Friday, December 16, 2011

Bad Parents

While working on my project (Axl Rose as Vampire) I came across that common trope of a childhood mired in abuse (which Axl had). We had discussed reasons in class why many, or all, protagonists in UF have sordid childhoods, and one reason that came to mind was that maybe it's just easier for the author. When you place a character in a fantastic world, maybe more so than other environments, the reader wants to know as much about them as possible. In a real-world drama, we assume what we don't know about characters, but in fantasy, nothing can be assumed, so as readres we strive to know all. So therein lies the need to explain a protagonist's parents in the first place. As for them being dead or scoundrels, it seems like the quick and easy way to cut them out of the narrative. If we say "So and So had a lovely childhood and still goes home from goblin fighting to spend xmas with her family" the reader expects to see interactions with these parents at some point. Do they know what their daughter is out there doing? They must be worried and constantly checking up on her? So just kill em. Or make them bad people she never wants to see again. Then you don't have to write about them anymore and the reader gets an answer as to the background of So and So.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fantastic and Magic Realism

This seemed very relevant to our class. I came across it on twitter (I follow the author of this).


Friday, December 9, 2011

Urban legends and urban fantasy

So after hearing about all these urban fantasy stories people are writing, I've been questioning one of my original assumptions about urban fantasy: must urban fantasy derive from urban legends? I use "urban legends" as a rhetorical device (I mean, urban), but what I mean by it is mythologies created prior to the author writing. I think that a large part of this particular body of literature would suggest that urban fantasy usually draws on mythologies that are part of our cultural knowledge. Vampires, werewolves, witches; all of these are preconceived, and deeply rooted in our understanding of the fantastic and mythological. When I think "What's a fantastic being?" I think "ghosts" or "vampires", not something that I've never heard of. And often urban fantasy will redefine the conventional understanding of these mythologies, but it draws on them nonetheless.
But is that a necessary part of the urban fantasy? I thought previously that it was. I mean, cities are essentially and unique to human civilization, and so it makes sense that these stories would focus on them. And I think that these mythologies are also unique and essential to human culture. Perhaps not the myths in specific, but the idea of an old mythology being pervasive throughout a culture. Almost every culture has myths about gods or higher beings, the afterlife, and creation of the world, usually unifying all these thigns into one. And as far as I know, mythologies about creatures is incredibly pervasive throughout human culture. So surely it would make sense, in the creation of a story that involves essentially human structures like cities to also include our inherited mythologies when creating creatures that live within those cities.
However, the one big stick in the mud for me, besides perhaps one or two of the class stories, is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. There is no mythology that I know of that includes beings who can open doors to anywhere. There is no mythology including a fox and a wolf mercenaries who like torture. There is no Marquis de Carabas or Rat People or Market or most of what makes Neverwhere Neverwhere. The only things in Neverwhere that have pre-established roots in mythology are a) Islington the angel, b) Atlantis, which he destroys, c) that London has lots of underground layers that are believed to give it mystical or special properties, and d) monks. And these are either not central to the story's mythology or are stretching the definition of mythology pretty thin.
So can we really consider Neverwhere an urban fantasy? Grawr. It really really bugs me, and I don't have an answer.

final definition

Now that the semester is coming to a close I want to take some time to blast open the definition of "urban fantasy." It appears that the class definition has morphed over the course of the term and it is rather interesting that our definition seems to stretch and distend with each passing week. After reading City of Glass we appeared to remove Todorov's idea of the "marvelous" as an absolute necessity. Master and Margarita removed urban fantasy from only being applied to the last few decades. I think that Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union would greatly open up our definition even further. Although Chabon's work has elements of the archetypal noir novel, his creation of a parallel history in a space that is both familiar and new incorporates many of the elements of class definition and discussion. The fantastic for Chabon is the historical manipulation (there are no vampires, demons, etc. within the text) in which Israel collapses and an independent Jewish state is established along the coast of Alaska. I think that by extending the definition outward the term urban fantasy is not ultimately meaningless but instead, it gives urban fantasy greater weight and depth. This is seemingly important in scholarship as it is also delimiting in terms of the genre. What do we think?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sci-Fi Fantasy via Norse mythology

