Urban fantasy(was Charles DeLint (OT))

Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk
Wed Apr 4 11:15:39 EDT 2001

I'll try and tie several messages in this thread together.

Ania, quoting me:

>> To me, "urban fantasy" means that the fantasy world system (there's
>> probably a term for this, but I don't know it) depends on the city.
>> Like, say, Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber.  There's another
>> example I'm thinking of, but I can't remember author or title.  Suffice
>> it to say that New York City mapped onto the fantasy world, and the
>> fantasy world was under threat from development projects in NYC.
> This made me think of a book called Downtown, by someone whose name I
> can't remember. It was brilliant, though. Two successive copies of it
> have gone walkabouts so far... Maybe I'll get another one in a charity
> shop again. But I digress. It was an urban fantasy, with a subterranean
> "otherworld", set in NY, and there was some threat from developers,
> possibly to Central Park. The tube (or rather, subway) train was like a
> black metal monster, I recall.

This sounds just like the book I was thinking of!  I don't remember the train,
but there was a taxi that kept metamorphosing depending on the period of the
various period settings in the fantasy world.  Does this tally with your memory?

> When I saw Neverwhere, it reminded me v. much of Downtown. Anyone else
> read it?

Sorry, never heard of Neverwhere.  What is it - TV?  Film?  Something else?


> When I was in grade school, I wanted a term to describe stories where
> everyday people from our world fall down the rabbit hole, have
> strangers hand them Symbols, or otherwise find them working in an
> extraordinary world, either a different world or a hidden one under
> our own. I never found a really satisfactory term, but "real-life
> fantasy" was my own shorthand for Penelope Farmer, Jones, Mahy, etc.
> In asking around if others had a term for this slice of the fantasy
> world, "urban fantasy" was one of the options that came up, along
> with "contemporary fantasy." Neither really satisfies me, because for
> me the thing I love is when the ordinary bumps into the extraordinary.

My brother calls this "low fantasy" - in which fantastical adventures befall
ordinary people in ordinary situations - by contrast to "high fantasy" - in
which you have a fantasy world, and usually have to do something towards saving
it :-)  The boundary is of course fluid, and DWJ crosses it so well in A Sudden
Wild Magic and things.

I like to extend this distinction to historical fiction - "high history" follows
great historical events and great historical characters, while "low history"
looks at the lives of ordinary people in an historical setting.  Generally, I
much prefer low history - Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, Norah Lofts.
Hence, I suppose, why "The Prince and the Pingrim" is my favourite of Mary
Stewart's Arthurian books...


> This reminded me of a really cool YA-type book called DOWNSIDERS by Neal
> Shusterman.  It's about a civilization that has developed under the streets of
> New York, in old subway stations and tunnels and sewers.  I read it by chance
> right after NEVERWHERE and recently read it aloud to my sixth grade class.
> not similar to Gaiman's,  just also set in the underground.  Your description
> DOWNTOWN sounds awfully like the plot of DOWNSIDERS, but DOWNSIDERS has no
> fantasy elements whatsoever, and I don't consider it urban fan.  It has a
> romance stringing through it, though.

Ah yes.  Neverwhere again.  Someone enlighten me, please!

Never come aross "Downsiders" either but Sarah's description reminds me of a
book I just read, "Song of Orpheus" by Barbara Hambly.  This is a novelisation
of part of (presumably) a TV series called "Beauty and the Beast".  (No
fairytale tie-in, BTW - the heroine is good looking, the hero is a mutant.)
This is also set in NYC, and also presumes the existance of an intricate
subterranean world - natural caves, disused rail tunnels, water mains and
drains, etc. - and is about the interactions between the people living below and
those above.  All very simple, but quite enjoyable.  And also, no fantasy, just
a little romance.

And finally, Jacob:

> Sorry, that's not my definition of Urban Fantasy at all.  Urban is the
> setting, Fantasy is the elements that contrast to the setting.  Urban

OK, but see below...

> Fantasy is elves living in a homeless shelter or the Oak King opening an art
> gallery.  It is flights of fancy set in a technologized world.  It has

No.  I can accept "urban fantasy" = fantasy in urban setting, although I don't
like it.

I emphatically _do not_ accept the idea, which to me is totally confused, that
"urban fantasy" = fantasy in a technological setting.  Technology does not imply
urban, or vice versa.

For example, "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" by Michael Swanwick.  A whole fantasy
world with a technology and culture not too far removed in sophistication from
our world, and if anything more advanced [1].  But urban?  I don't think any
part of that book takes place in a city!  (A factory.  A shopping mall.  A
school.  A university.  Any of which might be in a city, but iirc none of which
is even stated to be in a city; nor does the book use the city setting at all)

On the other side, Tanith Lee has done one or two fantasies in urban settings
("Faces Under Water" is one.  "Reigning Cats and Dogs"?  Not sure) but
pre-industrial.  Are they urban fantasies or not?  I would say that by your
definition they ought to be.

Closer to home, is Fire and Hemlock "urban fantasy"?  For that matter, is
Hexwood?  Time City is, even almost by my definition, though...

> nothing to do with anthropomophing the city itself.  At least in my
> definition.

Hang on!  I didn't say or imply anything about anthropomorphising the city!  The
city doesn't have to have any character in the anthropomorphic sense (of course
all cities have character in a broader sense).  I merely said that "urban
fantasy" to me means not just that it is set in a city, but that for the fantasy
to work, it has to be.

To look at it another way, why distinguish a work of fantasy on the basis that
it merely happens to be set in a city?

I'd be happy to distinguish it on the basis of "familiar setting" - what I call
"contemporary fantasy", using "contemporary" to mean more than just "of our
time", more like "of our world".  But this applies equally to an urban setting
(say, Eight Days of Luke) and to a rural one (say, Time of the Ghost).

So if I use "urban" to describe a fantasy, it's more than "happens to be in a
city" - and I don't like people to misuse "urban" to mean "modern", either...


[1] In a discussion on this list some time ago, someone put this forward as an
example of a book that crossed the boundaries between fantasy and SF.  I can see
why, but I actually disagree.  If anything in the setting is more advanced than
the corresponding feature of our own society (AI in control of motorbike, for
example) this is achieved by magical (fantastical) means rather than scientific.
IMO.  So I see it as pure fantasy.

This message and any attachments are confidential and should only be
read by those to whom they are addressed.  If you are not the intended
recipient, please contact us, delete the message from your computer
and destroy any copies.  Any distribution or copying without our prior
permission is prohibited.

Internet communications are not always secure and therefore the
Powergen Group does not accept legal responsibility for this message.
The recipient is responsible for verifying its authenticity before
acting on the contents.  Any views or opinions presented are solely
those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the 
Powergen Group.

Power Technology:
Telephone	+44 (0) 115 936 2000
Fax		+44 (0) 115 936 2711
E-mail          techinfo at powertech.co.uk
www		http://www.powertech.co.uk

Powergen UK plc Registered Office: 53 New Broad Street London EC2M 1SL
Registered in England and Wales No: 2366970
To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at suberic.net with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at http://suberic.net/dwj/list/

More information about the Dwj mailing list