Urban Fantasy

One thing I’m planning to start on here is to write reviews of whatever book/series/author I’m currently reading. Since what I’m reading at the moment is the Alex Verus mage series, an urban fantasy series by Benedict Jacka, I’m planning to start with a post on that; however, it was getting pretty long as I planned it out, and this was partly because it started with an explanation of what urban fantasy actually is and why I love it as a genre. Since this is no doubt a subject I’ll be referring back to, I decided it was worth setting this up as a separate post.

(I am now going to burble on somewhat in trying to express all this, so consider yourself warned.)

Urban fantasy, simply enough, is a term for fantasy set in this world. The converse (as I discovered when I googled ‘urban fantasy’ to make sure I was actually getting the definition right before I started writing posts about it) is high fantasy, which is fantasy set in a fictitious world. They aren’t set-in-stone or exclusive categories, but, as a fantasy fan, I can vouch for them being useful concepts for thinking about fantasy.

Urban fantasy and high fantasy, of course, are both very broad categories which cover a multitude, and genre is only one factor among many that go into making a book good or bad, so I don’t think I could quite come out and say anything as categorical as ‘I prefer urban fantasy’. After all, there are plenty of high fantasy books out there which I love – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, Mercedes Lackey’s ‘500 Kingdom’ and ‘Valdemar’ series (serieses?), and Tamora Pierce’s various Tortall and Circle series(es), to name some key ones.

What is inherently awesome about urban fantasy, however, is the contrast between the astounding magical stuff that’s going on and the normal, everyday setting within which it takes place. There is just so much potential there for subtle humour and bathos and weirdness and… and messages about what it means to be human. Great fantasy is fantasy in which the characters are believable people whom you could imagine meeting. People dealing with/struggling with/enjoying all the things we know so well in day-to-day life. Friendship, rejection, bureaucracy, profound moral dilemmas, irritations. And a good urban fantasy series can use that backdrop of the magic/normal life contrast to highlight those things, because it shows us that, even if people did have magical powers or vampires to battle or whatnot, they would still be fundamentally people in all their ordinariness and messiness and glory.

Which is, of course, not to say that I’m going to enjoy every urban fantasy automatically, because, again, so much else plays into what makes a book good or bad. The kind of urban fantasy I particularly enjoy (although, again, this is hardly going to be a blanket rule) is the kind in which there’s a magical subculture within the ordinary day-to-day culture that’s around us, which has its own rules and customs in much the same way that normal life does, which the various participants all understand and automatically deal within, just as we do in day-to-day life. So you have this kind of double contrast; the contrast between the weird and fantastical and day-to-day human issues, and the contrast between the magic subculture and, all round it, the normal culture we know – with the characters taking both these cultures for granted in much the same way.

The Alex Verus series are a great example of this. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series are another, and very nearly ended up being the topic of my first post in this series, but it so happened that last Saturday I was returning some other library books and thought, hmmm, let’s just see if there’s anything by Benedict Jacka on the shelves, and lo and behold there were ‘Taken’ and ‘Chosen’, and some rereading began. So, that series is what I’m reading right now, and thus, if I do get a book review post up any time soon, that’ll be the one I most likely review.

Any other fantasy fans here? Any other fans of anything I’ve mentioned so far?

Is it just me, or is this kind of ironic?

The Come Reason apologetics site has a ‘Posts You May Have Missed’ feature where they tweet past posts; hence, a few days ago, I found a post of theirs entitled Beware The Thought Police Against Religion!

This post was written a couple of years ago in response to the decision of Pasadena Health Department to rescind the offer of the job of head of the Public Health Department to Eric Walsh, after finding some rather concerning sermons that Walsh had preached, recorded, and posted on YouTube. Apparently the beliefs Walsh expressed in these sermons included, among others, that Catholicism, gay acceptance, evolution and rap music were all tools of the devil; that single parents were ruining their children; and that condom distribution was only going to increase AIDS rates. (I found that information, by the way, in this article; the Come Reason post on the subject glosses over the content of the sermons somewhat.) It seems that the Pasadena Health Department, on finding these sermons, seriously questioned Walsh’s ability to provide an effective health service. Can’t think why.

Lenny Esposito (the author of the Come Reason post) lamented what he sees as an attack on free speech, rhetorically demanding ‘When did the First Amendment require an asterisk?’ He doesn’t quite seem to have understood the First Amendment; I looked it up (I’m British, so what I knew about it was ‘something something free speech something something something’) and it turns out that what it actually said was that Congress can’t make laws against freedom of speech or religion, not that nobody is allowed to do anything in response to someone’s speech that might have adverse consequences for that person. So, if the First Amendment did have an asterisk, I guess it would have to be something like this:

Congress shall make no law* respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

*Look, we said that Congress shall make no law. Not that nobody is allowed to take any action whatsoever regarding what a person has said. So read the flippin’ thing properly already, and stop making stuff up that isn’t in there.

