The Mad Hatter has asked us to define the indefinite. For my money, Cherie Priest nailed it although oddly in the Lou Anders section, not in her own answer. I think that’s a little like bowling a strike in the next fella’s lane.
by Daniel Abraham
by Daniel Abraham
We’re off to MileHiCon. I’ll drop y’all a note if anything interesting happens.
by Daniel Abraham
I did say before that this was, intellectually speaking, a work in progress.
In thinking about genre, the thing I struggle with the most is that it doesn’t exist. Genre can’t exist within any given project or any given author. To the degree that it’s anything at all, it’s a relationship between individual projects, individual authors, and individual books. When I say China Mieville is New Weird rather than Urban Fantasy, I’m not actually saying anything about Perdido Street Station or The City & the City as books. I’m talking about a taxonomy that exists entirely in my head (and the heads of the fine marketing folks at the publishers and bookstores who want to make sure I’m happy with my purchase).
What we really have is a huge count of individual books, all different from each other, but with some sharing certain characteristics. Most of these books fall into the marketplace like a stone in the ocean, barely leaving a ripple. A few bec0me massive cultural phenomena — often for no obvious reason. But then there’s this bit in between. When we look at the patterns of what achieves commercial success, we see pools of books that seem related. These authors are working on similar projects, and the percentages of successful books with similar characteristics is high. So, for instance, books with a female protagonist, a plot that revolves around heterosexual romance , a resolution that relies on the successful love relationship being formed between the protagonist and the object of her desire, and with a theme or moral that argues that romantic love will conquer all obstacles appear more likely to find commercial success than some other books with different characteristics.
Those sets of “winning” attributes begin to define a genre. Romance for that, but we could build a different set of attributes for fantasy or mystery or whatever.
Evolution is often misunderstood as a continual process of refinement toward excellence. It isn’t. It is a desperate, generational struggle to adapt to a changing environment. An organism that was the top predator at a pH of 6.8 may be free biomass for other organisms to eat and use at a pH of 6. The relationship between organisms and their environment (and so also with other organisms) is in constant flux, and a winning strategy in the Pleistocene may or may not be a winning strategy now. Species flourish, and become extinct. Ecological niches open, and they also close.
And so it is with genres.
I think that the successful genres of a particular period are reflections of the needs and thoughts and social struggles of that time. When you see a bunch of similar projects meeting with success, you’ve found a place in the social landscape where a particular story (or moral or scenario) speaks to readers. You’ve found a place where the things that stories offer are most needed.
And since the thing that stories most often offer is comfort, you’ve found someplace rich with anxiety and uncertainty. (That’s what I meant when I said to Melinda Snodgrass that genre is where fears pool.)
But what we’re anxious about changes over time, and it doesn’t always change back. If I’m right, then I’d expect to see new genres being born as books struggle to address the landscape of the time. And also dead genres whose stories spoke to a moment that has in some way passed. And that’s exactly what I see.
The problem I’m sitting with right now is that I have some sense of what function present genres have. Urban Fantasy seems to me to revolve around the uncomfortable relationship between gender and power. Romance seems to take its power from our (very legitimate) fears about romantic and sexual isolation. Mystery — did you ever notice that the detective story didn’t really exist before urban anonymity? — is about the maintenance of moral order. But these are all things I’ve read since becoming an adult.
When I turn to the dead genres — True Confessions, Western, Nurse novels — I can sometimes see glimmers of what was going on there, but I just don’t have the cultural background that would give them power. I have theories, of course. Westerns (or the one’s I’ve read, which are mostly Elmore Leonard) seem to be about masculine stoicism. No matter how broken or compromised a man’s emotional life is, he still does what needs to be done. Why would that have been an especially powerful message in the 1950s and 60s when Westerns were at their most popular? No idea.
True Confession? Well, voyeurism certainly hasn’t changed, but the literature of it has moved on. My guess is that it got edged out by a better predator. Something — tabloid media, for instance — found a better way to address those cultural needs, and the market for true confession stories dried up like Playboy subscriptions in the age of free Internet porn.
But the test of a theory is predictive ability. So let’s turn to the reputed hospice care genre of our present age: the constantly dying and never dead science fiction.
I grew up when science fiction was already on the cusp between serious work and solemn. I grew up on Star Trek. Which is to say the first great pulp flourishing was behind me, and the New Wave was over my seven-year-old head. The theory that I’ve been given by them as knows better is this: science fiction first became a genre in the 1930s — after the first great war, before the second, during the Depression — and fed off the fear that things would never change. That this, to riff on the movie, was as good as it gets.
It fed an optimism, and a view of the future that’s gone now in part because our relationship to change is different. I would suggest that in the 1930s, our anxiety about the troubles and issues of the day landed on the surprising power and novelty of the industrial revolution and drove a literature in which novelty and change knew no limits. And boy howdy (as Uncle Elmore might say), did that work well. Apart from the exploration of space, the window dressing of science fiction is where we now live. Stories about raising clones for spare parts are now literary.
