Contemporary fantasy is fantasy set in our own world — or at least, it starts in our world, the world of the current year or something close to it, with history that is the same as our own history. Barack Obama is President of the United States, Apple is trying to suppress Android phones through the patent process, unrest is happening in various parts of the Middle East, the Republicans in Congress shut down the government and ended up having to cave, and so on. Characters speak in current vernacular and wear today’s clothes. They drive cars, and they have computers, tablets, smart phones; they hold jobs in retail, sales, game design, accounting; they are soldiers, police, firefighters; they are, in short, modern people.
Contemporary fantasy starts with our own world and then adds fantasy elements: gods, devils, and superbeings; magic; quasi-humans; marvelous things. How much and what kind of these fantasy elements varies from story to story, but there’s another way to look at the variations in contemporary fantasy based on just how much disruption the fantasy elements cause in the world where we live, and whether it remains recognizable as the same world, or is changed in some way.
I tend to dislike going too far into subgenres for fantasy, and the more so into sub-sub-genres. Contemporary fantasy is itself a subgenre, and I think it works, but I find myself digging in my heels and resisting categorizing it into “urban fantasy,” “paranormal romance,” and the like, which ends up being overly formulaic and the literary equivalent of painting by numbers.
So I’m a little reluctant to start parsing and subdividing the general category of contemporary fantasy, and yet it does seem to me that there is enough variation in the potential (and actual) stories to be told in our own world with fantasy elements added, that dealing with some of this variation is called for. So: please take the remainder of this post under advisement as broad-brush suggestions, but don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed either as a reader or as a writer. The interaction of fantasy elements with our own world can be thought of in terms of a spectrum from least to greatest visible impact. What I describe below are two endpoints and a midpoint of this spectrum.
The fantasy elements are hidden from the public, and/or most people are in denial about them.
Fantasy elements, or at least the more extravagant ones, aren’t part of our collective view of reality. You won’t find werewolves, vampires, real live Norse gods, or sorcerers appearing in the evening news. You don’t walk down a city street at night fearing that you may be lured into an alley and drained of life essence by a succubus, or attend an antique auction hoping to find a dusty jar containing a genie who will grant three wishes. If this sort of thing happens in our world, it goes under the radar for most people. Only a few — including the protagonists of the story, obviously — are aware of the strange and wonderful and frightening things that happen in the shadows where most folks fear to gaze.
In this thrust or version of contemporary fantasy, the world as we know it goes on with nothing changed as far as the majority of people are concerned. The characters of the story encounter (or do) incredible things, but none of it gets reported in the evening news, and the fantasy elements aren’t part of normal waking consciousness for anyone but a select few. They happen underground, between the cracks, in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.
A lot of vampire stories are like this. So are stories about secret orders of magicians, mysterious kingdoms under the sea or in hidden mountain valleys, and intrusions into our world from the Land of Faerie (or equivalent) that are known only to the initiates.
Creating a fantasy story this way has advantages and also some obvious limits. Advantages come in the form of verisimilitude, the ability to concentrate on the story itself without having to take time familiarizing the reader with the world and society in which it takes place, and the potential to tap into our own highly complex, fast-paced, and fascinating society for non-fantasy elements to incorporate into the story. The limits are that none of the fantasy elements can be visible enough to compel public acknowledgement by scientists, journalists, politicians, and the like. One technique that’s commonly employed is to have the fantasy elements or their wielders be highly motivated to keep their existence a secret from the world. Their powers and abilities themselves become employed to preserve the secrecy in that case.
My own Star Mages trilogy represents something of an extreme example of this type of contemporary fantasy, in its first two volumes anyway. The mages of the Star and Crystal wielded extraordinary powers, but the empowering talismans themselves did not permit the powers to operate while anyone outside the orders was watching.
Other examples of this kind of contemporary fantasy can be found in many published books, movies, and TV shows. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series featured powerful wizards whose existence wasn’t recognized by the public, an order of vampires that controlled virtually the entire Third World without official notice, and on-the-fringes operation by other types of vampires, werewolves, faeries, and other fantasy elements. Anne Rice’s vampire books flowed in the same vein, with the vampires known to one another and to secret societies such as the Talamasca, but hidden from public awareness. Fantasy TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, The Secret Circle, and many others operate in the same vein, with the main characters knowing about and having contact with elements of reality that are hidden from most people.
The world knows about the fantasy elements, and it will never be the same.
A storyteller can depart from the strictly-our-world motif in contemporary fantasy if the fantasy elements become known or have a visible impact on society. This type of fantasy is set in a world that used to be identical to our own, but the revelation of fantasy elements has changed it in some way. A good example of this is perhaps Kim Harrison’s Inderland books, where much of the human race has been killed off by a runaway virus, and in the aftermath witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, etc. have come out in the open. This is still contemporary fantasy in that it includes and incorporates elements of our own modern world (technology, politics, social institutions, and so on), but it is set in a changed world rather than our own world.
This is in some respects an easier sort of tale to tell than one in which strict secrecy is preserved, but in other ways somewhat harder. It’s easier because no artificial restraints have to be imposed on the fantasy elements to prevent people from learning of their existence. It’s harder because of the greater difficulty in making the story believable, and because there’s more world-building necessary in order to accommodate the changes to society from finding out that real sorcerers, vampires, gods, demons, or faeries exist.
One story that, so far, has seldom been told, or at least not in any recent variations, is the story of the revelation itself. Suppose that the Aztec god Tlaloc were to make an appearance in Mexico City and impose a drought, demanding human sacrifices before he would allow the rain to fall. The protagonists would undertake a quest to find some power capable of opposing Tlaloc’s blood-lust, while descendants of the original Aztec priesthood emerge from the shadows and form a new cult, seeking sacrificial victims and planning to rip their hearts out on a holy day coming in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, what happens in the wider world? Panic? Do police attempt to arrest the rain god? Do Mexican politicians campaign against him? Do priests attempt to exorcise him? What occurs as a result of these things?
A lot of good stories could be found around this idea.
The world has been changed beyond all recognition by the fantasy elements.
The other extreme comes when the fantasy elements have such an overwhelming impact that the entire character of our world is changed forever. In effect, this kind of story ceases to be contemporary fantasy and becomes an other-world fantasy that is set in what used to be our world, which departs from the norm of other-world fantasy only in that elements of our world may be recovered either as working artifacts or as history that impacts current culture.
A good example of this type of fantasy is S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series. In this series, for reasons that are ultimately revealed as fantasy-element-related, all advanced technology ceases to function, most of mankind starves to death, and the bulk of the story concerns the survivors in their new, low-tech societies. Fantasy elements emerge almost from the beginning in the increased magical power available to the Wiccan characters and others, and become more pronounced as the series continues. The world of the story is very far from our own world, but many of the characters (all of them in the beginning) were born and raised in contemporary society and have memories, attitudes, and knowledge appropriate to that upbringing.
Post-apocalyptic fiction of any kind where fantasy elements predominate is this kind of quasi-contemporary fantasy. Any story in which the slate is wiped clean, and the world transformed by fantasy elements so much that it becomes an other-world fantasy that happens here, falls into this extreme end of the spectrum.
Contemporary fantasy is about what happens when fantasy elements impact the world we live in. How much impact the fantasy elements have, from minimal and invisible at one extreme to world-transforming or world-demolishing at the other, shapes the background to the story. Anywhere along the spectrum can provide the setting for a good story.