Once upon a time… it was September 20, 1983, if you insist on being picky Vic Milan gave me a role-playing game called SuperWorld for my birthday.
A fateful gift indeed. It triggered a two-year-long role playing orgy that engulfed not only me, but the rest of my Albuquerque gaming circle as well. We had great fun while the addiction lasted, but in the end I came to the realization that the game was absorbing too much of my time and creative energies. You can’t pay your mortgage by rolling dice (well, you can, but the dice better be loaded). The fever dream that was SuperWorld finally broke on the day I said to myself, “There’s got to be some way to make some money from this.” I knew we had some great characters. And I knew there were some great stories to be told about them; funny stories, sad stories, exciting stories. What was needed was a way to get the stories to an audience.
My first notion was to use my Turtle character as the basis for a stand-alone science fiction novel that I proposed to title Shell Games. It would have meant pulling him out of the game milieu and revamping the character thoroughly, but there was a strong story there the tale of a projects kid from Bayonne, New Jersey, trying to be a superhero in a world where none exist.
That would have rescued one character from our SuperWorld campaign, but would have meant discarding all the rest. Maybe that was why I found the approach ultimately unsatisfying. Besides, the game had been a group endeavor. Much of the fun of our games had come from the interactions between the characters. A novel about one telekinetic superhero wannabe in a mundane world was a very different thing, and somehow duller. This needed to be a group project, a collaborative endeavor.
It needed to be a shared world.
Shared world anthologies are an endangered species in today’s market, but back in the ’80s they were all the rage. The first modern shared world, the Thieves’ World series edited by Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey, had been a tremendous success, spawning not only games, comic books, and film options, but also a host of imitators. Most common were fantasy shared worlds like Liavek and Ithkar and Borderlands, but there were science fiction shared worlds like The Fleet and War World as well, and even an attempt to share a world of horror called Greystone Bay. But there was nothing even remotely similar to what I had in mind a shared world anthology series in a world in which superpowers are real, set on a present-day Earth and featuring the characters we’d created for the game.
I bounced my idea off Melinda M. Snodgrass, who ultimately became my assistant editor and strong right hand on the project. She was immediately enthusiastic. So were the rest of my gamers when they heard the notion. All the writers in the gaming group were eager to contribute, and our friends who worked for a living were willing to sign up their characters, so they could be a part of the madness.
For much of the previous decade I had been editing New Voices, an annual anthology of original fiction by each year’s John W. Campbell Award finalists, so I knew how to put together an anthology but a shared world is a whole different animal. Fortunately, Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey were extremely forthcoming when I quizzed them about their experiences with Thieves’ World, as were Will Shetterly and Emma Bull of Liavek. With their help, I was able to construct a Master Agreement that gave us a firm legal basis to build our series on.
There is an undeniable stigma attached to game-related fiction. For the most part that stigma is well deserved. Thinly disguised D&D adventures have become as much a commonplace in today’s slush piles as Adam and Eve stories were thirty years ago. Editors groan when they see them, with good reason. The truth is, the qualities that make for a good game do not necessarily make for good fiction, and in some cases are actually antithetical to it. My SuperWorld crew had enjoyed some splendid evenings, but if we simply wrote up our favorite adventures, as one of my players urged, we would have had nothing but a comic book in prose and a pretty bad comic book at that, full of all the usual funny book clichés, costumes and super-teams and secret identities, endless efforts by supervillians to conquer the world. Pretty silly stuff, when you stop to think about it. Fine for a game, maybe, but not for a book.
I wanted to do something better, and that meant stepping back for a moment to rethink certain aspects of our characters. Take my own Turtle, for instance. In the game, a player had a certain number of points to buy powers and skills, but the system allowed you to earn additional points by accepting disadvantages, be they mental, physical, or psychological. My players used to have a standing joke; if they came up against a young, handsome, intelligent foe bulging with muscles, no problem, but if a blind deaf pygmy with thalidomide flippers appeared on the scene, run for your lives. Well, the SuperWorld version of the Turtle was the genesis of that joke. To pay for such a high level of telekinesis and forty points of armor as well, I had needed to pile on just about every handicap in the book. It made for a very formidable presence in our games, but in the book such an extreme character would have been ludicrous and not much fun to read about, either.
