Does magic trump tech in urban fantasy?

I caught up with a few episodes of Shadow Hunters the other week. OK, well, I binge-watched them.

Photo I took of a classic urban skyline (central Sydney…)

Urban fantasy, as a broad genre, has been growing on me of late. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition: modern life and technology strapped up against old-style magic.

And to me, it’s not really a juxtaposition. After all, the ‘magic’ traditions that urban fantasy settings draw on – everything from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to European traditions of werewolves and vampires – were often written in ways contemporary to their own time, even if they drew on older tales. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, was very much an ‘urban fantasy’ of the 1890s. Or take Mallory’s version of the King Arthur story, which was specifically re-cast to fit the ideals of late Medieval chivalry.

So in that general sense, urban fantasy isn’t a new genre at all. And why not update the old fantasy themes to the modern world? Vampires with cellphones? Why not. I’m sure Count Dracula would have used one if he’d had it.

One point of interest – for me anyway – is how the writers handle the setting. Does magic trump tech? Is it integrated? That was certainly the idea in Shadow Hunters, where high-tech systems worked hand in hand with magic, pretty much seamlessly.

But it seems to me that at the end of the day the real arbiter isn’t the setting. That’s going to give the story a particular flavour. But what’s going to drive reader or viewer interest will always be the storyline and characters. It’s true of all genres, isn’t it? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “Does magic trump tech in urban fantasy?

  1. I like the idea of magic and tech. I wrote a scene a couple of years ago in which a coven guided a team of assassins towards a target. The target was viewed remotely in a bowl of bewitched water, the assassins’ progress monitored on a laptop using GIS tracking.

    You’re right about the contemporary settings of the old fantasy stories, but also the ‘magic’ of olden times would have been, to some people, a science. (Alchemy was practiced by Isaac Newton.)

    But none of it holds water if the characters are duds. I gave up on Lost Girl when the demon’s demonic mother turned up and started baking ‘cookies.’ Talk about an insult to the intelligence.

    1. The contemporary setting of those old fantasy stories came home to me, years ago, when I went to Efteling (of all places) – where the Grimms influence absolutely underpinned the whole style of the rides and entertainments, and it suddenly occurred to me that these guys hadn’t been writing fantasy, they were documenting the world they and their readers actually lived in (albeit with added fairies, dwarfs, etc…)

  2. One of my favorites of the Tech/Magic genre is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews (Ilona and Gordon Andrews). Magic returns to the world and eats away at technology, tall buildings, etc. but fades at times to allow tech to gain the upper hand.

    I haven’t seen “Shadow Hunters” but looking at the website, I think it is a bit too “young adult” for me, so think I will give it a skip.

    The comment by “The Opening Sentence” struck a chord with me. As Arthur C. Clarke put it in his “Profiles of the Future” (1961), “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Bleeding people to release “bad humours” back in the day was the height of modern medicine. It is all a matter of what we know to be truth vs superstition. Can you imagine what a doctor in the 16th century would think of a modern operating theater or emergency room?

    1. It’s definitely YA, though there are aspects of adult themes in it. I’ve got a copy of Clarke’s book – he was pure genius in so much of his futurism and commentary on society – and, of course, pursued that concept of ‘tech as magic’ openly in ‘Encounter In The Dawn/Encounter At Dawn’ – which then underpinned 2001. I always thought it hilarious that while Clarke clearly viewed this as a sci-fi thought experiment, the same idea was then picked up as if fact by Von Daniken and others…

  3. Story and character always trump everything else. If you don’t have those you’re writing a technical journal, travel guide, or textbook. Story and character are the engine, frame, and drive system on your car. Without them you’re sitting amidst a lot of fancy and expensive accessories in your garage. Yes, I want all the extras, and I want them combined in new and exciting ways, but don’t short me the essentials.

    1. So true. Character and plot are everything when it comes to a good story. I figure ‘Shadow Hunters’ gained a good deal from being based on well-written novels (I haven’t read them yet but probably will, now).

  4. I haven’t seen Shadow Hunters… what network is it broadcasted on? I think my favorite urban fantasy has to be Neverwhere. It just perfectly meshed the grit and grime of modern London with a sort of Creole voodoo that I just adored.

  5. Ah cool that you watched this- did you like it? I’m personally more of a fan of the books
    Secondly I 100% agree with your point- I always say that about world-building- as good as it can be and however much it gives a nice flavour to the story, the most important thing is always plot and characters! Without them, there’s no story!

    1. I thought it was pretty good, and a lot better than some other sci-fi/fantasy series of late. I haven’t read the books but they come with an awesome repute and I figure that gave the show a much better start than something that was simply constructed for TV.

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