It's safe to say that if you're reading this, you love science fiction and fantasy. And also horror, magical realism, slipstream, and comics, and games. Maybe banjo music, too. But do you love all of them equally?
Inspired by this Q&A from the Onion's AV Club, I decided to look at my own genre blind spots — the stuff I've never been able to get all that excited about. There are some specific examples right off the top of my head: I've never seen a single episode of Supernatural, and fell asleep every time a Stargate show was on. I've never read a single Harry Potter book, though I liked Rowlings' pseudonymous mystery novels about Cormoran Strike. But I thought I might focus on the bigger, more general categories:
Like a lot of children of the late '70s and early '80s, I grew up with the American versions of what were at the time still widely referred to as "Japanimation" shows, like Battle of the Planets (aka Gatchaman) and Star Blazers (Space Cruiser Yamato), and towards the end of my cartoon-watching days there were a ton of localized programs with huge followings, like Robotech and Voltron (both of which were actually amalgams of several different mecha-themed shows). But I never really graduated to the more advanced stuff. Yes, I saw Akira, and I've seen a number of Miyazaki movies as well, but beyond the design work they failed to make an impression on me. Similarly, I never really got into manga. There are some very skilled creators in the field, Otomo especially, but it's not something I've ever felt a burning desire to read. Maybe it's the aesthetic, maybe there's some cultural barrier, maybe, in the case of the animation, it's the herky-jerky frame rate and the rough edges. Or maybe I just can't get into the concepts. Some of them look really cool and interesting but on the whole it's just not my bag.
I like a lot of stuff that counts as fantastic lit — Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen King — and one of my favorite novels of all time is Peter Beagle's fairy tale pastiche, The Last Unicorn. But with a couple of exceptions, like George R.R. Martin and Tolkien himself, I've never been a big fan of what we call "epic fantasy." Terry Brooks and David Eddings didn't appeal to me as a teenager, and I didn't even have to read the back of Robert Jordan's novels to know that I didn't want to read them.
I've always been a fan of science fiction, and I enjoyed some old-school YA fantasy like Le Guin's "Earthsea," but I never really felt any great affinity towards the sorts of big fantasy novels that started to define the genre in the late '70s and early '80s. A lot of that, I think, was because of the cookie-cutter writing and the generic world-building, and the fact that a lot of the books felt like they were written for twelve-year-olds. Martin made the genre safe for f-bombs, adult sexuality, and morally-ambiguous protagonists, but he's the only one of the "grimdark" fantasists I've been able to read past Book One. Post-Martin writers like Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Erickson, and Durham have sold tons of books and received tremendous critical accolades, but I can barely get through their work, even though a lot of it is well-written. I'm beginning to think that, like soap operas, maybe most people only need one long-running fantasy epic.
(But I love Terry Pratchett, so better make that two.)
Every time a new Batman movie or "Arkham" game comes out, I make a serious effort to try and get into one of the major story arcs that inspired them. It never takes. I've been reading comics for almost as long as I've been reading, period, but my first and only love as far as superheroes go is Marvel. Neurotic Spidey, misunderstood Hulk, chronically depressed Ben Grimm, conflicted Wolverine (or any/every X-Person): It felt like all of those characters were speaking directly to my preadolescent self. DC's characters just seemed to exist in a brighter, happier place that I could never relate to, as far removed from the present day as Archie and Jughead. Even later in the '80s, when the company Marvelized its lineup and initiated the first of many "grim 'n' gritty" makeovers, it just seemed like they were trying too hard. They still are.
Ironically, the catalysts for this change were the only two DC titles I followed with any regularity: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Watchmen. They weren't uniquely "DC," though; they didn't read or look like any other mainstream comics. (Confession: I also bought New Teen Titans and Crisis On Infinite Earths, but it was only for the Perez art.) DC has tried repeatedly to recreate what made the Moore titles and Frank Miller's Batman comics successful in the '80s by exporting the same style and sensibility to their other, mainstream product; with the exception of the Vertigo line, it's been an alienating, demoralizing mess, aimed seemingly at 45-year-old males who feel that superhero comics have to be dark and unpleasant to be "relevant." (And let us not speak of Before Watchmen, the Easy Rider: The Ride Back of modern narrative sequential art.) There are some bright spots here and there, but they're all just another reboot away from being erased from continuity forever once the licensing people tell the editors that the company's image needs a rebranding. Which I will ignore completely.
Their movies aren't so great either.
I like Richard Kadrey, but I'm not really sure he even counts as an urban fantasist. His "Sandman Slim" series reminds me more of '80s splatterpunk horror or '90s Vertigo-style comics, filtered through a postmodernist sensibility informed by cyberpunk fiction and old Peckinpah and Don Siegel movies. (If you read his first novel, Metrophage, just reissued by Harper Voyager in a snazzy paperback, it's clear that he recycled a lot of the themes and characters for the later books, shifting the register from SF to fantasy/horror.) So he has a vision, a sensibility. Most of the urban fantasy writers I've tried to read — and I'm not gonna name names here — just don't have either of those qualities. It's mostly just recycled PI tough guy cliches with fairies, elves, vampires, and demons in place of mobsters, cops, junkies, and hitmen. The stuff that really makes real world detective fiction memorable — atmosphere, dialogue, a sense of place — is missing. It's like a mash-up of a bad Rockford Files episode with the D&D Monster Manual. None of these guys would ever give George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane — let alone Chandler or Hammett — a run for their money.
"Urban fantasy" has been around as a term since the '80s, when it was used to describe fantasy in a real world setting (usually a big North American city) like Charles DeLint's novels, R.A. MacAvoy's Tea With The Black Dragon, Meghan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons, or Peter Beagle's The Folk of the Air. (It was also called "contemporary fantasy.") As with steampunk, urban fantasy lit initially failed to connect with a wide audience, but the ideas ended up recirculating through popular culture forms like comics, games, and movies and TV shows, and ended up inspiring books that were diametrically opposed to the '80s model of reflective, slow-paced, quasi-magical realist literary fiction. The big exception is Neil Gaiman, whose Neverwhere and American Gods are very much in the vein of those '80s books, except that Gaiman is practically a mainstream phenomenon and doesn't really need genre labels — he could describe his choice of genre as "Fred" and they'd still hit the bestseller lists. I love those old-school novels, especially Folk of the Air, but it's not what most people mean when they say urban fantasy. (And some alleged practitioners of the genre aren't that crazy about the label.)
So these are my blind spots. Am I missing out on anything? Am I just too hateful? Should I give these things a second chance, or condemn them to a deserving obscurity? What are your blind spots?