I also felt we needed to rethink some fundamental aspects of our world itself. I had been reading comic books all my life, and loved them dearly but even as a kid, I realized that certain comic book conventions were downright silly. All those skin-tight costumes, for instance. The way that people in comic books always decided to use their superpowers to fight crime.
And the origins of those powers that was a huge problem. In the funny books, and in our game as well, characters got their powers from a hundred and one different sources. X was hit by a lightning bolt, Y stumbled on a crashed alien spaceship, Z whipped up something in his lab, Q was bitten by a radioactive wombat, M unearthed the belt buckle of a forgotten deity Any one of these would be a wondrous occurrence all by itself, and when you pile wonder upon wonder upon wonder you strain the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. To make these characters work in a legitimate SF context, we needed a single plausible cause for all these superpowers.
Melinda Snodgrass was the one who provided it. “A virus!” she exclaimed one morning as we were drinking coffee in her old house on Second Street after a long night of gaming. An alien retrovirus that rewrites the genetic structure of its victims, changing them in unique and unpredictable ways. And her character could be the alien who brought it to Earth! Thus were born the xenovirus Takis-a and Dr. Tachyon, virtually in the same instant.
Melinda’s virus not only solved the origin problem for us, but also turned out to have a huge and totally serendipitous side effect. We did not want a world in which everyone had superpowers that might make for a wonderful premise, but not for the stories we wanted to tell. We had to limit its effects somehow. We considered restricting the experiment to a special time and place the aliens arrive one day, give superpowers to the population of Dubuque, Iowa, and depart…but that would have made it hard to bring in some of our diverse lot of Superworld creations, not to mention severely limiting our ability to add new characters later in the series.
As we battled around the problems, the answer came to us. Not everyone gets the virus. Of those who do, most die from the violence of their transformations. And even the survivors are not home free. The vast majority of natural genetic mutations are harmful rather than beneficial. So would it be with the wild card; monsters and freaks would be much more likely to result than supermen.
Out of that came our jokers and that made all the difference. The game we had played had no jokers, no Jokertown, no Rox, no more than the funny books did.
In hindsight, it was the jokers who truly made the Wild Card universe unique. Our aces had their counterparts in the superheroes of the Marvel and DC universes; while we strove to make our version grittier and more realistic, to portray them with more subtlety and depth, those are differences of tone, not of kind and the comics themselves were becoming darker and grittier, too. In the end, what really set Wild Cards apart from all that had gone before was its jokers.
When Melinda and I told our notions to Vic Milan he grabbed the ball and ran with it, whipping up a lot of the pseudoscience of the wild card, the biogenetics and quantum physics that would eventually be published in the appendix to the first volume. At the same time Walter John Williams, unbeknownst to any of us, actually started writing a story.
Meanwhile, I was putting together a proposal to take to publishers… and recruiting other contributors as well. The Albuquerque gaming group had given me a superb core group of writers, but a small group. To sustain a long series, I would need a larger pool of potential contributors, writers who had not been a part of our marathon SuperWorld game. New writers would mean new characters, who might interact in unexpected ways with those carried over from the game. New writers would bring us fresh concepts and plot ideas, and would help lessen any lingering temptations to simply write up our games. Besides, there were a hell of a lot of fine SF writers out there who loved comic books and superheroes just as I did, and I knew many of them would jump at the chance to be a part of a project like this.
