Adventures in literary taxonomy
On defining a new subgenre
Some years back, I attended a panel on urban fantasy at ConCept. The panelists discussed the urban aspect, and they discussed the fantasy aspect, and when they were finished, there were still ten minutes left on the schedule. And they said, well, it looks like we’ve discussed both components implied by the name, I guess we can leave early!
And I realized… no, there’s a third component. There’s urban, and there’s fantasy… and there’s the space between them. An enforced separation between the modern world – the urban environment – and the magic.* They’ve developed separately over the years (which is typically shown as leading to a certain degree of stagnation in the magic). The magic is hidden from the science and technology, and so it does not advance while they do.
This is what characterizes – or has characterized – the vast majority of works of urban fantasy over the years: the Masquerade, the Veil, the Cover-up, the Blindness. Magic exists, in the background, but the general population has no idea. The good guys lie, and erase memories, and their biggest danger is the general public finding out that they exist. When there’s an epic battle between good and evil, the forces of good also have to ensure that it’s wiped from the record. There is magic, and there are muggles; they know about us, but we don’t know about them. They may benefit from our progress, but we remain forever unaware.
But what if this weren’t so?
In the early 18th century, Girolamo Saccheri revolutionized mathematics by taking one of the fundamental axioms of geometry, and examining what would be implied by its opposite.** What happens if we apply that principle to urban fantasy? What if the supernatural magical paranormal fantastical elements, and modern society… are NOT forcibly separated?
Let’s start by examining the justifications for the separation. One common excuse is that people would panic. As per Agent K, we’re “dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” But panic doesn’t last. We very quickly accept massive changes in the world as “the new normal”. That’s why the phrase “new normal” exists.
And we’re clever monkeys, we are; when we know that something is real, we adapt. And we begin to use it. We exploit it. We make allowances for it. We take it apart to see how it works, and we tinker with it to see what else we can make it do. As per Phil Foglio (who was paraphrasing a line misattributed to Larry Niven, which was itself an inversion of Arthur C. Clarke), “any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology”.
Another rationalization is that humanity is too dangerous for the supernatural: magical creatures would be harmed, hunted down, enslaved, exterminated. And, granted, when you look at human history, that’s not so difficult to believe. But in general, we’re past the age of the pogrom. If you’re an intelligent race living secretly among modern humanity, you know how to hire lawyers and PR firms. You can lobby for legislation.
If we undo those justifications… if we assume their opposite… we get fantasy where magic has openly come back into the modern world, or been revealed to the general public to have been here all along. Or, alternately, magic has openly been around long enough that an equivalent to our modern technological society has developed. And, perhaps most importantly, that magic is an issue of public policy.
I propose that this subgenre be called: “MUNICIPAL FANTASY”.
“What’s the difference between ‘municipal’ and ‘urban’?”, you might be wondering. “Don’t they mean essentially the same thing?” And in a way, they do, but synonyms are never exact. They both refer to cities… but ‘urban’ is a general feeling, an environment, a mood. ‘Municipal’, conversely, implies more of a system, with regulations and public services. ‘Urban wildlife’ is raccoons eating your garbage and ‘urban legends’ are just stories you heard about a friend of a friend of a friend, but “municipal wildlife” feels like the raccoons are only eating the garbage because it’s their job, and “municipal legends” feels the story won’t be told outside city limits.
So, now that we’ve begun to establish what municipal fantasy is, let’s see if we can refine our definition. A good way to start is by examining pre-existing works and assessing whether or not this new label applies to them. At this point, I’d like to remind you that ultimately taxonomy is arbitrary, and that literary taxonomy is even more so: it’s tough to use a dichotomous key when there’s no physical entity!
Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: When Buffy goes out to kill vampires, all she needs is a stake. The world in general has no idea what she’s doing, or that vampires exist. Urban fantasy.
Laurell Hamilton’s “Anita Blake”: When Anita goes out to kill vampires, she needs a warrant. And instead of avoiding the police, she has to coordinate with them. Municipal fantasy.
Jim Butcher’s “Harry Dresden”: openly a wizard, but most people have never heard of him and nobody believes this is real. Urban fantasy.
Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor”: openly a freelance exorcist, and the existence of ghosts and demons became undeniable by the general public at some point about the year 2000 – no one’s quite sure when, but Parliament has started debating what to do about zombies. Municipal.
Seanan McGuire’s “October ‘Toby’ Daye”: she’s a private investigator who’s magically transformed into a koi and abandoned in a pond for 17 years (not a spoiler; it happens in the prologue to the first novel). When she’s rescued, her life is ruined, because even when she goes back to her husband and daughter, she can’t tell them that there’s any such thing as magic. Urban.