So since Andrew was talking about futuristic sci-fi fantasy cross overs, that made me think about what I am currently working on. It's interesting how that kind of thing can go in VERY different directions. I mean, the future holds endless possibilities, so it kind of makes sense.
Maybe because sci-fi fantasy hasn't been explored a whole lot, there aren't any tropes associated with it yet. I mean, for urban fantasy, we have certain tropes which have cropped up (vampires and werewolves for starters), and for high fantasy there are also certain tropes (elves, dwarves and wizards). As for futuristic stuff, well, there's futuristic sci-fi tropes (space travel), but not so much the futuristic fantasy tropes. I mean, I don't think I've ever actually encountered a thing that's set thousands of years in the future and is fantasy.
As for what I'm working on, it's literally 40,000 years in the future (OH Warhammer 40k! That's futuristic fantasy. Also Starcraft is more or less futuristic fantasy.) So the premise is that humans colonized the planets in our solar system, and evolved into different species with MAGICAL POWERS. Magic through evolution = sci-fi fantasy cross over like a boss.
Anyways, the races that evolve are based on the races in Norse mythology: light elves from Saturn, dark elves (aka dwarves) from Neptune and Uranus, fire "giants" from Mercury (they're actually just humans with pyromancy), Vanir from Venus, Aesir from Mars, Jotuns (aka giants/shapeshifters) from Jupiter, and Humans from Earth. And then there's HEL who chills out on Pluto. The races that are sun-ward of the asteroid belt are humanoid, and the ones outside it are less so because they were more isolated.
The Vanir have "magic" which is more like transmutation (FMA, anyone?), and the Aesir have the power to live forever (although no one knows it) as well as the ability to absorb any power, very similar to Rogue from X-Men.
So yeah, there's space travel in spaceships that look like galleons and schooners that run on dark matter, and terraforming, and magic! It's a good time.
And completely different than Andrew's futuristic sci-fi fantasy world. Which is awesome.
The biggest difference is that I'm not so sure that my story could be considered an urban fantasy. Could it? I dunno. Does Urban Fantasy really just mean a little sci-fi and a little fantasy? I mean, Kate Daniels has got me all thinking about tech vs magic. If urban fantasy is fantasy in our modern world, and we're all about the tech, then really, urban fantasy is just combining magic and tech. And in a futuristic setting, tech = sci-fi, so therefore, a sci-fi fantasy blend is like an urban fantasy set in the future. QED.
But of course not all urban fantasy has to have technology in it. It's just likely to.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dark Urban Fantasy?

I was talking today with some of my friends about fantasy, mostly urban fantasy, and one of my friends mentioned "dark urban fantasy." He said it was the darker stuff that dealt with more of the violence of fantasy. I thought about all the books we've read, and, for the most part, I wouldn't say they were gentle. In fact, a lot of them were rather violent and dark. However, I thought this to just be the norm of urban fantasy, and kind of fantasies today in general. So what exactly separates "dark urban fantasy" from 'regular' urban fantasy? Is there really a difference between the two or is it just the same name for the same thing?

The more I think about it, the more I think I understand what is meant by "dark urban fantasy." There could easily be an urban fantasy book where all the creatures are kind, happy fairies and only one evil guy that needs to be defeated. Though there is a dark element involved with the evil guy, I wouldn't exactly call such a story a "dark urban fantasy." However, a story like Already Dead and perhaps even Street Magic, though a bit iffy on that one, I could see as being "dark urban fantasy" simply due to the darker nature of the humor and the sense of anger and violence throughout the story. Still, I feel like such elements are just becoming common of urban fantasy today, so it is almost unnecessary to have "dark urban fantasy" and "urban fantasy." I guess it is like a concentration of a major--usually unnecessary but done just to make it different.
This is a thought that I had a million years ago, way back when we were talking about neverwhere, and it just now reoccurred to me. We were talking about religion in neverwhere and how it plays a role in the form of a fallen angel. It wasn't until after class that I was considering the topic and I realized that the Marquis de Carabas was crucified on a cross and dies, and then he comes back to life. It is such a huge christian reference, and yet no one in class seemed to mention it.
So how does Gaimen make such obvious religious references, but then they are so easily overlooked? Is it because Carabas seems so unlike a christ figure? Or because Islington behaves so little like a angel? Maybe it has to do with Gaimen's writing style that our attention is focused away from these details, but then why does he include them at all? This is really just a list of questions that I have no answers to, but I thought they would be worth considering.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Something that piqued my interest was today's discussion of the romance element and its varying levels of importance. I'm currently reading a book called "A Discovery of Witches," a new urban fantasy novel set in Oxford. The protagonist is a witch in her mid-20s, and the principle love interest is (surprise surprise) a vampire. The plot of the book involves an ancient conspiracy, evil witches, all that good, solid epic stuff. BUT. So much of the book (the first half, anyway; I haven't suckerpunched my way through the rest yet) is caught up in this romantic subplot that it turns into the main plot. All the focus is on when the characters will get together, and whether it's destiny, and if Matthew will manage to curb his hunger for Diana's extra-tasty witch blood, blah, blah, blah. This is within the first 100 pages of the novel, mind you, and that just strikes me as ridiculously unnecessary for anyone but Nora Roberts. I picked up this book for the magical elements and the nifty ambiance of the setting, not for a painfully predictable romance that plays out with practically zero tension after the initial meeting.