I may have to fine-tune the legalese a bit on that one.

(Edited to add: For a much more sensible and well-informed comment on the issues, see Kengi’s comment on this post, just below.)

Anyway, that actually wasn’t the main thing I wanted to say about this post. What struck me was this:

Esposito is lamenting the fact that Walsh, and other people in examples he quotes, are suffering adverse consequences for expressing their beliefs. He sees this as an immoral attack on their rights. But this is a Christian apologetics blog. In other words, Esposito is a vocal member of a religion that believes that God will send you to a torturous hell forever for holding the wrong beliefs. And he believes that this is completely good and moral of God.

I have no doubt that Esposito would have some kind of explanation for this inconsistency. (Because God made the universe and gets to do what he wants with it? Because God isn’t really sending people to hell for their beliefs as such, but just set up a system in which the default is ending up in hell and the only way out happens to be to believe particular things, so that’s quite all right then, isn’t it? Because… oh, I don’t know, you think of one.) But it did strike me as pretty ironic.

In the meantime, good for the Pasadena Health Department. I’d also be pretty darned concerned about the kind of unbiased, compassionate, evidence-based health care that someone with those views was capable of providing.

Why I Don’t Trust The Creationism Movement

There Is Hope For Atheists! At least, Ken Ham at the creationist site Answers in Genesis thinks so. I’m sure you’re all as relieved as I was to hear that.

(A shout out, by the way, to Libby Anne’s post on the subject on her excellent blog Love, Joy, Feminism, without which I would not have found that article. I have not yet reached the strength of stomach required to actually browse AiG in search of reading matter.)

The hope in question, it seems, is that creationists may yet manage to persuade us to give up the ‘evolutionary ideas’ in which we have been ‘indoctrinated’ and turn to Christianity instead. (Ken Ham is one of those people whose worldview holds Christianity and evolution to be incompatible, hence the either-or.) What gave Ham this hope, or at least what inspired him to write this article about it, was apparently an encounter with a woman called Donna who, according to her testimony, actually did convert from atheism and ‘evolutionary ideas’ to Christianity after hearing one of his lectures back in 1993. Donna is quoted as saying:

I was a die-hard evolutionist, completely convinced that the fossil finds in Olduvai Gorge supported the “evidence” that we evolved from less-complicated, early hominid creatures, like the so-called “Lucy”.

To keep a long story short: I attended a Creation Seminar at Cedarville College [now Cedarville University], sat in rapt attention as Ken Ham told me “the rest of the story,” and I realized that all of the fossil finds I believed supported evolution were, in all cases, misinterpreted. I was blown away! So, learning the truth about evolution preceded my realizing that God was real (after all!) and that the Bible was His Word. I became a creationist before I became a believer in Christ.

She then went on to convert to Christianity and spend a blissful life reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, and raising two God-fearing daughters, one of whom went on to marry a pastor. All thanks to Ken Ham’s creationism (and Jesus, of course), natch.

So, this story (the bit I quoted in italics, not the rest) reminded me of something that happened when I was still in medical school.

I was at a student discussion group run by a fundamentalist Christian couple, the remit of which was to discuss controversial issues from a primarily Christian perspective. I wasn’t a Christian and had absolutely no desire whatsoever to become one, but I was a lonely, insecure introvert with limited social skills and a desperate desire to feel part of a tribe, so every year at Freshers’ Fair I would sign up for any group that sounded even vaguely interesting, and the group was happy to accept my sign-up. (You know… reading that over, I bet they really were.) Besides, this was pre-Internet; I didn’t have that many other opportunities to have heated discussions about controversial issues.

So, a few weeks in, we ended up doing the topic of creationism vs. evolution. And the people running it showed us a video about why we should believe creationism. The narrator told us about all the reasons why, despite all scientific claims to the contrary, the Earth could not possibly be any more than a few thousand years old and therefore there was no chance that the diversity of life that exists today could have developed through evolution. I watched and listened to the explanations of why radioactive dating was hopelessly unreliable, of how research had demonstrated that neutrino flux would destroy any shreds of reliability that radioactive dating retained, of how the Earth’s magnetic field would have been far too strong thousands of years ago for the Earth to have held together in those days. It was well-presented, logically argued, persuasive, compelling. It sounded extremely convincing.

Weeeeeeell…. except for the fact that believing this video would mean believing that scientists – a bunch of extremely clever people with a whole lot of degrees and PhDs and scientific knowledge to their credit – had somehow all, every last one, collectively missed the existence of all this apparently unarguably persuasive evidence. Somehow, that bit didn’t really seem very convincing at all.

Something just wasn’t adding up right here. I decided I really wanted to find out what the other side of this story was, and that I wanted to reserve judgement till then.

This was, as I said, in pre-Internet days, so it wasn’t all that easy. On the plus side, however, I did have access to both a major city centre library and a university library where I could read journals. I was (am) also obsessively persistent. I plugged away over the week, ferreting out what bits of information I could on the topic; and in due course my search led me to the Journal of Geological Education 1982, vol 30, issue 1.

