I just sort-of went to a writer’s conference (it was entirely online, hence the “sort-of”). I’d like to say right now to anyone I talked with; I was never wearing pants at any point (in a plague-ravaged world where we can’t leave our homes, you have to find the silver-lining where you can). I did not sell my book. No, not that one. No, not that one, either (but I got some encouraging feedback).

Which is a little discouraging, but I got some call-backs on a first attempt which is highly encouraging, but that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about. I’m here to talk about Urban Fantasy. You already know this genre, whether you know it or not; it’s the standard “Magic is real, and it takes place in this world, but it’s only evident to certain people.” It’s Harry Potter. It’s Harry Dresden. It’s most of Neil Gaiman’s work. Before all of that, it was Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks (if you want instant nerd cred, just drop that name). And I only bring all of this up because every single person on the planet now has a de facto urban fantasy they want to sell, usually featuring a love triangle. There’s nothing like mixing it up with creative types to learn that people aren’t very creative, and the sort of not-free-market capitalism we’re in encourages a unique form of gate-keeping that discourages artistic risks. I’m not actually here to critique that, surprisingly; I’m here to critique this CS Lewis/Lewis Carroll concept that there’s a magical world just behind this one if you only go through this rabbit hole or this particular closet. I’m here to tell you that you’re only a few blocks from a different universe, and the only thing standing between you and that world is the white, patriarchal society we live in.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you’re likely aware that black Americans have a substantially different life and set of challenges than white America. And, if you are white in America, under the right circumstances, you can drive to another community, kill two people and permanently maim a third, and wind up a hero amongst some very strange groups (I’m referring to the Kenosha Killer, who literally crossed state lines for the opportunity to kill people)(anyone who defends the police from this point will have to also defend KK’s obsession with becoming a cop). The governments at federal, state, and municipal levels have very clearly communicated that if you are visible minority in this country, it’s open season on you.

No one’s flocking to these places to write about what is going on in Black America, LGBT America, Hispanic America, or Crippled America, even though you could, essentially, be a war reporter without the bother of catching an international flight (which is a good thing, because more and more countries are refusing American passports). You could spend weeks building worlds of unicorns, giants, and complex systems of magic and history (sort of like George RR Martin), or, as a simple contrast, you could just spend a week in my old stomping grounds of Miami, a place so bizarre that frozen lizards actually fall from the sky (this is absolutely true — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qnk3CxXffU)(and, to be perfectly honest, if I had to rank which was more disturbing; a Dementor attack or being knocked out by a hefty Stouffer’s Iguana, I’d have to write a pro-con list).

You could write a dystopian sci-fi novel in which corrupt governments have created distinct classes and geographically separate them, or you could go directly to a black community in Wisconsin which, I guarantee you at this point, puts John Carpenter’s fictional Manhattan in Escape from New York to shame (not to knock the black community, but I think they’d agree there’s an eerie similarity to being walled off, prevented from entering or leaving your community, and surrounded by heavily-armed guards, as the fictional Manhattan was). In artificial intelligence (and science fiction), there’s a concept called “The Singularity;” the point at which AI becomes smarter than its creators, rendering them obsolete. For me, the singularity was when non-fiction started becoming stranger than fiction, and we breezed past that at some point in the Bush Administration.

You could set up a scene in which the heroes have to dine with evil faerie queens and outmaneuver them or be killed, or, you could just attend a traditional Mexican Christmas celebration with family friends (if you do not have any Hispanic family friends, you’re doing something very wrong, because they are the kindest, most hospitable people on the planet), which is similarly dangerous. No, I don’t mean that you might get shot or stabbed; merely that you might be told to eat beforehand, because they’re only going to have a light dinner; only to discover that a Mexican light dinner is 35 pounds of enchiladas. And then there’s a bonfire, a pinata, and then carol-singing. You’ll likely have to come with an excuse to “leave early” at 1 am, because there’s only so much a human body can take before it gives out, and maybe that 26th tamale was a mistake.

I lived in the Caribbean, and the experience would put most sci-fi franchises to shame, I’ve little doubt (did Kirk ever face down a 20-centimeter centipede? They’re more terrifying than a Gorn)(there’s a pretty clear set of instructions for defeating lizard-creatures; the literature is much more vague when it comes to creatures that move at Mach 2 and are as venomous as a rattlesnake).

In my own case, having a chronic disease in America so substantially removes one from the mainstream that we tend to feel most at-home only with other members of the tribe. English doesn’t even have a term for the challenges most of us face (I can tell you I have an unreliable leg, or that stress or fatigue removes my ability to reliably walk, but that still fails to convey the mental calculations I have to make when trying to decide if the risk of death outweighs my full bladder at 3 am). Most of us have passing privilege, and, in the wake of America’s unofficial war on visible minorities, I think most of us with invisible illnesses are going to quietly abandon support groups, shutter the windows, and pretend we’re all normal and healthy. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of harm that’s going to do to every person who partially recovers from COVID only to discover they now have a new, life-threatening chronic heart condition.

Whilst the rest of America dreams of seeing a hippogriff; I’ve met women who personally witnessed atomic weapons tests. I’ve met people — plural, mind you — who outlived terminal diagnoses (I’m one of them, but the fact that I’m not close to alone in that statement should blow your mind). I get to walk among them in this invisible world that’s just below the surface of your reality because we’ve been banished by the outside world. As I’ve pointed out before, all of my cancer friends likely wouldn’t be in my life if not for a shared disease or set of circumstances. And, while I’m sure most of us are horrified and disturbed at events unfolding at a national level, most of us probably aren’t surprised. Everyone on Planet Cancer has been made aware, on some level, that society really would prefer it if we buggered off and died quietly instead of demanded expensive, unreliable healthcare. If we’re fine with sacrificing Grandma just because she needs a hysterectomy and radiation therapy, is it really so outlandish that we’re really fine with the concept of armed men killing unarmed people who look differently than us? We certainly do when it’s the US Marines in Asia, a murderous, genocidal domestic policy is merely the inverted version of US foreign policy.

What I saw at the conference is that the most-rapacious segments of society are eager for new fiction that transports them to new worlds. The shame of it is, they could get there faster if they just started visiting Detroit more often, or volunteering at the local mosque, or visiting people in assisted-living homes. Some of these places might take a little extra care and effort to find and get an invitation, but it’s worth it. The other conceit of urban fiction that needs to be demystified is that it inevitably portrays humans as more-generous and humane than we actually are; we don’t go back and nuke Narnia. We don’t privatize Hogwarts and make it into a for-profit university. We don’t release horrific bioweapons on the denizens of Pandora. How do I know that’s what we’d do to these place? Very simply; because America is doing that right now to black people in the Midwest. If you think the Dursleys would not immediately try to monetize Harry Potter’s existence; I can put you in touch with some foster kids who will disabuse you of that naivete.

My point here isn’t that people should read less (heaven forbid), or that people should become less enthusiastic about nerd genre fiction; it’s that there are entire realities far stranger than you could even begin to imagine out there, should you decide to go exploring. They’re very real, very friendly, and they’re disappearing.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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