Genre Identity Crisis
Written by Paul Cornell
What makes a genre? How do you work out where the dividing line between genres lies? This is one of my favourite subjects. I suspect you may have thought about it a little too. This question became personal for me when I started to write an urban fantasy novel, London Falling. I knew that, broadly, the clue to what makes a book urban fantasy is in the name: it’s in a city and it’s impossible. But beyond that, it’s probably modern in setting, and the fantasy element will probably be unknown to the majority of the population. Urban fantasy grew out of, and to a large extent took the place of, horror, many urban fantasy novels being horror novels which could have “protagonist will probably survive” on a cover sticker. But there were several issues about where in the genre London Falling lay, and how comfortable it was there.
1: How scary is it?
A few reviewers have expressed surprise that the book goes for full-on scares, and a sense of dread and unease. I think in a lot of urban fantasy, the protagonists are on top of the situation and are threatened to the extent that they would be in, say, a spy thriller. Which is to say possibly quite terribly threatened, but usually without a feeling of nightmare, that a terrible fate might actually be their destiny, without that giddy final moment of loss of self that marks the end a lot of King, Poe, and Lovecraft. London Falling is about a group of modern day undercover police in London who accidentally gain the ability to see the magic and the monsters. It takes them just about the whole book to adapt to their situation, and I hope that the reader worries about whether all of them will get there. My fellow UF author Ben Aaronovitch called it, “a survival novel,” and I think that’s right. For one of the team in particular, the broken genius intelligence analyst Lisa Ross, the thing that rears up at them is personal, and that connection makes it feel rather more like a horror novel, I think.
2: How funny is it?
Speaking of Ben Aaronovitch, we were both rather worried to realise, via our Facebook updates, that we working on what looked like, at that point, the same novel. Ben having been in the past a very slow writer, I was confident I’d get to market first, but he ended up getting three of his published by the time my first one came out. He’s been immensely kind and helpful, and thankfully Rivers of London (US title: Midnight Riot) took a rather sunnier and sweeter view of urban fantasy than London Falling. So with some clear blue water between us, we can both safely inhabit what an Amazon subgenre list might call Urban Fantasy/London/Metropolitan Police/Former Doctor Who writers.
3: How much sex is there?
I realised when appearing with some fellow UF authors on a panel (at the CONvergence convention in Minnesota) that the audience expectation was there would be a fair amount of sex in an urban fantasy novel. I realised that with some horror, because there’s none in London Falling. (They’re police officers. They’re a bit busy.) This is not the case in the sequel, which gets thoroughly steamy. But it’s interesting to note that, for a lot of the audience, the nation of Urban Fantasy shares a border with Paranormal Romance (“protagonist will probably survive and get laid”).
4: Are other genres mixed in there?
In some ways the book is Science Fiction. That is to say, I think there’s actually a detailed rational basis to the magic the team starts to uncover in London. It’s “the paramilitary wing of feng shui,” the idea that the city records everything that’s happened, that terrible things get “remembered” and power can be drawn from the manipulation of currents that flow according to the shapes of buildings, landscape and minds. You might well say “that’s all made up too,” but what I mean to say, and I think this is one of the dividing lines between fantasy and SF, is that our heroes, being police, can’t bring themselves to settle with the idea of dealing with archetypes. When confronted by a ghost bus, they start to take apart the idea, to wonder aloud how a motor vehicle can have “failed to go on to the great depot in the sky” but instead roams the earth. Fantasy is content that there are ghosts, SF wonders what ghosts are, broadly speaking, and you’ll be naming a dozen exceptions. But all that is just to say that London Falling is within shouting distance of classic “problem solving” SF simply because it’s about police.
There’s also the business of this being a police procedural, informed by my undercover police and intelligence analyst sources. I really wanted to hammer home the feeling that this is how it would really happen, that the police should use tactics and approaches against the supernatural that feel real because they are real. And I’m very pleased to have discovered that the Metropolitan Police is full of Doctor Who fans who were delighted to help.
I do hope you enjoy the book. If you know of my work in Doctor Who, I think you’ll find this has the same tone of voice: emotional; driven and hopefully exciting. I like being an urban fantasy author. I like the way the genre lets one talk about the modern world and the real horrors therein. But I also like that it lies at a major hub with flights to many other genres.
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