The latest installment in my “The Space-Time Continuum” column on science fiction and fantasy that appears in Freelance, the newsletter of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild; inspired, as you will see, by a panel I attended at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto.
There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of fantasy tales.
There is the kind where both the setting and the characters ar fantastical: that is, the world is a fully-imagined fantasy world and the characters belong to that world (The Lord of the Rings). Second, there is the kind where a character or characters from our world find themselves in a fantasy world (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). And third, there is the kind where a character from a fantastic world or fantastical elements such as monsters and magic infiltrate our reality (Buffy the Vampire Slayer–hey, not every example has to be a classic literary work).
Recently, the latter form of fantasy, in the form of what is generally called “urban fantasy,” has been ascendant, and even the full-immersion fantasy tales, like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, are seasoned with grittier bits of realism than were once the case.
As I write this, I’m attending the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where 750 writers, editors and readers of the fantastic have gathered to discuss this year’s theme, “Northern Gothic and Urban Fantasy.”
One panel, entitled “Reality Made Fantastic, or Fantasy Made Real,” asked the question, “Is it more difficult to integrate fantastic characters into our world, or send ‘real’ characters into a world of fantasy?”
Attempting to answer the question were Judy and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who have worked primarily in television in recent years, Patrick Neilsen Hayden, editor of Tor Books, and Kat Richardson, author of numerous urban fantasies.
What I took from the panel is that urban fantasy offers what you might call (my metaphor, not the panelists) a magical portal into the world of fantasy for people who perhaps who find it difficult to enjoy a full-immersion fantasy.
Garfield Reeve-Stevens recounted how, as he and his wife approached producers about bringing Andre Norton’s Witchworld series to the screen, that they found some would go blank at the idea of a TV series set in a completely fantastical world, but perk up at the idea of a series based characters from Witchworld entering our reality.
Admittedly, that’s partly because stories set in fantastical worlds (a la Game of Thrones) are horrendously expensive, but it’s also, Reeve-Stevens said, because many of those producers simply didn’t have the “imagination overhead” possessed by those of us who have immersed ourselves for years in tales of the fantastic.
As Hayden put it, those who have read fantasy since they were children have “big bookshelves” in their mind on which to place, for reference as required, the extensive exposition authors need to explain their fantasy world, without losing interest in the story.
Good authors, he added, help their readers adapt to the fantastic by carefully timing their revelations about the nature of their world (J.K. Rowling is particularly adept at that) so that too much strangeness doesn’t hit the reader all at once, before the characters have (Kat Richardson’s term) “weight,” that is, a feeling of solidity and reality, of being people we know and care about.
Readers of urban fantasies don’t need as big a set of mental bookshelves–as much “imagination overhead”–because much of the story world is recognizably ours. “I put new clothes on thing that actually exist,” Richardson says. “That helps readers take in that reality.”
In these kinds of fantasies, readers are also helped by the fact that the characters, just as we would, question the fantastical elements as they arise, trying to find rational explanations, and relate them to popular culture–for instance Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which involves a secret college for magicians, all of the characters have read Harry Potter.
Urban fantasy, then, bridges the divide between those who like “real stuff” and those who like “made-up stuff,” introducing the former to the latter.
And that, for those of us who are writers of the fantastic, is a good thing. “The marvellous thing about our genre,” says Kat Richardson, “is that it encourages people to have open minds about anything that’s new and strange, and think of the implications.”
In a world in which the “new and strange” comes fast and furious (though admittedly not usually in the form of werewolves in the alley) that’s a marvellous thing indeed.