But with that, the fears that the world wouldn’t change have faded, replaced by the sense that the world is changing too much. Is out of control. And with that, we’ve seen science fiction begin to fracture into:
1) hard science fiction — the true heir of the 1930s scientifiction of Hugo Gernsback,
2) dystopian science fiction — the new flourishing of what were once just cautionary tales, now growing into the role of cathartic horror, and
3) nostalgic science fiction — revisiting the literature of our (by which I mean my generation and older) childhood. The futures of Larry Niven and Gene Roddenberry remade without any attempt to connect them to our present situation.
So, after wandering the wilderness for something more like 40 days than years, maybe I’ve happened upon a thesis of sorts.
If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.
Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.
If it doesn’t, I’m wrong. Right?
by Daniel Abraham
So as part of the MileHiCon festivities next week, Ty and I (in our James S. A. Corey drag) are going to be interviewed by Carrie Vaughn on video. We’ve got the camera and the set up and the time and all those things, but I’m a little shy on ideas to hand to Carrie. Knowing the three of us, it’s entirely possible that the entire interview will be about Firefly, Invader Zim, and exactly how you’d do a crossover between the two.
If there’s anything that any of the rest of you would be interested in hearing about, the suggestion box is hereby officially open. Anything I’m willing to answer, I’ll pass on to Carrie to use at her discretion. And anything that we don’t get covered in the video interview, I can try to answer here on the blog.
by Ty Franck
As it relates to his recent post on Urban Fantasy, Daniel has asked me to talk a bit about straight horror. Now Daniel has read a fair bit of horror, and has written Flat Diane, one of the better horror short stories of the last decade or so and a Horror Guild Award winner. But he’s less into horror films, and that’s where my expertise lies. And, by expertise, I mean watching all of them and obsessing over the tiny details of their crafting.
It’s well covered territory when we talk about American horror cinema’s puritanical roots. But even that isn’t entirely cut and dry. Sure, the slasher films of the late seventies and early eighties carried the message that surviving the attack of a supernatural madman was as simple as avoiding drinking, drugs, and sex. But go back a bit further and you find a less blunt Christian message hiding in the films. Frankenstein is the classic, “things man was not meant to know!” storyline, with the eponymous doctor attempting to enter into God’s domain by creating life. Dracula is the man who turns away from God out of anger, and is given the curse of Cain, immortality and constant anguish. The Wolfman is the lesson that no matter how good you think you are, the devil can still get his hooks into you. All very Christian lessons.
An offshoot of this with a slightly different take were the genre mixing horror films of the fifties and sixties. Specifically, horror mixed with science fiction. These seem to primarily take two positions. The cold war era horror sci fi films that are set on planet Earth are primarily about the horrors of nuclear power, often in the form of giant insects or mutated humans. The sci fi horror set on other planets are generally manifest destiny tales of noble Earthmen facing a terrible monster (read: savage native) and defeating it to pave the way for human expansion. And you have the greatest sci fi film of all time, Forbidden Planet, which revisits the “things man was not meant to know” theme, only now replacing God with godlike aliens who were themselves destroyed by tampering with powers they should not have.
Seventies horror moved, largely due to the success of movies like the Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, into pure religious horror with demonic forces actively attacking hapless humans while noble churchmen fought using the power of God. Notice how in many of these movies, the victim first turns to scientists and rationality for help. Notice that in every case the scientist is humbled or killed by the supernatural, and that only reliance on God or other mystical defenses saves the day.
But morality tales all. Whether it’s a lesson about not having sex, or not trying to play God, or how much you need religious mysticism to defend yourself from the devil’s constant attacks.
Because Americans watch American (or sometimes British) movies, most people thought that horror movies were morality tales. That these things were inseparable.
But watch how Japanese horror evolved. The late nineties and early part of this century saw an explosion of Asian horror in the US. Movies like The Ring and The Grudge took American horror buffs by storm. We’d never seen anything like them before. The look, the tone, the manner in which people died, everything was completely different from American horror cinema.
Even the lesson they taught. Like, how do you survive in a Japanese horror film?
The answer it turned out, was as foreign as the language. You don’t get noticed. Look at The Grudge. The structure of the film is a mess. It is basically three different stories about people going into a haunted house and then being killed by the angry ghosts that live there. Some of them try to figure out the mystery, and one person even does mostly figure it out. But they still die. The only way not to die in The Grudge is not to go in the house.
Japanese culture has a strong taboo about drawing attention to yourself. And their horror films reflect this. People who don’t draw the attention of the powerful and inescapable forces surrounding them are free to go on living their lives. Get noticed, and you die. There’s no way to defend yourself from this. It’s inevitable. Whereas in American horror cinema the girl who doesn’t have sex with her boyfriend at camp lives, in Japanese cinema it’s the girl who thinks it would be disrespectful to go into the haunted house and goes home instead.
I’ve gone over long, so I won’t go into the seventies Italian horror and its emphasis on sensuality, but suffice to say that Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were doing soft core S&M porn thirty years before Hostel stripped out the erotic part and just turned it into torture porn.
