Daily Archives: January 23, 2009

The Beauty of the Shared Universe

I came across a paperback copy of one of the latest Wild Cards series of novels, Inside Straight. Since it was free I grabbed it, and being a fan of the superhero genre, started reading it. For folks who haven’t visited the first link in the post yet, Wild Cards is a shared universe created by New York Times best-selling author George R. R. Martin in the 1980’s (before he became rich and famous).

Wikipedia offers us a nice explanation of the  shared universe.  Ever since the first superhero team-up, the modern comic book has embraced the idea of the shared universe.  The fantasy and sci-fi book industry was a bit late to the game, only creating formalized shared universes in the late 1970’s and 1980’s with series like Wild Cards and Thieves World  (my first exposure to the shared universe concept in book form).

One could argue that the many Conan pastiches that have been published since creator R. E. Howard died are themselves a shared universe, and the Cthulhu Mythos have always been shared among an elite cadre of dynamic writers (including Howard himself). But they don’t follow the same tight structure that Thieves’ World and Wild Cards do. Both series contain books that usually begin with some kind of framing sequence, then present a series of short stories from different authors. The authors freely share characters and build from each other’s work. Generally an editor (Robert  Asprin for Thieves’ World, George R. R. Martin for Wild Cards) rides herd over the whole affair, and usually contributes a story or two to each book.

Shared universe books like these are always a mixed bag–with so many different authors you never know what you might get in terms of storytelling style or quality. As a kid they forced me to expose myself to other writing styles I might not have tried otherwise. They also gave me the chance to read female writers, and experience a genuinely feminine perspective on sci-fi and fantasy. My first exposure to Janet Morris and C. J. Cherryh came from Thieves’ World.

Now back to Inside Straight. It’s pretty damn good. If you liked the first season of Heroes and you dig reality TV shows, this book presents a pretty nifty mix of those two concepts. I am now going to have to track down the other newer Wild Cards title, Busted Flush to see where the universe goes next. Should be fun!


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