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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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  1. May 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

    I’ve read a lot of a Urban Fantasy, i.e. Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor series and Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, where there’s no sex at all.

  2. May 6, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I don’t expect (or want) sex in Urban Fantasy. I can read PNR or UFR for that if I want.

  3. Terry
    May 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    I just finished LONDON FALLING last night, and am pleased to see this in my email this morning. I thoroughly enjoyed it even at the dread-filled, scary bits. The police team turned out to be quite different from what I expected and I really liked how that came together. I look forward to reading the next one! And as for urban fantasy “having” to have sex, I’m indifferent – except if it’s included just because Everyone says it has to be there. Then, no.

  4. May 6, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Such an interesting question!
    I asked what is a genre and a subgenre when I began to see a new emerging area in horror and thriller — and I wrote a book about it. Coming out the end of May, my book argues there is a new subgenre, biohorror, biothriller, biofantasy and I discuss my top 30+ movies in it. I show the exponential increase in movies of this proposed subgenre with a set of characteristics that make it a bio horror, biothriller, biofantasy movie or book. The book is The Things That Keep Us Up At Night — Reel BioHorror. http://www.reelbiohorror.com

    I look forward to reading London Falling. I am a lifelong Doctor Who fan, too.

  5. Ulf Rosvall
    May 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I cant recommend this one enough! It’s a terrific read that I thoroughly enjoyed and I really look forward to a sequel. The magic system is intriguing and the world building is very nice.

  6. May 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I agree I usually figure there would be a sex scene but I don’t really need or want it either. I don’t need my fantasy to be all romance – that gets so tired and old. I actually enjoy it when there isn’t a huge romance element.

  7. May 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    This sounds exciting. Honestly I hate genres with a burning passion. Any time an author pulls out a trope or piece of plot to satisfy some sort of imaginary/marketability constraint I lose a little faith in them. My favorite pieces tend to be the stuff that doesn’t care what rules it breaks to get where it’s going, say Nick Sagan’s, and Emma Bull’s takes on the detective genre. I’ll have to give this one a taste.

  8. May 7, 2013 at 6:48 am

    I’m perfectly happy without any sex. Unless it’s well written and central to the plot. Sometimes writers seem to want to put some graphic bonking in just to show that their book really is grown up. Usually it just shows the book to be adolescent, not adult.

  1. May 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm
  2. May 12, 2013 at 11:16 am
  3. June 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

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