18 March 2011

Sometimes I have trouble with urban fantasy

Much as I love vampires and werewolves, their physiology is like this constant nagging frustration for me.  This is not helped by the fact that the field has not converged on an operational definition for either of them.

Does this bother anyone else?  Just about the only thing common among all vampire myths (okay, all modern ones – man, it gets worse!) is that vampires drink human blood.  At least sometimes.  They may or may not need it to survive.  And werewolves are probably people that turn into dog-like things once a month.

Yes, this gives me a lot of room to play.  No, this is not a good thing.

Because how exactly does one turn into a dog on a moment’s notice?  Do you have any idea what kind of massive morphological overhaul we’re talking about here? 

I always pictured it kind of like a genetic cascade.  Step one, maybe you have a protein that reacts to moonlight—

And here comes logic fiasco number one. 

Let’s say you turn into a wolf in reaction to moonlight.  Moonlight but not sunlight.  Moonlight but not artificial light of equivalent wavelength.  What the hell magical property does this moonlight have, exactly?  And many werewolf-theorists claim wolves still turn on cloudy full moon nights or while they’re under the protection of, say, an awning or a thick tree canopy.  What the hell?

Okay, so maybe it’s not moon light, maybe it’s something about the gravitational effect of having the moon and the sun on opposite sides of the planet when you’re closest to the moon-side, or something, like a bizarre tidal effect.  But then any time you pulled some weird G’s like in a plane or something you’d expect some massive side-effects, wouldn’t you?  This makes just as much nonsense. 

And let’s not forget that many people (including me because it’s the only way my plot is going to work) confuse werewolves with shape-shifters and declare that these guys can turn outside of the full moon, too – at will!  Well, then you’re tacking on some additional conscious control mechanism, too, and this is starting to get really ridiculous. 

So let’s just give up and assume that there’s something super special about something to do with the light of the moon and the alignment of heavenly bodies and the electrochemical signature of your conscious desire to be a dog right now that triggers a chemical reaction in your body.  Like you turn a switch and every cell shrinks or grows or starts producing different proteins and whatnot. 
I can almost buy that part.  There are a fair few precedents for it – cephalopods (especially cuttlefish) can change colors at insanely fast speeds, fly pupae practically turn their whole bodies inside out in a matter of minutes (seriously, like well under an hour) during metamorphosis.  I don’t have much of a problem with the morphological pole-vaulting that has to go on, here, and if I want to speed up my characters’ shape transitions by a couple orders of magnitude for the sake of the story then so be it. 

But this makes an assumption that you have a genetic switch.  So let’s go back to a story like the one I’ve constructed, in which some people are born wolves and some are made via a wolf bite. 

Obviously it’s easy for born wolves to have a genetic switch in place.  But to make a wolf, you have to assume that the saliva of a werewolf contains some sort of infectious agent like a virus, and somehow this only works if that agent gets into a human bloodstream and from there spreads to all the rest of the cells in a human body, transfecting them with additional genetic material.  And this only works on humans and doesn’t even work on chimps (and don’t anyone ever comment anywhere on my blog that we’re not related to chimps.  I will reach out through your monitor and slap you). 

Okay, fine, I can pretty much buy these shenanigans too – viruses are very good at inserting their own DNA into host cells, and humans have a lot of biological anomalies that no other species have (like Alzheimer’s disease).  But it’s pushing the limit.

And if werewolfish physiology is a pain to construct, then vampires are an absolute ungodly nightmare.

My characters are pretty much invariably annoyed by this, too, and while their annoyance can get annoying I think it’s justified.  The reason vampires and werewolves work in urban fantasy settings is because they’re unbelievable.  They stay hidden because no logical person could rationally believe they exist.  And characters have every right to doubt their sanity when they learn the truth.  I understand this.

But I want some level of plausibility.  I’m that guy that sits in the back of the theatre going, “Yeah, but could you really get a flux capacitor operational with that kind of shoddy mechanic work? – why would the Cylons only make twelve models? – did the creator of the Avada Kedavra curse consider people with really thick accents, I mean wouldn’t that give some people an obvious advantage?” – and when you’re that guy, it can be very difficult to write about creatures that seem to attract supernatural powers like manure attracts flies.

This would be a lot easier if I could just study one of them.  If anyone knows where I can acquire a sample I’d greatly appreciate it.

At least I’m not writing about superheroes.


  1. I wish I could facebook "like" this...
    As is, this was by far my favorite blog post yet.

  2. Just read this post, haven't read your book (I suspecit it'd be published by now). Two things:

    1: It could be plausible that light/radiation outside the visible spectrum, penetrating clouds, could trigger the transformation.

    2: If moonlight (sunlight reflected off the moon) but not sunlight triggers it, then maybe a particular wavelength of sunlight causes a moon-mineral to emit the triggering wavelength.