The Problem With Urban Fantasy: I Want The Ponder Stibbons Story

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.

More like this

Yes! Yes! I'm right with you on this.

And not just magick, but also something we are told is true -- religion.

Scads of claims are made about religious practice and theory, effects of prayer, interaction with the divine, but I want to see the premises examined and tested. As somewhat of a believer, I'm not being sarcastic about this, I really want to know.

This gets me funny looks at church, I am sad to report.


By Noni Mausa (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'd read that. I'm willing to bet most of your readers would. So I guess that means you've got about 6 readers. :/

I'd totally read that, and I'm actually writing one now, but I'm both not a very good writer and unwilling to embarrass myself by publishing crap, so it will probably languish in a drawer forever...must see if I can come up with a good list of writers who are the Hal Clements of fantasy...

You could argue Stephenson's Snow Crash has a bit of that, with all the discussion of Sumer and meme theory.


I do think that one angle that could be taken to explain how an entire set of physical laws could be overlooked is scientific inertia. Certain ideas are so thoroughly embedded in the current scientific worldview that the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" hurdle is too high for any evidence to leap. The "real world" example I can think of at the moment is the idea in physics that vacuum could be logically considered a kind of matter (which flies in the face of the discrediting of conventional old theories involving the so-called ether.)

And suddenly I have decided I no longer make sense.


"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"

Sounds a bit like Charles Stross.

By AcademicLurker (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

"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."

Well, me too. That's why progress has been slow in trying to complete my Urban Fantasy novel "Axiomatic Magic" and the 129,000 words of short fiction related to it which I completed this year.

Want to be a wizard? Although I loved the Harry Potter books, my education was NOT at a castle in Scotland. Hence I write about the California Institute of Thaumaturgy, where you must pass Astronomy before you take Astrology, pass Chemistry before you take Alchemy, and the like. It turns out to be very important that Composition of Spells is a Group structure.

Feynman is the Sherlock Holmes character (or, in one novelette, Norbert Wiener), trying to solve the magical murder on campus, and the viewpoint character, his side-kick, is modeled on Dobie Gillis, but whith Mathematical Physics skills.

I'll get back to you when some of the short fiction sells, and the novel-length work has thus passed peer review and can make for a good book proposal, with P&L statement.

pTerry's been fairly explicit in his interviews and other writings that several of the themes of the early Discworld books were not sustainable in a continuing series. Hence he deliberatley changed/evolved them.

Perhaps the best known of these evolutions, strongly hinted at in the series itself, is the transformation of the wizards from a fairly nasty bunch with a literal interpretation of filling dead men's pointy shoes to the current UU (and Brazeneck, etc) Oxbridgian ivory towers. The Night Watch (now the City Watch) has, of course, been transformedâpTerry has said he originally wanted to just to turn fantasy tradition on its head and make the Watch the heroes for once, instead of cardboard cutouts killed by the dozens by each Hero. The trolls have always been more human-tolerant than the fantasy norm, apparently an idea he had when quite young: He once wrote he'd imaged what a troll society(? world?), might be likeâalbeit the only detail I can now recall are the troll ducks, which if I'm recalling correctly, walked along the bottom of the pond, being too heavy to floatâ¦

Have you read Mike Carey's Felix Castor books?

Carey definitely takes the rationalist approach to the supernatural that you suggest here. The protagonist isn't the nerdy person measuring mouse blood, but he used to work for her. Moreover, Carey seems to have put a lot of thought into the worldbuilding consequences of the appearance of supernatural stuff in the world, not just scientifically, but also legally, socially, and theologically.

They're also well-written, which is not always a given in this genre.

You are so right about the Pratchett books. For example, in one of the Discworld books (a Tiffany Aching one maybe?), a character transforms into something else that is much smaller, and all the leftover bits remain as a separate blob of living flesh until the person can change back. And another example, in Wyrd Sisters, is the way Pratchett took into account the overall effects of the whole Disc being magically sent fifteen years into the future when the three witches of Lancre made a time spell.