The Journal of Geological Education 1982; 30(1) was an issue devoted entirely to debunking Young Earth Creationist claims. And oh, what a delight it was to find. It covered every single point the video had covered and then some, and it did it beautifully. It explained, in ways that I as a non-geologist could follow with reasonable ease, exactly how and where each of their claims was wrong. The claim about the neutrinos. The claim about the Earth’s magnetic field. The claim about the cosmic dust. The claim about the misdated Hawaiian volcano. Every last point that that video had raised was in there and was deliciously debunked.

It was fantastic reading. I blessed the authors who’d written it (which was rather ironic of me, come to think of it). I was hugely grateful to them for putting so much time and effort into spelling out why all these plausible-sounding creationist claims were such utter rubbish.

(And I wasn’t oblivious to the implications of them having done so. After all, these were sciencey people running a science journal, so they no doubt had all sorts of far more important and interesting things to write about than hopelessly failed science and the ways in which it had hopelessly failed. And yet they had felt the need to devote an entire issue to it. Why, it was almost as if… no, surely not… almost as if Creationists were really renowned for insisting on spreading utter misinformation to the point where they were making a major nuisance of themselves!)

Anyway, I made careful notes, typed them up, and took them with me to the next week’s meeting, where I somewhat diffidently informed the group that before we got started I had been reading about the things we’d been told last week and thought I had better let them know what I’d found out. I went through each point in turn and explained to them the things I’d learned about why all the claims we’d heard were in fact known to be completely and hopelessly inaccurate.

After I’d finished, there was a short silence while everyone tried to figure out what to say next. The man in charge eventually said “Right. Well, that was… very good, and obviously we’d have to ask you for your references for everything you’ve just said…”

“Journal of Geological Education 1982, volume 30,” I chirped brightly, best Helpful Mode on. “On the _____ floor in the ______ library. Around [details of roughly where on the shelves I’d found the issue located].”

“Ah… yes. Thanks. We’ll… look into that. Thank you.”

And we moved on to discuss whatever that week’s issue was and let the matter drop. I have no idea whether that incident made any lasting difference to the worldview of anyone there. But it is nonetheless satisfying to know that at least that was one time when creationists didn’t get away with spreading their lies unopposed.

Meanwhile, my take-home message from that incident was, of course, that Creationism is not a movement that can be trusted to give accurate or reliable information about anything. Sadly, nothing that I have learned about them since then has ever done anything to disprove this.


All of which leaves me with the thought that, if this story about Donna is actually true (and I do take the point of the commenters on Libby Anne’s article that it may not be), then what happened was that she had the same first reaction as I had, but not the second. She had the “Wow, I never heard all this before and it sounds so plausible! There must be something to it!” reaction, but not the “But how could every scientist have somehow missed this? This doesn’t make sense. Better check this out further.” Instead, she looked for further answers from the very group that was – unbeknownst to her – feeding her misinformation, rather than checking the accuracy what they had to say.

(Which is, unfortunately, a very normal human reaction; so much so that it has a name, confirmation bias. Our natural tendency as humans is to look for information that supports what we already believe to be right, rather than actively searching for the existence of information that might potentially prove us wrong. I escaped that tendency on this occasion, but there have been many other times in my life when I fell into the confirmation bias trap and wasn’t too proud of myself later when I realised. Although, mind you, while Donna ended up believing Creationism, I’ve ended up an atheist skeptic with my very own FreeThoughtBlogs platform, so I guess I must have done something right somewhere along the way.)

Hello there, everyone…

Yes, indeed… I am yet another of the large new influx of bloggers that Pharyngula has just been telling you about. And this is very exciting and quite scary for me, because, while I have been blogging for almost ten years now on one site or another, they’ve always been the kind of tuppenny-ha’penny personal blogs that people occasionally stumble across when they’re googling something. And, suddenly, here I am on a very public platform doing the metaphorical Internet equivalent of worrying about how silly my voice sounds over the microphone.

If you clicked on this blog then you probably want to know a bit about me, so here you are: My name is Sarah and I’m a 45-year-old GP living in England with one husband and two children. I’m a skeptic, a humanist, a feminist, and an atheist, and I love debunking myths when I can find the time to do so. I also love reading, and I’m a big fan of fantasy: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (most of his non-Discworld books actually aren’t all that), Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series, Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms and most of her Valdemar books, and probably several others.

In case you’re interested, here are some of my previous blogs:

Good Enough Mum: a general one about my life, in practice mostly about my life as a mum.

Thoughts From An Atheist: some writings of mine on religion and on the not having of it.

Parenting Myths, Parenting Facts: a few things I’ve written debunking some of the latest dogmas around parenting practice. For those who are interested in that sort of thing.

I’m also about to be late for dinner, so that should do for now. I’m thrilled to be here and look forward to posting more and getting to know people.