N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author whose first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is coming out from Orbit Books in February. It’s fantasy, but she doesn’t like calling herself a fantasist, because she thinks it makes her sound like some kind of hipster bigot.
Let’s start with the premise that there are two kinds of urban fantasy. I’ll call them stylistic urban fantasy and contextual urban fantasy. You’ve read the stylistic kind — or if you haven’t, WTH are you doing here on Jeff’s blog? Neil Gaiman (e.g., Neverwhere) and China Mieville (e.g., The City and the City) fall into this category as well. This was the first stuff to be overtly called “urban fantasy” as a literary movement, as far as I can tell (though fantasies set in cities have been written for literally centuries).
You might’ve read the contextual kind too, which is generally called urban fantasy because it takes place in a city or its exurbs, and involves fantasy creatures like werewolves and demons. But this kind of UF, as exemplified by Laurell K. Hamilton (e.g., the Anita Blake vampire hunter series), Patricia Briggs (e.g., the Mercy Thompson series), and Marjorie Liu (e.g., the Dirk & Steele series), bears about as much resemblance to the earlier form of urban fantasy as apples do to… well, no, oranges are both fruit.Â Let’s range a bit further afield.Â Bean pies?Â Yeah, that’ll do.Â Apples and fucking bean pies.Â (I love me some bean pies, by the way.)
Just from the two sets of examples I’ve provided, if you’ve read any one of each set, you can guess at some of the differences textwise — but let’s skip the text for a moment, and focus on something else. The three stylistic UF authors I’ve mentioned are white guys. Pretty diverse in other ways, but that part’s fairly explicit. The three contextual UF authors are women. Hamilton and Briggs are white, as far as I know, and Liu is biracial (white and Asian). Most, if not all, of the stylistic UF protagonists are also white men, but the characters of the contextual UF I mentioned vary more widely. Briggs’ is Native American. Liu’s go all over the place — white women, black women and men, Latino shapeshifting dolphin boys — but in general, tend to place women in strong central roles.
Then there are the textual differences. I’ll get this right out in the open: I see better writing on the stylistic side of the coin. But that’s to be expected; it’s stylistic, after all, and craft matters, sometimes to the detriment of the story. The core of stylistic UF seems to be that the city or society is the focus of the story, as much a character as the protagonists themselves — which sometimes serves to reduce the protagonists to ciphers, there just to guide us through the strange, strange world of the story. Contextual UF takes a different tack, putting the city in the background and positioning the character squarely in front (as shown on most contextual UF cover art). Style matters here too, but in a very different way, with a solid emphasis on characterization. Without a vivid, identifiable, frankly lovable character, all the artful prose and scenery in the world becomes meaningless in contextual UF.
All of the authors mentioned, note, are New York Times bestsellers or winners of major awards — or both — which I’m taking as evidence that both forms of UF are popular and viable. The contextual stuff is probably more popular at the moment. Not surprising, really — it’s aimed at a larger audience. But bottom line, neither subgenre is hurting for readers.
So now I want to lay out a very non-scientific hypothesis. Two, actually.
Hypothesis 1: I believe steampunk is the bastard child of stylistic and contextual UF. Given its industrial roots, nearly all steampunk is at least rooted in city culture, if not actually set in cities. The steampunk milieu I’ve seen present haves and have-nots, ready access to skilled craftspeople and precision instruments, and concerns which are probably of greater importance to city dwellers than rural farmer-types (e.g., philosophical/ideological conflicts). And of course the setting and style matters, since steampunk is basically alternate history; effectively capturing the mood and feel of earlier times is essential. But most steampunk stories take as given that the individual is the center of the story, not the society or city in which the individual lives — suggesting a heritage drawn from contextual UF. In fact, I would argue that steampunk makes an archetype of Rugged Individualism, a quintessentially masculine (and white male American) ideology, and lays about with it, subverting the archetype in ways that make it appealing across lines of gender and culture and nation. In steampunk the hero is not the closemouthed cowboy wandering the Midwestern American plain. Steampunk’s heroes are effete British gentlemen wandering a landscape of intellectual adventure. Or never mind the effete part; steampunk goes right for the chicks as protags, in a way the actual progenitors of the Rugged Individualist ideal would’ve found inconceivable. So we get stylistic SF’s absorption with setting and art, and contextual SF’s accessibility and character-centeredness. Two great tastes that taste great together.
Hypothesis #2: As you may have guessed from Hypothesis #1, I think there is not as much difference between these two forms of UF as everybody keeps saying there is. (Where “everybody” = some value of “random people on the internet” [see also the io9 link above, especially the comments] + “random people at SF cons” like + “people I know”, some of whom actually know what they’re talking about.) Oh, sure, contextual UF’s reputation suffers from formulaic marketing (I’m really sick of the tattooed women’s body parts, personally) and the inexplicable success of some very poor writers within the fold. And sure, stylistic SF suffers by its elitism — both textual and by-association. But there’s more overlap than separation here. And lately I’ve been seeing more and more successful combinations of style and context* that make me think a subgenre fusion (or reunification) may be in the offing.
So, in the absence of experimental methodologies which could possibly test and/or refine these hypotheses, I turn to you, gentle Ecstatic Days readers. What are your thoughts on the division, differences, and possible reformation of the two forms of UF? Discuss.
I don’t have a horse in this race, note. My book’s epic fantasy. Just sayin’.
* (My favorite example of this is Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, contextual UF with Big Fucking stylistic Guns; seriously, Griffin’s prose is hypnotic and addictive. I would also recommend Steven Boyett’s Ariel and Elegy Beach if they weren’t so many other things in addition to Urban Fantasy — quest fantasy, postapocalyptic fantasy, fantasy dystopia with a whiff of magic cyberpunk — so they’re not pure enough to be a good example. But good writing, regardless of classification.)