What is urban fantasy?
A fantasy story set in a city.
A simple definition. With that, you could have a story of jinni and magi in late 19th century Istanbul, an occult detective solving supernatural crimes in 1920s New York, a half-elf mercenary working a corporate contract against a clan of dragons in the Hong Kong of 2121, and they would all fall under the rubric of urban fantasy. What they all have in common is that the interpretation of fantasy through the eyes of a modern-day city-dweller. A fantasy in which an urban lifestyle plays a significant role. It is a modern genre, a modern fantasy.
And in many cases, too modern.
What does your typical urban fantasy look like today? A strong, sexy woman surrounded by stronger and sexier males of various non-human but not-too-non-human species. Elves and dwarves and goblins and other fantasy creatures living in human cities designed to the human scale carrying out human jobs and obeying human cultural norms. Humans pursuing their ambitions and vices and occasional virtues, but with loads of magic. Monsters and demons out of myth and legend skulking the mean streets, and humans destroying them with magic, superior firepower, or both.
Many stories like these suffer the curse of modernity. They are fantasies without fantasy, described in more detail here. Stories written with a modern mindset for modern tastes are grounded not in cultural canons and cachets, but in contemporary ideologies and fashions. They are disconnected from the very culture that gave rise to the creatures and magic they borrow liberally from. Without being anchored in the source tradition, these stories are fleeting and ephemeral, transient things to be consumed and quickly forgotten.
Contrast this approach to the fantasy works of Studio Ghibli and Shinkai Makoto. Movies like Spirited Away, Weathering with You, Your Name and My Neighbor Totoro are rooted in Japanese cultural traditions, especially Shinto beliefs. Shintoism holds that the kami are everywhere, that the world of men and the world of kami are entwined, and good things come from living in harmony with the kami. Musubi, the creative principle permeating all life, binds all beings together. The kami themselves are strange, mysterious and wonderous, often wielding mighty and incomprehensible powers. While they can be interacted with, they are most certainly not human and must not be treated as such. With kami existing side-by-side with humans, Japanese culture places a great deal of importance to ritual purity, dividing the sacred and the profane, of binding and separating lives and fates.
Fantasy is the art of using the counterfactual to speak deeper and timeless truths. When disconnected from deep truth, there is no fantasy. The PulpRev approach is to apply the methods of the pulp grandmasters to modern markets, and this includes grounding the fantastic in the mythic and the transcendent.
To do this, we must return to the roots of fantasy.
The Roots of Fantasy
The pre-modern world was an incredibly dangerous place. Beasts roamed the fields and forests, and preyed upon livestock and hapless travelers. Natural disasters could strike without warning, obliterating crops and cities. Epidemics could sweep through a city, a nation, a continent, killing men and women and young and old without mercy or logic. And of course, there were the depredations of bandits, tyrants, and warlords. Much of the world outside the city gates was unknown, and the unknown was dangerous.
And yet, that world was also a place of immense beauty and wonder. The Mongolian steppes in winter is a pristine wonderland of pure, immaculate snow. In Japan, some places are so beautiful and so holy they are revered as kami. In Chinese, the name of ‘America’ means ‘beautiful country’, for the first Chinese travelers saw golden hills and unspoiled forests, a land of boundless beauty and opportunity. With most of the world unknown, there was so much to be learned, to be explored, to be brought back and shared.
Today, the miraculous is mundane. Everybody walks around with a machine that grants access to the sum of human knowledge, and many of them use it to watch cat videos. Our vehicles are powered by the millennia-old remains of dead monsters and dragons, and so many spend such magic fuel on times when they feel too lazy to walk. Today’s clothing uses fabrics and dyes alchemized in hidden laboratories, and are sold at steep discounts at flea markets.
Fantasy fiction recollects an age of twinned peril and wonder, and brings it into the reader’s life. In so doing it describes what is universal across vast gulfs of space and time. Danger and excitement, beauty and horror, the immanent and the profane. It hints at that which lies beyond the veil of mere matter, at the source that spawned magic and mystery, beasts and beliefs.
In urban fantasy, that source is next door.
The Gods Next Door
Modernity places Man as the measure of all things. Man is the center of the universe, and monsters are either men in dress-up or reflect the desires of men. Creatures out of myth and legend are abducted from their cultural contexts and dumped into a modern-day city, and their identities squashed down to fit the ideologies and endless atomization of Current Year. Modern fantasy is bereft of culture, instead taking from the past and patching together bits and pieces of lore to accommodate temporary trends and mere men.
