Most of my fiction reading at the moment is done while rocking SteelyKid to sleep at night, using a Palm as an e-book reader. This does not really lend itself to the reading of weighty Literary Novels, but rather lightweight genre trash. Which means I’ve been reading a bunch of “urban fantasy,” because that is the default mode of trashy genre fiction at the moment.
I’m kind of souring on the (sub)genre at the moment, though. I’ve read a bunch of Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson novels, whose “My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend” interludes are really beginning to grate. I barely made it through the first of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, because I didn’t care for the narrative voice. And while Kat Richardson’s Greywalker books have thus far avoided either of those traps, but the most recent spent so much time describing specific details about London that I began to wonder if she had started writing travel guidebooks on the side.
One thing to come out of this binge, though, is the realization that a major subset of these books are not telling the story I really want to see. This is because they have failed to think through the implications of their premise.
Both the Patricia Briggs and the Charlaine Harris series feature versions of our world in which magical beings have “come out,” revealing their existence to the world at large. In Harris’s books, it’s the vampires who have gone public, while in the Briggs book, it’s the fae– elves and the like– and the werewolves.
In both cases the outing of the magical creatures serves primarily as a vehicle for parables about various forms of prejudice. I find this kind of unsatisfying, though, because it leaves unanswered questions that seem to me to be a whole lot more interesting.
If magical creatures exist, and live through magical means, that means there’s a whole huge swath of natural law that has somehow gone undiscovered– there’s magical physics and magical biology at work in letting these creatures do what they do, and yet half a millennium or more of careful scientific investigation has failed to turn up any sign of the principles that govern these phenomena.
And yet, the creatures in question seem to be very strictly bound by certain rules. They have carefully delineated strengths and weaknesses, and their powers operate the same way every time. These are phenomena that seem like they would be eminently testable by the scientific method, and the instant the magical creatures went public, armies of scientists would be swarming all over them, trying to figure out what makes them tick.
There’s a slight hint of this in both series– the Harris books include mentions of synthetic blood made and marketed for vampires, and the first Briggs book involves silver as a drug delivery system for incapacitating werewolves. Neither does very much with these ideas, though.
Probably because I’m a scientist, this sort of thing strikes me as much more interesting than most of the stories they’re actually telling. I’d like to know more about what makes these creatures tick. More than that, though, I’d like to know what new things would be invented from a serious scientific investigation of these phenomena.
In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, there’s a running joke about old and young wizards. The old wizards are very keen on image and tradition– Unseen University, we learn, has a whole staff tasked with ensuring that the candles are properly dribbly. The young wizards, on the other hand, exemplified by Ponder Stibbons of the High Energy Magic department, are all about results, even if their projects look less impressive. This shows up in things like the “Rite of AshkEnte,” which involves lots of impressive paraphernalia in the traditional form, but can actually be performed “by a couple of people with three small sticks and 4 cc of mouse blood or even with a fresh egg and two small sticks.”
In reading a lot of the new urban fantasy, I find myself wanting the Ponder Stibbons story– I want to see what this world looks like from the perspective of the nerdy guy who disdains tradition, and sits down to figure out the exact amount of mouse blood required to summon Death for a conversation. I want to see the new gadgets developed from an investigation of the physical principles that allow a hundred-odd pound woman to transform into a twenty-pound coyote– and I have to believe that there would be physicists racing to be the first to figure out how all this relates to quantum gravity, or even regular gravity.
That’s one of the things that lets the later Pratchett books transcend the parodic origins of Discworld. Starting with the guards series, he seems to have decided to put his world through a sort of magic-based Renaissance (if not an Industrial Revolution), using the logical consequences of the slightly daft magic of the Disc to transform the society of Ankh-Morpork from a spoof of a fantasy city into something much cooler. It’s kept the setting from getting stale, even though he’s written more than three dozen novels in it.
So, that’s what’s really behind a lot of my dissatisfaction with the new urban fantasy. Not all of it falls into that trap, of course– the magic in Richardson’s greywalker books is weird enough and rare enough that it’s easy to believe nobody has noticed. Other authors, like Jim Butcher in the Harry Dresden series, or Kate Griffin in the new (and really fun) A Madness of Angels get through on other strengths– first-person smartass narration in Butcher’s case, and the utter coolness of Griffin’s magical London (see Kate’s write-up for some sample passages).
In the end, though, what I’d really like to read would be the story of the Ponder Stibbons equivalent for one of these settings. Given that this concept would probably sell about six copies, I don’t expect to see it any time soon, but you never know.