Ben Aaronovich’s “Rivers of London” and Paul Cornell’s “Shadow Police” are both about the branches of British law enforcement that deal with magical things, and in both cases there’s a substantial bureaucracy, but in both cases it’s secret to the general public. Same in Harry Potter with the secret Ministry of Magic, and the hidden departments in Mur Lafferty’s “Shambling Guides”. All urban.
Charlene Harris’s True Blood novels: vampires have “come out of the coffin”, and now there’s arguments over their legal rights. Municipal.
Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge: elves are driving race cars and rescuing abused children, but elvishness is secret. Urban.
Holly Lisle’s “Devil’s Point” books, where God announces publicly that demons will be allowed to take physical form within the borders of North Carolina, and land surveyors use this to settle disputes about where precisely the borders of North Carolina are (if the demon takes three steps to the left, it is forcibly discorporated; therefore, the border is two steps to the left), and even if individual demons try to pass as human, that demons exist is now a known and publicly accepted fact. Municipal.
And then there’s Ilona Andrews’ “Kate Daniels” series, and Wen Spencer’s “Tinker”, and Andrew Swann’s “Dragons of the Cuyahoga”, and Geoff Landis’s short “Elemental”, and the Shadowrun RPG and associated novels…. all municipal.
A particularly intriguing phenomenon happens when a series starts as urban fantasy, and then transitions into municipal. This happens in Jim Hines’ “Magic Ex Libris” , for instance – in the first book, “Libriomancer”, magic is a tightly-kept secret and the general public has no idea, but by the time they hit book 4, “Revisionary”, they’ve blown the masquerade to bits and have to deal with the consequences that they can no longer hide. This is also what happens in Charlie Stross’s “Laundry” novels: as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN progresses, and the stars are right, eventually, the incidents become too big and too involved, and there are too many witnesses… and too much stuff gets uploaded to the internet. And you can’t mindwipe everyone who has access to Twitter and Youtube. Carrie Vaughan’s “Kitty Norville” series begins with Kitty revealing magic to the world.
What all these works I’ve cited thus far have in common is that they’re municipal fantasy of the first type: set in our world (or what was, until recently, our world), with magic. The second type is, as I’ve already mentioned, a world where magic has been around from the very beginning – and yet, people haven’t let it stop them from developing technology. There’s been actual progress. Max Gladstone’s magnificent “Craft” sequence (a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Series) is an excellent example of this type of municipal fantasy, one of the strongest I’ve found: magic corporations and contracts and loans, and urban planning that takes into account the presence of gods, and a police force that uses golems, and water purification plants powered by deals with otherworldly entities and a global economic system based on souls and commodified worship. Or Robin McKinley’s “Sunshine”, about a world several years after the “Voodoo Wars”, but there’s still TV and motorcycles and the Internet and license plates and blood tests to detect if someone is magical and electric fences and vampires and shapeshifters and the fact that nobody’s yet figured out a proper ward to keep mice out of your house.
This does raise the question, though, of what counts as “equivalent to our modern society”? What about Felix Gilman’s Ararat, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag, Graydon Saunders’s Commonweal, Poul Anderson’s “Operation Chaos”, Randall Garrett’s “Lord Darcy”, Dave van Domelen’s “Academy of Superheroes”? What do we need for a setting to be recognizably modern? Bureaucracy? Mass production? Labor unions? Printing? Telecommunications? Evidence-based medicine? Peer-reviewed journals? Fiat currency? Representative government? Do any of Steven Brust’s “Dragaera” novels fit the description? What about Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld”? Melissa Scott’s “Five Twelfths of Heaven”? Alter S. Reiss’s “Recalled to Service”? The term “gaslamp fantasy” has been used to describe mid-to-late-19th-century-equivalent societies with magic (certainly Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell” would be better described as “gaslamp” than “municipal”, for one… although it rather antedates the gaslamp era!); where does ‘gaslamp” end and “municipal” begin? And what counts as “magic”, anyway? And how much detail do you need?
All these are questions for other essays, and perhaps other essayists. Which works of municipal fantasy do you think I’ve omitted?
* at this point, you might say “well, wait, that’s not always the case, I can think of works of urban fantasy where that definition doesn’t apply”; that’s the whole point of this essay. I’m arguing that although such works may have been called ‘urban fantasy’, they should not be.
** yes, I’m aware that ‘revolutionizing mathematics’ was not at all what Saccheri had intended, that he was horrified by his results, that he denied them, and that consequently they went largely ignored for another 150 years. That’s not the point.