Urban Fantasy puts us in worlds that look a lot like ours - but are significantly different in one or more awesome woo-woo ways. This opens the door for many fun and zany storylines - but it also opens the door to a lot of intriguing plots, reflections and commentary on our own world - and how that would change if the woo-woo actually existed.
Unfortunately, as we’ve said before, too many shows and books simply do not explore the true implications of the worlds they’ve created and it really is sad that these opportunities are missed. Here are a few of the themes, world building and plots we wish we’d see explored more often
Starting with the biggest of all: Death. And, relatedly, mourning
In so many Urban Fantasy shows and books, death is not the end. Between vampires crawling from their graves, resurrection, dimension hopping, angels, magic and who knows how many more - death is very often a minor inconvenience, like discovering your car is out of petrol. On Supernatural Sam and Dean have died so many times that each could found their own religion. On Vampire Diaries people have returned from hell, been ghosts, leaped in and out of afterlives, there’s even resurrecting jewelry… And I can’t even begin to count the number of books where everyone has thought someone was dead but they came back.
I’m not saying any of this is a bad thing - it’s a story staple - but what does that mean to people who experience this? Especially when resurrection isn’t a certainty, but something that may happen a tiny percentage of the time or after an epic struggle?
When a loved one dies, how do you mourn? At what point do you give up? When do you bury/cremate them? When do you achieve that “nebulous” closure concept? I mean, you ask families who have a loved one go missing and they will tell you the struggle of not knowing what happened to the person, whether they can move on and grieve or have to keep hoping. Well, in a world where the dead can pull themselves from the afterlife/grave, when do you stop hoping? When do you give up on someone? Can you ever actually do that or do you end up putting your dead in Snow White style glass coffins and watch them every day, hoping, praying, begging for them to come back
And if you do give up hope, how do you feel about that? Is it a betrayal? What kind of guilt comes with giving up your loved one for dead? For that matter, if coming back from the dead is a cure you could literally seek out, how long should you spend seeking that?
This is dark and meaty stuff, certainly, but the more I think about the implications the more they horrifying me
Moving on from this to another knotty topic: Faith & Belief
Like many of the fads that come and go, Angels are a frequent go-to supernatural in the genre. But so many books treat them like, for example, werewolves without tackling that the very existence of Angels is making an inherent statement of the divine. Can you be an atheist and look an Angel in the face? What about a believer in a faith that doesn’t actually have angels? What about angels who active reject the tenets of either your deeply held faith or another major world faith? You have objective reality confirming a specific religious belief; that has consequences.
And not just angels, many creatures of mythology, magical artefacts et al are not just products of swords-and-sorcery epics but are inherently connected to a particular religion. And that’s when the gods themselves don’t drop in to play. You can be the most committed Christian ever, but if Thor just crashed your church picnic, Dionysis ran off with the communion wine and Coyote has just done something absolutely hilarious to your pastor and you’re going to have some kind of crisis of faith.
For that matter, what does tangible reality do to faith? It’s one thing to think about angels as abstract beings of guidance, protection and wrath and quite another to have a trench-coated angel with a gravelly voice talking about his profound bond. It’s long said that familiarity breeds contempt - how much reverence can you feel when you can actually touch and speak to your divine? And how much are you willing to accept “through the glass darkly” and “mysterious ways” when you’re not praying by yourself to an empty room but actually asking questions to their face?
From the high and mighty to the down and dirty - let’s talk about sex. Generally speaking conversations regarding safe sex don’t appear in media. It’s become absolutely commonplace to see people hop in and out of bed with nary a word said about a condom or the pill. An unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease may not necessarily be a death sentence in our modern world but it’s at best an inconvenience and at worse heart shattering and disruptive but chances are, you will survive. To continue this cavalier approach to sex in a dystopian setting is both irresponsible and unrealistic.
This week, the internet went into full blown squee when Michonne and Rick went on their equivalent of a romantic weekend in their post apocalyptic world. In between killing zombies, and stealing/gathering supplies, Richone were hitting it hard.
