Never trust—no, wait, always, always—always trust someone who cites Buffy Sainte-Marie:
One of the many interesting responses I got (see note below) was from David Hebblethwaite, who among other things said “Whenever I read a folk tale, I’m struck by how little resemblance genre fantasy bears to it”—an experience I share. Now, in some respects this is only to be expected, as the world that produced these folk tales has by and large departed, but in other respects it is a damning critique of a “genre”—and here I think that often ridiculous word applies—that wants to have it both ways, to claim a continuity with that world and to stand in a position of superiority over it: to colonize these abandoned landscapes at the same time as the positivism they share sets them on fire.
And it’s, it’s—it’s not that I don’t agree with him, because he’s right, you know, but he’s wrong, right? So we’re on the same page? I mean—wait. I mean—
—and the reason I’ve got so much wry in my grin is we both want the same thing, Ethan and I, after all: the cold clear water, the clean pure hit, to use self-consciously inopportune phrases I’ve used before: the good text (for want of a better). (You did go read his post already, didn’t you? And you followed the links, like this one, and this?) —It’s just that, for him, the wellspring’s in the hills of SF:
And it occurred to me that all this may be a pointer as to why I find myself drawn more to SF than to fantasy: for while the best SF brings the inexplicable to the world of explication and finds the cracks in rationalism through which the irrational (which never really went away) returns, fantasy, perhaps, tends to do the reverse: it brings reason to the irrational, puts magic into a “system.” And this is a movement I find, well, distasteful at best.
And I agree! Dear sweet Lord do I agree. —It’s just, it’s only that I tend to lay the sins of that systematization at the feet of the S in SF—
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.
And, well, yes, I am talking about fantasy there, but a specific kind, I mean, that particular, I don’t know, idiom let’s say, URBAN FANTASY as opposed to, y’know, /urban fantasy/ or «urban fantasy», y’know, because, and I mean it’s easy to miss, sure, you haven’t been here in a while, or before, but that was the culmination, the apotheosis even, of that long and winding argument to prove or at least demonstrate that URBAN FANTASY qua urban fantasy as it is spoke in this day an’ age is really, y’know SF, which is, and maybe it would help if I weren’t steering into the skid I’m trying to warn you about, I don’t know, but, but—
—it’s tempting, it is, to handwave any difference away: to agree and accept, to say, yes, we each recognize the kernel of what we’re after in that which the other exalts—and so, then, they must be the same thing! And that which we each disdain, and of which we try to wave y’all off, that’s also all one thing, the other thing, against which what we want’s defined. —There’s even a rhetorical move I could make, reaching back to what I’ve called Clute’s triskelion, his grammar of fantastika, to clock the moves that fantasy’s supposed to make, turning away from the new thing in its world (seen as a wrongness, but anything not right is wrong) and returning, retreating into what it recognizes; that SF reaches for that conceptual breakthrough the new thing allows, demands, and pries open enough of a crack to let us see beyond the fields we know, just for a moment—“A great deal of science fiction is about what the field’s insiders often call ‘sense of wonder,’” says Patrick Nielsen Hayden—
a quality not entirely unrelated to the good old Romantic Sublime. Many of the genre’s classics are in essence carefully-tuned machines designed to attract readers whose primary conscious loyalty is to rationalism, and lead them by a series of plausible contrivances to a sudden crescendo of mystical awe.
And “sense of wonder,” wow, and “Romantic Sublime,” indeed, that presque vu, where words do fail, and couldn’t we just scratch out “science fiction,” lightly, bluely pencil in something more inclusive, like, oh, “Fantastika”? And call it a day? —Oh but no, no, and not just because I’ve gone and reductio’d a gross oversimplification well beyond ad absurdum, but also because we cannot always be celebrating; because elegies can be cold and clear and pure; because the recognitions and returns of fantasy as Clute has set it out (as I’ve read Clute’s setting out) can be such shiveringly awful, terrible, powerful, necessary moves. Because while an argument can sermonize and a sermon can argue with the best of them, still: an argument with the universe is not a sermon on the way things ought to be. Sorry, no, as the man says: if people remembered the same they would not be different people. It’s much the same with modes, or idioms, or genera.
