Monday, February 21, 2011

UF as a Window into Society

Lately I've been reading a cultural history of the Great Depression*. I won't go into details, as they're likely to bore you, but the thesis of the book—the whole concept of cultural history, actually—has opened my eyes. See, cultural historians examine books, art, movies, songs, and other products of human culture, to get a sense of the era, or civilization, or subculture, or what-have-you, and it's been interesting to see how the songs I know, the movies I've heard of but haven't seen, the books, and the photos all express the same dynamics, the same attitudes, the same conflicts.

Can you guess where I'm going with this?

Okay, maybe not. I've been thinking, this last day or so: What can we learn about our culture, or what would future historians see, by examining urban fantasy?

Disclaimer: I am not a historian. I have not taken a single post-secondary history class. Nor am I an expert on urban fantasy. I am bound to miss things, and probably going to get things wrong. This is entirely my own opinion and observations. If you must yell at me over anything in this post, please do so nicely. I'm not intending to step on toes or anything. Etc. etc. etc.

Urban fantasy frequently features loners, love triangles, noir settings, monsters, law enforcement professionals, and strong women even with male main characters. The triangles, the noir, the monsters, the women (often with phallic symbols)—those're all about sex. The culture of the early 2000s likes sex. This shouldn't surprise anyone. But also:
  • loners and noir - The City isolates people, forms them into nations of one, cuts them off from others. We can't live without the City, but we can't really live with it, either.
  • noir - We live in dark, depressing times, folks. There's a lot of fear and worry out there. One thing I've learned from Dancing in the Dark is that noir sprang up as a reaction to the Great Depression, with a dash of 1920s disenchantment. Instead of focussing on the grittiness of the rural poor, some writers focussed on the grittiness of the city, looking at the downtrodden there. (For downtrodden, substitute monsters?)
  • monsters - These represent various human minorities—ethnicities, women, the poor, LGBT. We're a much more integrated, global, holistic society these days, and more aware of other cultures and subcultues. It makes sense that our fiction reflects that.
  • strong women - Women may not be completely equal with men in reality, but they're much more equal than they have been in eras past. They're allowed to be strong, independent leaders, among many other things. So why not put strong women in fiction? Especially when it's noir fiction, which (I get the impression) typically features strong, alpha males? However, the fact that so many of these women appear with phallic symbols in tow means that women are still trying for equality for men, in a way. You need … certain bits of anatomy to qualify for higher wages, in many places. To pick one of many possible examples.
  • love triangles - Let's set aside the romantic entanglement part of love triangles, since that's been a tried and true narrative device since mythology, and look at the other aspects of the geometry. Frequently it's women who choose the men, and there's often sexual tension, even sex, with both partners. Is this evidence of changing attitudes to romance and relationships? A celebration of femalehood and sexuality? Both? Neither?
  • law enforcement - It's possible this reflects the growing police-state nature of parts of the Western world. I think it's far more likely law enforcement tends to show up in UF a lot because detectives and bounty hunters and vigilantes tend to have easier access to mysteries than the rest of us. The noir mysteries also play a part, I'd imagine.
The fact that we're couching all this social commentary in terms of fantasy likely indicates that there's a desire to get away from the world while reading the stories, though because of the social commentary in the stories, we don't want to get too far. We like being grounded, but we also like fun.

The chicks-with-leather type of urban fantasy isn't the only kind out there, however. There's also the mythic fantasy vein, where there's a quest of some kind through our world and maybe through a form of Faerie as well, and the Hero's Journey is adhered too, and there's beauty and magic. I don't know much about what's new in mythic fantasy, or what the writers I know of are doing differently than they were before. I think there's more technology and technological fae creeping in, but that's simply realism. We're a more technological society. If the hero didn't have a cell phone and an internet connection, s/he wouldn't be believable.

I'd delve into details here, examining specific books or series, but I think it's too soon. Which books are going to stand the test of time and be known in 20 years? In 50? What are people going to remember once UF has faded as a genre? How representative of society are individual books or series, anyway? How can I be sure enough of you have read the books I have? And do I have the right to get into that level of detail and examination when, as I've noted, I don't actually have any history credentials?

I'll leave the detail work for coming generations, then, and throw this idea of cultural history out to you, readers, as food for thought. Have I missed anything? Are there other interpretations? Anything you want to add?

* It's research, okay?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As for your technological gadgets theory check out "Anita Blake" series (only has a pager for the first 8 books of the 16+ series). I called bull on this myself and then realized I hadn't watched TV in 10 years except at relatives houses and hotels... Commercials carry more entertainment when you don't watch anything but commercials.