The Curious Persistence of Wild Cards: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

by

Victor Milán

If you’d told me in 1983 that the present I was giving George RR Martin for Christmas would be, by a long shot, the best investment I ever made, I wouldn’t have thought you were crazy. I simply would not have been able to comprehend it. You might as well have been speaking in the lost language of the Minoans. The words would not have made sense to me. It was just a role-playing game like others we played, though put out by Chaosium, who did our long-time favorite (and classic) Call of Cthulhu.

But it was.  Oh, yes, it was.

The 1980s were the heyday of the shared-world anthology series. Notable examples include C. J. Cherryh’s Merovingen Nights, Emma Bull’s and Will Shetterly’s Liavek, and Janet Morris’s Heroes in Hell. I believe that the most popular was Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s Thieves’ World. The shared-world concept itself dates back a long time – while Ruth Plumly Thompson and others wrote posthumous sequels to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, to the best of my knowledge the first shared-world series, in the sense of the ’80s upsurge, was H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, which he invited his Weird Tales cronies like Rober E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert “Psycho” Bloch to contribute stories using his conceits, including monsters, as well as add their own. It was later taken over and reshaped – some say twisted beyond recognition – by August Derleth, who cofounded Arkham House with Donald Wandrei, and became, in effect, the keeper of the Mythos canon. (It’s my honor and pleasure to have contributed a story to the Mythos).

Genre history is littered with shared-world projects that, like flowers, enjoyed their time in the sun – and. like flowers, faded  and fell away.  Though it’s come within an ace, so to speak (and to mix metaphors) of joining them, somehow Wild Card has managed to survive, until today it enjoys greater prominence and popularity than ever before. And I think I know some of the reasons it squeaked through the lean years. (This is me surrendering any pretense of controlling my metaphors.  Enjoy the ride!)

The books started very strong, achieving a degree of financial and critical success when Bantam launched the series.  Right out of the gate, the early Wild Cards books were selling more than a hundred thousand copies in mass market paperback.  Sales began to tail off with volumes eight and nine, but remained strong enough for Baen Books to lure us away from Bantam with the promises of higher advances and larger royalties.   The move proved to be a mistake, however.  Knowing they had lost the series, Bantam stopped promoting the final books under the old contract, the last of which was, uh, my solo Wild Cards novel, Turn of the Cards.

 

But I didn’t succeed in killing off the series, causing a sad sort of symmetry with the fact that, as John Jos. Miller pointed out, I sort of set the whole thing in motion in the first place <http://www.wildcardsworld.com/the-secret-origins-of-the-wild-card-universe/>.  Or at least I haven’t yet.  Baen Books promptly picked up Wild Cards where Bantam had left off, launching the Card Sharks triad – which is what we call a three-book story arc – in 1993, the same year as TURN OF THE CARDS.

Baen was a smaller publisher, however, and despite paying higher advances, they could not match the promotion and distribution that Bantam had put behind the earlier books. Despite continuing to accrete an ever-growing mass of hard-core fans, the three Baen volumes  failed to match the sales of the Bantam run, or justify the publishers’ expectations.  The triad’s third volume, 1995’s Black Trump, was Baen’s last.

Then we wandered in the wilderness for seven years, before finding shelter in ibooks Inc.  An independent ublished outfit that pioneered ebook publication as well as producing conventional dead-tree books, it released two Wild Cards books: the anthology DEUCES DOWN in 2002, and John Miller’s solo novel, Death Draws Five in 2006, as well as contracting to reprint several of our original volumes.

Unfortunately, ibooks founder and publisher Byron Preiss died in a traffic accident in 2005.  Within a year, ibooks declared bankruptcy, less than a month after publishing John’s novel.  But the reprints and the new books had helped to reawaken interest in the world, and Tor Books stepped into the breach, bringing out the first volume of a brand-new traid, Inside Straight, in 2008, to immediate success.  In 2010 Tor began reprinting the long out-of-print Bantam originals from the 1980s, some with additional stories by newer writers.  Since the relaunch Tor has published six new books, and reissued seven old ones.   More reissues are in the pipeline, along with six more originals,  including the recently-announced British volume, Knaves Over Queens <http://www.wildcardsworld.com/aces-over-england/>.

So, yeah.  I know.  I get another chance to kill off the series for good and all.  Fingers crossed!

Except – it looks as if we’re finally making our presence felt in the world.

