The Man In the Middle

by Daniel Abraham

         I came in in the middle.  Probably, I’ll go out in the middle too.

         When I first became aware of Wild Cards, it was as a reader in the late 1980s.  I hadn’t published anything, and wouldn’t for years.  I’m not the only one in the project like that.  At least one of us has Wild Cards fan fic they wrote long before we wrote the canonical stuff.  The way that I was present at the beginning is the same way anyone who picks up those first few books in the series is.  You get charmed by the stories and writing – Waldrop, Williams, Zelazny, and and and. .. It’s full of writers you’re maybe meeting for the first time in this world that embraces and questions superheroism all at the same time.  So as an audience, I was there just like anyone else.

         But I didn’t start writing it until there were fifteen books behind me.  Now we’re pushing thirty.  So I came in in the middle.

         Wild Cards isn’t the only long-running project I’ve been part of.  Almost everything I’ve written was part of a series.  My first project was a four-book series with the same wordcount, more or less, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that’s the shortest series I did.  I’ve done three that were longer.  Wild Cards still outpaces the longest of them by about three to one.  But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about telling stories at length, and it seems to me there are three different strategies that wind up in conversation with each other.

         One, we can call the One Big Story approach.  Lord of the Rings used this.  The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King are one big story cut into publishable chunks.  I use this one a lot.  The Long Price Quartet was one story.  The Dagger and the Coin, same.  The Expanse, same.  And I’ve read a bunch others like it.  Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo.  C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels.  The books may or may not stand on their own.  If they do, that’s great.  If not, they’re still chapters taking you one step closer to a final ending.  And that’s the promise of the One Big Story approach.  At some point, it gives you closure.  An ending.  All the things you read about or watched or listened to – however you’re taking the story in – they all point to one event or moment or something that pulls it all together, and afterwards, there’s nothing.  Even if it’s clear that the characters go on, the story you’re reading stops.  It lets the audience go.  There’s a last off ramp, and hopefully it’s at someplace satisfying that the audience wants to be.

         That’s a way I like working, but not the only way to do it.  

         Another way we could call the Same Story All Over Again.  There’s a lot of great series that use this one.  Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels are an example that I love.  Each novel in the series is self-contained.  Usually, it’s got the same protagonist and more or less the same kind of problem as all the other books in the series.  Mystery books do this one just a lot.  You have a detective who’s the spine of the series, but each book is one mystery.  One beginning, and one end.  Closure every time.  There can be a little cheat that makes it feel like one big story.  The detective can have changes in their life makes it clear that time is passing in the story world.  That gives it some continuity, but at heart, you’re not really there to get to an ending, because every book is its own closure, its own off-ramp.  You can enjoy a Nero Wolfe novel without reading any of the ones before or after it.  The old Robert E Howard Conan books were like that too.  And Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.  I admire that style.  I think the best writer who ever did it was a fantasy writer, and a satirist.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books break the “Same Story” name a little because he wrote a bunch of different stories under the one umbrella, but all of them manage to stand on their own.  I’m not as good as he was.  I’m not sure anyone is.  But that style is comfortable, and I believe in offering comfort to the audience.  There’s a lot in the world that people need comfort from and about.  

         The third way is the Soap Opera.

         When I was in college, I got into soap operas for a few years.  I loved them.  General Hospitalwas the one I remember spending the most time on.  I have a friend who literally writes soap operas. Brave and the Bold.  She’s been telling the same story her whole career.  Most of her adult life.  Stories like that don’t get much respect, but for long-form fiction, they’re the king of the hill.  They’re all on ramp.  All invitation to come watch and care and be involved, and they never give you a chance to step away.  There’s always more.  The only reason you don’t fall into the story forever and never come out is that it takes longer to make them than it does to read or watch.  Star Wars didn’t used to be a soap opera, but it turned into one as fast as it could.  There’s no end to the Star Wars universe.  You can tell stories there forever.  

And comic books – the superhero genre that Wild Cards has its roots in – did just a lot of this.  Not always, because there were titles that told a story with an ending and then started over – the Same Story All Over Again books.  But I started reading X-Men, and that was nothing if not a soap opera.  Every issue teased up what was going to happen next.  It was great.  It was endless.  It always teased an ending, and it never quite gave you one, it always said come back tomorrow.  And for a long time, I did.

         All these forms of project are fine.  Great work gets done with any of them.  I don’t believe that one is better than another.  I don’t think one is inferior.  But I think they’re different, and the kind of stories they tell are different.  And it’s all wrapped up in how things end.  Which, because I’m an artist of sorts, means that for me anyway, they’re all about last times.  They’re all about death. 

         I finished The Expanse with my friend and co-writer Ty Franck this last year.  It was a big, big project.  Over a million and a half words spent with this group of people and their great big story.  We did a TV show that was another version of it that had a different ending, but one I think worked pretty well.  When we were done, there were a lot of people in the audience who’d given us their time, and who said after the ending they felt like they’d had a friend die.  Here was this story that they loved.  And it was over.  There wasn’t going to be any more of it.  That happens to all of us.  We have something or someone we love, and then they’re gone, and we don’t get any more time with them.  That’s why One Big Story projects are sad.  Even when they end well – maybe especially when they end well – they leave a hole.  There’s some grief. 

