On Urban Fantasy

(This is probably the quickest update to this blog in, like, ever, man. It’s not going to be a habit…)


I’ve been recently reading, whenever I needed to read something that felt less taxing than, say, Teju Cole’s boring Open City, one of the many, many urban fantasy novels that have appeared over the last two decades or so. I guess that much of it started with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (it’s almost always series): books in which a Chicago private investigator-slash-wizard named Harry Dresden solves the problems left in their wake by various supernatural forces, all of which are arrayed as something like a substratum of our “real” reality, an entire alternative society of various kinds of vampires and fairies, assorted monsters, wizards, obviously, and other kinds of magical and supernatural beings.

There’s numerous such series out there, and I’ve read only a few of them: Ben Aaronvitch’s PC Peter Grant series, in which a magically-abled London police constable discovers the unreality of his own city; Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles (and Hell); Charles Stross’s Lovecraft-inflected Laundry Files, about a supersecret British supernatural spy agency defending Britain from the apocalypse that lurks just around the corner; and Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series, in which a less magically-enabled London police unit finds itself faced with the unreality of their own London (it’s very frequently London!). And we might also include David Wong’s trilogy of novels, starting with John Dies at the End, here, even though it’s less centered on an urban agglomeration.

severedstreetsThere are echoes here of China Miéville’s Kraken, Neil Gaiman’s late-90s novel Neverwhere, of course, and no doubt also echoes of other, older fictions, such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which, after all, can be reached by stepping through a pretty mundane wardrobe. Yet, for the purposes of this post, which after all aren’t wholly scholarly, I’m going to suggest two things: first, that this has become a more commonplace motive than the mere proliferation of any kind of fantasy would suggest. That is to say, we might be inclined to say that given the increase in the volume of fantasy writing since Lewis, or indeed Gaiman, this might just be a reasonably simply expansion of the subset of fantasy that is concerned with urban magic, but that’s not what I think is happening. And second, it’s a shift in the focus of fantasy that is symptomatic: it bespeaks something about our relationship to the world, it suggests a broader desire to identify things beyond, beneath, besides mundane reality, not as a (negatively connoted) means of escape, but rather as a symbolic resolution of the contradictions of the contemporary cultural moment.


I put this here because this isn’t a very well argued point yet, but one which I stumble over every time I read one of those books. But it seems to me that there is a reasonable claim to be made here for a symptomatic reading of urban fantasy. In such a reading, we might see the central trope at work in all of these novels, namely the existence of a largely hidden, non-mundane, magical, but also frequently threatening world very frequently described as “below” or “beneath” the surface reality of our (non-fictional) everyday lives as a means of working through and counteracting a generalized sense of a restricted space of action in the “real;” or, conversely (and this is one of the hitches I keep hitting), a means of expressing the limited scope of action in the real world through recourse to restrictions originating outside it, inaccessible to most of us, left to the manipulations of a (here, magical) elite. This “elite” status is not encoded here on a class basis, of course: David Wong’s slacker, dead-beat twentysomething heroes, who are able to see and actively work against the supernatural threats they encounter thanks to having imbibed a mysterious black substance they call the Soy Sauce, are pretty much par for the course here. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is perpetually strapped for cash; the policemen of Aaronovitch and Cornell’s series are just that, regularly employed police officers, and Charles Stross’s secret agents likewise are simply public servants themselves.

Each of these cases would probably warrant closer exploration as to its politics, and I’ll work through two examples very briefly here. In Charles Stross’s series, the initially somewhat uncomplicated way in which the security state is expanded to include a (unsupervised, non-democratically legitimized) agency charged with supernatural defenses, in which this supernatural security state is implicitly championed in its attempts to defend humanity, is later broken by the recognition that this apparatus itself has increasingly become autonomous of regulating forces, increasingly fights for its own survival more than that of its charges. The series’ recognition that the bureaucratic apparatus, no matter its ostensible public service, will easily mutate into an almost entirely self-serving entity without any kind of public, democratic supervision, also suggests that urban fantasy is ill-read as always a (negatively) escapist form of fantasy.

In Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police (spoilers ahead, skip the paragraph if you’d rather not know), we discover in volume three that an earlier supernatural police force of sorts, the Continuing Projects Team, failed five years earlier and was wiped out by the evil that is now encroaching upon London. The twist: the CPT consisted, and had consisted for some time, of five representatives of the upper echelons of British society: knighted architects, successful film producers, well-heeled barristers, a senior civil servant, the chaplain of King’s College. As one of the new team of cops—two of them black, one gay, one the daughter of a criminal—notes, this earlier group was amateurish: a nod, and a decidedly negative one, to the upper class genteel amateurism beloved of much British genre fiction, at least. What’s important here, I think, is the way the representatives of the upper class fail to stop the encroaching danger, fail to uphold to already tenuous balance of the world, and end up replaced by a group recruited from a different social stratum, now tasked with picking up the pieces.

