One of the debates I’ve had with myself and others over the years I’ve been reading and reviewing fantasy is the question of the definition of “urban fantasy.” This mainly gets into the idea of secondary world fantasies and whether or not a story is set in a secondary world city, where the city is as much a character and changing and evolving place as any of the sentient characters. Are the Ankh-Morpork novels of Terry Pratchett urban fantasy? Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, primarily set in the fascinating city of Lankhmar? The novels of Marshall Ryan Maresca, set in the Archduchy of Maradaine, and showing us an increasing number of facets of his city-state from different points of view and different social classes? Is there a good way to define novels that take this space and make it their own by calling them something better than epic fantasy or urban fantasy? And why do novels that operate in this space, let’s call it city-state fantasy, work? And how do they work when they work well?
To name your magazine Locus—a center of activity, attention, or concentration—is to make a bold statement of what your magazine wants to be. As Locus has become the place for science fiction news over the last half century, Locus has grown, developed, and taken on that mantle.
In Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity, we were introduced to a living weapon, voidwitch Mariam Xi, better known as Mars. The shadowy interstellar government agency MEPHISTO raised her from childhood and turned her into a psychic living weapon that Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force would respect as an equal. Mars’ powers are ferocious and dangerous even under tabs, becoming fearsome when truly unleashed. Mars is untrusting of strangers, having been burned too many times. The events of Killing Gravity hit Mars where she is most vulnerable, in her inability to trust people. Thus a raucous and audacious space opera has as its core a very human story of Mars learning to trust other people, and taking steps for her to try and ensure her autonomy.
(Spoilers for Killing Gravity below.)
It begins with a roleplaying game, of all things, although it’s not called that precisely. It’s an immersive roleplaying environment, and our hero crashes it for him and his friends for wanting to go beyond its bounds and programmings, though not as a briefer. Rather, he is compelled by his innate drive and sense to seek and explore and burst the bounds that society and even this video game have placed upon him. And yet even this innocent exploration beyond boundaries causes change and crisis around him. It turns out to be a thematic strand in Alvin’s life.
The City and the Stars is Arthur C. Clarke’s reboot of one of his earlier works, Against the Fall of Night. Both tell Alvin’s story.
We live in an age in which a reality TV star has ascended to the highest office in the United States and is conducting his presidency through Twitter. We are in a world where England’s complicated relationship with Europe has turned positively rabid. Intractable conflicts in the Middle East burn on and on, and the entire world seems to be in turmoil. Just where can one go to find an alternate world, even a dystopia, in which to forget the troubles and trials of our own world for a little while?
1984 is a bestseller, but perhaps you’ve read or re-read it, and don’t want to delve the story of Winston Smith yet again. Perhaps you’ve also re-read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle and aren’t up for further Nazis vs. Imperial Japan action. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is always a solid choice, but perhaps you’ve already re-read that one, too. Maybe you want a dystopia of a different sort, a dystopia that gets less play, less attention than these familiar works—a world less visited. A world less seen, but no less dark than the usual array of dystopic alternate histories. But what to read instead?
Adam Reith is a scout aboard the Explorator IV, a research and scouting vessel of a future Earth that is expanding into the stars.¹ A scout, to quote Chief Officer Deale, is “half acrobat, half mad scientist, half cat burglar” and more: “A man who likes change.” Reith gets his fill of that last, as his ship investigates a planet around the star Carina 4269, 212 light years from Earth. A faint radio signal has reached the vicinity of Earth from the planet, a signal that ended abruptly. So, someone sent a signal 200 years ago, but who? And why did the signal end?
The Explorator IV is destroyed by a surprise attack of space torpedoes from the planet. The only survivors turn out to be Reith and his fellow scout Paul Waunder, who were sent in a separate vessel to get closer to the planet. One crash landing later, Adam Reith is stranded on the torpedo-firing alien planet. An alien planet that has not only aliens on it, but, unexpectedly and shockingly, humans, as well—humans that were brought there long ago, in human prehistory. Therefore the aliens on the planet know about Earth, and are a threat to humanity. Adam Reith’s mission is to find a way off of this strange world, find a means to get back home, and warn Earth of the alien threat.
The four novels of Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure Tetralogy, tell the story of Reith’s crash landing on Tschai, the eponymous Planet of Adventure, and his unceasing, relentless efforts to find a way to escape it and return home. His fellow scout Paul Waunder is quickly killed, leaving him as the sole Earthman on the planet.
Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
And dissension have begun.
With the Hugo winners recently announced for 2016, it’s the perfect time to look back to the novel that was awarded the first ever Hugo Award. That novel was The Demolished Man, a book that stands with The Stars My Destination as one of the two masterpieces of SF author Alfred Bester.
If you know anything about Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first book in her Thessaly trilogy, it’s probably the inescapable fact that Plato’s Republic is a cornerstone of the novel. The titular city that is constructed and that the characters come to inhabit is modeled explicitly on the society that is outlined in Plato’s foundational text of Western Philosophy. It’s the most intimate mixing of a classical text and science fiction that I have ever read, and in a very real way, The Just City is in dialogue with The Republic in a way that Plato himself, I think, would have approved.
What if, however, you’ve never read The Republic, and the only thing you know about Plato is that he’s the guy who came up with the Allegory of The Cave? Or perhaps even that is news to you. Can you still derive pleasure and value from tackling The Just City? Should you even try? Can you read The Just City without a course on Plato, first? Absolutely!
What to make, in this day and age, of Clifford Simak, an SF writer born in a mold uncommon in this era, and uncommon even in his own? A midwesterner born and raised, living his life in rural Wisconsin and the modest metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. That sort of environment gave him a midwestern, pastoral sensibility that infused all of his SF work, from Way Station to “The Big Front Yard,” both of which were Hugo winners and both merged the worlds of rural America with the alien and the strange. Simak’s fiction also featured and explored artificial intelligence, robots, the place of religion and faith, his love of dogs, and much more. There is a diversity of ideas and themes across his expansive oeuvre. It can be bewildering to find an entry point into the work of older writers, especially ones like Simak. Where to begin?
There is a simple, best place you can start though. A suite of stories that merges Simak’s love of dogs, his interest in rural settings and landscapes, use of religion and faith, and his interest in robots all in one package: City.
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