Tue
Mar 5 2013 12:00pm

Sleeps With Monsters: Urban Fantasy is Licentiously Liberal?

Sleeps With Monsters: Urban Fantasy is Licentiously Liberal?In the comments to Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly Conservative? one of the participants suggested that, if epic fantasy is held to be conservative (the discussion on what constitutes epic fantasy and whether or not it is conservative remains open), perhaps we should discuss whether urban fantasy is “crushingly liberal.” For the sake of alliteration, another commenter suggested licentiously liberal—so that’s what we’ll argue today.

Let’s start from the same principles as we did last time. How do we define “urban fantasy”? What counts as “liberal”? Liberal, it appears, possesses a straightforward definition, at least according to the dictionary.

a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas.

b. Favouring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviour of others; broad-minded.

But we have more than one way of defining urban fantasy. We may define it as it is presently used as a marketing category—to sketch a brief description, fantasies set in the contemporary or near-contemporary world, usually in large cities, featuring supernatural creatures, frequently told from the point of view of a character engaged either in vigilantism or law enforcement, sometimes both, and often but not necessarily featuring romantic/sexual elements. Into such a category we may fit the work of Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels, several books by Tanya Huff, the work of Kim Harrison, of Kelley Armstrong and Ilona Andrews, and Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, among many others. We may trace the roots of this subgenre to the 1980s, to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint, and include in it the racecar-driving elves of early 1990s Mercedes Lackey.

But we may in addition define it with particular reference to its urban nature, as a fantasy primarily focused on the city, the myths, fears, communities and alienations of civic life, modern or not. The city, the idea of the city, occupies a central locus in human history and thought. Its role is more important than ever in an age where an ever-increasing majority of humans live in cities—by 2030, 92% of people in the UK and over 60% in China, some projections say. I’m inclined to argue that some second-world fantasies, like Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead or Michelle Sagara’s Elantra novels, or Pratchett’s Discworld Ankh-Morpork novels, enter so far into this urban conversation, and find the idea of the city so central to their identities, that not calling them urban fantasy seems a foolish exclusion.

We may suggest a taxonomy—or at least a tag-cloud—of urban fantasy as follows: second-world, historical, contemporary or near-future, investigative, vigilantist, political, soap-operatic, near-horror, romantic, humorous. Within the greater umbrella of “urban fantasy” as I choose to conceive of it, then, it’s clear that there are a wide range of possible moods, themes, and approaches. But is it open to new ideas for progress?

If we had framed the question: is urban fantasy progressive in the political sense? (i.e., does it favour or promote political or social reform through government action, or even revolution, to improve the lot of the majority), I should have to argue in the main against: popular fiction is seldom successful in revolutionary dialectic. Nor, for that matter, has urban fantasy commonly been culturally progressive: its gender politics may perhaps improve slightly over those historically typical of fantasy in a pastoralist setting, but true progressivism, particularly in contemporary investigative/vigilantist urban fantasy, is often hamstrung by authors’ reliance upon Exceptional Women narratives. As a subgenre, its racial politics are as progressive as the rest of the SFF landscape—which is to say, not very, and prominent popular examples are not common.

Urban fantasy is easier to define than epic fantasy:* its semantics are more tightly bounded. But is it easier to assess urban fantasy’s relationship with established norms and authoritarianism? Can we actually accurately call it liberal, much less “crushingly”—or even licentiously—so?

Over to you, Gentle Readers. Over to you.

*Although I’m tempted to suggest a tag-cloud taxonomy for epic: mythic, involved in the fate of nations, involved with godlike beings or powers, not limited to one physical location, not limited to one viewpoint character.


Liz Bourke blogs and tweets, and reads more books than she really ought...

74 comments
James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
The Kitty Norville books aside (or at least the early ones), I would have said the overwhelming majority of urban fantasy books are a glorious celebration of pre-Enlightenment values, where the discovery that one has magic powers is immediately followed by an assumption that one is above every law, a genre in which characters abandon every modern principle to replace them with rules more appropriate to some particularly grotty feudal-era backwater (alternatively: to embrace management techniques and conflict mediation methods that make North Korea look like a hot-bed of liberalism).
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
authors’ reliance upon Exceptional Women narratives

And in many cases being Exceptional doesn't keep them from submiting to the rule of the nearest Alpha Male. Again, early Kitty Norville was exceptional in that what would in any other series have been seen as perfectly acceptable behavior from the werewolves in Kitty's original pack was seen instead as abusive and criminal.

While I am at it, I also would not look to UF as a guide to how animals and in particular wolves actually behave.
Emmet O'Brien
3. EmmetAOBrien
The prevalence of "here are other thinking beings who are INHERENTLY MONSTERS so it is TOTALLY OK TO KILL THEM" in urban fantasy does not strike me as liberal, quite the reverse. Though the Felix Castor books at least seem to be aware that that is an issue and to be making some degree of a point about believing that as highly dubious self-justification on behalf of that universe's exorcists, and "MLN Hanover"'s Black Sun's Daughter books are interrogating things about the genre not unrelated to that.
Constance Sublette
4. Zorra
Urban fantasy, progressive?

A time out, for fall down laughing!
James Davis Nicoll
5. James Davis Nicoll
I got sent a YA series in 2011 about a ... I want to say banshee girl who discovers her jerk-jock banshee boyfriend, whose powers are different from hers and are inherently kind of date-rapey , is in fact a skeevy, drug-addicted, manipulative, date-rapey jerkass who isn't above using her occasional issues with possession to get some quality groping time in. Amazingly, as soon as she finds out what he's has been doing with her body she kicks him to the curb.

Of course, she kind of spoils it in the next book by telling him that they will never get back together while at the same time jealously objecting if - sorry, when he seems interested in someone else. Sometimes, as I recall, she does both in the same paragraph.

