Here we are at the third edition of Ask the Bloggers (still looking for a good title) and interest has been very high. Don’t forget the contest at the bottom of this post.
Our question this time is a two-parter:
In recent years, there has a been a rise in interest in the urban fantasy genre, even prompting some publishers to republish older urban fantasy works, such as Pyr’s recent publication of Stalking the Unicorn by Mike Resnick. What is your explanation for the recent rise in the popularity of this subgenre?
Secondly, since the rise and fall in popularity of fantasy and SF subgenres tends to be cyclical, what subgenre of fantasy do you predict will see an upsurge in its popularity once urban fantasy is on the wane?
Alice of Sandstorm Reviews: It’s easy to see the rise of urban fantasy as a reaction to the typical rural setting populated by farmboys, wandering knights and dark woods, but I think a lot of the impetus behind it is also an issue of branding. Urban Fantasy used to have a much narrower definition, along the lines of “magic in the real world”, and now it incorporates everything from Steampunk to New Weird to standard epic fantasy that happens to have a city setting – now all you need is a City, and the fantasy is Urban. With just a few big hits under that rather broad umbrella, it can suddenly be billed as the Latest Big Thing and a chance to revive parts of your backlist. The fact that the backlist exists is proof that “urban fantasy” is not a new idea; it’s just happy coincidence that some talented authors have given the genre a boost, making it easier for new urban fantasy writers to sell their work, and for older ones to revive theirs.
As for the next subgenre to take the spotlight, I’ve been seeing more than a few barbarians creeping back in, from Cnaiur to Logan to everyone’s favourite Karsa, so there may well be some re-imaginings of Conan on the horizon. The steppe is not quite as versatile a setting as the city, though, so my best guess would be for more SF/Fantasy crossover novels, along the lines of Richard Morgan’s recent The Steel Remains, something that’s had a bit of a lull since The Dying Earth in the ’50s. If Morgan’s novel does well, that could open the door for plenty of similar offerings. Though maybe that’s just wishful thinking!
Heather of The Galaxy Express: A heaping portion of urban fantasy fans are adventurous romance readers who branched out first into paranormal romance. But first let’s take a quick jaunt in the time machine, shall we? In the very early 1990′s, the paranormal romance market was “dead” when Laurel K. Hamilton first started shopping around her Anita Blake vampire hunter series. Even her agent had to submit over a two year period before it sold.
But after the success of Anne Rice’s vampire tales, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER television show, and Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, paranormal romances were on the rise. Yet there was more to the boom than that. Christine Feehan became a published author and she wrote super sizzling hot, graphic sex scenes along with the ultra Alpha heroes. Now romance readers saw what they’d been wanting all along, without even realizing that they’d been missing it.
So when urban fantasy became the “It” genre, many of these paranormal romance readers had already been primed on stories that featured the fantastic or supernatural. They crossed the proverbial aisle even though a romance wasn’t the primary draw. Urban fantasy also features many intelligent, kick butt heroines and that element became a significant draw for readers tired of insipid, TSTL (“too stupid to live”) romance heroines.
For a lively discussion that relates to this topic, click here. (A shout out to Paula at the Intergalactic Bar and Grille for the link.)
Steampunk is the new black. I think the trend has already begun, actually. Books such as WHITECHAPEL GODS, CLOCKWORK HEART, and MAINSPRING have hit the shelves. There’s also been an increase in recent films that feature très chic steampunk set designs and/or storylines. Graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and Kaja Foglio’s GIRL GENIUS are fueling the trend.
Not only that, but you can’t walk into a comic book convention anywhere without passing a posse of people draped in steampunk regalia. It seems that everything, including Star Wars, is being remade in the image of steampunk. And who doesn’t love airships?!
(Incidentally, I’m planning a weeklong extravaganza on the steampunk genre at The Galaxy Express in September 2008–with giveaways! So everyone, count yourself invited.).
I also predict that demand will increase for science fiction romance. First of all, the current trend from romance publishers is toward more SF elements and grittier stories and characters. These aren’t your momma’s futuristic romances anymore.
Second, there’s a trend for many SF books these days to routinely include a romantic subplot, even if it doesn’t follow the structure of a typical romance novel (what many folks refer to as “romantic SF”). Because there’s such a range of types and definitions of these stories, I expect more people are reading this blended genre than we’ll ever know.
Whether science fiction romance will overtake urban fantasy or paranormal romance is up in the air right now. However, I predict that once SF publishers begin marketing to romance readers and once romance publishers start exploiting this niche market, it’s going to be hot, hot, hot. There’s also a strong possibility that science fiction romance will gain popularity starting with e-books. New York publishers will then start cashing in and then everybody’s happy!
