Speculations: A ChiSeries Blog

Speculations is a blog hosted by the SpecFic Colloquium that will provide short articles discussing a range of topics related to speculative fiction--that is, science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, magic realism and other associated genres. We encourage you to applaud, to contend, to debate and to discuss the material here! We want a dialogue about the status of the field so please write in with your thoughts, but please respect Internet etiquette.

If you're interested in submitting a blog entry, e-mail Helen Marshall with the topic you have in mind!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Introduction to Urban Fantasy

by Kelley Armstrong

“An Introduction to Urban Fantasy” is a primer for the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, Saturday, 23 October 2010, at the Hart House and has been written in support of the Sunburst Awards. To register for the Colloquium, visit here.  Spaces are limited!

 I’m ambivalent about the label “urban fantasy.”  It’s a term that’s been applied to a branch of fantasy for decades, but in recent years has been co-opted to describe a very specific subtype.  Old-school readers take offense at paranormal authors using it.  The new audience for paranormal fantasy is confused if authors don’t use it.  So I’m flexible.  Or indecisive.

When I sold Bitten in 1999, there was no genre label for this type of work—supernatural beings starring as the lead characters in a thriller plot.  Laurell K. Hamilton was several books into her Anita Blake series, but she hadn’t made it onto my radar yet, nor the radar of most in the industry, who still used Anne Rice as the measure for comparison.  By 2001, when Bitten came out, Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files and Charlaine Harris’s first Southern Vampire novel had also just been published.  All these books had a suspense/mystery main plot, and were set in a world peopled by supernatural beings—vampires, werewolves, spell-casters and the like.

My publishers and I initially referred to my novels as supernatural thrillers.  Over the next few years, as more of these series were launched, they began being to be labeled “paranormal suspense.”

Many of these early series had a strong romantic subplot that seemed to appeal to romance readers, so not surprisingly, a sister sub-genre was born: paranormal romance.  What’s the difference?  Plot focus.  If you can remove the romance and still have a story, it’s paranormal suspense.  If you can’t, it’s paranormal romance.  The industry doesn’t always agree, to the chagrin of paranormal suspense authors who find their books mislabeled, and have to deal with furious romance readers.

As paranormal romance grew in popularity, there was a move to more firmly establish paranormal suspense as a separate genre.  And so the term “urban fantasy” was born.   Or so you’d think, to hear some folks explain it.  The truth, as fantasy enthusiasts know, is that urban fantasy has been used to describe the works of authors like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint for years.  So it was co-opted.  Or stolen, depending on your view.

Today, urban fantasy is an established marketing category.  We used to say it required contemporary setting…until historical urban fantasy hit the scene.  Some will say the “urban” part means it must be set primarily in a city, but that’s also not true—most of mine have rural or small town settings, as do many others.

So I think I have good reason for being ambivalent about the label.  There’s no good definition and for every “rule” given for inclusion, I can name a handful of urban fantasy authors who break it.  But as a marketing category, it seems useful enough.  So when I give my talk at Hart House on October 23, I’ll call it urban fantasy, and discuss the genre in more detail.


Kelley Armstrong  has been telling stories since before she could write.  Her earliest written efforts were disastrous.  If asked for a story about girls and dolls, hers would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to her teachers' dismay.  All efforts to make her produce "normal" stories failed.  Today, she continues to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in her basement writing dungeon.  She's the author of the "Women of the Otherworld" paranormal suspense series and "Darkest Powers" young adult urban fantasy trilogy.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What is Canadian Speculative Fiction and Why Should We Care?

by Helen Marshall

“What is Canadian Speculative Fiction and Why Should We Care?” is a primer for the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, Saturday, 23 October 2010, at the Hart House and has been written in support of the Sunburst Awards. To register for the Colloquium, visit here.  Spaces are limited!

I've been in the midst of helping out with any number of projects that aim to support Canadian speculative fiction -- that is, broadly speaking, the major genres of horror, fantasy and science fiction. Many writers have claimed that publishing, as an industry, is going through something of a crisis with the introduction of eBooks, the decline of independent (and chain!) bookstores, the possibilities of self-publishing. I don't want to debate the excitement or fear that accompany those changes. We all know we're moving towards a new landscape -- what that landscape looks like, no one is quite sure about yet.

But how is that landscape Canadian? Is there anything to be said for a Canadian aesthetics of genre writing?

I think there is.

Canadian horror writing, for example, a branch of speculative fiction and a particular passion of mine, has begun to move in strange and provocative new directions, becoming something altogether different from its American counterpart and wholly itself. In a recent blog comment, Rose Fox of Publishers Weekly praised the ingenuity of Canadian authors: “Horror is profoundly cultural. Over a couple of decades of reading a great many books, I've developed something of an immunity to American and British horror. I still can't really describe what exactly [Canadian horror authors] do differently, but it is different.”

The last several years have shown a revitalized interest in publishing darker fiction. Psychological horror dominated the short stories of the influential anthology Tesseracts, published by Calgary-based Edge Science Fiction and FantasyChiZine Publications too has demonstrated that horror (in Canada at least) is moving away from the splatter-and-gore stories of the eighties into a distinctly literary arena, giving us strong characters and themes that underpin provocative and unsettling narratives.

Things are moving here in Canada. There's a kind of excitement in the changes we are seeing, and it's generating some fantastic new literature.

And here comes the plug.  The Sunburst Award for the Fantastic, Canada's only jury award for genre writing, has been a long-valued institution. Unfortunately, the Sunburst Awards have run into a hiccup.  They do not have enough operating capital to keep going as they currently stand. This sad news comes at a particularly critical juncture in the award's life--the operating committee is in the process of getting the Sunburst organization registered as a non-profit, and getting it "national arts organization" status.  As part of a fundraising drive to shepherd the Sunburst through this change of status and structure, we’d like to ask fans, writers, editors, and publishers from the speculative fiction community to help raise awareness of this vital institution...

How to Participate

We're looking for short (30 second to 2 minutes) videos that say what you think about Canadian speculative fiction. These should be interview-style videos in the vein of Speaker's Corner and can be recorded as simply as with a web camera. Prior interviews or footage can be submitted provided that you have permission to do so.  We will host these individually on a YouTube channel (sunburstaward), but will also edit them in order to create a series of short videos to promote awareness of the fundraising campaign. A longer video will be shown at the opening remarks to the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.

Not savvy with a camera? Send us a high res image of yourself and either a short paragraph in text or a recorded audio track.

Not Canadian? Never fear. If you have something you want to say about Canadian speculative fiction then we want to hear it.

 To participate, send your name, contact information, submission and a short release statement giving us permission to use the video/image to sunburstvideo@gmail.com by October 15, 2010.

Possible Topics:
-favourite Canadian authors and/or stories
-the relationship between Canadian writing and the rest of the world
-publishing speculative fiction in Canada
-the state of Canadian fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc
-how does Canada inspire your work?
-favourite Canadian settings to use in your writing

Of course, these topics are intended to be a jumping off point. Feel free to think outside of the box. And, above all, show your enthusiasm!

To donate directly, visit http://www.sunburstaward.org/


Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She also works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.