1: There's some discussion of 'if my survival is dependant on me using my creepy powers in a way that makes other people's lives worse - by giving them nightmares, say - does that make me evil?' but as I recall the solution is to try very hard not to think about that if the person in question is a friend or at least a frenemy.
James Davis Nicoll
6. Ian1418
What of the Monster Hunter books by Larry Correia? They are blatantly conservative in most political subjects they touch, yet there is equality between both races and sexes with women and minorities in positions of prominence and power.
JS Bangs
7. jaspax
I think that the parallels are closer than the author and the previous commenters allow. It's certainly true that urban fantasies rarely present an argument for progressivism, but by the same token epic fantasies are rarely meant as an actual argument for conservativism. Instead, their progressive/conservative character simply comes from the world in which they take place. Epic fantasies present a stable world with aristocrats and an uncontested dichotomy between good and evil. Urban fantasies present something much more like the modern world, with democratic societies and a contested cosmology in which the categories of good and evil are unclear and possibly unknowable. In this sense, urban fantasy is indeed intrinsically liberal, at least insofar as the modern world is liberal.

(Yes, urban fantasies do often have the "intrinsically evil race", but the Vampire Boyfriend is such a staple of the genre that subverting the good/evil dichotomy is at least as important to the genre as upholding it.)

(And yes, modern Western societies are intrinsically liberal. This doesn't mean that everyone is on the Left, but it does mean that even the Right defends itself with the concepts of individual rights and liberty, which is a liberal framework. There's barely anyone who actually objects to the foundational ideas of liberalism anymore.)
Fredrik Coulter
8. fcoulter
Your quick comment about the politics of fantasy stuck a chord for me.

I have seen more progressive (and, moving at a slant to the spectrum, libertarian) science fiction than I have seen progressive and libertarian fantasy. On the reverse, I've seen more conservative fantasy than science fiction. (Let's ignore the sexual content of urban fantasy. I think that's more the Romance stream blending into the fantasy than any sort of progressive tendency on the genre.) I think it may be due to the overall view of the genre. Science fiction tends to look ahead (although sometimes with amazingly bad vision), while fantasy, at its roots, is looking back.

There are exceptions to both tendencies, but they're relatively rare and generally only noticed when the author's skills outweigh the inate genre bias.

Both progressive and libertarians think that society can improve in the future, although in different ways. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to think that sometime in the past society was better than it is now. (Libertarians are at a skew because they find certain aspects of the past that they think is better than current day. But there are far more aspects of the past that are far worse than the current day. You can probably guess which way I lean.)
James Davis Nicoll
9. James Davis Nicoll
Yeah, I'm not really liberal vibes from any series where the basic idea is that it's OK to kill certain intelligent beings as long as they belong to specific non-human or quasi-human races and that a character can make a living hunting and killing wrong-raced people. It's got a real Adventures of the Heroic KKK vibe going on there.

It's kind of like Buffy, where the rule is generally Kill All Monsters (except the ones Buffy and her friends are boinking) Because Monsters are Evil! But Sexy! Except that we see over in Angel that a lot of the non-humans are in fact not obligately evil at all, which means the odds that Buffy has staked the occasional perfectly innocent person for the crime of looking different are not bad.
Lisa Grabenstetter
10. magneticcrow
I'd say that the weight of the difference is really vested in the authors. Even more so than in epic fantasy, since most writers seem to feel that conservatism is just par for the course in historically influenced worlds. The modern/near future world, however, tends to be portrayed with a little more variety.

Folks like Charles DeLint, Michael Swanwick, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, M. John Harrison, for example, all have very pointed and progressive social commentary to convey and so fall far to the left. Whereas folks like Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Richard Kadrey, Laurell K. Hamilton, etc., I would argue, fall rather far to the right largely due to the fact that they refuse to challenge the problematic tropes they perpetuate. It's a mixed bag. I'm generally very careful when choosing an urban fantasy to read.
Joris Meijer
11. jtmeijer
A decent fraction of Urban Fantasy almost seems libertarian in nature. The loner, or small groups formed by mutual consent, work outside the system.
Of course that is probably more a result of the detective novel and hardboiled DNA that is part of common UF storylines, than having to do with any inherent politics.
James Davis Nicoll
12. Eric Saveau
To add to what James Davis Nicoll said above, I would also say that the Kitty Norville books are indeed progressive, at least in part.

Kitty fought like mad to extricate herself from an abusively dominant relationship and subsequently tried her damnedest to help others to do so. Where most werewolf packs are depicted as a dysfunctional dictatorship (including in these same books) Kitty and Ben invite others to be part of a functional family (tacitly acknowledging popular misunderstandings of wolf pack dynamics and then depicting something closer to their actual behavior).

More importantly, before Kitty werewolves and other supernatural beings operated strictly in secrecy, using that both for protection and advantage. Kitty dragged the werewolves out into the light of day to seek protection - and face accountability - under law and transparency. There are large and long-running institutions of supernatural culture in these books that Kitty doesn't support, and that she overturns if she can - such as the aforementioned werewolf pack system. When people call into her show and ask for advice, she never tells them to simply endure a bad situation and try to accept it, she encourages them to seek something better to the best of their ability.

I don't think that Kitty is particularly representative of the Exceptional Woman trope, either, other than whatever grace she has by virtue of being the protagonist; she has her frailties and even moments of bad judgement. What seems to set her apart the most, at least from whomever she goes up against, is simply that she's not an asshole.

Now, if you want to talk about Exceptional Woman, Magic Makes Me Special So I Rule, Modern Feudalism Rocks and It's Okay To Kill Monsters Just Because They're Monsters, I'll jab a finger in the general direction of the Anita Blake series...
James Davis Nicoll
13. James Davis Nicoll
I'd love to think SF was more progressive than fantasy but I'm not actually sure that's the case. How many space British Empires are there out there? Or Space Romes? A lot of SF seems to look back, waaay back, for its social models.

For that matter, it's an odd thing to pick up an SF book set in the future where there are as far as the book shows no longer any people of Asian or African descent. Special mention goes to those SF books where the author thoughtfully explains that some event that was TOTALLY NOT THE PROTAGONIST'S HOME NATION'S FAULT wiped out all the Asians and Africans.