Ponder Stibbons is the best character evolution ever in fantasy. He started as a student who got lucky in Moving Pictures, just a plot device and only a little one at that, and has become more and more complex and less and less comical to the point where he is now running the Unseen University in all but name and actually knows what that means in practical terms.

I wish there were more writers who thought like Pratchett.

One book you might want to try is Butcher's Furies of Calderon. It's the first in his Alera series. The hero is born without magic and has learned to compensate and rely on his wits. Needless to say, he figures out new ways to use magic even as he investigates its origins in their society. It's fun, if only for his clever solutions.

I've often been disappointed for the same reasons as you. I kept expecting Willow, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to write a computer program to try out millions of variations as part of a computer driven spell search. (We already have spell checkers.) Surely a witch and a computer hacker of her capabilities could have done something like this, and they even set things up with that scanning a spell invokes it episode in the first season. Sigh.

There's a lot of truth to the old saying, "Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology." I think one of the Drs. Who said it.

I can think of some books from a decade or two back that might work for you. There's the So You Want to Be a Wizard YA series, which has some really fun pseudophysics. Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night has a nice vampire virus. Of course, the reigning champ of vampires + science is probably Peter Watts, but he's not urban fantasy by any means...

I'd suggest A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, but I'm sure you've read it many years ago.

My kids and I spend lots and lots of time discussing the "real" implications of fantasy authors' choices. They've emailed authors about details I'm sure the author never thought about (Philip Pullman gets high marks in our book because he always answers). So we'd totally read logical fantasy books. My aspie kid has pretty much given up on all fantasy except Pratchett because he finds the illogic so irritating.
We enjoyed Naomi Novik's Horatio Hornblower with dragons books (can't think of the series name).

On a side tangent, I am amused at how thoroughly "urban fantasy" has come to mean "first-person present-day our world with supernatural creatures," as the Sookie Stackhouse books are very explicitly and emphatically _rural_ in setting.

I'd second the Stross recommendation - the "Laundry" books* are possibly a bit darker in tone than what you're ideally after, but the hero is a computer specialist in a (UK) government department that exists to apply technology to magic (he even has a palmpilot app for performing exorcisms). The books provide a combination of computing-geek-jokes, Lovecraft jokes, and spy-trope jokes, along with decent characters and plotting....

*"The Atrocity Archives" and "Jennifer Morgue", with "The Fuller Memorandum" due out this year. There are also a couple of short stories up on the website, if you want to try-before-you-buy, although those may contain spoilers (I don't remember).

Aside to Suze@8: I wish there were more writers who thought. Ones who think like pTerry are a bonus, but there are so many whose books fall apart at the first analysis....

Have you read Steven Gould, who wrote Jumper and some others? He's got a bit of that -- character finds he has a cool magic skill, and then starts experimenting a bit to figure out its limitations. The kid isn't a scientist, but he has a few good instincts.

It's not much like the movie.

Ryk Spoor (aka "Seawasp" from Usenet) has a bunch of that in Digital Knight. Much fun stuff ensues as the detective tries to, e.g., come up with a camera that detects werewolves...

I'd also read that, and I've been trying off and on to write that.

In re pTerry, on the one side he's been very good about the physics of what happens after a spell goes off. I call it the Endor Moon effect; we may not have any idea what kept Death Star II in orbit, but we can calculate in detail what happens when all that metal falls down. (Do a search for "Endor holocaust.")

On the flip side, there was a running gag especially in the Rincewind stories where Rincewind dreams of a world with sensible physics. He is intrigued by such things as Twoflower's camera -- until he finds to his disappointment that the thing works by magic just like everything else.

Actually, there was a similar spin in James Hogan's "Entoverse"; the physics of the Entoverse seem designed to frustrate their versions of Newton and Archimedes (the trivial early experiments we did on Earth, are nearly impossible there.)

(Makes me intrigued for just a moment to see a story about the history of science in a nano-scale environment, where planes and levers don't show up until much, much later; as the rock-and-sticks level physics is dominated by Van der Waals and so forth instead of gravity et al.)

I've always enjoyed "people figuring stuff out" stories, from Ringworld to the old Venus Equilateral stories. One of the very few that leap into mind at the moment about treating the supernatural as, well, nature we haven't worked out the details on, is the web-published "Pantheocide" series.

