by Paul Cornell
It’s widely known that the Wild Cards universe began with a circle of friends and a role-playing game, when George R.R. Martin ran Superworld for his local writer buddies in New Mexico, starting in late 1983. There’s a good article about those foundations here. In the first part of this series, I want to explore who that initial group were. Then, in future episodes, I’ll explore the origins of the writers who joined them in the Wild Cards Collective.
Sometime around 1980, Martin and his partner Parris McBride, a couple who’d just moved to Santa Fe, were invited to join an existing games night that consisted, more or less, of Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milán, John J. Miller, Gail Gerstner Miller, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Royce Wideman, and Jim Moore. Three years later, Milán gave Martin Superworld as a Christmas present, and gradually his GMing of that world became the focus of the group, to the extent that, within the next three years, Martin and his friends began to feel they had to monetise what would otherwise be an enormous time suck of a hobby. (For instance, when Martin was GM, those living in Albuquerque would often carpool the hour’s drive, with Snodgrass sometimes borrowing her mother’s Chrysler to fit them all in.) In order to make their run pay, they took some of their characters, reinvented their game world’s history, and pitched Wild Cards.
So, who were these people, and how did they come to be?
Between 1983, when those game sessions began, and 1987, when the first volume of Wild Cards came out, George R.R. Martin moved from being an exciting young SF/horror writer, the creator of such acclaimed novels as Fevre Dream and award-winning short stories like ‘Sandkings’ to being a TV writer/producer with a movie adaptation to his name. From where he is now, it might look like moving sideways, but at the time it must have felt like vertical take-off. I’ve always wondered if the continuing presence of the superhero gaming sessions at what was such a pivotal time in his career is why he still regards Wild Cards with such parental fondness. I also think the continuing presence of prose SFF writers at his dinner table in those formative years is one reason why he’s one of the few writers to have really squared the ‘print or media’ question. For Martin, doing both was always a matter of home and hearth.
It must have helped that in Albuquerque he’d encountered young lawyer and businesswoman Melinda Snodgrass, who was also pursuing a joint publishing/TV career. These years were also the time she achieved vertical take-off, having her first novel published, and making the contacts that would lead her to join the staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation, going on to become one of the best-loved Trek writers. As co-editor of Wild Cards, her name appears so many times during this period as cooperating with the other writers involved. She was one of the few who had a day job (the others being Gerstner Miller, Moore, and Wideman) in those years of excitement, but the only one of that group to have also seized the reins of fame. She seems to have been the calm head that put in place the infrastructure for everything that followed.
It must have suddenly seemed to this group of creatives that, in this company, with this amount of useful gossip and healthy competition, it was possible to go from Albuquerque to anywhere they wanted. It might have felt like the early days of the Beatles, and as with that band, there were those that didn’t sign up.
US Navy veteran Royce ‘Chip’ Wideman, for example (who was never a writer, but was Williams’ next door neighbour) would only contribute characters to the book range, and his Crypt Kicker, the Lama and Toad Man would always be written by others. (It’s an interesting aspect of Wild Cards that one always auditions with a character rather than a story pitch. So, rather like in a TV writers’ room, the idea itself can gain one credit, even if it isn’t one’s own name on the script.) ‘I get asked a lot by people not in the business why I’m not a writer,’ he says now, ‘and my stock answer is, “lack of talent.” It’s easy to create a character and their whole life but to put a story with it is not where my talent lies.’
Gail Gerstner Miller created two of the series’ major characters, John Fortune and Peregrine, wrote one story for the range, but also contributed to the Wild Cards comics. She worked for Sandia National Labs, then went on to become, and remains, a public librarian. ‘It was something to play until 3 am,’ she says of the games nights now, ‘and then get up and have to go to work, but we were all a lot younger then.’ Martin’s partner, the activist, blogger, philanthropist and force of nature Parris, also never pursued a writing career, but created one of the series’ most memorable characters, Elephant Girl. Jim Moore, Miller’s best friend, tried and failed to sell a sword and sorcery novel with Miller, but didn’t pursue Wild Cards, becoming instead a successful archaeologist. I guess if one has joined in with a games night, one can’t necessarily be expected to develop a whole new skill set.
John Jos Miller had already sold and published several stories (it had become a joke in the group that several times he sold stories to magazines that folded before printing them), but in 1987 he placed a story in an anthology edited by Snodgrass that spoke of how the group had accelerated together, A Very Large Array: New Mexico Science Fiction and Fantasy, which also features Martin, Milán, and Williams. Miller went on to write in licensed worlds like The Twilight Zone and Witchblade, and has also made a name for himself in comics and games writing, while remaining one of the most reliable Wild Cards devotees. He wrote, for example, the Wild Cards games setting for the Mutants and Masterminds RPG system, a hardback still used by Martin as the best text for newbies to learn about the WC universe. Here’s Miller’s own history of the origins of the gaming group, and his part in it.
The remaining two players had enormous literary careers of their own, but they too experienced greater success in those exciting years.
Walter Jon Williams was already an established writer of historical fiction and games, when Martin joined the gaming group, but by 1987 he’d started selling hard SF novels and gained his first Hugo Award nominations. He continues to this day to produce everything from space opera to fantasy to cutting-edge thrillers and has been a World Science Fiction Convention Guest of Honour. When Martin arrived, Williams would have been the writer everyone wanted to catch up to, the catalyst for the whole group. The numerous characters he created for Wild Cards merit their own page in the fandom wiki, and the numerous stories he’s set in this world look set to continue.
Victor Milán could also be said to have been a catalyst for the group when he put Superworld into Martin’s hands. 1983 to 1987 were also exciting years for him as he forged a career in series SF, earned a Prometheus Award, and co-authored a novel with Snodgrass. He went on to write over a hundred novels. He died in 2018, in the midst of perhaps his most successful series, The Dinosaur Lords. For Wild Cards, he was just as prolific, remaining a mainstay of the line until the end.
So, there’s that extraordinary group of friends: the established pro; the big city lawyer; the new kid in town. And their pals and partners, both writer and non-writer. They achieve lift off together, either spurred on by each other, co-writing with each other, or sitting back and wondering what their games night was turning into. (Is this a set-up for a TV show or what?)
But when it came time to translate that comfortable games setting into the professional world of prose, the team were to call in no less than six other writers for the debut volume. (Just as Snodgrass hadn’t made A Very Large Array merely the anthology of that group of friends, but had also called in big names like Stephen R. Donaldson, Suzy McKee Charnas, Jack Williamson and someone who was to be very important to Wild Cards… Roger Zelazny.)
The way Wild Cards set about recruiting for its first mosaic novel would define the future of the brand. We’ll see who was recruited and how… next time.