Paul Di Filippo (pgdf) wrote in theinferior4,
Paul Di Filippo


High Stakes: A Wild Cards Novel
Edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
ISBN: 978-0765335623

Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery
ISBN: 978-1481485579

Is the Bible the first shared-world fantasy novel? (Long ago, writer and editor Terry Carr joked that his coworker, editor Don Wollheim, famous for his sensationalist blurbs, might have published the Good Book as an Ace Double, with the paired straplines for Old and New Testaments being "War God of Israel/The Thing with Three Souls.”)

If we can put all sacrilege and irreligiosity aside, the question remains a serious one. In the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, John Clute responds in the affirmative: “It could be argued that the first shared-world anthology to make a significant impact on the Western World was the Christian New Testament…” And indeed the New Testament experience of a multiplicity of authors all working to chronicle a shared experience or vision strikes to the heart of a more secular and literary enterprise which today goes by several names, such as “shared-world fiction” or “franchise fiction” or even, clunkily, “multi-author braided meganovels.” The pejorative term “share-cropping” has also been tossed about.

The notion of more than one person combining their imaginative efforts and technical expertise to produce an organic unified narrative goes against the long-standing and dominant Romantic notion of the lone creator uniquely striving to reify a conception only he or she can fully comprehend, while exercising one-hundred-percent control over the shaping. And yet collaborating on fiction has a history at least as long as its counterpart modality embodied by the solo creator.

The instance of a pair of authors working together is so omnipresent and almost trivial that we will put it aside for the purposes of this essay, and examine more complex versions of collaboration.

All oral traditions of storytelling can certainly be regarded as collaborative in nature. As stories were passed down from generation to generation, they were doubtlessly embroidered by each teller. Despite the possible existence of an historical Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey we know today probably represent the work of many hands—or many ears and mouths.

As fiction became a bourgeois consumer item, commodified and capable of providing a living to its creators, commercial tactics of production involving multiple writers began to be employed, to maximize return on investment and get past bottlenecks. Just as painters had long utilized nameless assistants to finish or entirely produce canvases issued under the name of the more famous studio head, so too did Alexandre Dumas enlist helpers towards his ultimate achievement of some 310 books. Nowadays, James Patterson is the heir to the Dumas factory model.

But the spirit of collaborating for fun and for the challenge of matching wits rather than for sheer profit seemed to predominate over this factory approach. Festive “round robins” for a time enjoyed a vogue. In this practice, multiple authors generally contribute separate chapters to a narrative rather than mix their prose into a blended whole. The field of fantastika, noted for its close collegiate ties among writers, lent itself to the round robin, with one of the most famous, The Challenge from Beyond, involving even H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. (And of course, the contemporaneous “Cthulhu Mythos” pulp tales by HPL and friends established a collaborative narrative still underway today.) The mystery field had its share of round robins as well, with The Floating Admiral harnessing the talents of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Every now and then, the round robin novel resurfaces, such as the infamous Naked Came the Stranger and its irreverent offspring Naked Came the Manatee. Ken Kesey and one of his writing classes turned out Caverns, as by O. U. Levon. More recently, in The New Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, I myself kicked off a round robin dedicated to exemplifying that mode of fantastika.

When Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, followed a little over a year later by Marvel Comics #1, two of the largest and still extant shared-world enterprises were, all unwittingly, set in motion. Not only is every individual comic book a collaborative enterprise among writers, artists, letterers, et al, but the massive fictional universes known as the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe—intimately familiar to millions nowadays, in large part due to cinematic adaptations—have been formed by the cumulative input of thousands of creators. Madame Bovary as a character has but one parent, Flaubert, as does Leopold Bloom with Joyce. Superman and Spider-Man derive their history and substance from the myriad creators who have each added their contributions, small or large, through their storytelling. This quality of consensus historicity is both revered and dreaded as “continuity,” the canonical “bible” if you will that has been distilled through the sifting and discarding and highlighting of selected incidents from myriad tales.

Likewise, the major media franchises—who also employ the term “bible” for their continuity guides—are vast shared worlds. It is plain that Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek have that same quality in common with superhero enterprises. But even mimetic shows that attain a certain magnitude of episodes grow into shared worlds. The Dick van Dyke Show or Cheers or Gunsmoke ramify by the same collaborative accretions as Firefly or Buffy.

The desire of fans with writerly inclinations to participate in these large fictional universes has led to an explosion of “fan fiction,” a phenomenon well surveyed and dissected. Again, although individual pieces of “fanfic” might be the creations of solo authors, in toto they are absorbed into the composite history.

The proliferation of internet platforms and social media have vastly facilitated and encouraged fan fiction, which has been around since the days when paper fanzines were state of the art. Sites such as Wattpad and deviantArt serve to host and disseminate the productions of fans. And cloud-based software such as Google Docs that allows multiple users access to the same files seem designed to foster collaborative writing. When the reported preference of the Millennial generation for team efforts over solo ventures is taken into account, it might seem that the day of the independent creator who does it all by himself or herself is at an end. But if this heroic figure is to persist anywhere, surely it will be in prose fiction?