However, this is more of a background detail; the series is mostly the same sort of demonstration Buffy gave to a demon called The Judge (who boasted "no weapon forged" could destroy him). That was then, this is now, and there is a lot more potential energy than any sword or axe in the warhead of an anti-tank weapon!

One of the many things that is killing me right now in planning my own novel is if the different laws that make "magic" work were there all along, and nobody had spotted them before, or if the same process that brings the magical creatures into the modern world also changes the rules. Each time I try to work out how the thing actually works -- even on just a rules-based behavior -- I hit a wall.

Drat. And I completely forgot Rick Cook's "The Wiz Biz." Magic in that universe is extremely sensitive to small variations; so much that for all practical purposes only long-tested spells are ever used, and those only after long hard study and practice, and innovation is essentially nil.

Wiz Zumwelt, a programmer from our world, realizes that he can do useful work with only one or two simple spells, if he can just do a lot of them. His first experiment, and the key one the books are based on, is if you can cast a spell that can itself cast a spell. Once he's managed to work his way up to casting a macro that invokes a command-line editor, he's on his way to writing an entire magical operating system.

The stories are, however, very little about exploring the potentials and limitations of magic, and really more about computing humor. But they are great at that! (I'm no programmer, but when they find a small red dragon curled up on top of the notebook where Wiz has been developing his magical compiler.....!)

You might -- I stress might -- like the fanfiction "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality".

The writing quality varies, the plot is perhaps overly convoluted and highly idiosyncratic, and it's long -- he's got 72 chapters in, and it's still only Harry's first year!

But you can't beat the price. Fans of the work have converted the (current) whole thing into epub, mobi, and pdf formats.

It has this in the second chapter:

Harry hesitated. He couldn't help himself. Actually, under the circumstances, he shouldn't be helping himself. It was right and proper to be curious. "What else can you do?"Professor McGonagall turned into a cat.Harry scrambled back unthinkingly, backpedaling so fast that he tripped over a stray stack of books and landed hard on his bottom with a thwack. His hands came down to catch himself without quite reaching properly, and there was a warning twinge in his shoulder as the weight came down unbraced.At once the small tabby cat morphed back up into a robed woman. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said, sounding sincere, though her lips were twitching toward a smile. "I should have warned you."Harry was breathing in short pants. His voice came out choked. "You can't DO that!""It's only a Transfiguration," said McGonagall. "An Animagus transformation, to be exact.""You turned into a cat! A SMALL cat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That's not just an arbitrary rule, it's implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signaling! And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can't just visualize a whole cat's anatomy and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?"McGonagall's lips were twitching harder now. "Magic.""Magic isn't enough to do that! You'd have to be a god!"McGonagall blinked. "That's the first time I've ever been called that."

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 30 Jun 2011 #permalink

@Owlmirror: Wow! I may have to check that out.

And I have to second earlier recommendations for Charles Stross' work: the Atrocity Archive was one of the best novels of its type that I've ever read.

By don Roberto (not verified) on 01 Jul 2011 #permalink

I am amused at how thoroughly "urban fantasy" has come to mean "first-person present-day our world with supernatural creatures,"

It's also oddly different from the usual pop-culture terminology in which "urban" means "intended for/produced by African-Americans"; I'm not well-read in the genre but I get the impression urban fantasy is rather white.

I feel like you're doing that thing that English teachers do, only differently -- you're overanalyzing the books until they're not fun anymore. If you think too hard about fantasy -- dude, it's *fantasy*, you're not supposed to think too hard about it -- you'll screw up your experience. Dresden made perfect sense to me, because I suspended some disbelief. I'm guessing the other books in your series will make the cut.

I also slightly resent Dresden being lumped into "trashy genre fiction" :P It's urban fantasy also...

You might try books by Ilona Andrews. In her Kate Daniels series, magic returns to a world bereft of it (set sometime in the next few years), causing repercussions that change, well, everything. Go grab a copy of Magic Bites and you'll see what I mean!