In contrast, I do see fantasy where a running theme is "aristocrats are in the game for self-enrichment and will not hesitate to do the most horrible things if doing them will get them one inch farther up the greasy pole."

One of the things that caught my eye about the Cassandra Kresnov series is that it is one of the few recent SF books I can think of where cities are not presented as inherently evil hives of scum and villainy. In fact, the main problem the city we see has is that Cassandra Kresnov and her friends are visiting; it would be a much safer place if they left for somewhere else.
Lisa Grabenstetter
14. magneticcrow
By 'Exceptional Women' I believe Liz is referring to the trope wherin the female protagonist is amazingstrongshinywonderfuloneoftheguys and all other women are either weak or repeatedly referred to as bitches and/or whores. Usually does not pass Bechdel test. (See: Sookie Stackhouse)
Jenny Kristine
15. jennygadget
Urban Fantasy crossed with Romance in particular has always struck me as being inherently conservative. Much like a lot of the Romance in the 70s and 80s, a lot of it seems to be working through and reacting to the changes in cultural mores - and usually in not very self aware ways. So that what you get is a lot of behavior that seems to culturally go against conservative ideals - or, at least, fails to be reactionary towards a very new status quo - but that is excused or shored up by very conservative ideas about power, race, gender, etc.

So Anita can have group sex and not be a slut, but not bc group sex is ok, mind you. But bc she has special reasons for doing so. Bella gets to want to have sex with her boyfriend, but only because he knows better than her how bad it would be for her and thus refuses. Etc. Much like how romance heroines of past decades (and some now, but it used to be worse) were allowed to like sex - as long as they protested enough first, never mind how rapey that made the books.


jaspax @ 7

Aren't you more accurately describing "reactionary" and "conservative" vs "conservative" and "liberal"?
James Davis Nicoll
16. James Davis Nicoll
Of course that is probably more a result of the detective novel and hardboiled DNA that is part of common UF storylines, than having to do with any inherent politics.

But note that your basic consulting detective can be anwhere from the most hide-bound of conservatives shoring up the Way Things Ought to Be to wild-eyed progressives whose cases illustrate the inherent flaws in the system. Nobody is going to confuse Micky Spillane's values with those of Vic Warshawski.
Emmet O'Brien
17. EmmetAOBrien
magneticcrow@10; I read Kadrey as satirising those tropes by turning
them up to 11 rather than endorsing them, but I may be misreading him.
JS Bangs
18. jaspax
@James Davis Nicoll, does the presence of any illiberal trope invalidate every other liberal quality that a work might have? I suppose you're free to apply your purity test if you want to, but turning the tables one could just as easily argue that nothing in epic fantasy is actually conservative because (insert non-conservative or anachronistic element here).
James Davis Nicoll
19. James Davis Nicoll
There was a web-comic called Midlands (since renamed, I think and also on hiatus) set in an blended SF/fantasy world where there were lots of demi-humans around whose lifespans were much longer than humans, with an interesting range in how those beings reacted to the technological and social advances of the last couple of centuries since that world's industrial revolution. One nation of elves basically sealed the borders and tried very hard to pretend nothing important had changed but what the lead character, also elfish, focused on was how when she was a young woman a century ago all of her children died of what were in the modern era easily treated diseases.

(I don't know if there's an archive for Midlands, but be warned long stretches are NSFW)
James Davis Nicoll
20. James Davis Nicoll
'Let's Kill Those Guys Because They Are the Wrong Race' is a pretty major illiberal element.
James Davis Nicoll
22. Jeff R.
This is why we need a better demarked border between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance (because trying to discuss Mieville and Lieber in the same conversation as Hamilton is unlikely to be particularly productive...)
James Davis Nicoll
23. James Davis Nicoll
Name a problematic PR and I will counter with an equally problematic UF. Alternatively, name a problematic UF and I will counter with a problematic PR.

Plus there's the issue of classification. Take that series about the nice white woman who moves to Hong Kong, teaches the locals Hitler was bad, marries and then replaces a god: UF or PR? Or is it that UF and PR differ mainly by who the perceived markets are?
Shelly wb
24. shellywb
@20, unless of course, it's the 'aliens' saying that and the humans who are the wrong race.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
25. spinfuzz
Owing to the general tendency of most of the books I'd think of as urban fantasy (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Seanan McGuire's InCryptid, Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim) to be series I'd say mostly not. It's another one of those things where an early trend solidified into an expectation that hurts the artistic integrity of the product (although I love Dresden and haven't read the InCryptid books). However, if we widened the field view to include things such as Gaiman's London-focused Neverwhere, Mieville's The City & The City, and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, I'd begin to rethink that. The only reason I would include all those in the discussion as worthwhile, however, would have so much more to do with my desire for people to use those as leaping off points rather than their domination of the field. So, no, it is not liberal, and especially not licentiously so. I think this, and the previous article could be really interesting as starting off points to separate market-based tropes, ie choices that belie a lack of thought on the author's part, from truly mindbending fiction, ie stuff that is liberal, or at the very least confronts the realities of power dynamics.

So my distinctions.

The things that are market-based are series, grim-y/mimetic aesthetic, and monsters/creatures drawn from myth which the society doesn't believe in but the hero/heroine is protecting them from. These things aren't bad (I'm not trying to say indie work is the only artistically valuable stuff), they're merely the defaults that someone trying to shop their book around to an agent might be thinking about when they characterize their books as "urban fantasy." Conversely, the artistic choices, the agency a writer might have around these tropes, are gender/racial/sexual orientation diversity based on the hero/heroine's belonging to a secret-world (ie marginalized portrayed as protagonists because these are stories of the "secret cities"), the nature of power relations in a city (what does the population density, mixing pot, etc especially do to make it a special setting?), and the new types of monsters specifically arising in 21st century society (this is what might be avant-garde or experimental in the genre). I think that conversation could really open things up in terms of where urban fantasy goes from here on out.

