I’m not an academic or a critic, and the thought of writing an essay about genre filled me with a sense of...not exactly dread, but hesitation. I have opinions, sure, but they’re mine, not something I’m going to insist everyone else take as any kind of gospel (see: not an academic or critic).
But I have been mucking about with fantasy—and specifically urban fantasy—since back when the calendar still started with “19” rather than “20,”—so I do have a few thoughts on the genre.
First is that, despite all the press around this generation of writers, urban fantasy is not “new.” We can point to Charles DeLint as the “father” of UF, with his fantastical Ontario, or Emma Bull’s seminal War for the Oaks, but my classic example is Peter Beagle, and my favorite book of all times, A Fine and Private Place, which is set in then-modern (late 1950’s) NYC. So yeah, we’ve been writing, and reading, “urban fantasy” for a while.
And there’s a reason for that and why, even when other sub-genres eclipse it in sales, it remains.
When I first started working on Staying Dead, I got some well-meaning but negative feedback from industry folk, because—back in 2001—epic fantasy was still the big thing, alternate history a tight runner-up. Sure, there were some people who were already doing well with urban fantasy, but my book didn’t have any vampires, and barely a whiff of sex or existential angst.
I nodded, and listened, and when they went on their way, convinced they had shown me the error of my ways, I went back to work on my non-vampire, non-erotica urban fantasy. Because in my experience, urban fantasy—more to the point, modern fantasy—is at its heart not about the fantastic, but the everyday: the intensity of the real world drawn in the most vibrant colors possible, so that what was mundane and ordinary takes on a new depth and meaning.
Or, as Bernard Malamud said:
“Fantasy challenges (the writer) to make use of the earthly wonderful as well as the supernatural; to tie them together in unpredictable combinations with the commonplace, the ordinary, & out of this still produce a real enough truth about life.”
And so, let’s go back to A Fine and Private Place. Two dead people, a raven, and an old guy with Issues. That’s it. And yet, the dilemmas and troubles that face them all are reflected in the dilemmas that we face in our own lives. They are none of them real, perhaps, but nonetheless true.
Pick up any urban fantasy today, in fact, and no matter how much the trappings seem to be entirely about vampires or demons and high-heeled boots and kicking ass, you will find a very modern and “ordinary” dilemma. Even Anita Blake started out as a woman trying to make a go at a very tough field, trying to maintain a hint of normalcy where there was none to be found. She had bills to pay and dry cleaning to pick up, a best girlfriend’s crises to deal with as well as her own. Today, UF is popular not because it’s escapism, or wish-fulfillment—although it fills all those necessary niches nicely—but because it recognizes a need that the other aspects of fantasy often miss: to wedge the impossible, the fantastic, into the everyday minutia of modern life.
And that, in my experience, is the real, lasting appeal of urban fantasy: Not that the heroes and heroines are part of a magical world, but that they are also part of our world. That the supernatural is lurking on the street corner, in the supermarket, on the subway or in the pizza place down the street. While we may not be able to accomplish what the characters in UF do—and most of us, honestly, would not want their lives—that unpredictable combination of supernatural and commonplace tells us that even the dullest, most ordinary moment has magic.
Photo © 2009 Elsa M. Ruiz
Laura Anne Gilman is currently working on the 9th book in her “Cosa Nostradamus” UF series, after Hard Magic and the forthcoming Pack of Lies, for Luna. She is also the author of the Nebula-nominated Flesh and Fire: Book 1 of The Vineart War, for Pocket. You can follow her on Twitter @LAGilman.