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Magic, ecospeak and genre distinctions

image Something I noticed recently while wearing my (completely invisible but highly attractive) writing teacher chapeau is that the welter of SF subgenres and categories of fiction generally are terra incognita to a fair number of newer writers.

I’m okay with this. We begin as readers and viewers, after all. Many people coming into my UCLA courses are curious about speculative fiction. They aren't necessarily book-collecting, con-going, award-nominating fans. They've watched a fair chunk of genre TV and film offerings; they're up on the MCU, they can tell a spaceship from a unicorn and they even usually know which is the fantasy construct. They might have read a certain amount of fiction within their one or two favorite genres, or at least have read Harry Potter and his ilk to their kids.

Maybe this isn't especially nuanced, but it is a decent starting point. It’s only when we begin to write--and to consider selling what we write--that mincing the distinctions between, say, near-future SF and cyberpunk can become important. That's when you've moved beyond searching the bookstore for something you'll enjoy reading for pleasure. Finer categorization becomes useful when you’re aiming at a particular market, writing a review... or when you’re sitting in a workshop trying to articulate why the space unicorns just aren’t meshing well with the alternate history manor house homicide, with cyborgs, in a given piece.

So, a flashback: when my 2009 book, Indigo Springs, was in the pipe for publication, I took what was really my first run at writing publicity stuff, generating press releases and bits and pieces of blog stuff and other material whose primary thesis was: Hey, my book is so cool, buy my book, buy it buy it, OMG, candy giveaway, wheee!! Only, you know, subtle.

One of the things I never quite managed was to come up with was a pithy label that captured its particular mash-up of urban fantasy and environmental science. This is a book whose main character finds a wellspring of magic that has become condensed--more powerful--and intensely toxic because of human impacts on the magical ecosystem. She then unleashes it into modern-day Oregon, creating a massive uninhabitable monster-infested forest that is both immensely contaminated and, as a result, weirdly enchanted.

I played with words Eco-pocalypse a lot, but say it aloud and you'll hear how appalling and clunky that is. Apoca-green-alyse. Apocaenvirochockalocka.... argh! Why couldn't I just write a sexy vampire novel like that nice boy down the street?

Anyway. The book came out and one of the first reviews had this word, ecofantasy.

Oh! That's a thing? Thank goodness, I thought, and it’s catchy, too.

Except: If it is a thing, who else is doing it?

So I went looking. I didn't find a ton of stuff. Ecofantasy may be a thing, but it's not necessarily a huge one. My brain, which always serves up junk as its first ten answers, kept coming up with my favorite works of ecological science fiction, like Derryl Murphy’s “The History of Photography” or Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather and realizing, “NO! Not Fantasy! Too sciencey!”

In time, though, I did find other works, like Walter Jon WIlliams's Metropolitan, where magic is a metered public utility. There's Harry Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand, and Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber.

Even Patricia Briggs commits ecofantasy in one of her subplots--she’s got a storyline in one of her Mercy Thompson novels where werewolves get kidnapped for use as lab animals by a Big Pharma company.

Looking at these and thinking it over, I came up with a few concrete ideas to spell out what ecofantasy is:

  • Ecofantasy must contain some element of the magical; otherwise it's science fiction.
  • It nevertheless displays an awareness of the environment, of ecosystems science and biology.
  • Ecofantasies take place on worlds where the magical element is part of a larger system, whether it's a semi-sentient Gaian world-entity or a post-apocalyptic realm where dragons are used to incinerate garbage.
  • This one might be shaky but... the genre inhabits a middle ground between fantasy and science fiction in terms of prose style, combining the poetic sensibility often associated with the former with the harder-edged scientific language of the latter. It is neither A Midsummer Night's Dream nor Snow Crash, but something in between.
  • Ecofantasy often references or directly addresses current "green" societal concerns about global climate change, ocean rise, pollution, overpopulation, mass extinctions, the evolution of disease-resistant microorganisms and the coming peak oil crisis.
  • Ecofantasy recognizes the complexity of biological systems, and often echoes this in its magical aspects. Rarely do we see characters with the simple ability to wave a magic wand and thereby clean up an oil spill. In ecofantasy, the wizard who creates an oil-spill devouring monster will then have to find somewhere to keep that monster after the clean-up... not to mention figuring out how to get it to said quarantine, alive or dead.
  • Do you have favorite books or stories that fit into this frame? I am always looking for more examples.


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    This page contains a single entry by Alyx Dellamonica published on November 16, 2015 5:44 PM.

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