Aidan of A Dribble of Ink: Being about 50k words into writing an Urban/Contemporary Fantasy myself, this subject is near and dear to my heart, and so I’ve been watching as this shift in focus has spread through the industry. To that end I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, rolling it over in my head and contemplating just why Epic Fantasy’s been pushed to the wayside in favour of urban sprawl, werewolves, modern dialect and a ton of sex.
Over the course of this low level philosophizing I’ve come to the conclusion that there’re three reasons that have led to the ‘fall’ of Epic Fantasy and the rise of Urban Fantasy.
The first is simple. Epic Fantasy ruled the roost for decades, from the time Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings (and one could easily argue that its reign stretches well before that, to the works of Homer), and it’s simply hard to keep atop the hill for that long. Even the mighty Roman Empire finally fell to pieces, right? The same stories can only be told to the same people for so long before they start looking for something new. The market was becoming oversaturated and publishers started to look elsewhere, to see what was selling.
So what was selling? Thrillers and Chick-lit. Wait a second… doesn’t that sound a little familiar? Like, perhaps, two of the major elements that drive those Urban Fantasies which are selling like hotcakes these days? Which brings me to my second point: Women.
Women like to read, no one will be shocked to hear that. But consider who (anecdotally) make up the largest contingent of fantasy fans: overweight, sweaty mouth-breathers with neck beards. Now, of course this is a major generalization (I don’t have a neck beard, nor do I breathe heavily through my mouth; I’m not overweight, either), unfortunately this is how the fan base is perceived by the general public; not fair, but hard to deny. Women (for good reason) generally don’t like to be associated nerds like us (unless they’re nerdy, too).
Working at a bookstore (and generally haunting the Fantasy/Science Fiction section while on shift) taught me one thing: for every female to wander into the section, there were four to five males. Of course it doesn’t help that the publishers have been marketing fantasy to males for decades (swords, dragons, scantily-clad princesses, and all that other cool junk one might see airbrushed on the side of a bitchin’ van), and 50 years of that is hard to overcome.
The publishers, realizing they’re missing out on 50% of their potential audience, wise up and release the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, and Kelly Armstrong -and suddenly there were novels on the shelf of the ‘Fantasy’ section that doesn’t make women feel like they belong in the basement of their parents’ house with a scattering of dice before them, sixteen empty cans of Mountain Dew littering the floor and a ‘Dragonforce’ album blaring in the background.
This phenomenon spreads further (away from women in general, and to a wider market) when one considers authors such as Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, Charles De Lint and Sergei Lukyanenko, who take fantasy out of the needlessly complex secondary worlds and drop it into a world we can all understand: our own. We know the rules, we know the language, we know the places. People, however, are endlessly fascinated by watching those things we are so comfortable with being twisted and played with by a skilled writer, by having another perspective of the world thrust upon them.
The third reason, then, is that Urban Fantasy is just easier to read and thus has the potential to reach a wider audience. No confusing maps, no archaic dialogue (hopefully), no endlessly nuanced magic system to digest, no otherworldly politics and wars being waged by make-believe countries. I think a lot of people who read fantasy (and especially those who are just getting in via the Urban Fantasy trend) are the type who read for escapism – to get whisked away from their daily life into something exciting, something new, something dangerous. Urban Fantasy is grounded in real life, but also reveals to readers that there can be so much more; that there is magic lurking out there, just waiting to be discovered.
Publishing trends, like almost everything, are cyclical. Urban Fantasy is the hot thing at the moment, but that won’t always be the case. I expect we’ll see the rise of Epic Fantasy again, but whether that is sooner rather than later is hard to tell. It’s a tried and true genre and (despite all the drawbacks mentioned earlier) I feel that with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Brandon Sanderson and George R.R. Martin still thriving in this new market, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could consider Epic Fantasy to be unhealthy… maybe just not as healthy as Urban Fantasy at the moment.
Tia of Fantasy Debut: I’ve heard it speculated that epic fantasy will make a comeback, but I’m not sure it ever really went “out” because it’s always been my favorite subgenre, and I’m finding plenty of new epics to read these days.
I have a hard time explaining the rise of urban fantasy’s popularity because I’m not a big fan of the subgenre. I enjoyed the urban fantasy of the 80s and the early 90s — most notably those of Charles de Lint — but I’m not interested in vampires or various other undead, and I usually don’t empathize with the snarky voice of many urban fantasies. (I do keep meaning to try Jim Butcher.)