         Same Story Again projects aren’t like that.  They all end like you’re going to see someone again.  You had a weekend with your old friend Dortmunder, and you had some laughs, and took a thrill ride, and it was great.  And next year, or a year after that, you’ll maybe do it again.  The end of the story isn’t the end of the relationship, because the closure is temporary, or at least you can pretend it is.  There won’t be any more Dortmunder novels.  Or Peter Wimsey novels (no offense to Jill Patton Walsh, who did some first-quality authorized Wimsey pastiche).  Or Terry Pratchett books, which makes me sad.  The writers all died.  We’re human.  We do that.  But the project itself didn’t have a heart-wrenching farewell.  They had a kind of “See you next time” and it just turned out never to come.  The grief we feel in those, if we’re big fans, isn’t about the story.  It’s about the people.  If we weren’t big fans, and we just read a few Nero Wolfe novels and haven’t gotten around to all of them, the sense of possibility is still there.  Rex Stout may be gone, but I still have The Golden Spiders and Prisoner’s Base to read.  My relationship with his story project isn’t over, and it won’t be until I read the last of them or run out of time myself, at which point I expect to have other things on my mind.  

         Soap operas – even ones that have individual plotlines that conclude – promise endlessness.  That’s what we love about them.  They’ll always be there.  Cyclops and Storm and Wolverine – even if they die – will always be back.  (As a footnote, that’s what makes Old Man Logan stories so powerful – they’re playing against that expectation, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.)  For these kinds of stories, there was an issue one, a first episode, a first book in the series.  But soap opera is like history; it just keeps going.  There’s always more story to tell, there’s always a next chapter. You don’t get to the end.  You don’t get closure.  Either you stay with the project forever – and forever’s a metaphor here – or you reach a kind of personal satiety.  I don’t watch General Hospitalany more, and haven’t in years.  I can’t tell you when I stopped or why.  I don’t follow the tribulations of the X-Men anymore either.  But I do watch MCU movies, which are drinking from the same well.  Soap Opera projects are like conversations at a good cocktail party.  You step into them, participate with them, make your points, hear something interesting and entertaining – hell, maybe something life-changing – and then at some point you drift off to another one or go get a smoke outside on the patio or hit the bathroom an check your email on your phone.  It’s different relationship.  And it’s great.

         Wild Cards.  Yeah.  I came in in the middle.  It had been a One Big Story project for a while.  A lot of the first books were in very close continuity.  Characters and stories were all woven together.  But when I came in, it was Deuces Down.  That was different kind of book.  It was a sampler plate of stories about minor characters with silly powers from all across the existing books.  It wasn’t in continuity.  Wasn’t the “next chapter.”  The next book, Death Draws Five, went back to the big story, but I came in the side door. 

The next thing I did – probably my biggest contribution to Wild Cards – was in the book Inside Straight.  It was phase change for the series.  We were building an on-ramp.  Inviting new reader to pick up the story and come along for the ride.  That’s not a One Big Story thing to do. There’s not a note halfway through The Two Towers that says “Start here if you want, and you can skip all that before stuff.”  That doesn’t sound serious, I know, but you look at the start of any Miss Marple novel, and that’s what it’s doing.  It’s saying “This is a fine place to start.  You don’t have to go back.”  That’s what Inside Straight was supposed to be.  The whole Committee Trilogy was that, or that was what we meant it to be when we started. 

         And more and more, in these later books, they’re invitations.  Not just for an audience, but for new writers and artists.  They’re on ramps.  And the story that began in 1987 with Howard Waldrop doesn’t show much sign of ending.  

         All of which is to say, I feel like I was there at the phase change.  Like when ice melts and turns into water, I was there when Wild Cards went from being One Big Story into something else.  I don’t know whether it’s a Same Story Again project now, or if it’s reaching toward the immortality of a Soap Opera.  But the endings I see in it now all feel like invitations to come back and see what happens next.  The series finale that ties all the storylines up in a bow and leaves feeling a little hollow afterward just keeps retreating like a mirage with every new book or book trilogy.  The new writers and new readers make it feel like there’s a lot of juice to get squeezed out of these settings, these ideas, these people.  That’s a great good thing.  

         I got busy.  I haven’t written anything in the Wild Cards universe recently.  I’ve been too booked up with other stuff.  It took George over a year to get this blog post out of me.  That’s my fault.  But if I haven’t written my last entry in Wild Cards, someday I will.  And by then, the project may have taken new turns, new twists.  I expect it will have opened up new pathways.  George may keep editing it, or he may pass the baton.  What I don’t expect – thirty-ish books and the vast majority of my lifetime in – is that it will end.  

         I came in in the middle.  Probably, I’ll go out in the middle too.