P.S. I read Nora Roberts, and some other romance novelists, and some of their stories could also be Urban Fantasy, as per this discussion, so we should talk about those as well
James Davis Nicoll
26. James Davis Nicoll
You do have to admit the aliens in "Stars, Won't You Hide Me?" were under considerable provocation from the human elites. Processing other races for immortality serum is at the very least impolite.

(Please, start a thread that will allow me to rant about Benderism in SF. Pretty please)
Emmet O'Brien
27. EmmetAOBrien
shellywb@24: how is that any more liberal ?

If anything, "the alien are INCORRIGIBLY RACIST and will want to kill us no matter what" would strike me as a subset of "the alien is INHUMAN so we can kill them".
Sharat Buddhavarapu
28. spinfuzz
Also, @SkylarkThibedeau, thank you, that was an awesome reference. Can this be a meme? One of those advice animals, with "Das Kapital" as the top caption and "Urban Fantasy" as the bottom. Socially Awkward Penguin maybe?
James Davis Nicoll
29. James E May
I think we may be confusing the idea of "liberal" with the word "fad." It is always tempting to think the latest is the greatest but a calendar is not an idea and trends come and go. Trends and restrictive genres are by definition conformist - to consciously pander to those trends is to pander to conformity. It sounds as if I am saying that is a negative thing but that is not the case - people love the tropes of particular genres - it sometimes feels like coming home. It's why science fiction is in a science fiction section - so we can more easily access what it is we want.Modern UF is the opposite of that dictionary definition of A. - it is orthodoxy, and so UF and B. are mutually exclusive. To truly enact B. one must oppose UF, subvert it, or even leave the genre entirely. To be an iconoclast and therefore liberal within the confines of UF makes no sense. UF is no more liberal than Westerns except in a faddist sense, which could change tomorrow as the next popular trend takes hold.UF is faddist and flavor-of-the-week. It is a commercial and market entity, not a fine artist off in Lombok sitting on a volcano top. These are not the days of Thorne Smith (Topper 1926) where there was no built-in audience for UF, though there was a surprising amount of UF at the time and even 3 decades before that - "The Brass Bottle" by F. Anstey - 1900, "The King in Yellow" by Robert Chambers - 1895 and much more. Such works depended on solid writing and vision and that is what survives, not nods to their particular generation - in fact that works against survival. The reason that Burroughs survives today is that, though his prose and outlook was semi-Victorian, the vision that rode above that was modern and somewhat timeless. People can laugh at Burroughs but I'd like to see some UF about a non-Alpha male feminist or conspicuously non-feminist zombie or vampire-hunting shape-shifting detective last 1/10 as long.The problem comes with definition and UF, even 100 years ago, blurs into fantasy blurs into science-fiction - think Francis Stevens. All we can say for sure is that UF decades ago was less constrained and so it was more liberal in outlook, and tended to avoid politics other than a general satirical sense, such as poking fun at bureaucracy, whereas today the politics are much more pointed and partisan when they are presented. This will be of little interest to future generations other than an academic sense, and there one could indeed mention Larry Correia. So is UF licentiously liberal? Not even close, other than in the sense of today's headlines. If everyone's an iconoclast no one is and a tattoo today is not a tattoo in 1955, though we insist it is.
jeremiah gaster
30. jer
I have more to say on the other thread, but for those who say that Das Kapital is urban fantasy... Have you even read it?
James Davis Nicoll
31. Gerry__Quinn
I'm not sure how 'liberalism' crept in as the opposite to 'conservatism'. The word is used in the US but even there it doesn't really fit, as the sides each tend to be rather liberal about certain things. I'd define the two opposite leanings as 'conservative' and 'progressive'. Progressives want to change and reform things on the basis of theory; conservatives by contrast are wary of breaking stuff that works.

Epic fantasy often has an evil overlord who is agreed by all to be leading the world to ruin; such a fantasy has nothing to say on the conservative/progressive spectrum, as everyone would agree that Sauronism isn't working. There can presumably be cases where the reforms of the evil overlord are opposed only by some, including the hero - such fantasies might be called conservative. Alternatively, a progressive fantasy would involve a reforming hero (king or revolutionary) opposed by conservatives, be they orcs or nobility.

The common concept in which the hero attempts to restore a past age doesn't really map onto modern concepts of conservatism or progressivism; both will often point to aspects of the past that are admired, but nobody ever wants to restore the past in toto.

As for urban fantasy, it's even more of a hodgepodge politically, as the comments above maske clear.
James Davis Nicoll
32. James Davis Nicoll
James E May, two notes:

If readability is one of your goals, embrace the idea of multiple paragraphs.

I believe you have used the word tattoo where you meant taboo. I point this out in the spirit of someone who once posted about therapists in the Permian.
James Davis Nicoll
33. kb_run
How about, Urban Fantasy is liberal because there are a) characters of color, and b) female characters?

Which is why I prefer it over High Fantasy hands down.

Even with it's problems, it still has people who sort of look like me - therefore, I'm more likely to read it.
JS Bangs
34. jaspax
@James Davis Nicoll, fair enough. But I maintain that if we apply such a standard consistently we also have to deny that epic fantasy is conservative, since one can find major anti-conservative themes in any given example. No work of literature in any genre perfectly embodies a particular political philosophy, and if that's the way we approach these categories, then there's really no point in having the conversation.
James Davis Nicoll
35. James Davis Nicoll
Jaspax, I would concede that if I wanted a sympathic look at social change presented positively, the odds of me finding it in fantasy appear to be better than over in SF.