It’s not, obviously, that urban fantasy has recently replaced the more traditional sword-and-sorcery, neither broadly nor in the upper levels of recognition—it’s really only necessary to mention G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series—but rather that it’s an interesting bell weather of sorts, one which may permit us insights into the way, more generally, we see genre fiction work through the central issues of the contemporary moment. And this may bear more working on, or not—we’ll see. But with the zombie book done, maybe I’ve got some spare time?


Matt Ruff: Lovecraft Country

lovecraft countryMatt Ruff’s newest novel, Lovecraft Country, is a return to the form which I think he lost sometime after Sewer, Gas, Electric. Now, it’s bad form to begin a review by complaining about an author’s previous novels, but I found especially The Mirage a disappointing book. It’s a fantastic alternate history novel that ultimately declines its alterity in favor of assuming something fundamental, Platonic, about the nature of individual human beings—if you are a bad person in this reality, you will be a bad person in that alternative. I’ve written a bit about this in an essay, but I’m coming to Ruff’s newest novel as an unalloyed fan nevertheless, someone who thought Fool on the Hill was outstanding, and who adored the brilliance of Sewer, Gas, Electric…and could at least nod happily along with Bad Monkeys and Set this House in Order. So there.

Lovecraft Country is set in 1954, and follows a Black family—a son and his father, his uncle, aunt, and niece—through their encounters with a cult called the Sons of Adam. The central figure in all this is the son, whose name is something of a giveaway of the concerns that this novel has and the tradition into which it inscribes itself. Let’s say that there’re some character names that don’t immediately ring the bells of recognition and intertextual reference—“Joe,” say, or “John,” or “Paula” (which is not to say that you can’t make meaningful connections, only that you’d be more likely to let the name be just that name). Ruff’s protagonist is named “Atticus,” and—this just in, Harper Lee’s dead—that’s a name that clearly doesn’t just slip by, especially when the novel is also set in the fraught Jim Crow past. As the novel starts, Atticus, a mid-twenties veteran of the Korean War, is setting out to return to Chicago from Florida, following the receipt of a letter from his father, a somewhat unexpected event given the two men’s distant relationship. Arriving in Chicago after some hassles, Atticus discovers that his father, Montrose, has already left with a white man for New England, more specifically the town of Ardham, Massachusetts. Together with his uncle, George, and childhood friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find his father.

As it turns out, Atticus is the target of a cult called the Sons of Adam. The last descendant of the cult’s original founder, Titus Braithwaite, Atticus is necessary for the ritual which the cult plans: a return to the Garden of Eden. The ritual is sabotaged by Braithwaite’s son Caleb, and the family return to Chicago: not, however, to safety and normality, but rather to further machinations of Caleb’s, who aims to obtain control over all the chapters of the cult, everywhere in the United States.

I won’t give away the ending, nor many of the pulp-fictiony, very 1940s and 1950s magazine-taleish things that happen to Atticus and his family and friends in what is the larger part of Ruff’s narrative. Lovecraft Country’s indebtedness of Lovecraft lies partly in this, the joyful way it plays with the horror pulps. Lovecraft’s a household name to Atticus—an avid reader of science-fiction and fantasy novels—but Lovecraft Country is rather adamant that Lovecraft’s imagination isn’t “real”. It’s ArDham, not ArKham, MA, that Atticus needs to go to to find his father; it’s a “book of names” that Caleb Braithwaite needs retrieved, not a Necronomicon; and instead of Lovecraft’s sinister black cultists, it’s the police lieutenants and rich white men who gather to do the unspeakable deeds. What Lovecraft Country is interested in is not so much the “countries” of Lovecraft’s imagination, but the country Lovecraft inhabited. Lovecraft is invoked in the racism which Atticus et al. continually encounter. As Ryan Vlastelica of AV Club has noted, the novel has a very episodic feel to it, and it is within the vignettes, and the vignettes within vignettes of second-hand tales and memories, that we perceive the everyday horrors of living in Jim Crow America. George, for example, runs a travel agency that also publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists the few-and-far-between hostels, diners, gas stations, and so on which service black men; Laetitia struggles to move into a house she has bought in a white neighborhood, and is saved from arson only by the ghost which still haunts the house; and perhaps most devastatingly, there are many encounters with law enforcements officers which range from impolite disinterest to county sheriffs’ willingness simply to shoot black men and women in cold blood. Lovecraft Country’s horror, proper, isn’t really scary—a mid-book sequence with an animated puppet gave me a puppety creep, but that might just be me, and rather cleverly calls back to the kinds of horror which EC Comics, for example, put out in the 1950s—but that’s because it’s realist passages are plenty powerful. In Lovecraft Country, the supernatural horrors and the horrors of everyday racism vie with one another, but the latter always wins: the supernatural can be managed by invocations and knowledge, but racism remains unalterably powerful in the lives of the black characters in the novel.