This served as great fan service; however, it also highlighted an extreme problem. Lori, Rick’s now deceased wife died because she had no medical attention when she went into labour at the prison. Rick knows first hand just how dangerous a pregnancy in this world is after losing Lori and having to ferry Maggie to a doctor. Pregnancy, even in modern times, is dangerous but pregnancy in a world in which there are no medical supplies, trained doctors, ultra sounds, tools, even fucking prenatal vitamins is a dangerous endeavour. Not one time did Rick or Michonne bring up contraception. The contraception question has been raised before with Maggie and Glenn but I guess when it comes to Richonne we are just to expect that no unwanted accidents will happen.
Richonne aren’t the only couple we’ve seen have sex without having the crucial conversation regarding contraception or even what sex acts they are willing to participate in. Abraham and Rosita regularly engaged in sex without any discussion regarding contraception. Avoiding PIV would certainly eliminate much of the worry but we’ll never know if this is the compromise that the characters are making because the writers don’t seem to want to discuss this. This is a cavalier treatment of sex, given the fact that if there is a consequence to be paid for intercourse, it will inevitably be paid by the woman. There’s a reason why before the advent of modern medicine a man could expect to lose several wives to childbirth. This fact alone represents a dystopian nightmare for women but anything that doesn’t scare the great leaders is supposedly not a threat.
In fact healthcare as a subject is something that is rarely addressed (I think one book series looked at it). We often see people struggling to find water, to find any kind of food and shelter. Over and over we are hit with waves of desperation coming from the characters and yet we never see the results of this. There are several medical conditions like: diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and epilepsy to name a few, that the modern world has created medicine for and tested treatments. In a post apocalyptic world such treatment would quickly disappear. When the choice is to eat the chocolate bar and bag chips or starve, you eat the damn bag of chips and you eat the chocolate bar but for someone with diabetes the choice to eat could be deadly over the course of time. Very rarely are we shown a situation in which a character has a pre existing medical condition and how said condition impacts their life in this new post apocalyptic world. At best we have rare, one off incidences like in Colony
When these shows deal with any kind of infirmity it’s usually about some sort of wound be it a gunshot or a stab wound. Some miracle more often than not occurs after the character suffers for a few days with a high fever. Writers tend to stay away from wounds which lead to tetanus which would be a real threat in this environment because they know it would mean the death of a character. No simple fever and rubbing alcohol is going to cure tetanus. People eating a sparse and unhealthy diet along with absolute exhaustion should not be able to so easily recover from injury. Constantly the threat we are shown comes from outsiders when realistically the threat would actually be malnutrition, a lack of potable water, and lack of medical care. It’s because of advancements in nutrition and health care that we are living longer than ever before, this absence would be felt.
Diseases that were once death sentences in the past, are quickly treated with antibiotics today. To some degree, in these worlds, we have seen characters being given antibiotics from someone else’s medicine cabinet but even this attempt makes no sense because there are different antibiotics for different conditions. Antibiotics are not one size fits all situation.
Post Apocalyptic and Dystopian fare tries to keep alive the notion that anyone can die at any moment and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. For a viewer to invest these stories writers count on viewers to believe in the true horror that the characters are negotiating. We are meant to feel that nothing could be worse than that situation and to place ourselves in the position of the character. By ignoring and mistreating health issues these shows truly do themselves a disservice. Sure death by lockjaw may not be as dramatic as being consumed by a zombie, or death by laser beam, but it’s the reality of what would happen. The true horror isn’t the horrible zombie, or the alien threat, or the supposedly sexy dead vampire, but the germs we cannot see that we believe have been eradicated. Death would not be pretty and oft times not quick but it would be a good deal more honest than we have now.
Ok readers - what about you? What theme/topic/storyline do you think has been cruelly neglected in the genre? What vast potential do you think has been ignored? And, most especially, what massively important topic is being passed over when it would, quite literally, be impossible to do so? What are your missing stories?