Female-oriented urban fantasy and its neighbour, paranormal romance, reflect the typical modern female fantasy. A powerful and desirable female who also mates with all the hot and even more powerful males. The males need not be completely human; they just need to act like human males. Everything else is secondary to this desire.
I’ve seen urban fantasy series with gods who have descended to Earth. In myths, they are gods of death and war, love and beauty; they decide the fates of souls and empires; they command the forces of nature, of the elements, of stranger forces. In these books, they are caught up in petty human activities, from orgies to parties to ruling mere cities or crime networks. They have been reduced from mighty and transcendental beings to little more than humans with superpowers and fancy names.
Many monster hunter type fiction pits humans against demons and monsters. These beasts serve as expendable fodder, a ready way to create story antagonists without angering any real-world group. They let the humans showcase their strengths and skills, be it superhuman swordsmanship, powerful magics, or overwhelming firepower. They appeal to the basic male desire to conquer and protect—but little else.
These stories place humans at the heart of things. It is a quick and easy way to snag an audience. But beyond that, they have nothing to offer but spectacle and cheap thrills. Once the thrills are gone, once the story is told, there is nothing left of the story. There is no reason to go back, no impact on hearts and cultures, no depth. This is fiction reduced to fungible product, interchangeable with other stories, consumed quickly and forgotten just as swiftly, to be replaced by more product the following year.
I prefer a more sophisticated approach.
PulpRev pays homage to the past and takes it forward into the future. It forges the latest link in a long chain of culture stretching into timeless antiquity. It takes the myths and mindsets of the long-gone ancestors and brings it forward to the present, to point to timeless truths about humanity, reality and eternity. A pulp perspective on urban fantasy incorporates both the peril and wonder of the ancient past and the lived realities of the present.
By analogy, let us look at wild animals. Beasts were the bane of pre-modern civilization. Wolves and foxes could devastate livestock and ruin livelihoods. Bears and tigers could kill and eat travelers. To keep beasts away, humans had to take many precautions: building fences and walls, setting guards, starting fires, practices which are still continued today.
Modern humans in the First World aren’t concerned about beasts any more. Many First Worlders can live their entire lives without ever encountering an animal in the wild. Yet the relentless growth of urbanity causes cities to push ever deeper into forests and fields that were the traditional habitats of animals. With the loss of their habitats, wild animals inevitably encroach on human settlements.
These animals may be dangerous or docile. They may be friendly, irritating, or just indifferent. Some can be tamed, some will never betray the call of the wild. What they are not, and will never be, is human.
My conception of urban fantasy is similar to this. It reflects the attitudes of people in pre-modern times, and indeed the mindsets of people who still maintain their cultural traditions and lore. There are multitudes of beings out there, who were once the sovereigns of the wilds. As humanity claimed more and more land, contact between both species increased sharply.
Some skulk at the edges of society. Some refuse to interact with humans. Others live alongside humans, and still others carve out their own communities. These beings may be good or evil, weak or powerful, hostile or friendly, but they are most assuredly not human. They do not think, talk, or act like humans do, and assuming that they do is a grave mistake and offense. They are most certainly not sex objects, and may not see you as sexually attractive. They are armed with formidable powers or natural weapons, yet they also bring with them perspectives and ideas not commonly seen among humans. Inherent in them is the danger and the wonder of Elfland.
These beings can be negotiated with, they can be left alone in peace, they may be willing to do business, or they may need to be fought. Regardless, they are most assuredly not human or beasts. They do not exist as a shorthand for a reader to quickly grasp a scene, but as beings in their own right.
And, like the kami of Japan, the ‘good brothers’ of the Chinese diaspora, the brownies of Europe, they live among us. With all the wonder and conflict that entails.
And magic? When commonplace it becomes mere technology, no different from electricity or cars or guns. When rare, it is strange and powerful and wonderous. An urban fantasy setting, more than any other fantasy genre, allows the writer to set up a contrast between the mythic and the mechanical, that which operates by well-known rules and that which can never be fully understood.
What is a pulp perspective on urban fantasy? Such a story is one that honours tradition and transmits it unto the future. It may place mythological figures in modern times, but it does not forget the source of such myths, and weaves lore seamlessly into the setting. It distinguishes between good and evil, sacred and profane, pure and impure. It sets Man as part of a wider ecosystem, one that has room for the mythic. It stitches wonder and danger and the novel and the mundane into a greater whole, and places it next door to us, so close that we cannot turn away from it, so close that it beckons us to adventure.
Urban fantasy is when you live next door to Elfland.