(It probably doesn't help that the social change contemporary SF is most likely to focus on is stuff like Surviving Peak Oil the Brutal Oligarchy Way and 'Cats are Illegal and the Government Controls Pollen'-style dystopian premises rather than issues like extending suffrage)
James Davis Nicoll
36. Eric Saveau
James E May -

"UF is faddist and flavor-of-the-week. It is a commercial and market entity, not a fine artist off in Lombok sitting on a volcano top."
It's really not clear who you are arguing with or what your point is, beyond sneering at liberals and dismissing anything that doesn't meet your vague and undefined standrards as a fad. The pseudoacademic lecture mode doesn't make you any more clear, either.

So, whether or not UF/PR is going to be eanestly discussed in tweed-filled professors' lounges a century from now, it is being written and widely read today. No doubt it reflects cultural trends, both broadly and personally, as seen by those who write it. Whether liberalism is found in it is being discussed here, along with examples that various comeenters think either demonstrate this or work against it. As a reader of genre fiction, do you have any thoughts? Any questions for your fellow commenters? Anything to add? Or are you just here to win a sneering contest?
Emmet O'Brien
37. EmmetAOBrien
kb_run@33: which authors are you looking at ? I see numerous significant women and characters of colour in the high fantasy of Kate Elliott, N.K. Jemisin, Steven Erikson and Adrian Tchaikovsky, for example, whereas the only urban fantasy I can think of offhand with a central character of colour is Ben Aaronovich's Rivers of London series.
James Davis Nicoll
38. James E May
.32, I meant "tattoo" but the words are interchangeable in the sense I meant. As for paragraphs, I recently discovered them in an archaeological dig below a Byzantine wall in Istanbul. Or I may have typed my remarks in a text editor and pasted them and didn't realize they didn't separate. Plus I recently discovered salt, which is very tasty on food.

As for Eric Saveau, it is obvious you are endemically hostile to me and may have confused me with an English tutor. I assure you I am not. Therefore in the future you can personally consider all my remarks as authoritative and definitive. That way, it saves me the trouble of arguing and you from being wrong.
James Davis Nicoll
40. James Davis Nicoll
Briggs' Mercy Thompson is the daughter of a Blackfoot Indian, from whom she inherits her magic powers.

I don't know how meaningful it is to use terms like "of colour" with reference to the various Kinden in the Shadows of the Apt series.
James Davis Nicoll
42. Eric Saveau
@EmmetAOBrien -

+1 for Steven Erikson. A friend of mine got me started on his Malazan Book of the Fallen series recently and I'm enjoying it immensely. Or, well, not always enjoying it as Erikson applies the grinder to his characters, but definitely appreciating the books and the worldbuilding to which he treats the reader.
Fade Manley
43. fadeaccompli
I think I must enter "here to win sneering contest" into my handy phrase reference guide for future use; I can see so many situations where it's likely to be applicable.

Back on topic! Since urban fantasy as a whole doesn't look particularly liberal to me--at least not compared to any other particular subgenre of specfic--it does make me sit back and wonder why it would be perceived so, more than I actually wonder about whether it is. Prominent female protagonists being seen as inherently liberal? Or is it just women who commit violence who are being seen as a liberal statement? (I suddenly long for a good urban fantasy with a pacifist protagonist; the nearest I can think of has a protagonist who's a police officer, and clearly doesn't want to get violent unless it's absolutely necessary.)

It can't be that there's a lot of sex in the stories, because epic fantasy is rife with People Having Sex, but I am uncomfortable with concluding that it's seen as liberal just because the urban fantasy characters are more likely to be having mutually enjoyable sex. That seems too uncharitable a reading of what people mean by "liberal".

I suppose it could be seen as liberal simply in that most--if certainly not all--urban fantasy takes place in the modern world, and as such is more likely to have characters with modern attitudes about prejudice than yet another epic fantasy built on pseudo-medieval prejudices. (I believe we already had the thread on just how pseudo a lot of those attitudes are.) But that's a rather depressing thing for me to think: that someone can look at a set of books that happen to take modern life, with all its existing flaws--books that are likely to highlight prejudice just by nature of having a lot of conflict in them--and go, "Gosh, that's awfully liberal compared to other literature."
Emmet O'Brien
45. EmmetAOBrien
James@40: Sure, the social structures and context of the Kinden in the
Tchaikovsky books don't map onto our-world ethnicities, but it
certainly does have people who look like a wide range of real-world
ethnicities which I took as one of kb_run's points. The social context of
Aaronovich's London policeman of West Indian ancestry doesn't exactly
map onto anything North American either sfaict.
James Davis Nicoll
46. Eric Saveau
@fadeaccompli -

I suspect that perceptions of Urban Fantasy being more liberal have to do with the clash of Old World archetypes in fantasy with more modern urban sensibilities. As in, long-standing werewolf pack structures and the types of politics that are often depicted as going along with them versus seeking a career after college. Ancient vampire clans versus bright young scientific research students. That sort of thing. Such archetypal cultures tend to be depicted as reinforcing conformity, and if they rely on a measure of secrecy they almost have to, and have to be conservative, at least in the classical sense, as a result. And then in come our heroes saying, "Yeah, no; this is a bunch of BS," and things start changing. Or possible change is seen coming and is feared.

Maybe it's not so much that urban fantasy is inherently liberal as that it has more room in it for liberalism than more traditional epic fantasy.
Bridget McGovern
47. BMcGovern
James E May @41 and Eric Saveau @39: Things seem to be getting a bit personal, here--we ask that you try to keep interactions civil, and please rejoin the rest of the thread in discussing the topic at hand (in keeping with our Moderation Policy). Thanks in advance.
James Davis Nicoll
48. Eric Saveau
@BMcGovern-

Will do. Thanks.
Fredrik Coulter
50. fcoulter
@31. Gerry__Quinn: I just want to say think you for a definition of conservatism that didn't come out of the straw-man attack library. Many of my liberal (or progressive or whatever) friends seem to equate conservatism with sexist, racist, and homophobic. It's like they picked up a political dictionary from the mid '50s and assume that, because conservatives tend to look to the past for guidance, they haven't adapted to the new world. Looking to the past means looking back to a day when a black man was head of the United States military, when a black woman was National Security Advisor, and when the Vice President's daughter was a lesbian. This tends to change their perspective.