Unalterably powerful—but if so, something to work against, work around, and ultimately defeat, by their own power. This is perhaps the significance of Atticus’s name. Atticus is an unease namesake of Atticus Finch: violence comes far more naturally to him (not just as a veteran), for one thing; but the replacement works. Harper Lee’s Alabama wasn’t exactly a haven, either, but while a few good men existed, it could be made to seem savable. Lovecraft Country throws its Atticus back on himself, and his family—there is no good lawyer to brave the racist storms in this novel. But without giving away in of the particulars of the novel, its epilogue, set in 1955, begins on a hopeful summation of what good things happened in 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, and the final desegregation of the armed services. The events of Lovecraft Country may be read behind the line “other victories, less heralded but no less vital” (367). The novel symbolically enacts a victory over structural racism and ideologies—and is a rattling good read.

Best Novel of 2013: Ken Kalfus’s Equilateral

http://fletcherco.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/equilateral.jpgI’ve been writing on this book for a while now for my second book project, and the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by it—which is why this post. I know this was once supposed to be a theory blog (and I’ll say something on Slajov Žižek’s three latest books, all 2014, sometime soonish), and this is more like a review again. But bear with me, two or three people who actually read this.

Let’s give you a brief recap and few data points, the data points first: Equilateral is a very economical 207 pages short and four main characters. It is set in 1894-5 in Egypt, where, under the supervision of astronomer Sanford Thayer, the so-called Mars Concession is excavating a humungous equilateral triangle. Thayer believes (as do many of his colleagues) that there is a civilization on Mars, as proven by the excavation of the so-called “canals,” which resists the planets growing desertification and, given their landscaping prowess, must be old and powerful. Thayer wants to gain their moral and technological insight to prevent Earth following in Mars’s footsteps; the Concession wants Mars’s technology and markets. Assisting Thayer are Miss Keaton, his assistant and the manager of the project; Ballard, the chief engineer; and the Egyptian servant girl Bint (not actually her name, as we learn later).

Kalfus’s novel is inspired by the controversy over Martian civilization following Giovanni Schiaparelli’s real-life “discovery” of canals, which led to a veritable Mars-craze in the late 19th century until it was discovered to be something of a collective hallucination: an initial failure of optics compounded by the willingness to see what was not there. But the novel is more than a mere creative retelling of this craze: it is a meditation on the imagination, on the possibility of utopia, on the failure and success of transnational communications, on imperialism and power, on seeing and believing, on hope and loss. This is what’s the most astounding achievement to me: the sheer economy with which Kalfus manages to cram so much into so little space and such sparse but eloquent language—and with nary any action at all. It would be unfair to say that nothing really happens in the novel (there’s a Mahdi raid on the construction site, and of course the excavation itself), but what’s important is not so much what happens, as what is being thought. Thayer sees Mars as the possible source for all kinds of utopian possibilities, most of which remain mere gestures, but about which to think forces him to reappraise his entire world-view: if initially he holds with the Spencerian conception of social evolution, by the end of the novel, the possibility that Mars has taken a different track: a track that, quite possibly, includes some form of socialist polity.

There’s a variety of fascinating vignettes that say much about the human condition in few words: there’s the scene where Thayer elaborates expansively on the metaphysical and historical qualities of the equilateral triangle, only for Ballard to tell him that it’s “bloody difficult to dig, though”; there’s this scene:

“Merrikh,” he says, indicating the planet [Mars] again, and then he points to the ground. “Earth.”

She says, “Masr.” Masr is the Arabic word for Egypt. She pronounces it with a Bedouin drawl.

He corrects her gently. “Earth.”

“Uurth, Masr. Masr, Urrth.” She smiles again, believing that she’s learned another word of English.

Perhaps if Thayer knew the Arabic name of our planet he would set her right. But he doesn’t know it and the thought occurs to him that a separate word for Earth, analogous to other planetary names, presumes an awareness that Earth, Mars, and Saturn are analogous entities, similar spheres similarly hurtling through the same celestial environment, an airless, matterless medium know as “space.” It also presumes an awareness that other political and national entities have been established on Earth, apart from Egypt. (57)

Which says much few words: about nations as constructs that may be impossible to translate even here on Earth (not to mention to Martians), about the difficulties of communications between well-meaning people.

It’s an almost perfect book down to its ending, which refuses (I think) to decide on its central question: whether or not the Martians really exist. We’re left with an ambivalent image that could be either Martians arriving or Bint giving birth, and the possibility that anything that Thayer hopes for for contact with Mars will come true (a true betterment of the human condition); or that it will not, and that everything that the 20th century has to offer, from World Wars to Cold Wars, will come to pass. Yet whatever will come to pass: Equilateral sets forth a sense of hope that there’s nothing inevitable about these events, and that by extension, we should question our own inevitable events, our own necessary futures.