(Or reading protocols, I suppose.)
Two households then, in—what is this, Verona? Yeesh—break out an ancient grudge once more, and in his post (remember that post? This is a post about that post), Ethan throws down on how, exactly, the two are not alike in dignity:
science fiction is written by people who do “believe in” science, while fantasy fiction is written mostly by people who so axiomatically disbelieve magic that they describe what they themselves are writing as fantasy!
And while I do not bite my thumb at this, y’all, still do I bite my thumb, y’all.
—I should note I do not mean for Mr. Hilary’s “you” to be Ethan—though it could be, it could well be; for the purposes of this essay I’m the one standing squarely in Hilary’s sights—myself, or any fantasist who so axiomatically might be said to disbelieve in magic. —Belief, and disbelief, is such a complex snarl, as Ethan goes on to point out in a footnote, and complicating the question thusly spares me the (relatively trivial) task of finding fantasists who do believe, who profess to believe, in astrology, who’ve spoken to angels, who’ve divined the future, who’ve however successfully or otherwise importuned gods of wealth and luck for help in landing their next gig, who’ve bowed down before a snake-puppet. (The world storm’s ravaged what went before, leaving us shivering naked before a positivist, scientifactual universe, cutting us off from any but the dimmest tinny echoes of those since-lost sylphs—if only all these woolly-headed superstitious demon-haunted God-bothering fools could wake up enough to see that!) —I say “relatively trivial” not only because it’s easy, but because it’s a sideshow, a distraction, not germane: that a fantasist believes in, wants to believe in, doubts that anyone could believe in magic—the mere fact of that BELIEF is itself no marker of an ability to gift us sylphs, or dancing mountains, any more than an author of SF who, believing with the most current data that this universe of ours must eventually putter out in an unimaginable Big Freeze, could yet not write a moving meditation hingeing on a Big Crunch.
Belief, «belief», BELIEF is not enough: it’s, well, it’s not the quality or the nature of that belief, oh no, dear no, nor is it what might be believed, per se, to pretend for a moment any of that could meaningfully be separated from the rest of it, ha, it’s—well, it’s the thinking-through of that belief, and how that process-of-thinking is reflected in the work, and how much the work itself is part and parcel of that thought, and would you look at how the words start chipping away at themselves? —If this axiom is accepted, that we speak not of belief as a brutally simple binary but rather as a contradictory, tangled, frustrating thinking-through of desire and doubt and determination, and if we further accept that this process can be applied either to that which we think or want or doubt could ever be be true, or to that which we all know is false (and please, do note how provisional and contingent are the TRUE and the FALSE and the WE), then what I think becomes of the argument in “Magic is afoot”—which I do not disagree with, mind!—is that a BELIEF in that which is more likely to be congruent with the positivist, scientifactual detritus of the world storm is thus more likely to result in works that, well, that will—
attract readers whose primary conscious loyalty is to rationalism, and lead them by a series of plausible contrivances to a sudden crescendo of mystical awe
—than, y’know, a BELIEF in that which does not.
(Do I believe in magic? Do I BELIEVE in magic? —I dunno. You tell me.)
We’re getting to the point where words fail, is the thing. —The weak lies, and the strong.
I am a fantasist; I fantasize, though you should understand how hard it is for me to say such a thing: I can’t even say I am a writer (which I manifestly am) without an eye-roll, a sigh, a deprecatory chuckle, and then the equivocations. —I hesitate before I tell you what I write is urban fantasy, for all that what I write is squarely within that conversation, so much so that I went and wrote a whole (yet uncompleted) series of blog posts, trying to figure out what exactly had become of urban fantasy, or URBAN FANTASY, and how and whither and why, and also Clute and Mendlesohn; Mendlesohn and Clute—
The Great Work – Further up; further, in – What we talk about when we talk about what we’re pointing to – Ambit valent – Obversity – Anent the preceding – You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum – Black hearts and coronets – Clews
And that’s mostly just there for the sake of convenience. What you need to take away from that to begin to follow what and how and why here is the (sigh) (self-deprecatory, equivocating) axiom that—
Urban fantasy is SF.
