What is urban fantasy?

Since I’ve taught a course titled Urban Fantasy for the last few years, I’ve had to answer that question a lot. It’s not easy. What I mean by the term is fantasy grounded in a modern world. The terms “modern fantasy” and “contemporary fantasy” are hopelessly ambiguous as course titles. Contemporary American Novel, for example, would denote when the novels were written, not the settings or time periods therein. A course called Contemporary Fantasy could include T. H. White’s Once and Future King or Le Guin’s Earthsea books, even Tolkien for that matter.

To further complicate the issue are the various ways folks perceive the word “urban.” If you grew up in one of the “real cities” like New York or Chicago, like most Americans haven’t, urban doesn’t include suburbia or even, let’s say, Sean Stewart’s Houston in Perfect Circle. Sarah, an urban planner, uses the term urban in a variety of ways. People live in cities in a variety of ways, but most people live in cities. It all depends, I suppose, which axis, time or space, is being emphasized. American Gods is urban fantasy to me, though if cityscape is the requisite factor, clearly it’s not. It’s not urban enough, which I suspect is a term, like “black enough,” that is fraught with peril.

As for my own work, no matter what I myself label it, editors tell me I’m wrong. All this matters to me this morning because a story I felt embodied my own notion of urban fantasy was rejected for not being urban fantasy by a wonderful editor whose work I consistently admire. Urban fantasy? Don’t ask me, obviously. If anybody says “interstitial,” I’ll slug them. Anyway, if you come to the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, you can decide for yourself. I’ll be reading the story, whatever it is, Friday, November 2nd at 5:30 pm.


After Capclave, my novel writing was going so well I forgot to blog. This last weekend Sarah and I took Alice down to Virginia Beach. We love the place, especially since there’s a hotel that allows dogs, so aged Alice can be included. We saw scores of dolphins offshore, rode bikes up to First Landing State Park and hiked around. We even swam in the ocean—not bad for late October. I love that in a good Christian city like Virginia Beach there’s a big dramatic statue of a pagan god on the boardwalk. He looks especially fine at dusk when the moon’s coming up.

Capclave and foxholes

Capclave was a great time, especially hanging out with Jeff Ford. Highlights were Jeff and Ellen Datlow interviewing each other and Andy Duncan reading a terrific new story involving Flannery O’Connor and a chicken. Last year, Capclave was a bit of a bumpy ride, but this year it ran superbly. All the panels I was on were fun except I think I’m as over the term “interstitial” as I once was over “cyberpunk” when I found myself on panels entitled “Is Cyberpunk Dead?”

For various reasons, mostly the bad photographer, none of my pictures from the con turned out, so I offer this as a consolation prize, the monument to Atheists in Foxholes brought to you be the good people at the Freedom from Religion Foundation:

Great news

I’ve sold a story entitled “Here’s What I Know” to Realms of Fantasy. It’s a ghost story about my dad, and I’m quite proud of it. It’s scheduled for the June 2008 issue.

I’ll be at Capclave this weekend. It looks like a great time with not only GOH Jeffrey Ford but Andy Duncan and Michael Swanwick in attendance—all doing readings. I can’t wait.

Capclave schedule

I just got my schedule for Capclave, October 12-14 in DC (the burbs actually, but it’s on the Metro).

Saturday noon: Point of View. First, second and third person. When and how to use them. How many viewpoints can you sustain in a story? What works and what doesn’t. Panelists: Scott Edelman, Maria Snyder, Bud Sparhawk, Dennis Danvers (m).

Saturday 1 pm: Defining Jeffrey Ford. Classifying our author GOH and all his works. Fantasy? Mystery? New Weird? What genre is he? Panelists: Jeffrey Ford (m), Ellen Datlow, Dennis Danvers, Andy Duncan, Colleen Cahill. (I love that Jeff is moderating)

Saturday 7 pm: Why is “Genre” a Dirty Word? Let’s talk about the way so many people talk about genre fiction with an air of not-so-vague Puritan guilt — they might feel that reading genre is, somehow, lowering or perhaps they were scared in the cradle by somebody equating “make-believe” with filth. Panelists: Mary Jo Putney, Scott Edelman, Dennis Danvers (m), Ian Randal Strock, Kathryn Cramer.

Sunday 1 pm: The New Weird, The Interstitial Arts. What are we trying to accomplish by defining new ways of looking at all/some/a small piece of speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy? Panelists: Jeffrey Ford, Kathryn Cramer (m), Dennis Danvers, Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen.

Say hello if you come. Jeffrey Ford is the guest of honor, and Ellen Datlow is the editor guest of honor, so it should be quite interesting.

The Road

I remember a conversation with my first agent to the effect that science fiction only sells to adolescent boys, that it was categorically impossible for an sf novel to break out of the ghetto and become a bestseller. I also recall The Sparrow which certainly got noticed outside the circle of adolescent boys. Then I recall a woman telling me that the reason sf wasn’t read was because it was too dark and depressing. Most recently a friend speaking of The Road claimed it wasn’t science fiction because it doesn’t concern itself with unpacking the science. Most sf novels don’t. Many aren’t that scientific. Lathe of Heaven comes to mind. This is a science fiction novel by any definition, and it’s a huge seller, and it’s depressing as hell. It’s good in the way that The Old Man and the Sea is good: McCarthy sets himself a small narrative task and executes it perfectly. I’m glad Cormac’s agent didn’t warn him off sf: Nobody reads that shit, you know.