Paper Daleks (and Urban Fantasy)

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.

January Short Book Reviews

An Older Kind of MagicPatricia Wrightson: A re-read to begin the year. One of my favourite urban fantasies – a very slight book of a very slight slice of Sydney – the house on the roof of a government department building where the caretaker’s children live, the halls of the department at night, a few city streets with their shop windows and facades and street lights, the great Gardens, and how they are all changed in the first hour of comet light and by the wild whispering things that live beneath the streets and in the gardens. It reminds me a very little of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, but smaller and wilder – less madcap and more like… a sighting of a comet, the wind in the trees of the botanic gardens, the magic in the lights at crosswalks.

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Prompted by having watched the most recent Holmes movie, I read the first novel out loud to my father. He used to read them to us when my mother was away (she usually did the reading) and I’m pretty sure I have read or heard all of the stories, although a very long time ago (I used to stay up late reading The Hound of the Baskervilles under the covers and consequently scaring myself witless when dingoes started howling up in the scrub). This is the book in which Watson first meets Holmes, and I was struck by how much more CSI it is than Agatha Christie (my first memory of Holmes is of him devising a test for discerning traces of blood in water). It is also amusing to meet Holmes with Watson for the first time – as they discuss their character flaws before deciding to take the rooms at Baker Street and as Watson tries to deduce Holmes’ profession by what he knows and, more amusingly, what he doesn’t (literature, how the solar system works). And then the second half of the book is a very sensational western romance/tragedy/account of the Mormon settlement of Utah. I had also recently seen the movie, and so although I knew of the great (and, I am sure, entirely deliberate) inaccuracies of the movie, it was fun to see all the little things which were kept – the American influences, Watson’s bulldog, Holmes’ experimenting on dogs, aspects of their personalities and relationship. It’s a cheerfully liberal reinterpretation, and utterly light and unpretentious, and I liked it.

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens: Such a peculiar book, this. I am glad I read it (for Sam and the Bear of Bad News among many other reasons), but it is Dickens finding and hitting his stride, and although it may be the ‘first Victorian novel’ it is Dickens writing a Regency novel (it is set 14 years after Pride and Prejudice was published) – all mad-cap adventures and small-town politics and bucolic misadventures and aunts in high-waisted gowns running off with disreputable fortune-hunters. And then at the end, as the pace gentled and friends were gathered and journeys ended I started realising – this is Hobbiton, this is the Shire, this is Sam Gamgee as much as it is Sam Weller, this is Bilbo Baggins as much as it is Samuel Pickwick, this is the last of that England before the factories and the railways and the town planning laws and the electric wires.

Whose Body? – Dorothy Sayers: Published in 1923, this is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and my second: I read Murder Must Advertise in 2008 (reviewed here) and bought both for my mother for Christmas. It is a decent little detective novel with a compelling character of whom I am anxious to read more, but notable for me first for the inclusion of shell-shock/PTSD post-WW1 (and subject of a very interesting series of articles on Tor.com) and for the way it is set in a time and a world that is almost recognisable – almost ours. There are police and fingerprinting and telephones and cars… and yet there are people who have never been in cars, and characters who have to struggle to work out how to use a telephone.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery: The concept behind the title is endearing, but it still makes me think of quirkily titled Alexander McCall Smith novels (and he does have wonderful titles) and on that basis this is one of the more misleadingly titled books I have read. It is the parallel stories of two inhabitants of an upmarket apartment building in Paris – an extremely intelligent, privileged suicidal child, and the disadvantaged concierge who conceals her own remarkable mind behind a veneer of the mediocrity people expect from her. It is full of philosophy and art-house films, but also occasionally surprising beauty and charming situations and (this is where it won me over) a brief summary of why The Hunt for Red October is a consummate film. I enjoyed it, although the style was too literary for me to look back on it with unalloyed affection, and I sobbed helplessly at the end – I suspect the ending was necessary for it to be literary fiction. It made me want to go and read Gillian’s Life Through Cellophane again, or watch Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, as an antidote.

Gently Down the Stream – Alan Hunter: A Lifeline Bookfest purchase – the cover featured in this post. This was written in the late 50s, but again there was that feeling of it being in a world that I almost know. Inspector Gently’s England is closer than Lord Peter Wimsey’s was – technology and investigative procedure have advanced, there is discussion of the dangers of tobacco – and yet the warnings are laughling dismissed and suspects are terrified of being hung for murder. I enjoyed the story – it was very particularl to and in love with its unlovely setting, and had a rather Midsummer Murders feel to it.

Mog’s Christmas – Judith Kerr: I grew up on this picture book and when I found it at the Lifeline Bookfest I bought it for my mother and took it home and we read it together with my dad and got teary-eyed again when the tree “stopped walking around and made itself all pretty”.

How the Queen Reigns – Dorothy Laird: There used to be a crazy-fabulous little vintage-with-a-focus-on-the-50s shop in Paddington: marching band costumes and pill-box hats and pearl collars and a small proprietor who sat low down behind a display case and kept all the change in a large tapestry handbag. That is where I bought this book. It is the 1961 updated edition and both interesting and obsessively detailed, at times laborious and frequently less than logically structured. It did, however, have two aspects of interest: a focus on the growth of the Commonwealth, and a portrait of the personality of the young Queen as a woman of strong mind and character, of her time and place and yet really admirable (and reminded me of my Australian grandmother).

Cameos of Crime M. O’Sullivan: I bought this (I think) in a second hand bookshop in Coolangatta and it was fascinating. It is a memoir of police and detective work in Queensland in the late 1800s and early 1900s – from working with trackers in mining camps to encouraging the use of plaster casts and the training of detectives in jiu jitsu, it is entertaining, shocking, enlightening. I loved it (if you can’t tell) not only for the stories but for the connections – the arrest that gave the name to a hill on the road I grew up on, the massacre that was remembered in stories of cursed families in my old home town, names and people and places – Captains Moonlight and Starlight, the Kelly Gang, Frank Gardiner. Scathing opinions on law and order in Chicago (as opposed to Brisbane). Police patrolling Woolloongabba on bicycles. Encounters with patriarchs of now-legendary families. Attitudes to race and gender which vary between the unexpectedly enlightened and the shocking (although, given the attitudes in some of those towns today, more than a century on, still arguably unexpectedly enlightened for the era). The authors own colourful views on police and juries and judges.  A colourful, eclectic, amusing book and worth reading if you can find it.

Imaginative Realism: How to paint what doesn’t exist – James Gurney: An art instruction book, but also one of great interest to non-artists – my parents kept it at home for a while (it was a Christmas present) to read through Gurney’s techniques and anecdotes. The process pictures and sketches are fascinating and the artwork – from Dinotopia to National Geographic – stunning.

Spectrum 16Cathy and Arnie Fenner: Always stunning, although this is one of the issues which the broader interpretation of ‘fantasy’ makes it a little more difficult to share with everyone.