But, had I read this book when I was in my early teens, I probably would have been all over it. As a thirteen-year-old girl, I loved that starcrossed lover bullshit. I loved the predictable impossibility of the vampire/mortal relationship; I loved the equally predictable tension as the plucky heroine struggled not to fall for the smoldering, edged-with-danger hero; I loved it all. Now, as a college student in my early 20s, it bores me and I'm having trouble finding motivation to finish the novel. I don't really have a final point in all this. Just found it interesting how much that element of romance means to different age groups, and how much it can really affect the success of a novel.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

one order of magical cities with a side of grits, coming up?

There seems to be this increasing sense in fiction that grittier is better. The anti-hero is rising in popularity, death rates for a protagonist's nearest and dearest are shooting up exponentially, kids travel to a magical world and save it only to wake up to their own world in a gutter. Comic books even have a name for this era--"The Dark Age", which started in 1993 when Superman died and a whole depressing host of trauma was unleashed on the Marvelverse. (It's worth noting that Alan Moore takes partial credit for this movement by attributing it to his famous comic Watchmen, which kickstarted the Dark Age. "The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me," he's reminisced in interviews, "because... I tend to think that I've seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else's bad mood. It's not even their bad mood, it's mine, but they're still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago.")

The importance of this lies, of course, in how it ties to fantasy--urban fantasy, in fact, and its sudden rise in popularity in the last decade. Reading through the genre, it's easy to notice a steady pattern: namely that, nine times out of ten, the supernatural hasn't drawn the human world into its grasp. Humans aren't being forced into alien servitude. It's always the other way around. Vampires order coffee at Starbucks; werewolves go back to the grocery to return fourteen bottles of ineffective conditioner; elves stand in line at the DMV and curse slow bureaucrats in beautiful and eldritch tongues. I'd go so far as to argue that this is part of an overarching Dark Age that has infected comics and other literary genres. That writers have dragged the fantastic into the human world because this is the easiest way of debasing the wonder: by tangling it in the mundane. It's a technique not dissimilar to the old horror favorite--turning the familiar into something strange. Bloody torture scenes in an ugly dungeon far and elsewhere are often only gross: a man with a knife, a rope and the alarm codes for your house is much more alarming on the personal level.

And yet, for the most part, urban fantasy remains fairly tame in terms of darkness. Not to say that murders and bloodloss aren't worth a grimace--but at the end of the day, the protagonist retains all the core beliefs needed to keep them as the protagonist. The monsters are reclaimed--a pattern especially likely in young adult fiction, which tends to preserve a sense of hope that adult fiction would usually rather impale with stiletto heels. Fairies may have been forced out of their illusory wonderlands and into leather biker jackets, but they're still, in twisted forms, the gorgeous and alien creatures of myth. The workings of the genre ultimately preserve a stasis of affairs.

This is likely less a statement about the way people react to writing about the fantastic than the fact that authors tend to want to leave things open to more stories. It isn't in their interests to hit "self-destruct"--yet. Still, slowly but surely, the anti-heroes are getting darker. Reboots of popular franchises are getting grittier. Without actual research, it's impossible to do anything but speculate as to whether this is a chance wave in the sea of popular fiction or if an actual tide is turning for the dark. Still, one can't help but wonder if audiences will actually lose interest in the steeping of fantasy in darkness. Urban fantasy's set its patterns, but where is the genre going?