Thursday, March 26, 2015

Collecting Anthologies

In this month's episode of The Three Hoarsemen (a member of the SF Signal Family of Podcasts), we talked about anthologies. I thought I would write up my thoughts on the several sets of anthologies that I chose to talk about.

The first pair are not only shared world anthologies, but became shared world anthology series. In fact, the first, Thieves' World, may have been the first original share world anthology (or series). Other than Star Trek (which, at that point was still mostly the works of James Blish and Alan Dean Foster) and Star Wars (mostly Alan Dean Foster—both as a ghostwriter and under his own name, Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith), a series of stories or novels sharing a common background by multiple authors was not a "thing".

Thieves' World, or it's rebooted edition Thieves' World: First Blood is worth reading not only for the stories (and to see who contributed), but for Robert Lynn Asprin's essay at the end of the (first) book. Asprin was a relative newcomer at that point and certainly not a "name" that could launch something as risky as a anthology (let alone a new concept such as a shared world anthology). But he managed to play an extended game of poker, getting one author to sign on by hinting that another was already in, offering "real estate rights" in order to persuade people, etc. Once he had his lineup, he then had to learn how to herd cats: in the days before electronic mail (let alone wide us of faxes and overnight delivery of manuscripts), Asprin and co-editor Lynn Abbey worked to coordinate story, setting, sequencing of stories and more. It's a fascinating tale and got the series off to a good start that lasted for several more books. The series even spun off solo works by David Drake, Janet Morris and Gordon R. Dickson (although in his case, we got the character but the setting was different).

I regularly read entries in the series until it seemed to winnow down to a relatively few author's. The stories were still good, but I missed the input of early contributors such as Joe Haldeman (who really hasn't dabbled much in fantasy at all). Lynn Abbey tried a recent reboot of the series with the above-mentioned Thieves' World: First Blood, but also Thieves' World: Turning Points, Thieves' World: Enemies of Fortune and Sanctuary; between the four, a mix of old and new stories, short works and a novel. Alas, the reboot did not seem to gain traction.

Thieves' World is also notable in that it spawned off a unique gaming property. Chaosium, then mostly known for it's popular RuneQuest roleplaying game, bought the license to do a roleplaying supplement and instead of exclusively keeping it for RuneQuest, opened it up for all the then existing major roleplaying game properties. So, you could run a RuneQuest adventure...or Dungeons & Dragons...or Traveller (and more). Mayfair Games produced a boardgame based on the property and there has been an attempt to relaunch a roleplaying game around the time of the relaunched books, but this interesting early attempt at "open-source gaming" is (alas) forgotten by most.

The next shared world anthology series that hooked me (by then, there were several but most faded quickly into obscurity) was one helmed by George R. R. Martin, not the force behind Game of Thrones, but a guy behind some books and stories and a television series called Beauty and the Beast. Martin lived in the Santa Fe area, surrounded by many genre folk including Melinda Snodgrass and Roger Zelazny. He ran a superhero-themed roleplaying game for them which started to consume more and more of his time (prepare for adventure, run adventure, write up notes on what happened, prepare for next session, etc.) that he eventually decided to see if he could make the "free work" into "paid work" and do a shared world anthology series based on the game. Out of this came Wild Cards, a series which has spawned short story collections, novels, "mosaic" novels. The series has gone across four publishers (Bantam, Baen, ibooks, Tor), has in itself spawned roleplaying game supplements and comics, and now is under development (given that George R. R. Martin is now known for that television property Game of Thrones) as either a movie or a television series.

Wild Cards takes place in "our" world, starting shortly after World War II, but with aliens, alien viruses, mutated humans (the "Aces" and "Jokers") with various powers, heroes without powers, more aliens, politics, crime, magic and even Vietnam. When the series was bought by Tor, they started coming out with the original books (Wild Cards I, Wild Cards II: Aces High, Wild Cards III: Jokers Wild, Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad) as well as moving the stories forward with new volumes such as Fort Freak and Inside Straight. Between the "rising tide lifts all boats" effect of Game of Thrones and Martin's general greater popularity, the number of superhero properties in print and on the large or small screens, and the potential of a movie or television series based on Wild Cards, it looks good that the old books will continue to come into print while new books continue to come out.

The series has varied in quality throughout the volumes but the early volumes (as reprints) are strong and stronger (thanks to some additional material) and the new volumes are consistently good (thanks to the guiding hand of collaborator Melinda Snodgrass, who is also working on developing the media property).

I'll end the look at shared world anthologies with a pair of anthologies that each share a single world in a single volume. Medea: Harlan's World (edited by Harlan Ellison) and Murasaki (edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg).

Medea grew out of a seminar that Ellison helmed (which is included, in part, as a transcript in the book) and guidance from "Hard SF" worldbuilders such as Hal Clement and Poul Anderson. Kelly Freas contributed artwork to the seminar and between the seminar, the art, and the essays, stories were produced by Jack Williamson, Larry Niven, Thomas M. Disch and several others.

Murasaki's origins are not as clear, but seem to have grown from a similar set as Medea: Poul Anderson provided guidance in the form of an essay, as did Fred Pohl. Stories were devised by David Brin, Nancy Kress and others. The advertising copy (well, the Wikipedia entry) says that this "was the first anthology of this type that was entirely conceived and written by winners of the Nebula Award" (splitting hairs, given the number of Nebulas and Hugos won by participants in the earlier project).

Both have good stories, but both are recommended for other reasons: in both, the people overseeing the project have written extensive essays about the project, which fits in with comments made in the Thieves' World and Wild Cards books from the people running those projects and should be studied by anybody undertaking a project (I'd also recommend Harlan Ellison's extensive remarks in his screenplay for Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and his very long essay in the the novelization of his failed Starlost project as additional "lessons learned" if you work on a media project!). The military may teach you how to "herd cats" but most writers do not start off with those skills! Another recommendation for reading these two are the "world building" essays. While some may poo-poo Hard SF of late, these essays show the kind of thought you ought to put into a fantasy or science fiction world. Even if you don't "show your work" in the story (as a information dump, for example), you ought to think about the framework holding your story up.

To finish up, I'm going to revisit a series of anthologies that we discussed on the podcast in a previous episode: The Infinity series edited by Johnathan Strahan. Several of my nominations for the short story category in the Hugos came out of the most recent entry to the series, Reach for Infinity. The other entries in the series include: Engineering Infinity, Edge of Infinity, and the forthcoming Meeting Infinity.

I could have gone on with many more anthologies. Here's a sampling of some of the anthologies in my Current Reads folder on my various eBook gadgets: Upgraded, Space Opera, Twelve Tomorrows 2013, Twelve Tomorrows 2014, Carbide Tipped Pens, Hieroglyph, Arc Volume 1, War Stories, Starship Century, Old Venus, Old Mars, The Lowest Heaven, War and Space—Recent Combat, and Coming Soon Enough—Six Tales of Technology's Future.

That just scratches the surface of the paper and electronic anthologies (themed, unthemed, year's best, based on a specific magazine, old, new, single author, multi-author) that line my shelves. Give an anthology a try! You never know what new author you may fall in love with.


  1. I rather liked Murasaki, actually

  2. I liked, I think, the concept of Murasaki and Medea better than the execution, but like them both a lot. Wish more people would do this sort of thing but it's probably better to do a multi-volume shared world than a one-off (a lot of work herding those cats!).