I have a whole rant on what torture porn is saying, and how it relates to the Italian erotic horror of the seventies, that I’ll save for another day.
by Daniel Abraham
I don’t know where to start.
This is the third time I’ve started writing this little essay, and it seems like no matter what I begin with — how MLN Hanover was born of Buffy and Anita Blake, whether the root word from which ‘religion’ sprang was religare or relegare, or Who Censored Roger Rabbit (the book that became Who Framed Roger Rabbit) — it all winds up coming out in a clot.
But that’s the point of writing, isn’t it? It makes me put my thoughts in a line. It’s just so hard to know where to start.
We’re coming up on the publication of Vicious Grace, the third book in The Black Sun’s Daughter, and I’ve been thinking a lot about urban fantasy. What it is, what it isn’t, how and whether it can be defined, how and whether any genre can be defined, and what makes genre genre. And I have a hunch. It’s just not something I’ve ever been called on to explain exactly. Intellectually, we’re looking at a work in progress here. Hope that’s all right.
I started reading urban fantasy before it was urban fantasy. I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she was Kristy Swanson. I had Guilty Pleasures when it had the little bat logo on top. Back then, there wasn’t a term for it. Anita Blake in particular had the trappings of horror, but the structure of a mystery and the emotional safety of a cozy or a romance. And put together that way, they worked.
Not every mixing of genre works, though. Who Censored Roger Rabbit, for instance, was a brilliant peice of work, and spawned a movie that’s a classic in its way, but not a body of following work. There are other instances of plays on the idea of cartoon characters beaching the line of reality (Cool World, that A-ha video, etc.) but by and large, it didn’t take. Urban Fantasy did.
Why, though, is an open question. I don’t actually think it’s got anything to do with horror or mystery or even romance, but it has to do with what horror and mystery and romance (and science fiction and any genre, really) *do*.
And here’s where religion comes in.
There are two common etymologies for the word religion. Pretty much everyone agrees that it comes from the Latin religio, but where *that* came from is open to more debate. The one I’d always heard was that it started from religare — to bind together. A few years ago, though, I came across another suggestion. Relegare. To re-read. Religion, then, would refer to the stories we go back to time and again for comfort or wisdom or to see what the same tale means to us now that we’re older and more experienced than the last time we went through it. (Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is a radically different play if you’re 13 and hitting your hormone rush or 40 with kids.) I like this second version better.
So let’s go back to genre. The thing that makes genre generic (to appropriate the sneering term of its enemies) is that it reimagines and retells a story you know going in. In this way, genre is in a real tension with the novel-as-novelty. But that’s a side point. I didn’t mean to go there. What I was trying to get to is this: we go to romances for a particular story because that story is important to us. We go to horror because there is something in the ur-horror story, the deeper story that both The Stand and The Exorcist retell, that we need. We go back to mystery because there’s something there that comforts us.
I think that if we look at it, the genres in a popular culture form a map of its collective psyche (or at least the collective psyche of the part of it that reads). And in particular, I think genres form around our vulnerabilities. And even more, the forms that those genres take, they take for a reason. I’ll talk about Ty’s take on horror stories as a reflection of their particular culture of origin sometime. Or make him post it. It’s convincing.
Urban Fantasy doesn’t take its power from having roots in other genres. It didn’t bloom into one of the most important areas in publishing because it was horror or romance or mystery. It took root because the story it’s telling matters to us, and it’s a story that wasn’t getting told elsewhere. So, in fact, urban fantasy exists as a genre because it’s not horror and not romance and not mystery. It gives us something else, and it’s something we as a culture are hungry for.
It is the narrative a woman with power. It is where we are struggling with sexuality and intimacy and violence and gender and fear. It is where we are retelling old stories about romantic love and trying out new ones about taking on traditional masculine forms of power. Buffy Summers and Anita Blake — whether they meant to or not — touched a nerve, and all of us who love this new genre are still squirming from it. And we’re coming back to it, rereading it.
And in my case — MLN’s case — writing it.
by Daniel Abraham
by Daniel Abraham
I, Daniel Abraham/MLN Hanover/the James part of James S. A. Corey, will be appearing at MileHiCon toward the end of the month. Right now, it looks like the schedule will be:
3pm Developing Your Writing Voice (with Bacigalupi, Caine, Hughes, and Swendson)
8pm Autograph Alley/Munch & Mingle
10am High Fantasy: Beyond Urban Life (with Bigelow, Hoyt, Kurtz, and Lowell)
12:30-2pm Speed Date and Author (with ohmigod too many to list)
9am Kaffeklatsch (with Kurtz, MacMillan, Giancola, Acevado, Snodgrass, and Stein)
10am Author Reading (with Carrie Vaughn. Yay!)
11am Signing (also with Carrie Vaughn)
Ty Franck will also be at the convention, hanging out in the bar. If you’re in the neighborhood, come hang out.
by Daniel Abraham
by Daniel Abraham
A lengthy post about where to start with Daniel Abraham and a whole bunch of other good folks.