Looking over the last entry in this occasional series I am, well, flummoxed; it’s a long and shaggy mess, isn’t it, and what I’d thought was the crux of it all—the omphalatic hinge?—got rather lost in all the noise.
—Probably doesn’t help that I hadn’t the faintest idea what that hinge even was until I’d written over half of it.
The which being: this whatever-it-is-we’re-pointing-to, this urbane phantasm, this lupily dhampiric gamine in an Eddi and the Fey T-shirt knotted up to show off a tramp stamp, this genre is essentially a superposition of two (to me) wildly disparate concerns, approaches, skillsets, Anschauungen: on the one hand, the broadly generalized concerns of what you might call primary world fantasy, where rather than haring off through wardrobes after magic rings beyond the fields we know, one seeks instead to take what wonder-generating mechanisms might readily be to hand and attach them however slap-dashily to real and concrete pieces of the world about us; tipping over stones and peering around corners and turning on lights after everyone else has left to show us the stuff we suspected but never believed could be true, not like that—the very general sort of thing any fantabulist worth their salt’s been getting up to for the past several centuries, made special in this particular only because so many of us here and now live in these relatively new things called cities; look! What changes might they ring on all the old tricks in our packs!
And then on the other hand, Anschauung no. 2: the fears where genre’s pooled: the prickly relationships now between power (and violence) and gender; the ways in which those relationships have changed suddenly, or how we’ve suddenly noticed they’ve been changing all along—or haven’t, at all, despite what you might think, might want, might hope—and how all those changes, or those things that stubbornly refuse to change, upset all manner of privileged applecarts and unsettle—make storyable—so much that we yet unthinkingly take for granted when it comes to power and gender (and violence); look! What changes this might ring on all the old tricks in our packs!
—Changes which have been happening (or not yet been happening dammit) in no small part due to these relatively new things called cities so many of us have been living in lately. I mean, you put it that way and all.
I’m left thinking—when I look at it this way, from this angle, with this set of vectors in mind (who was it who used to talk about how there were too many notes that had to be played but couldn’t be blown through a horn all at the same time so instead you play them one after another really fast instead, an allusion of chords? Sheets of sound? Was it John Coltrane? Yeah okay never mind), what I’m left thinking of (again) is the Engineer and the Bricoleur—the differences between coolly designing a system from the top down, and shaggily building a system from the bottom up; clean clear processes and principles thought through and carefully set down against solving the immediate problem that presents itself with whatever’s to hand and then up and on to the next—there’s a dizzying gulf between these two approaches, these disparate Anschauungen; it’s hard to keep the needs and goals of both in mind at once, and maybe this is why I keep flipping the coin over and over in my hand, startled every time the other, different side’s revealed—but look! It’s all one thing! And yet—
Probably doesn’t hurt that William Gibson has been twittering up the distinction between genre and narrative strategy that was I think made about him and his work by was it Dennis Danvers? I think? —And yes, it’s specifically SF-as-genre versus SF-as-narrative-strategy, but let’s pretend for a moment we can generalize it, unpack any intent from its strictures and look at each one by the other for a moment because this distinction’s gonna become important and you don’t want to be tripping over the furniture of swords and rings and rocketships when we abstract this shit up and out, and for fuck’s sake let’s all be as charitable as possible when regarding the connotative sneers that inevitably attach themselves to genre whenever it’s teased out like this; there’s some value to the exercise I think if we all keep our hackles down—ain’t nobody here Docxtrinaire, okay?
Where was I? —Genre, narrative strategy; urban fantasy; wonder-generating mechanisms, power and gender, sex and violence; cables and snakes and pythia. Right. —If one approaches urban fantasy as a genre, as a category fiction, as a transaction between a writer and an emergent and self-organizing audience with certain expectations that actively seeks out the sort of thing it likes because it likes that sort of thing; if one wishes to maximize the return (of enjoyment, of feedback, of reader response) on one’s investment (because who wouldn’t), one’s going to take a look around at what went on before to suss out the processes, the systems, the rules or at least the common threads before one sets out to build one’s own, and looking about one would see Buffy and Anita Blake and Mercy Thompson and Jayné Heller and Kitty Norville because there’s the bottle and there’s the lightning and one would be ill advised to push too far beyond (there are rules; there is a process; the audience likes what it likes and will tell you if you listen): and so one ends up with a Strong Female Character who deals with a supernatural intrusion either openly or clandestinely with some nominally masculine, appropriated power—a Phallic Woman, to put rather a fine point on it—and as one merrily sets about storying the hell out of a wonder-generating mechanism built along these lines, one can’t help but subvert and uphold, interrogate and reify all manner of gender roles and the power rules that they imply.
And if one instead approaches urban fantasy as a narrative strategy, as a way of generating story by taking up old wonder-generating mechanisms and plugging them into whatever relatively new bits of the urban environment present themselves to see what might happen, well: a great deal has changed over the years and so a great deal must be changed without changing too much at all, and that’s one of the challenges to be relished, but nowhere more than in the simple fact that we all see men and women and whatever différence might yet be vived very differently now than we did when the songs were first sung and the spells were first cast and the monsters first ripped from the dreams that spawned them, and one can’t be honest to the characters who find themselves in such a framework without helplessly being drawn back again and again to subvert all those gender roles and the power rules that they imply, and also to uphold them; to reify and interrogate them.
Whichever way you turn, they make the world go round.
(And oh but there are whole universes of discourse I’m glossing over here. Every nut-brown phouka in the room just cocked an eyebrow as if to say oh yeah, hoss? What about race? And I shake my head, later, later, Christ isn’t this all big enough as it is for the moment?)
So let’s not pretend this blurry, loosely drawn bivalent ambit is in any way either necessary or sufficient, but it’s nonetheless helpful (or why would I bother?). —One of the minor problems that has bedevilled me in skating around the problem of URBAN FANTASY (to turn the neon sign back on for a moment) is what’s to be done with Charles Stross’s Laundry books? Because he’s merrily attaching wonder-generating mechanisms to all manner of urban settings, and yet what he’s doing clearly isn’t URBAN FANTASY, as any fule kno. —And for a while there I was handwaving it away with muttered strictures about unity of place or somesuch; now we can all clearly see it’s because he isn’t taking up that other prong, of power and gender, because he doesn’t have to: his wonder-generating mechanisms are drawn from the chilly, post-Enlightenment well of Lovecraft. —And so.