(Immigration is a messier issue and the motivations for their stand comes from a variety of sources. For some portion of conservatives, their immigration stance may come from a bad place. But there's also a portion whose immigration stance comes from looking at security or economic concerns.)
Fredrik Coulter
51. fcoulter
@43. fadeaccompli: "Epic fanatasy is full of people having sex"

Really? I haven't seen sex onstage in most epic fantasy. Generally sex in epic fantasy (assuming there is any; I'm not sure how the populace of Middle Earth procreate) is of the "couple hold hands, look at each other longingly, and the camera pans away" kind. If I want sex in my fantasy, I'm going more for the urban fantasy.

(Which may all fit into the earlier UF is a marketing tool comment, since sex is also a marketing tool.)
Fredrik Coulter
52. fcoulter
@ 33. kb_run: "Urban Fantasy is liberal because there are a) characters of color, and b) female characters?"

I've never thought of the Honor Harrington series as liberal before.
Fade Manley
53. fadeaccompli
Eric Saveau @46: "Maybe it's not so much that urban fantasy is inherently liberal as that it has more room in it for liberalism than more traditional epic fantasy."

That is a fascinating idea, and I would like to contemplate it some more!

I mean, I could quibble that traditional epic fantasy has plenty of room for liberalism, and chooses (either consciously or by inertia) not to portray the challenging of traditional structure as a good thing. But that gets back into the part where we all try to work out exactly what epic fantasy is, and I do suspect that epic fantasy that trends towards No More Kings And Rights For All will be seen as both "not really epic fantasy" and aggressively political, in a way that epic fantasy that vigorously pushes Kingly Kingness Solves All Problems By Kinging generally is not.

Whereas, yes, with urban fantasy, if people want to go slap aristocratic/"natural" hierarchies over their fantasy critters, and then put them in the modern world, it'd look downright odd if a protagonist coming from a modern perspective wasn't doing a certain amount of "Wait, what? Kings? Seriously? Like...without a constitution kings? Really?" about it.

fcoulter @51: My sample size may be limited. When I think of epic fantasy, I think immediately of A Game of Thrones (rape, rape, rape, more rape, some consensual sex, some dubiously consensual sex, and more rape!), and then branch out from there. So it's entirely possible that my perception of epic fantasy is skewed too far towards the grimdark fantasy, which is giving me an inaccurate perspective on things.
James Davis Nicoll
54. Cian_Shmian
@23: But any given Urban Fantasy and any given Paranormal Romance are more than likely going to problematic in different ways.
'Neverwhere' genuinely has a whole different set of issues to 'Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter' but we treat both under this Urban Fantasy umbrella.

I don't think breaking them down into different subgenres is all that useful and a 'taxonomy of tagging', as mentioned above, might be.
So you could say that Anita Blake novels are problematic for X and Y reasons and then say that the Dresden Files books are also problematic cos of X but actually handle Y quite well. (Let X equal... I dunno, evil races of creatures, and Y = depictions of polyamory. I've not read any Dresden Files so please exchange these for examples that, uh, make sense).

The consequence of this, however, is that you can only end up saying 'this cluster of tags that falls under Urban Fantasy are liberal' and 'this cluster aren't'. Which doesn't seem like it would be all that useful.
James Davis Nicoll
55. Eric Saveau
fcoulter, contemporary liberals tend to view contemporary conservatives as sexist, racist, and homophobic because their contemporary mainstream representatives in both politics and the media blame women for being raped and cast slurs at them for wanting access to birth control, vote against the Violence Against Women Act, openly boast of attempting to keep African Americans from voting, and declare that allowing gay people to marry will somehow destroy civilization.

Perhaps these are No True Conservativemen, but there are an awful lot of them and they hold positions of authority, and they earn popular acclaim from citizens who identify as conservative. If you are someone who identifies as a conservative but is opposed to sexism, racism and homophobia, then that is certainly to your credit. If you are uncomfortable with liberals thinking that the folks mentioned above represent conservatism, you might address those folks instead of acting like liberals just make this picture up out of nothing.

Even our discussions of fantasy are informed by reality, hence this thread.
James Davis Nicoll
56. Eric Saveau
fadeaccompli, I would love to see an epic fantasy where the Epic Hero takes the crown, unites disparate peoples against The Evil Foe, and then after victory brings together the various leaders among the disparate peoples with whom he managed to cultivate meaningful relationships over the course of the saga and says something like "After all that I am ready to give up my power to rule. But you will then have to rule yourselves according to laws that bind you all, laws that you must draft in such a way that will allow you all to be who you are while still preserving the unity you've forged in this struggle. It is the only way we shall all have lasting peace and prosperity."

Only undoubtedly phrased in more EPIC! talk as one does in such things :-) I don't know off the top off my head if anyone has crafted such a work, and I certainly wouldn't automatically expect that it would work out to be liberal in the ways we've been discussing it here. But I would think that something like that could be done, and with liberal sensibilities.

And then the inevitable sequel series would be Urban Fantasy, perhaps with a twist of steampunk :-D

(Maybe this belonged more in the other thread.)
James Davis Nicoll
57. Eric Saveau
fadeaccompli, on the subject of sex in epic/high fantasy, the Malazan books have their share of it, and so did that Tad Williams trilogy back in the nineties. C.S. Friedman certainly embraces it, and The Wheel Of Time series is not at all averse. The Thomas Covenant books also come to mind in their problematic ways. I'm sure there are others I'm not thinking of right now; anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

The reason that people tend to think of epic fantasy as sexless is largley due, I expect, to Tolkein and his imitators shying far away from it back in the day. That has been changing over the last few decades.
Jenny Kristine
58. jennygadget
Cian_Shmian @ 54

"The consequence of this, however, is that you can only end up saying
'this cluster of tags that falls under Urban Fantasy are liberal' and
'this cluster aren't'. Which doesn't seem like it would be all that
useful."