And so it might be argued that these big shared world enterprises arose out of the nature of the medium: it generally takes multiple people to produce a comic book or a TV show, whereas a solo writer can still craft an entire tale singlehandedly—and nowadays even see it into print without help! But the gameplaying nature of fiction, as evidenced for instance in the round robin form, invites collaboration despite the isolation and stubborn independence of the typical writer. And, on a strictly mercenary level, if a book can have multiple famous authors associated with it instead of just one, it might sell more copies.

And so, particularly in the field of fantastika, shared-world ventures have come to earn a certain place in the field.

One of the first such instances were the two Twayne Triplet anthologies issued during the 1950s, The Petrified Planet and Witches Three. But they proved anomalous, and did not spark a trend. During the 1960s, prose spinoffs associated with several TV shows—The Prisoner and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—illustrated the power of many hands toiling at one conception. But it was in the 1970s that the notion of an assortment of writers mutually laboring to flesh out a predetermined—or at least pre-outlined—universe crystallized and took off.

Roger Elwood, an editor who in this period had been assembling many theme anthologies (a mode allied to but not identical with the shared-world format), introduced A World Named Cleopatra, which featured stories adhering to a bible by Poul Anderson. The Thieves’ World franchise created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978 soon followed to great success, and the floodgates were open. In the subsequent four decades of science fiction, fantasy and horror there have been countless shared-world franchises of greater or lesser artistic accomplishment and duration. (One spinoff of the shared-world is the traditional festschrift volume, in which authors contribute stories that play with permission in the realms of the honoree. Volumes in tribute to Zelazny, Asimov, Silverberg and Vance among others have become landmarks.)

Although the freshet of commercially produced franchises has abated in recent years—oddly enough, despite the increased availability of platforms and ostensible affection for such ventures—new ones occasionally do still arise. And at least one shared-world program has reached its thirtieth anniversary with a new volume to hand.

The Wild Cards universe was established in 1987 by George R. R. Martin and friends. Its premise is simple yet expansive: in the year 1946, Earth was exposed to an extraterrestrial virus that bred superheroes (Aces) and super monsters (Jokers), and since that date history has been very different. Working from that conception, the series has accumulated roughly two dozen volumes to date. With a recent television option in hand, which Martin announced in August 2016, the future of the franchise seems assured.

The latest installment in book form was assembled by Melinda M. Snodgrass, whom Martin calls “my assistant editor and right-hand man on Wild Cards since its inception.” The writers involved are David Anthony Durham, Stephen Leigh, John Jos. Miller, Snodgrass herself, Caroline Spector and Ian Tregillis.

Probably the first thing to mention is that the contributions of each author are not demarcated—in distinction to the approach taken by our next subject. The narrative is a blended whole, and achieves a smooth organic mix, stylistically and on a unified pacing level. A stream-of-consciousness passage in the “Wednesday” chapter—seven chapters with the names of the days of the week constitute the speedy timeframe, overstuffed with events as it is—does leap out as a rogue element, but that’s about the only such individualistic obtrusion. The desired blend is hyperkinetic, punchy, noirish and short on any real aperçus or reflective moments about the underlying concept. Watchmen, this is not.

What’s being offered here is a thriller-cum-caper-cum-horror novel with flavors of the Hellboy, Suicide Squad and Deadpool franchises, all grim ‘n’ gritty. This attitude stands in distinction to the early days of Wild Cards, when emphasis was placed, at least in part, on unpacking the deeper meanings of superheroism—with a tinge of Golden Age optimism—and on examining the counterfactual changes that resulted from the “Wild Card” event of 1946. But thirty years of audience acceptance of the foundational novum, as well as the interior passage of time in the Wild Cards universe itself, has seemingly rendered such concerns obsolescent. (Insofar as counterfactuality goes, this universe, despite its major disruptions, still somehow features such familiar touchstones as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.) With Aces and Jokers just accepted as part of the landscape, stakes have to be sought elsewhere and raised—literally, as the title indicates.

And so we have nothing less than the potential destruction of humanity underway. And as the third book in “The Fort Freak Triad,” events are already avalanching at the opening shot.

Several threads run in parallel and eventually converge.

In one segment we follow the actions of what might be called the Establishment’s Aces: the team assembled under the banner of the United Nations Committee on Extraordinary Interventions. In another, we watch criminal Ace Mollie “Tesseract” Steunenberg as she attempts to stay free of the cops and enrich herself with teleportation crimes. Meanwhile, Marcus “Infamous Black Tongue” Morgan and his girlfriend Olena are on the run in Europe from a woman named Baba Yaga. But it proves rather difficult for Marcus to remain inconspicuous:

Marcus Morgan slid out of the barn. Normally, he was smooth and powerful, propelled by serpentine muscle that began at his waist and stretched twenty feet to the tip of his brightly ringed tail. He cut an impressive figure, snake on his lower half, a well-muscled young African-American man from the torso up.

And pursuing Baba Yaga in Talas, Kazakhstan, is an American cop named Francis Black, who soon discovers that a metaphysically chained-up demon whom Baba Yaga has been harboring is now rampaging freely.

