The Problem With Urban Fantasy
Urban Fantasy is a broken genre.
Don’t get me wrong – I actually really enjoy urban fantasy. At least, sometimes I really enjoy it. But it has a serious issue that makes it tough to find good urban fantasy:
Traditional monsters are absolutely no match for modern technology.
Vampires are the easy example. Let’s start by talking about their traits (keep in mind that this is for traditional, folkloric vampires – not the modern versions):
- Superhuman strength (degree varies)
- Regenerate most wounds (sometimes requires drinking blood or an “overday” sleep)
- Effectively immortal
- Can only be killed by certain specific methods
- Enhanced senses, especially night vision
- Mesmerization/mind control (sometimes)
- Shapeshifting into bats or other creatures (sometimes)
- Wooden stake to the heart (lethal)
- Behedding (usually lethal, depends on mythos)
- Fire (usually lethal, again depends on mythos)
- Garlic (usually nonlethal)
- Holy water (usually can be lethal, sometimes leaves permanent injury)
- Holy relics – crosses, crufixes, etc (usually burns and/or deters them)
- Sunlight (lethal)
In a preindustrial society, this is a pretty frightening creature. It’s stronger than you are, and the general weapons you have available to you aren’t particularly useful against it. A bow might work if you have good aim and a powerful bow. Maybe a crossbow would work better – but you’d better make that shot count so that it doesn’t get you while you’re reloading. Holy water? Nice enough, if you can deliver it. Fire’s not bad, but you need a lot of it. Sunlight might be your best bet, but remember that these are creatures of the night. So that requires tracking it to its nest, which might be difficult since it can see, hear and smell better than you during the nighttime hours when it’s out and about.
But in the modern world? Please.
- The night advantage is neutralized by modern goggles and electrical lighting.
- Crossbow? Try a harpoon gun. Those things kill whales – I doubt that getting one through a vampire’s heart would be particularly tough.
- Holy water becomes extremely useful in a world that has Super Soakers and fire trucks.
- Flamethrowers. Bring the heat.
- Sunlight. Depending on the actual mechanics of it all, modern electrical lighting of the UV enhanced variety might suffice. If not, there are modern explosives to blow the roof off the vampire nest. Either way, it’s a win.
Against a decently armed modern opponent, traditional vampires are kind of a joke. To be fair, vampires aren’t the only creatures of lore that suffer this fate. Werewolves aren’t particularly frightening, either.
So what do you do about it? There are really only a few things you can do:
- Modify the way your creatures work (aka the “our vampires are different“ trope) and buff them up.
- Deprive your heroes of access to modern items.
- Turn your heroes into bumbling idiots who are incapable of using these advantages.
- Invent all-new creatures to avoid this problem entirely.
Unfortunately for fans of the genre, the most common solution is #1. In and of itself, that’s not too terrible – except so many forms of the “our vampires are different” trope just come out bad. Authors make them different without fully thinking through the implications of the changes that they make.
Even worse, the second most common solution is #3 – by virtue of the writer himself being a blathering idiot who couldn’t use the modern advantages. This is really just a subset of the fact that most creative types don’t know squat about combat, let alone how police and military forces actually operate.
One of the better solutions is the one that Jim Butcher used for The Dresden Files. In his series, the effects of magic cause technology near the source of that magic to break down. The newer the technology, the more disruptive the effect. While neither entirely original nor entirely perfect, this solution basically works. It’s logically consistent with magic and it neutralizes enough modern elements to allow the author to tell a story of well matched opponents.
The worst kind of answer is something like Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where an entire squad of supposedly elite special forces gets their ass handed to them. As near as I can tell, they suffered from a severe case of “my writers don’t know anything at all about the military or combat.” In any remotely realistic scenario, any US spec ops team chosen at random would wipe the floor with the typical threats that faced Sunnydale.