Actually as it turns out I quite like rye. Almost as much as bourbon. Let’s say I’m saying this as I pull a small glass bottle with a smaller green label out of the drawer of the desk, and even though the desk is pressboard with chipped veneer like every other desk in the world these days, let’s grant it what little dignity we might, and pretend it’s a well-built thing of solid wood, doing time in anonymously small offices like this for years now.
Are we smoking? Are you smoking? I smoked, back in the day. Not regularly, mind. But every now and then. Cloves, mostly. —I know, I know. Let’s say I’m smoking, anyway. Adds to the atmosphere. Where were we? Rye whiskey, right. I actually like it, I’m saying, as I pour from the bottle into a couple of plain white paper cups that I, uh, pulled out of another desk drawer when we weren’t paying attention. Don’t know how it got such a reputation as rot-gut. Is it really such an acquired taste?
Maybe it’s just hard to make well, and bad rye’s so much worse than bad scotch or bad bourbon.
Anyway. You want some ice? It’s in the bucket on the credenza there. —Chin-chin.
There’s no clear way into this or out of it, as usual: self-organizing emergent structures! Rhizomatic epiphenomena! Of which what’s past is prologue, yes, but the past, man, the past ain’t dead, it ain’t even past! Now is all we have; everything that happens will happen on the Day of Nine Dogs; we are always returning, stately, plump, to begin once more again: never be closing, always be initiate, if you look around the table and you can’t spot the Secret Masters, then they’re you. Congratulations! —Ah, God. Sorry about that. You pull on one damn thing a little too hard and something else squirts out like that and well you see what I mean. No clear way in, no clear way out. It’s all still of a piece with the Great Work, and those turtles that go all the way down.
What I should have said, and this will probably come up in greater detail soon enough, if later, but what I should have said, and this goes back a ways, and I ought to apologize, it’s been hanging out there for a while now, but back when we were tussling over whether noir as an idiom is inimical to SF and fantasy specifically as modes (and it is, it yet is), what I should have said is this:
That noir is essentially a gnostic idiom, and when you’re dealing with secondary worlds as it is you really ought to be inhumanly careful, invoking the Demiurge like that.
Yeah, I dropped the conceit. That’ll happen. Drink up! Keep up!
“Being a fool is more complicated,” [said Belbo.] “It’s a form of social behavior. A fool is one who always talks outside his glass.”
“What do you mean?” [said Casaubon.]
“Like this.” He pointed at the counter near his glass. “He wants to talk about what’s in the glass, but somehow or other he misses. He’s the guy who puts his foot in his mouth. For example, he says how’s your lovely wife to someone whose wife has just left him.”
“Yes, I know a few of those.”
—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
I can’t remember where I first heard it, or even whether it was first- or second-hand, or rather at one remove, or two, but: when I heard that John M. Ford, who is, you understand, on a very short list along with Samuel Delany and Greer Gilman and Avram Davidson and Ellen Raskin (and some few others), when I first heard that he had a horror of being obvious, I was all over this weird disjointed shiver: no, I said to myself, no, that can’t be right. That’s what people like me are terrified of.
It’s the reason, see, we fools work the metaphoric negative space, and talk about anything at all but what’s inside the glass: we mustn’t be obvious. Which is why you say Hashem instead of Adonai, and write G-d when you mean God: He who pronounces the Name with its own letters has no part in the world to come! Those who know don’t never say, not direct, and them what say ain’t never knowed, and if I tell you direct what it is I’m saying then obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about at all, and the rest thereof one must be silent. —The ineffable ain’t to be effed with. Like the lady says, as soon as you say it out loud they will leave you.
But there, see? Once more I’m talking outside the glass. Or paper cup, I mean. It’s utterly empty, isn’t it. No whiskey there at all.
Did you already drink it down? Want some more?
As simply and as plainly as possible, then, and with as much clarity as I might muster:
- When I say urban fantasy I mean urban fantasy as genre, as marketing category, as she is largely wrote these days;
- urban fantasy is, essentially, immersive fantasy;
- Immersive fantasies hinge on a rhetoric of ironic mimesis, taking for granted the wonders that distance its world from ours;
- Pretending to take wonder for granted can be a marvelous tool for talking outside the glass, but:
- All too often that po-faced detachment can’t help but mimic consciously or un- the iconic smartassed tone of quintessential noir;
- The gravitational pull of that older idiom positions the hapless urban fantasy as a mystery to be solved, a conspiracy to be broken, an intrusion (yes) to be repelled;
- This tendancy is only reinforced by a background radiation of comicbook thrillers and television procedurals, that syncretistic pulpy mulch—
Therefore, then, urban fantasy is functionally and structurally inimical to the ineffable, the numinous, to magic, to, well, fantasy; is, in point of fact, that singular vulture Poe mistook for science, glowering at us all from the rim of a bone-dry glass.
Speaking of which—but look! There was less in the bottle than I’d thought. Hang on, I’m sure there’s another in here somewhere… [sound of drawer opening, rattle of lone pencil rolling along the otherwise empty bottom]
“Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation. In their positive form, they become diplomats. Talking outside the glass when someone else blunders helps to change the subject. But fools don’t interest us, either. They’re never creative, their talent is all second-hand, so they don’t submit manuscripts to publishers. Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation, and when they really offend, they’re magnificent. It’s a dying breed, the embodiment of all the bourgeois virtues. What they really need is a Verdurin salon or even a chez Guermantes. Do you students still read such things?”