Well, that depends on what you are able to do with the data, yes? Complex patterns are harder to tease out than more clear-cut ones, but they still exist. And are often more interesting.

Although I don't think what we would find would be as simple as "this subgenre is good/bad at this, while this subgenre is good/bad at that." My guess is that urban fantasy overall, which is often about the mixing of old tales with modern settings, is going to be good AND bad about the things that it is about.

The interesting patterns, I think, will be in the ways that it is good or bad. More female characters, but usually still the Exceptional Woman. Polyamory exists, but it needs excuses - including being iffy on aspects of consent. In other words, how are the old and new reconciled? Where has change run aground? What of the old still persists? And so on.
Jenny Kristine
59. jennygadget
Eric Saveau @ 56 and 57

Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy does that. I dunno if it counts as epic fantasy, but it's pretty standard second-world (ya) fantasy. Also, the queen just pretty much says: nope, not gonna rule. don't believe in monarchies, so I abdicate - have fun! We never see what happens after.

Regarding sex in epic fantasy - Yup. Also, if epic fantasy is largely sexless, who the hell was Pratchett supposed to be making fun of in The Color of Magic?
Fade Manley
60. fadeaccompli
The Westmark trilogy! I wanted to call that out as an example of a fantasy series that actually takes revolution seriously as something other than "put the right people in charge," but it's been so long since I read it, I wasn't confident in the reference. (I read it back in elementary school, and just remember it dimly as being Crushingly Depressing, which sounds about right for a realistic story about revolution.)
Joris Meijer
61. jtmeijer
jennygadget @59

Heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery probably. Which now that I think of them are also precursors of what we at the moment consider to be urban fantasy.
James Davis Nicoll
62. Eric Saveau
jennygadget, thanks for the Westmark recommendation! I will definitely put that on my list.

And Pratchett was poking fun at the pulpy swords-and-sorcery stuff of the thirties, like Howard's Conan. They weren't known for graphic sex, but they were known for the hero slaying the bad guys and then saying to the obligatory prizewoman "Now I shall take you, and you shall submit. Because of the hair, really; chicks dig the hair." Aaaaaand like that.
Alan Brown
63. AlanBrown
Two thoughts:
1. The tales of Conan and his bretheren were fantasy, but not at all what I would call epic fantasy.
2. I don't read much urban fantasy, but regardless of the political implications, I always felt that it had a reactionary or even nostalgic tinge to it. A yearning to find that, despite the fact that we have filled the map with our cities and civilization, among it all, magic can still exist.
Jenny Kristine
64. jennygadget
fadeaccompli @ 60

oh, yes. Westmark is all about revolution being serious (and dangerous, and risky, and uncontrollable) business. I think I first read it about the time I read My Brother Sam is Dead - the summer before 7th grade US history - and together they definitely informed how I viewed the myths of history as presented in class. I wouldn't say that I viewed what I was told in class critically, exactly, but rather with an understanding that the details, at least, were a lot bloodier and more confusing than the outlines we were given.

It's very much YA, mind you. But it's very good YA.
James Davis Nicoll
65. James Davis Nicoll
Say, is Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan UF?
James Davis Nicoll
66. Eric Saveau
James Davis Nicoll, Metropolitan is an example of a minor subgenre called "arcanepunk". Though I could certainly see it appealing to UF readers.

I seldom meet anyone else who knows that work or its sequel.
Emmet O'Brien
67. EmmetAOBrien
James@65:I believe WJW has referred to Metropolitan and City on Fire as Totally Urban Fantasy.

I must read those again soon, actually. They are wonderful and not like much of anything else.
James Davis Nicoll
68. James Davis Nicoll
WJW's duology was popular on fabled rec.arts.sf.written but sadly one cannot build a career entirely on catering to the denizens of one news group.

It's a sort of fantasy I'd like to see more of. Why do fantasy settings need to be less technologically sophisticated than us?
Joris Meijer
69. jtmeijer
Metropolitan can probably be read as UF, but my initial interpretation was Science Fiction. But then I am prone to be inclusive and biased towards that genre.
Brian R
70. Mayhem
Having recently retread it, I can completely agree with Jennygadget on westmark.
Great series, with a few flaws that really doesn't shy away from the negatives of a revolution.
Pretty high main char body count for a YA work too.

I'd also like to shoehorn in Villains by Necessity, which parodies and flips the traditional epic fantasy by making the ragged band of misfits from all that are left of The Dark Lord's armies and sets them struggling to reverse the stifling victory of Good.

@eric I'd put the malazan examples of sex at the far end of the spectrum from general UF fare. It still tends to be more camera pans back fare, or simple sketches where the reader fills in the details between the lines.
More on the UF line would be Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, which is a nice blend of epic fantasy and shades of grey, with a hefty bit of intrigue thrown in for good measure.

I'd also like to suggest some of the lankhmar works as early progenitors of UF, the city is at the heart of the stories, and the descendants can be seen in eg Simon R Green's Hawk and Fisher books.

Come to think of it, much of Green's work in all genres is UF in tone, the Nightside explicitly, the fantasy ones more local but the internal dynamics of some of the forest kingdoms feel more like city works than classic quest fantasy.
Since he's a kitchen sink kind of author though, that isn't a surprise.
Brian R
71. Mayhem
But getting back to the original point, I'd say the genre as a whole is generally fairly conservative, but it is straightforward enough to pick out examples from throughout the history that are more liberal in tone. Take Lankhmar, Sanctuary, Ankh Morpork. Most tales set in those cities tend to be liberal examples.
I'm travelling else I'd pull better ones from my library.
James Davis Nicoll
72. Eric Saveau
Mayhem, I am smacking my forehead in embarrassment for not remembering the Kushiel books; thanks for the reminder. For anyone else who is unfamiliar with them, the Kushiel books are... well, they are epic heroic fantasy with a female first-person protagonist and an unabashed liberal bent... and where vivid BDSM is integral to the world, the characters, and the story. And they are very well done.
Peter Erwin
73. PeterErwin
James @ 68:
Why do fantasy settings need to be less technologically sophisticated than us?