And of course it’s ridiculous and of course it’s contradictory and of course it’s a paradox and of course it’s patently silly and of course it’s something I’d latch onto. And part of what I’m getting at is the shade I can throw on what I’ve seen is—wrong, I hesitate to say, perhaps I’d rather say it’s not to my liking, but, I mean, you can see it’s wrong, right? The urge to systematize and gamify, to taxonomize, solutionize, to formulate, to demonstrate one’s mastery of wonder by engineering plausible contrivances to render, as Benjanun Sriduangkaew once put it, “the unusual—magic, etc.—into ordinary, comfortable majority terms”? To try to approach the sublime through faux-world–weary ironic mimesis, to use the voice of a jaded detective, a solver of mysteries, to conjure mystery itself? This category error that mistakes recipe for meal, prescription for cure, a map for the world about us, and a gesture for the deed? That brings every sharp and grasping vulture-claw of SCIENCE it can find to bear on bringing MAGIC down?
—So you can maybe see why I was laughing in terror and delight to see FANTASY damned as the wellspring of these scientifictional crimes. (—Which, I’d argue, are merely more easy to commit, and easier by far to see, in a fantastic mode.)
But! But, but, but. —There’s a second meaning to the motto. (It’s a paradox. How could there not be.) —Urban fantasy is, or can be, SF in a more strictly definitional sense: it doesn’t, or doesn’t have to, follow the Cluthian triskelion’s track for FANTASY: to begin in wrongness, proceed through thinning, have a moment of recognition, and then return; it can rather (though it doesn’t have to) take as a new thing in our world the actual presence of this or that bit of the fantastic, proceed through the cognitive estrangement this engenders to some sort of conceptual breakthrough that leads, sublimely, to a topia—the SCIENCE FICTION track, you see—
And I sigh, I chuckle wryly, I begin to stammer equivocations. (We will leave off, for the moment, the fact that urban fantasy can easily be HORROR; that horror is quite often URBAN FANTASY. I’m getting dizzy enough as it is. I’ll forget which shell the pea is under.)
So if UF is SF (which it isn’t, come on, don’t be silly), why am I even moved to make this argument? Much less at such length?
Science fiction readers know in their bones that there’s a big universe out there, and that science increasingly changes everyday life.
Which is from this, a fine-enough piece of bang-zowie boosterism from Ken MacLeod, and I quote it mostly so I can strike some poses against it: sure, I say, it’s a big universe out there, but that doesn’t prevent SF from smearing it over with the same old operatic empires propped up by Hornblower’d starships filled to the brim with battle-armored interstellar jump troops on a bug-hunt; and hey, what FANTASY readers know is what it is that’s in our bones, and the bones of the very stories that make us make those satrapies, over and over again. —And I could go on, spinning equivalencies, matching move for move, but—
—to claim a continuity with that world and to stand in a position of superiority over it: to colonize these abandoned landscapes at the same time as the positivism they share sets them on fire.
That’s what’s kept me up at night, what gnaws at me; the difference I can’t wave away.
I started to get at it way back when, digging into the rhetorics of fantasy, and its necessary, othering split of everyday HERE and numinous, ineluctable THERE (abandoned, aflame), the fraught congress between (which simplicity gets complicated, say, when you read contemporary fantasy, gently working that mode of ironic mimesis, whose HERE is not the here that you assume). —I got closer to it, rather cluelessly, some years before, when I attempted not to say something about Racefail:
I can’t think of another contemporary genre whose tropes are so nakedly the fruits of cultural appropriation. Whose toolkit is so openly dependent on the tactics of cultural appropriation. —We go to write about the fantastic, and so we sauce our pastoral dish with a biting dash of Other, because what is more strange or fantastic than the Stuff from Beyond the Fields We Know? —And more: we appropriate our appropriations, cannibalizing the books our books are made of until Fantasyland begins to take on its own dim shape, with folklore and folkways we all agree on that nonetheless have never existed anywhere in the REAL world. Miles and miles of books and not a TRUE or AUTHENTIC moment in any of them, and how proud we are of that!
SF appropriates, sure; but it doesn’t have to. Fantasy, to do what it does, must.
“I was like, I hate acting.” Pause. “I kind of always hated acting!” Pause. “I hate fantasy.” Pause. “I kind of always hated fantasy!”