LonCon3 #7: The Changing Face of the Urban Fantastic

Panellists: Paul Cornell, Robin Hobb, Freda Warrington, Liz Bourke, Sophia McDougall

Urban fantasy is a broad church. To some, it’s the genre of “Wizard of the Pigeons” and “War for the Oaks“; to others, it means Sam Vimes patrolling the streets of Ankh Morpork, or Locke Lamora conning his way through Camorr. Most recently, it has become synonymous with werewolves, vampires and hot detectives. What holds together the urban fantastic? Are different strands of the genre in conversation with each other? And how important is the influence of the stuctures and tone of other genres like crime fiction?

Urban fantasy (UF) represents widespread concern about society crumbling. Cities are where we go to feel safe, but they’re also places of fear and wonder. You can come across places you’ve never been to before and will never find again. It’s filled with endless nooks and crannies that no one knows about. The city is a character – it lends a particular atmosphere and landscape which can be reflected in its human characters and the challenges they face. Much of the sub genre is based in New York City and London partly because readers like coming across places they’ve heard of or visited, but diversity is welcome. No one wants to read about the same places all the time.

Women fighting things thrown at them in a city, written in first person, is what UF basically boils down to, which is metaphorical for what happens in real life. Buffy‘s Sunnydale was a small town to begin with but it suddenly morphed into a city with a university in the third season.

Monstrous humans are juxtaposed with monstrous – or not so monstrous – monsters. Lately we’ve made our monsters fluffy and safe, but there’s another strand of rape and other disturbing evil deeds. Our recent fluffy monster heroes are the stand-ins for the human bad boy, however Edward drives a volvo so he’s hardly a bad boy.

Zombies are killable people. They allow us to kill guilt-free and there’s no stigma attached to being a serial zombie killer. Vampires are the sexier version of dead people and are usually depicted as self-aware whereas zombies are not. Vampirism is synonymous with capitalism and political power in Anno Dracula, a highly recommended read, Cornell says.

Urban fantasy frequently steals from other genres – crime, mystery, thriller, etc. Although when it steals a great deal from romance it then becomes paranormal romance (PNR). Although it has been suggested that there’s a middle ground between UF and PNR – urban fantasy romance – especially these last few years.

Someone suggested that William Blake was the first UF writer, although Anne Rice is known for being the first.

Paul Cornell says he writes ‘Neverwhere with more punching’ and that ‘urban fantasy’ sounds dirty. I feel a bit guilty for 1-starring one of his books and misinterpreting it as a fan work because he was such a lively, informed and the most well prepared panellist.

*There was a really loud thunderstorm in the background so I didn’t catch everything that was said.

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