One subgenre that is suffering from a distinct lapse in popularity these days seems to be the so-called high fantasy, or elf/dwarf/hobbit fantasy. Its popularity seems to persist in young adult novels, such as Eragon, but adult novels based on elves don’t seem to do well these days unless the author brings in a significant new twist, such as what Lisa Shearin did with her Raine Beneres series. Maybe we’ll see a renewed interest in elves, but it is my guess that we’ll need a few more years before such novels become popular again. We need time for nostalgia to set in.
In the meantime, maybe someone will come along and invent an entirely new subgenre. It’s happened before.
SMD of The World in the Satin Bag: I really can only guess as to why the urban fantasy genre has grown as much as it has in recent years. I guess that it has a lot to do with the surge of popular urban fantasy films, such as the success of Anne Rice’s vampire movies (Interview With a Vampire, Queen of the Damned,and The Feast of All Saints), which sparked what I would consider to be a larger movie craze for the vampire/werewolf genre, giving us both Underworld films, three Blade movies, and bunches of other movies I’ve yet to see involving some rehash of the vampire or werewolf or similar ethos. And there are also quite a few other films that are escaping my mind which took elements of the fantastic and shoved them into a city setting (even the Harry Potter films had a slight element of that if we remember Diagon Alley and the train station). The film industry can sometimes have a significant impact on books, and I imagine those films mentioned pushed interest into the vampire/werewolf stuff. And then we got Laura K. Hamilton and a bunch of other authors churning out books that gave the market exactly what it
wanted, and bam, it was a hit.
The problem I see with urban fantasy is that there isn’t enough non-vampire/werewolf stuff, which may cause it significant harm in the long run when it becomes very tired and boring due to authors using the same character archetypes repeatedly. What might help stall the subsequent fall of urban fantasy is authors pulling these creatures and ideas out of their element. Vampires are typically synonymous with the city setting.
As for subgenre I see having an upsurge, well, I think it’s quite possible that we’ll see a bigger boom in adventurous, Golden Age hat-tipping science fiction. I have no idea what you will call the books that fit into these. They’ll be part space opera, part pulp, part other stuff. Right now we have John Scalzi and Tobias S. Buckell really working on bringing some of that wonder and amazement and I think there is great potential for writers similar to them to break out and drive this subgenre to the front. As for fantasy, I think what makes urban fantasy so successful is that it’s fantasy stuff outside of the norm. We don’t have magic in a faraway land that is eerily similar to medieval England, fighting dragons and evil knights and what not. The problem is, that will grow old, as I said, and eventually people are going to have to go elsewhere for their fix.
So, I have a feeling that we may see a surge in heroic fantasy again, although, probably not for very long. I’d love to say that historical fantasy will explode, but I don’t see that happening. Perhaps some obscure explosion of quirky fantasy will see the light of day. The problem with predicting anything in fantasy is that most of it is selling well to begin with. Urban fantasy is just selling slightly better than everything else right now. I’m not sure sure that when urban fantasy stops doing so well that other fantasy subgenres will necessarily fill in the gap.
And that’s my longwinded answer.
Neth of Nethspace: This is a very interesting question and I think it really gets to the heart of where society is (and I’ll be speaking about society here in the USA).
The world we live in is a very different place these days – gone is the Cold War and advances in computing and telecommunications via things like the internet have turned our world into a true global village. Throw in the tragic events of 9-11, the state a fear perpetuated by the powers that be, gloomy economic conditions, and an ideologically divided country and things just look bad.
In this environment we’ve seen a shift from SFF novels with some evil dark overlord/alien species with absolute right and wrong. Gone is the optimistic near-future SF thriller. Now everything is shades of gray and it’s the creature lurking in the shadows that can get anybody that keeps us awake at night.
Urban fantasy feeds into our current fears and generally features ‘ordinary’ people (or people who were at least ordinary at one time) overcoming these fears and kicking major ass. The government tends to be a non-issue or simply another version of this distrusted, shades of gray evil.
Another important aspect is that urban fantasy is largely written by women for a female audience. In a time where readership of books continues to decline, women are making up a larger and larger percentage (already well over half) of readers out there. Romance is the big performer in fiction sales and the new urban fantasy readily taps into this.
As for where things go from here, I think it’s largely dependent on where society goes. We may be in for a long haul of this type of fiction if society continues in the direction it seems to be going. So, I’m not sure that anyone will be able to get it right, but I think at some point it will become very popular to take a look back to better times – and exactly how SFF chooses to do this will be a fun thing to see.
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