On the video feed from the lead Kazakh tank, a thing came out of the fog: taller than a house, great spidered legs gouging the concrete of the roadway like gigantic pile drivers, its carapace above seeming to be composed of a dozen or more naked human bodies, writhing and wriggling like maggots inside a gelatinous sheath, their heads staring as one toward the tank, mouths open in screams of rage. Barbara could hear the creature, howling like a crazed mob, as the front two spider legs grabbed the turret of the tank, lifting and swinging it, sky and fog and ground spinning madly in the video, then that feed went dead.

And so in a campaign of chaotic superhuman thrust and parry, the nominal good guys fight to put down the extra-dimensional menace, swearing, snarking, snarling and sneering heartily, and undercutting each other for reasons of selfish glory-hounding, eventually succeeding despite themselves amidst a Boschian battlefield piled high with corpses and broken dreams. Franny Black ends thus: “Regret and guilt washed over him. He had become as monstrous as the woman he had punished.” The whole effect is rather similar to dark-hued Milkweed Triptych, participant Ian Tregillis’s own counterfactual series about Nazis, mutants and malign deities—a fact which might illustrate the tendency of a strong-willed participant in a shared-world coming to dominate the tenor of the work

On the whole, Captain Marvel, Billy Batson, would cluck his tongue and exclaim “Holy Moly!” at the rather dour evolution of the series.

* * *
The format of serial fiction can lend itself to a shared-world production, especially in the case of the round robin, where the baton of narrative is handed off at the end of each installment. Even with more pre-planning and coordination than in the shambolic fannish collusions of yore, these types of tales may retain more of a heterogenous, patchwork nature than a blended work such as Wild Cards. This is certainly the case with Bookburners, which first appeared as chapters on the website Serial Box, a platform dedicated to this type of fiction. Author Ellen Kushner helmed another such, titled Tremontaine, which is due out later this year. But first to hand in collected form is the one conceived by Max Gladstone.

Gladstone the originator naturally enough gives us Episode One, in which we are introduced to NYC cop Sal Brooks. Off-duty, she receives a visit from her wayward brother Perry who is carrying a stolen deadly book with magical properties. Hot on his tail are an odd trio, a priest, a woman and a friar of sorts, soon to be introduced as Father Menchú, Grace and Liam. Amidst satanic eruptions and various chases and confrontations, Sal soon learns that the trio represent the Vatican’s secret Societas Librorum Occultorum—the “Bookburners”—whose mission is to find and sequester all dangerous vile tomes. They eventually succeed in Perry’s case, but contact with the supernatural leaves Perry comatose. Sal is recruited to the team, and vows to seek a cure for her brother.

Episode Two, by Brian Francis Slattery, finds the team back at HQ in Rome, where Sal is introduced to the Black Archives librarian Asanti, the last major figure of the team. Then it’s off to another demonic incursion in Madrid. Episode Three falls to Margaret Dunlap, who chronicles an onslaught in the team’s own backyard, Rome. In Episode Four, from Mur Lafferty, Asanti leaves her wonted seclusion, with Sal, for Glasgow, where the legacy of her deceased mentor threatens the peace.

At this point, having seen an installment from each of the participants, it will be noted that while a certain consistency of voice and viewpoint is nicely maintained, individuality of vision is also allowed. For instance, Lafferty is inclined to flesh out Sal’s backstory more than her partners: “It reminded [Sal] most of a moldy old library relatives had shown her in Savannah…” And she is the one who explores Sal’s ongoing romantic relationship with Liam. Some of this might just be luck of the draw, as certain plot elements chronologically demand accounting by whoever’s on deck. But by Episode Seven, when Gladstone returns and kicks over the table somewhat by dividing his chapter into two threads, one of which does not for the first time feature Sal, and by deepening the backstories of the team, the reader senses that the players have more of a free hand with their material than otherwise, lending a pleasant unpredictability to what’s ahead.

And so, through a cosmopolitan variety of venues, introducing a splendid collection of nasties, cleverly exfoliating the hints of things to come planted early on, the Bookburners scrabble to protect the world against occult menaces, right up to a suitably resonant and definitive climax engineered by Gladstone in Episode Sixteen.

Neatly constructed as it is, Bookburners does not tread any new territory. Its depiction of the uncanny in our mundane sphere is not as florid or demented as Clive Barker’s saga of Harry D’Amour. It is not as droll about the intersection of bureaucracy and magic as Charles Stross’s Laundry Files. It does not offer the procedural grittiness or sense of place found in Paul Cornell’s London-centric Shadow Police series. Amiable and with a sense of bonhomie, it’s kind of a Night at the Museum-style version of these predecessors. Fun enough, but not as spooky or arcane as other entrants in this category. Still, it never palls and good-naturedly repays the reading.

* * *
As instances of the shared-world concept, Wild Cards and Bookburners illustrate, each in its own way, that collaborative fiction writing is a tightrope between visionary independence and communal compromise. At best, such narratives derive strength from the synergistic brainstorming of the contributors. At worst, they are like the wry fable of the horse-design group that produced a camel. Never likely to result in a masterpiece, the collaborative process continues to offer the not insignificant pleasures of seeing a group of writers trying on literary costumes they might otherwise never have worn.
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