Well, they don't need to be; I could point to the Shadowrun game setting as another example of high tech + fantasy (even if it's less unusual and creative than Metropolitan). There's also TSR's old Spelljammer setting for D&D, with its magically powered spaceships...

As to why people shy away from writing it (thinking in particular about the idea of fantasy in settings more technologically advanced than ours) ...

Possibly because our current set of historical narratives associate technology with science and set the two of them together against a corresponding decrease in mystery and superstition. The more advanced the technology, the more advanced and expansive we implicitly assume science must be, and the less room there is for unexplained or unexplainable things which contradict science. ("We used to believe the Earth was flat, that fairies lived in the old burial mounds, and that all sorts of crazy monsters and bizarre peoples lived in the deep sea or far countries, because we didn't know any better.")

There's also a potential problem in overloading the story with fantastical elements: if you've got sentient computers, radical genetic engineering, world-spanning cities, space ships, and so forth, then adding magic spells and dragons seems a bit like gilding the lily...

I suspect one of the reasons people sometimes view Metropolitan as more like science fiction than fantasy is that the magical elements (i.e., plasm) are integrated into the world's technology and economy, and so it becomes easier to think of the story as a particularly speculative sort of SF with different laws of physics. Greg Egan sometimes likes to write stories set partly or completely in worlds with (carefully specified, mathematically plausible) alternate physics -- e.g., parts of Diaspora, and, from what I hear, his current trilogy -- would those qualify as fantasy?
James Davis Nicoll
74. Gerry__Quinn
"Why do fantasy settings need to be less technologically sophisticated than us? "


Surely urban fantasy is typically about as technologically sophisticated as us? It tends to be set in the modern world, with magic added.

If you want a world that is *more* technologically sophisticated, you are writing science fiction in combination with fantasy, and it's generally easier - at least if you want to be consistent - to assume super-science underpins the ostensible magic. Gene Wolfe's _Book of the New Sun_, for example. (Vance's _Dying Earth_ has suggestions of this, though the later books in the series seem more to underpin everything with magic.)

In game systems, a hodge podge of science and magic without any apparent coherent underpinning is sometimes used. Maybe that can come into film and TV and even comic books, but it wouldn't really wash in written literature, in which higher standards of 'thinking out' are required.
Nancy Lebovitz
75. NancyLebovitz
Not only did I like Metropolitan tremendously, I'm hopelessing pining for the third book, even though I thought City on Fire wasn't as good because the main character was showing signs of having a Destiny instead of scrambling her way up with a combination of cunning, tenacity, intelligence, and luck.

Briggs' recent Fair Game is politically interesting--
n frangbe'f fba trgf njnl jvgu frevny zheqre, naq gur snr qrpvqr gung vs gurl pna'g trg whfgvpr gurl'er ab ybatre haqre gur ynj.

The series follows a trajectory that's similar to the Kitty novels. The main character is an abused member of a werewolf pack, gets out, finds a good man, and gets status and respect based mostly on being a skilled negotiater. The books aren't especially similar otherwise.

The Jane Yellowrock books by Faith Hunter have a Cherokee main character. Some of them take place in cities, some not.

I wasn't able to get into L.A. Banks' Vampire Huntress series, but it's about a multi-racial/ethnic paranormal group which is led by a black woman and mostly fights vampires.

I'm not sure what would count as satisfyingly progressive politics. What do you guys think of Kaveny's Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood?
James Davis Nicoll
76. James Davis Nicoll
I think Faith Hunter would be an interesting job description (see also SP Somtow's Inquisitors, who traveled around their galaxy offering constructive criticism).

74: Surely urban fantasy is typically about as technologically sophisticated as us? It tends to be set in the modern world, with magic added.

I was thinking about secondary world fantasies there, which of course is off-topic.

You're right in general about UFs although a number of UFs have high tech break down near magic. You can have magic *or* an iPad but not both. I think it's to establish magic isn't just weird science.

I don't think its analogous to the amusing scrambling I saw on the part of some mystery authors to avoid the effects of two pre-1990s-standard-plot-killing-technologies, the internet* and cell phones. It seemed to take many mystery writers until about 2010 to come to terms with cell phones and the net; I wonder if it was just a matter of there being new writers who grew up with them?

* Yeah, the net goes back farther than Endless September but most people were not aware of it and it didn't have the same effect on undermining the constraints on available (to the protagonist) knowledge being able to e.g. type names and phases into a seach engine does.
James Davis Nicoll
77. Gerry__Quinn
James Nicoll said: "You're right in general about UFs although a number of UFs have high tech break down near magic. You can have magic *or* an iPad but not both. I think it's to establish magic isn't just weird science."

I think the purpose is to make both equal in power, so you can make them equally important in the plot. You can have tech-based heroes and magic-based heroes who are equally matched. Computer games and comic books do this all the time.

It's a bit of a cheap option, really; but the ways in which you can have both high-tech and magic coexist are probably a bit limited.

The avoidance of cell-phones/internet is not confined to mystery authors. Gene Wolfe was criticised for ignoring them in _Home Fires_. Buffy The Vampire Slayer had no problems with the internet (Giles's arcane library presumably has a ton of stuff you won't find on Google anyway). But IIRC a cell-phone only appeared once in an episode in the last series when it was part of the plot. Jyust two examples that sprung to mind.
James Davis Nicoll
78. MMSchmidt
The only epic fantasy I can think of with detailed sex scenes is the Kushiel series. The rest of the epic fantasy canon refers to consensual sex only generally and non-consensual sex graphically.

Urban fantasy tends to describe sex scenes in vivid, first-person narrative. Perhaps one signifier of the extremes in the conservative/liberal divide? Conservative = sex bad, unless non-consensual. Liberal = sex everywhere, please. If only urban fantasy would let epic fantasy have the monopoly on the gory rape scenes.

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