And that means across the world as well.  From early days we had some sales of foreign rights – I remember the original British releases’ covers, by comic book great Brian Bolland, as some of the best we’ve enjoyed.

Now, though, barely a week and never a month passes without brand new authors’ copies of foreign editions dropping on my doorstep.  Sometimes they’re in languages I don’t even recognize. . . and I can recognize a lot of languages.  We are approaching the point where I’m gonna need our sales to really take off, so I can afford to do what George does and buy another house on my block to keep the damn things in.

(We’ve even got a long-established ritual in our house – not only for authors’ copies of books I’ve written, including the old Deathlands series and my own Dinosaur Lords trilogy, as well as Wild Cards, of course, but they’re seriously a major component.  I hear an engine rumble, the thump of something hitting my porch, a knock, and finally the furious barking of first my late, lamented Emma Dog, and now of her worthy successor Mouse, and open the door to find a package waiting for me.)

But wait!  There’s more!

In late summer 2016 Universal Cable Productions announced its purchase of the television rights to Wild Cards, with Melinda Snodgrass – one of the original Super World players as well as key architect of Wild Cards, and major contributor and frequent series co-editor with GRRM – and Gregory Noveck as Executive Producers.  With global smash hit TV show Game of Thrones winding to its final conclusion, the announcement of a new series based in George’s works was global news, notwithstanding the fact that George himself was forbidden to work on the project by his contract with HBO.  And I mean global:  the announcement drew notice everywhere from Rolling Stone to the Guardian.  It also led to a personal amusement-value high point in my whole life, when my most prominent character, Cap’n Trips, was mentioned in GQ.  Yes, an aging hippie who dresses in a purple Uncle Sam suit got named in Gentleman’s Quarterly.  Which is something I can honestly say I never dreamed of, mostly because it never occurred to me that such a thing was in the realm of possibility.

 

And while public news of progress on the potential TV show has been sparse in the intervening months, the process continues.  And I know of a few reasons to hope things may move forward soon on that front, though I can’t reveal them.

So, clearly, Wild Cards is coming into its own.  But how has it managed to survive for 30 years?  Especially after so many years with no new books being published – and no realistic reason to hope that they ever would be?

Before answering that I’ll deal briefly with the reasons I think Wild Cards has been taking off for the last few years:  it’s George, duh.  When A Feast for Crows, the fourth book of his already best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series, blew up the charts on release in 2005, a certain critical mass was reached.  While George had enjoyed a long and celebrated career, with multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and some series televsion credits under his belt long before the first Ice and Fire book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, that had never quite translated into attracting readers to the Wild Card projects, even though they prominently featured his name.  But Feast’s international success began to turn that trend around.    And our foreign-rights sales began to increase as well.

And something wonderful began to happen:  when readers finally noticed Wild Cards, drawn to it first by the success of George’s books and later of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, they started reading the stories and discovered, hey!  These things are pretty good on their own!

 

So, yeah.  George happened.  But before that, as I said before – how did we pull through?

One reason is the strength and ingenious ocnstruction of the Wild Cards Consortium, the agreement that binds our authors and characters together.  After Melinda helped George transform our long-running and life-consuming RPG campaign into a science fiction world with its own entirely different take on the superhero thing, the lawyer in her made her want to concentrate on the legal hows and whys of putting together a shared-world universe.  And making it sustainable.

To our rescue rode Lynn Abbey and Robert Lynn Apsrin.  While their Thieves’ World was massively popular, it had caused them more than a few massive  headaches.  They had instituted a rule forbidding one writer from killing another’s character.  But that left a lot of scope for malicious mischief, and certain feuds between writers escalated to insane levels.  So Abbey and Aprin, with incredible generosity, sat down with George and Melinda at a bar at a con and laid out the pitfalls they had discovered from editing TW.  And George and Melinda listened and learned.  And came up with the marvelous agreement at the core of Wild Cards.

 

The idea is, quickly, that you can’t use another writer’s character, or certain major conceits, without permission.  Every substantial use has to be approved.  Which has the potential to lead to at least one obvious problem:  why should I agree to let another writer work major life-changes on my character, much less kill her off?

Well, one answer is the nature of the community of creators behind Wild Cards, but we’ll get to that.  More to the point:  you get me to agree by appealing to my cupidity.  And here’s the beauty of it all:  if you agree to allow the use and even abuse of your character, you get Consortium Points.  And your share of income the Wild Cards brings in is proportional to the number of Consortium Points you have.