Not everyone I contacted signed on, of course, but many did. Lewis Shiner was one of the first, and his character Fortunato became a key player right from the start. Ed Bryant brought us Sewer Jack, and also recruited his collaborator, Leanne C. Harper, while Lew brought in Walton (Bud) Simons. I signed on Arthur Byron Cover from L.A., X-Men scripter Chris Claremont from New York, George Alec Effinger from New Orleans, Stephen Leigh gave birth to Puppetman in Cincinnati, while back in New Mexico, Roger Zelazny gave us Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, the most original concept of them all. And Howard Waldrop …
Howard Waldrop threw us a curve ball.
H’ard and I had known each other since 1963, when I bought Brave & Bold #28 from him for a quarter and we started corresponding. We both had our roots in comics fandom, both published our first stories in the comic fanzines of the ’60s. I knew Howard still had a lot of affection for “funny books.” I also knew that he had a character. Howard always talks about his stories before he actually sits down to write them. Sometimes he talks about them for months, sometimes for years, occasionally for decades. Thus, if you knew Howard, you would have known about the dodo story, the zen sumo story, and the piss-drinking story long before he wrote word one of “The Ugly Chickens,” “Man-Mountain Gentian,” and “Flying Saucer Rock ‘n Roll,” respectively.
As it happened, Howard had been talking about something called the Jetboy story for a couple of years… though being Howard, he hadn’t written it. It seemed to me that this “Jetboy” might be perfect for Wild Cards, so I invited H’ard to join the fun. And he accepted… sort of …
The thing is, Howard does things his own way. He’d write the Jetboy story for me, but he wasn’t at all keen on this shared world stuff. So he’d write the first story for the first book, and kill Jetboy at the end of it. Oh, and by the way, his story took place right after World War II, and climaxed on September 15, 1946.
Up until then, we had planned to start the series with the virus arriving on Earth in 1985. And in fact Walter Jon Williams had already completed the story he had been writing in secret, a novelette called “Bag Lady,” featuring two of the game characters, Black Shadow and Modular Man, chasing an art thief and dealing with an extraterrestrial menace called the Swarm. Walter dropped the story in my lap one day at Melinda’s house, savoring my surprise… and gloating over the fact that he’d already finished his story, while the rest of us hadn’t even started ours.
Unfortunately, Howard Waldrop had just knocked Walter’s plans not to mention “Bag Lady” into a cocked hat. Anyone who has ever dealt with Howard knows there is no stubborner man on this earth or the next one. If I wanted him in the book, it would have to be on his terms. That meant 1946.
And I did want him in the book, so …
We couldn’t very well just open with Jetboy in 1946 and jump forward forty years to the present. An event as big as the release of the wild card was going to have huge repercussions. We had to dramatize the release of the virus and show what happened after Jetboy’s death, and the readers would want to know about the intervening years as well. Thanks to Howard, we now had forty years of white space to fill in. All of a sudden, the first volume of the series had become a historic…al so “Bag Lady” no longer fit, and poor Walter had to hie back to his computer and start all over again (shows you what happens when you write stories in secret without informing your editor).
Sometimes the process pays you unexpected dividends. Howard’s pig-headed insistence on 1946 not only gave us the Jetboy story to open the book, it forced those of us who followed to deal with themes and times we might otherwise have ignored… most particularly the era of HUAC and the McCarthy hearings, from which arose Dr. Tachyon’s doomed love affair with Blythe van Renssaeler, and Jack Braun, the Golden Boy, the protagonist of “Witness,” the story that Walter Jon Williams was forced to write to take the place of “Bag Lady.” Both added immeasurable richness to our world and depth of our characters, and “Witness” went on to become the only shared world story ever to appear on the final ballot for a Nebula award.
Happenstance? Yes… and no. That’s just the sort of thing that should happen in a good shared world. When writers work together, bouncing off of one another and reacting to each other’s stories and characters like a group of talented musicians jamming, that sort of serendipity occurs more often than you’d think, as the subsequent history of the Wild Cards series was to prove over and over again.