Monday, December 13, 2010

Trying Something New - #UFChat Recap

Saturdays on Twitter there's a writer/reader chat, #UFChat, that's all about urban fantasy. The latest chat was about death, dying, and resurrection. Because there was also a guest author, the chat didn't go into as much depth as it normally does, but some good discussion came out of it all the same.

It seems like there are only three kinds of death in urban fantasy: undeath, violent death, and natural death. Very few instances of natural death came up, and some of the ones that did I'd have actually called violent, just not murder. A car accident, for instance.

Undeath definitely prevails in UF, of course. There are vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts in spades, as well as revenants and dhampirs and what have you. Violent death is also unsurprisingly high, given that so many UF plots revolve around murders and dead bodies, and given that so many UF protagonists have dead family members that fuel the plot on various levels. And while I know I said "three kinds of death"right now, but that's only partially true. There's a fourth kind that bridges "undeath" and "violent death", and that's the case with protagonists like Harper Blaine, Charlie Madigan, and Evangeline Stone, who die violently and are brought back to life as humans, often with supernatural powers.

An interesting point came up during the discussion. When vampires, werewolves, and the other undead monsters first appeared back in the days of folk tales, they were representations of our fear of death and were meant to be scary. Now they're almost the opposite, being generally used to extend life and give people immortality. They're a good thing, though not often a great thing. Bloodlust and decay will do that to a body.

I think in a way the classic monsters still represent our fear of death, though that fear's been transmuted from "fear of Other, fear of disease, fear of being forgotten" into "fear of Other, fear of decay, fear of life ending". We (or American culture) are terrified of getting old and getting weak, so much so that plastic surgeons and makers of skin cream make a killing. Yes, that's largely because the beauty industry has convinced us that getting old and weak is a bad thing, so there's kind of a circular argument here. I get that. But I do see parallels between "our cream takes twenty years off" and "vampires make you young forever", between "getting old means getting weak" and "undead people are strong", and between "wrinkles are ugly" and "zombies are gross". If zombies are now cool, will wrinkles be? I hope so.

I'd like to see more natural deaths (or, frankly, more stories where there weren't dead people), since they're the underdogs of the genre and I have a Thing about under-represented plot elements.* I think there isn't all the much difference, motivation-wise, between a Beloved Family Member making a request on their natural death bed, and a Beloved Family Member making a request on violent death bed. And natural deaths (disease, old age, heart attacks) open up a whole line of stories based on wills and emptying attics and family secrets. Also, there's the idea I had while responding to the chat questions, that there could be parallels between epic heros like Odysseus and Beowulf, whose cultures dictated warriors die in battle, and the various kinds of monster slayers that pop up in urban fantasy. What if those slayers also had a culture of having to die in battle? What if one of them was so good that they died of old age surrounded by family? Would their ghost manifest as a result? Would a relation take up the sword (or gun) and go fight the fight in the Beloved Family Member's memory?

All kinds of cool stuff could happen. Why doesn't it? Or does it, but the books haven't been published yet (or I haven't seen them)?

* You may have noticed.

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