Friday, July 11, 2008

Urban Fantasy Lacking In Social Commentary?

(cross posted from Urban Fantasy Fan)

I read a book review this evening (thanks Tez Miller!) that included the statement:
"... social commentary in urban fantasy (whether intended or not) often seems strangely absent."

She was remarking on the difference this novel* had because it DID include social commentary and is most definitely classified as Urban Fantasy.

But it got me thinking. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are often rife with it and the 'genre-apple' of urban fantasy really hasn't fallen SO far from that tree. Why IS social commentary "strangely absent" from this genre?

Before you get all ruffled and feel the need to defend Urban Fantasy from including anything other than compelling story telling of an 'other' kind, let me just say I'm not advocating that UF novels should have some sort of didactic purpose or deep political agenda. Not at all! I'm simply interested in the statement and wondering if this is in fact true, why this is the case.

Social commentary in literary circles can be defined as stating one's opinion with a view to causing societal and/or governmental change. In other words it's when authors write about the problems they see in society, hoping to wake up the general public to take notice and do something about it.

Now right there I can almost hear people say "well there's your answer! Who wants to be preached at?" But this is where fiction shines - because it can communicate messages without being preachy. Well known authors throughout history who engaged in social commentary in their writing include Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and, of course, Jonathan Swift (thin Gulliver's Travels). In Sci-Fi we have Gene Rodenberry's vision of Star Trek and the currently popular New Battlestar Galactica TV shows. In fantasy circles it can even be argued that Tolkein's Lord of the Rings includes a level of social commentary.

So what about Urban Fantasy? Is it really so bereft social observation and a call to take note and take action?

Although I read a lot of urban fantasy I still have a lot to get through before I've read everything out there, or even a sampling of it all there so I am no expert by any means. It seems a given that social commentary 'a la The Colbert Report' won't have a place in fiction but the idea that Urban Fantasy is for the most part lacking in any form of it has made me rethink my recent reads, so I'll start there. I've just completed the Dresden Files series from first to most recent and personally I would argue that the White Council/Black Council issues could be regarded as social commentary, though granted they are more of a 'B' or 'C' plot than the main one. And Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series could be argued to hold a double whammy of social commentary about how we use the earth and its resources as well as the racial/class issues of the Djin.

Perhaps the reason Urban Fantasy doesn't appear to have much in the way of social commentary is because it's busy being really good at functioning as a metaphor for our personal lives, our relationships and where (and how) we fit into the larger societal whole, rather than focusing on the 'macro-issues' of things like governmental control and societal structure.

Thinking about this question of 'lack or not' has me looking at Urban Fantasy's potential for social commentary, whether or not the genre as a whole is currently a good representation of it or not. As far as getting my attention goes, Urban Fantasy is a good way to do it. Give me a pertinent issue to deal with (looking through the eyes of the heroine or hero) that's socially relevant and you can be sure I'll be considering it with regard to my real world too. And if you think about the popular protagonists of Urban Fantasy inspiring females to stand up for themselves and speak their mind (also known as 'empowerment' in social circles) that's already having quite an impact on everything from communication (beware the blog!) to consumerism (sexy, smart, sassy and savvy is definitely 'in' right now).

I'm only just starting to think about this. I haven't gotten off the fence yet and decided on one side or the other. Perhaps it's not important where I land but it IS interesting to think about and it's making me consider seriously about how I approach writing my UF worlds too. That can't be a bad thing!

Yes I'm playing devil's advocate here but since this is the place for smart and savvy people I'm putting it to you: what do you think?

* The novel is Blood Lines by Tanya Huff. Read Tez Miller's review here.

NOTE: Illustration copyright of Nelson Colon. Click on the pic to go to his website.

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