Making a Mosaic, or, Third Time’s the Charm

The great boom in shared world anthologies began in 1979, when Ace Books published Robert Asprin’s Thieves World, the first volume in a long-running fantasy series about the imaginary city of Sanctuary and the motley cast of swordsmen, sorcerers, princes, rogues, and thieves who roamed its streets, with occasional guest appearances by an equally motley assortment of gods.

Thieves World had its precursors, to be sure. In comic books, both the Marvel and DC universes were shared worlds, wherein the heroes and villains lived in the same world, constantly crossed paths with one another, and had their friendships, feuds, and love affairs. In prose there was H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to borrow elements from his stories, and to add their own, and Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, and others gleefully took up the game. HPL himself would then make mention of the gods, cults, and accursed books the others had contributed, and the mythos became ever richer and more detailed.

Much later came Medea: Harlan’s World, wherein Harlan Ellison assembled a group of top-rank science fiction writers to create an imaginary planet and work out all the details of its flora, fauna, geography, history, and orbital mechanics, whereupon each writer penned a story set on the world they had created together. But Thieves Worldwas the breakthrough book that defined the modern shared world, and it proved so successful that it soon spawned a whole host of imitators. Ithkar and Liavek and Merovingian Nights had fantasy settings and the flavor of sword and sorcery, as did Thieves World itself. Borderlands was more urban fantasy, with its punk elves and contemporary setting. The Fleet and War World brought the shared world format to space opera, Greystone Bay extended it to horror, and Heroes in Hell took it to hell.

Some of these series came before ours; others followed us. Some had long runs; others only lasted for a book or two. In the end, Wild Cards would outlast all of them to become the longest-running shared world series of them all, with twelve volumes from Bantam, three from Baen, two more from ibooks (after a seven year hiatus), and now a brand-new triad from Tor Books. Which means that I now have more experience with shared worlds than any other editor, I suppose.

When Wild Cards was starting out, however, my editorial experience was limited to New Voices, the annual (in theory) collection of stories by the finalists for the John W. Campbell Award. I knew going in that a shared world was a very different sort of animal, and not one easily tamed, so I set out to learn as much about the beast as I could. Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey were gracious enough to sit down with me and share all the trials and tribulations they had undergone editing Thieves World, and the lessons they had learned from them. Will Shetterly and Emma Bull were equally forthcoming about their own experiences editing Liavek. From the Master Agreements that governed those two series, I was able to devise a Master Agreement for Wild Cards that provided a firm but fair legal foundation upon which to build the series.

A shared world also poses some difficult artistic questions, the most crucial one being the mount of sharing involved and the rules that govern it. All of the shared worlds of the ’80s answered these questions in their own ways, I found, but some of the answers were more satisfactory than others. Some books shared only their settings; the characters never cross paths, nor did the events of one story have any impact on those that followed. Each story existed in isolation, aside from a common geography and history. In other series, the characters did make “guest star” appearances in one another’s tales, while the stories themselves continued to stand alone. But the best shared world anthologies, the ones that were the most entertaining and the most successful, were those that shared characters and plots as well as settings. In those books, and those alone, the whole was more than the sum of its parts. The “shared worlds” that minimized the sharing were missing the point of the exercise, it seemed to me.

Wild Cards would not make that mistake, I decided. We would maximize the sharing. More, we would strive to go well beyond what anyone else had ever done in the shared world game. So much so that when I drew up my “immodest proposal” for the fist three Wild Cards books, I eschewed the old term “shared world” and promised the publishers a series of “mosaic novels.”

That initial proposal was for three books, for no particular reason but that we wanted to do more than one, and no publisher was likely to buy twelve at a shot. That set a precedent, and later on we continued to plot, sell, and write the books in groups of three — “triads,” as we called them, since they were not quite trilogies (the second triad turned into four books and the third one into five, for what it’s worth, but never mind).

The first two volumes of that first triad (which would eventually become Wild Cardsand Aces High, though they had other titles in the proposal) would feature individual stories, each with its own plot and protagonist, a beginning, a middle, and an end. But all the stories would also advance what we called the “overplot.” And between the stories we would add an interstitial narrative that would tie them all together and create the “mosaic novel” feel we wanted.

But the true mosaic novel would be the third book, wherein we brought our overplot to a smashing conclusion. No other shared world had ever attempted anything quite like what we proposed to do with Jokers Wild: a single braided narrative, wherein all the characters, stories, and events were interwoven from start to finish in a sort of seven-handed collaboration. The end result, we hoped, would be a book that read like a novel with multiple viewpoints rather than simply a collection of related stories.

