Paper Daleks

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Ekaterina Sedia’s anthology of urban fantasy, “Paper Cities”.

It’s an intriguing collection, partly because of its brilliant collection of authors, but also because of Sedia’s definition of urban fantasy as fantasy that takes place within cities, and is about urban life. That sounds like a simple and obvious definition, but it creates a collection which at times seems to have very little in common with either the newer definitions or the older categories to which the title of “urban fantasy” has been applied.

The collection is all the more surprising and unsettling for it, and covers a category which perhaps is outside Gardner Dozois’s subcategorisation of “urban fantasy” into “Mythic Fiction”, “Paranormal Romance” and “Noir Fantasy”, or perhaps is another sort of genre altogether: properly described as fantasy about cities but not falling within the historical genre and its branches which are usually known as “urban fantasy”. I suppose it is like old romance (which may not have love in it at all), “romantic” fiction, fiction with romantic interludes and capital-R Romance.

I am (with a few exceptions) generally in favour of descriptive vs prescriptive approaches to e.g. linguistics and fashion, so I am not going to take arms against any particular definition. I do miss the days when this particular label was pretty much just used to describe Dozois’ “Mythic Fiction”, only because it made it easier to (a) find what I wanted to read and (b) describe what I like to write. Now I tend to just say “contemporary fantasy” because that takes in rural settings, but of course it leaves out fantasy set in this world (or something like it) in other eras.

An aside on Noir Fantasy – at Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners” writing workshop, she mentioned that she likes seeing stories which show people in their work, behind-the-scenes, and I have been wondering whether that is part of the appeal of Noir Fantasy (and detective novels in general): that it is one of the few genres (distinct or cross-over) which habitually shows people at work. Not just as a glimpse, but caught up with the whole plot and point of the book.

Of course, even where the job of characters involves another specialisation (i.e. not detection), job-plots frequently turn into some sort of mystery/detection or crime/pursuit story – take John Grisham and Dick Francis, for instance. Or, back to fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret, in which the main characters are a magid/computer programmer and a vet student who still end up trying to untangle a variety of mysteries and murders.

In fact, off the top of my head, the only professions which don’t habitually turn into noir/mystery plots are the creative ones, and in those – if the story is about career – the ability itself turns out to have a magical quality (whether this is in fact the nature of creative professions or a hang-up of writers I do not venture an opinion). Musicians, say, and painters (Charles de Lint, as a general example). Not to say there aren’t stories in which people have regular day jobs, relevant to the plot, which don’t stray into these areas, but it’s an observation.

So, some current favourite examples:

  • Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones: this meets Sedia’s description, and two of Dozois’, and is about how cities work, how a family in a city copes when the magic behinds it all starts to make itself known, a really awful little sister and how to get a bus in an emergency.
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: The descent into London Beneath – the London of the people and places who have fallen through the cracks, where all the odd names are real. This is a very wonderful book, but I confess I love it primarily for the Marquis de Carabas and the Gap (as in: mind the).
  • An Older Kind of Magic, Patricia Wrightson: what happens to the magic as a city gets built up, and what happens to a city when comet light touches it. Also, Sydney in the ’70s.
  • Charles de Lint generally, of course: a city, the magic in it, how the people grow and change over the years, how the city changes, how technological progress is first shunned then cautiously accepted then becomes a magic in its own right…
  • The Etched City, K. J. Bishop: this is closer to Sedia’s selection, and has such a beautifully-built city – this and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station remind me of each other, but Bishop is less harrowing – I’m still intellectually & emotionally bruised after Mieville. However I would describe both as stories in fantastic cities rather than fantastic stories in cities or stories about fantastic cities, although that may split hairs. I would give them as examples, first, of worlds: Mieville’s claustrophobic detail and Bishop’s rather more sparing (but effective) approach.
  • Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson: because it is my city (also, previously a Dalek).
  • Dark City, The City of Lost Children and Matrix (do you know when it was released?), for movies.