House of Cards

by Max Gladstone

I’m here because of Roger.


I don’t mean here-on-the-Wild Cards-blog-here, I mean, quite likely, here-writing-science-fiction here. When I was a kid, my uncle gave me a battered cardboard box of science fiction paperbacks from the1970s or so. That’s still how I think books are supposed to look and smell, even though nobody’s made them quite like that for forty years: small paperbacks with stained edges and bold covers. One of those books was a copy of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I tried to read it when I was nine or so. I made it halfway. A year later, awake and jet lagged, I started the book again and by the time the sun was up I knew I had to read everything this man ever wrote.

Years later in a youth hostel lobby in Beijing I found Zelazny’s name on the cover of a trade paperback edition of an anthology called Wild Cards. That cover had a host of other mindblowing names, people whose books I’d loved and whose work I’d followed, but none for quite so long. I have no idea what path that book followed to reach that youth hostel, but I didn’t need to know. I devoured it. The world beneath that cover was rich, and big, and broad, sometimes deeply personal and sometimes glistening and four color and strange. I was hooked.

We stumble into genres for many reasons. Maybe we were bored in the wrong section of the public library one day. Maybe there was a relative involved, an uncle or aunt with a pile of old paperbacks, a sympathetic teacher, a friend.


But we stay with genres because they give us something we lack: a language to describe our challenges, fears, and triumphs. Is our life a mystery, full of puzzles we cannot solve? Not to Sherlock Holmes. Is our childhood full of nameless horrors? Maybe, but Stephen King and Shirley Jackson can help us trace the outlines of our terrors. Are we weak? Wonder Woman is strong. And Spider Man shows us what would happen if we, ourselves, woke up one morning and found that some unexpected accident made us strong. And Batman shows us what would happen if we decided, on our weakest and worst day, to bend our will and life to gaining strength.


The young genre writer follows in the footsteps of writers she’s read, and learns to use their language—or she leaves their path to learn what’s out there over yonder, which of course she couldn’t have done if she hadn’t known where the path was in the first place. Our influences have influences—even Mary Shelly saw herself writing in a tradition. So a genre is a kind of lineage, an aristocratic tangle of second and third cousins four and five times removed, collateral branches and competing claimants, not to mention Old Uncle Kurt who left in a huff fifty years ago and pretends not to notice any of us when we pass on the street.


But if genres are a family, they’re far flung and don’t often have reunions, let alone heirlooms. Yes, there are conventions—you see other writers, buy each other drinks (or convince editors to buy you drinks), that sort of thing. But it’s rare to share work the way a family shares meals. It’s rare to build things together, and rarer still to pass down the things we’ve built in a way that redounds credit to all those who’ve come before.


That’s what makes working on Wild Cards such a special experience. This is a generational project. Like the genre as a whole, it has passed from hand to hand, and each inheritor has added a new spin, new characters, a new sensibility. But unlike the broader genre, here the new work lives right beside the old, and touches it.

Tara Abernathy from my Craft Sequence books will never meet Sam from Lord of Light.  But my down-and-out misfits wander through the same Jokertown as so many other aces and jokers before them. My characters could pass Roger Zelazny’s Croyd Crenson on the street; they might argue over beers about the moral choices of George RR Martin’s Great and Mighty Turtle, or worry about the latter-day consequences of the HUAC hearings Melinda Snodgrass and Walter Jon Williams depicted in that first collection. Imagine young leftists hearing old hippies’ stories about the fight Victor Milan wrote between Hardhat and the Radical. Cops Cherie Priest, Kevin Andrew Murphy, and Paul Cornell dreamed up might roll in to make an arrest—or cause trouble. And if I’m lucky, my own weirdos—a hapless reality TV star turned high school guidance counselor, a conspiracy theorist landlord with electricity powers, a former chef who can turn into anything he eats—will stick around for others to meet, use, and play off in years to come.


We don’t hide our lineage, in genre. We point to the works we love, and celebrate them, but it’s a rare and special thing to hold that work in our hands—to be trusted to forge a new link in a chain that travels back to our personal heroes. We’re all in this together.


It’s a good to be part of the family.