless, just curious...the whole concept keeps getting tangled up in my head with the Urban Fiction subgenre so I keep getting lost.
Phoenix Falls
8. PhoenixFalls
I see Sunshine as being on the border between Paranormal and my (more limited) definition of Urban Fantasy -- on the one hand, it's got a teensy bit of romance, but that isn't the major plot arc; on the other, the city is a character, but not as much as in other urban fantasy works. It is fabulous though. ;)

I love the Infinite Onion! (You all should see the ridiculous number of shelves I have on GoodReads. *g*)
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
BritMandelo @5:

In which case the Laundry stories would be "spy thrillers with magic".
kev mcveigh
10. Theophylact
You can't get much more Urban Fantasy than China Miéville's Kraken.
kev mcveigh
11. Pam Adams
Perhaps the Stross books should be called 'Urban SF.'
Katie Schmidt
12. safarikate
I have to agree with Theophylact. I'm reading Kraken right now, and I would definitely call it Urban Fantasy (it's set in London). So far it feels much more like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere than any of Mieville's previous books. I'm only about a fifth of the way into it, though, so I can't say for sure yet. Would Neverwhere be considered Urban Fantasy?
kev mcveigh
13. kev mcveigh
@Brit mandelo
Yes there are also those UF works where the feel of urban life is a strong factor, generating a tone for the books. M John Harrison's Signs Of Life epitomises this feel thought its borderline SF mainstream not fantasy really.
I can't get over the longer view that Paranormal Romance is a fashion but UF is more of a genre in a historical sense. So for me UF is Lisa Goldstein, Tim Powers, Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Megan Lindholm, Mark Helprin, Martin Millar, Stephen Sherrill, Steve Erickson, john Shirley, etc. Its an offshoot in some ways of the Gothic Castle / haunted house, with city streets replacing labyrinthine passages, but where Gothic distances through twice told tales, hidden manuscripts etc, UF uses the genuine detailed city (NYC, London etc) to bring the tale into our perceived world.
Risha Jorgensen
14. RishaBree
I don't consider the Anita Blake books to be Paranormal Romance, and they're certainly not marketed that way. The romance category in general has a fairly narrow definition, which includes a focus on a specific relationship (or in very rare cases, two relationships), and a happy ending (though in rare cases the permanent happy ending might be at the end of a trilogy). Sex and a general-person focus alone do not make one. The Anita Blake series pairs her up with several different men, sometimes in the same book, with no clear expected winner and no end in sight. If anything, they qualify as erotica.
kev mcveigh
15. Ramenth
I think you guys raise a lot of good points, and think this rapid expansion of 'Urban Fantasy' is why it's starting to get referred to as 'Contemporary Fantasy' instead, at least from what I've seen. Urban Fantasy, rather like 'Fantasy' itself, is ending up as both a specific genera and a huge genera umbrella, which makes defining it a pain.

As far as ABVH goes-- I'd argue that Paranormal Erotica is a subgenre of Paranormal Romance.
Risha Jorgensen
16. RishaBree
See, I wouldn't consider erotica to be part of the Romance genre at all. Romance is about the relationship, and erotica is about the sex. Modern romances generally have sex in them, but it's never been an actual requirement, and it's downright rare in some of the subcategories. But a lot of erotica barely has fleshed out characters, never mind a plot. I read both, mind you, so I'm not judging them, but they're no more similar than a modern detective novel is to either of them.
kev mcveigh
17. Rachel Medhurst
Interesting article. I'm currently trying to catogorise my MS. It has all the makings of an Urban Fantasy, yet the only thing that works against it, is that its not set in a city.
I'm from the UK. My novel is set between different parts of the UK and a spiritual 'compound' which is just like the english countryside. (Sometimes its in London, sometimes its in Edinburgh. Sometimes inbetween!)
Any advice?

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