Also, the more major the changes worked on a character, as a general rule, the more points you get.  So you might get a point for a significant appearance of your character in a story – but several points if that character dies. You see where this is going, yes?

But there’s more to it than that, of course.  We have a lot of good writers in Wild Cards, to say the least, with numerous awards, best-sellers, and even successful TV shows among us.  Of course, Thieves’ World and many of the other shared-world universes had fantastic writers, too.  But what’s significant here is that, along with an appreciation for, well, money, we share an appreciation of good story.  We don’t rubber-stamp use of our characters, especially when something big is done to them.  A character’s actions in the hands of another writer have to be consonant with its creator’s vision for that character.  Which is generally the case, but there have been exceptions.  But because we got good writers, the usual response to a proposed change to one of our characters, including death, is, “Yeah.  That makes good dramatic sense.  It’s good story.” Which, granted, is followed by, “cha-ching!” But you’ve got to admit that’s a killer combination.

So that’s a big reason for Wild Cards’ survival and eventual success:  it was built on a framework that allowed it tosurvive and thrive.

But for me, that’s not the big reason.

It’s trite, and sometimes actively a little creepy, to say something is a “family.” But I’m going to drop that F-bomb here:  Wild Cards survived, even through the lean and apparently hopeless years, because, yeah.  We’re a family.  Deal.

The series came about because a bunch of crazy-talented people spent way too much of their time and energy playing a “game,” that was really a collaborative soap opera, whose sessions tended to involve a great deal more improvisational theater – and some of us, like Walter Jon Williams and me, had been semi-pro actors; and Melinda had her Screen Actors’ Guild card – than face-kicking.  And, dammit, we were fond of kicking face!

This was itself a bonding experience.  Our Super World campaign was a nearly-real world to us, created by George by means of the rule set, but also collaboratively by all of us.  And it was hard in ways for some of us – or maybe just me – to let go of some of the aspects of the game world, and of our characters in the game, when we made the transition from Super World to Wild Cards Universe.

But we did.

But that was just the core.  Even though the original core of professional writers in the gaming group are still writing for Wild Cards, we’re now just a small minority.  There’re a lot of horses in our stable.

But here’s the other thing:  writing for Wild Cards is by invitation only.  You not only have to impress Georgre that you’re a sufficiently good writer, you have to persuade him you have a viable character or characters to contribute to the series.  Heck, one Neil Gaiman wasn’t able to make the cut … with the character who became his Sandman. (I’m not saying that’s one of our prouder moments, there.  But you have to admit it worked out handsomely for Neil.  So there’s that.)

We’re now acquiring writers who grew up reading Wild Cards.  You have no idea how old that makes me feel….

But that’s the thing:  you have to agree to accept our vision of Wild Cards to join us.  It’s a multifaceted vision, and constantly evolving.  And you have to accept the Master Consortium Agreement.  Which you don’t have to sign in blood, but, hey, it can’t hurt.

(Please don’t make us all re-sign in blood, George!)

So that’s why I say we’re a family.  We’re an extended family, and a thoroughly voluntary family.  But we have the bonds and strength of a family.  Which gives us the potential endurance of a family.  And that’s a major reason we pulled through the years of nothing.

But most of all, it’s the Vision.  It’s embodied in the Consortium Agreement, of course.  And there are as many versions of that vision as there are writers.  Which are, you know – many. (I have no idea how many active Wild Cards writers there currently are.  Sadly we’re down two heavyweights who contributed to the very first Wild Cards volume:  Roger Zelazny, who died in 1995, and Ed Bryant, whom we lost this year.  We miss them both terribly, as friends as well as writers.)

But with all those visions, there’s one Vision to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them. (Hey, George has been dubbed The American Tolkien!)  And that, to my mind, is the final factor in our surviving long enough to enjoy our current upsurge of popularity.  Because George’s is the vision which prevails.

Nor do I only mean George’s editorship, as frequently and brilliantly assisted by Melinda – vital though that is.  Ultimately, everything that happens in the now-vast and multifarious inverse of Wild Cards has to meet his approval – and fit his Vision.  I haven’t agreed with all of the decisions he’s made; I doubt any of us do.  But I absolutely believe that the fact we had a single, unfiying Vision of what we’re about, here, to hold the project together and guide it forward, is the final and possible single greatest reason we’ve made it this far.  The fact that we have, justifies George’s proprietorship of that Vision.

So here we are.  That’s how we got here – at least, in my own view, from before the beginning.

And what a long, strange trip it truly has been.

Long may it roll….

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