In my proposal I spoke of Jokers Wild as “a Robert Altman film in prose.” Like Nashville and A Wedding and several other of Altman’s trademark films, Jokers Wild would feature a large and varied cast of characters whose paths would cross and recross during the course of the book. The setting would be New York City on September 15, 1986 — Wild Card Day, forty years after Jetboy’s death and the release of the Takisian xenovirus over Manhattan. All the action would take place within twenty-four hours, giving us a strong chronological framework on which to hang our story threads. The first two Wild Cards books had featured the work of eleven writers and nine writers, respectively, but because of the complexity of what we were about to attempt, I decided to limit Jokers Wild to six stories (there were seven names on the title page, to be sure, but Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper were collaborating, as they had in volume one). Each of the seven viewpoint characters had his own dreams, his own demons, and his own goals, the pursuit of which would take him back and forth across the city, up skyscrapers and down into sewers, bumping into other characters and other stories as he went.

It was seven stories and it was one story, but mostly it was an enormous headache. I did a lot of cutting and pasting and shuffling of sections as the manuscripts came in, striving for the perfect placement of all our cliffhangers, climaxes, and foreshadowings while simultaneously trying to keep chronology and geography firmly in mind. Half a hundred times I thought I had it, until noticing that Yeoman had taken six hours to get to Brooklyn, that Fortunato was in two places at once, that it had been three hundred pages since we’d last seen Demise. Then it was time to sigh and shuffle again. But I finally go tit right, (I think).

In truth, we were creating a new literary form of sorts, though none of us quite realized it at the time. We did realize that what we were doing was an experiment, and there were days when none of us were at all certain that the beast was going to fly. It was the hardest, most challenging editing that I ever did, and the writing was no day at the beach either.

In the end, though, all the effort was worth it. Readers and reviewers both seemed to love the mosaic novel form (although one reviewer amused me vastly by making a point of how seamlessly I had blended the styles of such dissimilar writers, when of course I’d made no attempt to “blend” any style whatsoever, preferring that each character retain his own distinctive individual voice).

And my writers and I agreed: Jokers Wild was the strongest volume in the series to date. The experiment had been a success. The full mosaic was too difficult and time-consuming a form to be used in every volume, but every third volume was just about right. So the template was set: all the Wild Cards triads to come would also conclude with a climactic mosaic, fully interwoven in the same manner as Jokers Wild.

Now, I presume that all of you reading these words (yes, I’m talking to you, don’t look over your shoulder, there’s no one here but you and me) have already read Jokers Wild. If you haven’t, STOP. Right here. Right now.

What follows is in the nature of a spoiler, and not meant for your eyes. Go read the book.

Are they gone?

Good. Now I can tell you about Kid Dinosaur and the Howler.

Over the course of Wild Cards, probably the single thing that upset our fans the most was the Astronomer’s hideous murder of Kid Dinosaur in Jokers Wild. For years thereafter, whenever we did a Wild Cards panel at a convention, one of the questions would inevitably be, “Why did you kill Kid Dinosaur? He was my favorite character.” The Howler was less prominent and far less popular, yet he had fans as well, some of whom wrote us in dismay when Roulette did the nasty with him.

The truth is, both characters had been marked for death from the day they were created. Remember, we plotted the Wild Cards book in triads. We knew, even before we started writing our stories for volume one, that come volume three the Astronomer and the surviving Masons would be trying to hunt down and kill all the aces who had smashed them at the Cloisters at the end of Book Two. A number of our major ongoing characters would be on that hit list, of course, and we wanted the readers to feel as though their lives were in desperate peril, the better to keep them on the edge of their seats.

But superheroes don’t die. Not in comic books, not really, not for good.

We needed to establish that Wild Cards was something different, that this danger was real, that we were playing for keeps here, that even our good guys could indeed die, and die horribly. With that in mind, early on in the going I sent out a call for “red-shirt aces” (anyone who’s ever watched the original Star Trek will get the reference), secondary characters that we could introduce in Book One and include in the Cloisters raid in Book Two, thereby setting them up to be Astronomer fodder in Book Three.

A number of my writers obliged by creating throwaway aces. One such was Steve Leigh’s Howler. Another was Kid Dinosaur, introduced by Lew Shiner in the epilogue to Volume One. The poor Howler had, I seem to recall, exactly one line of dialogue in the first two volumes, before Roulette got him into her bed in Book Three, so to this day I don’t understand how our readers could get attached to him. Kid Dinosaur was pushier, though. The little snotnose managed to force his way into several juicy scenes in Aces High — including one wherein the Turtle warned him what was going to happen if he kept trying to play with the big boys.

Is it my fault that the kid wouldn’t listen?