Sunday, August 28, 2011

So, last weekend, we attended the D23 Expo in Disneyland, the bi-annual convention put on by Disney’s official fan club. And I would blog about what a poorly run, disappointing experience it was, except that’s been done better by someone else at the Disney Travel Babble blog here. So I refer you there. Particularly to the pictures of the long lines, because that was our weekend. And we didn’t get to see Dick Van Dyke perform, which is what we were most excited about. Poop.

Since I don’t need to blog about something that made us miserable, I’m going to blog about stuff that’s making me happy instead. I blogged about ebooks in my last entry. Since then, I’ve discovered a couple of new series, both from Crossroad Press. Like the Rancho Diablo series (which released its fourth, and so far best, installment this week), they’re shared world series, with groups of authors all writing stories in the same setting, sometimes about the same characters.

I’ve been a fan of the shared world fiction concept for decades. Arguably, any TV series, with episodes about the same characters written by different authors, is a shared-world series, but that’s stretching the definition. However, I did realize the other day that the first shared-world anthology series I encountered were probably on television: The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Each had authors bringing their own new characters into a shared environment and telling their own complete stories, also involving the regular characters from the series.

That was one of my fascinations with the superhero comics from Marvel and DC as well. They all told separate stories about different characters, but they all took place in the same universe, and stuff in one series would occasionally cross over into another. (Now, it feels like the shared universe aspect has become more important to those companies than telling the individual stories, and that’s lessened my interest somewhat, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I suppose technically, movie and TV tie-in novels are also a form of shared-world literature, and I’ve enjoyed reading those for years as well. However, since the authors don’t have any real control over the main characters, I’m not going to count those in the same vein. Still fun to read, but for the purposes of this essay, a different beast (though not completely unrelated).

The first time I heard about shared-world books was in a review of the then-latest Thieves’ World book in Marvel’s Epic Illustrated. The review described the concept, that several authors had gotten together at a convention and talked about how tough it was to build a new world from scratch every time they wanted to start a new series. They discussed creating a world together in which they could place their stories, and thus the Thieves’ World series was formed. The review observed that the earlier books read like a collection of stories that just shared a location and made references to each others’ characters, but later volumes read like cohesive novels with a shifting point of view.

That fascinated me. I’ve always been interested in stories that feature a large cast of characters, without a single focal character that you know will always be safe. And this was about the time that TV was telling more stories like that, and I was being drawn in to dramas like Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere, as well as nighttime soaps like Dynasty and Falcon Crest. (Never Dallas, oddly enough.) In my high school years, I watched afternoon soap operas for pretty much the same reason. Mostly just Days of Our Lives; this was in the mid-80s, when they were doing big, over-the-top James Bond storylines. But that’s also a topic for another day.

Anyway, I started reading Thieves’ World. I got maybe halfway through the series before I went away to college, and found my leisure reading time greatly reduced. It was about that point in the series that, in addition to the regular anthologies, authors were producing spin-off novels featuring their characters, and I thought that was cool, too. Thanks to the success of Thieves’ World, other shared-world anthology series started up; perhaps the most successful one, still running today, was George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards. That one was tailor made for me: a shared-world prose anthology about superheroes? Yes, please!

Wild Cards has gone from publisher to publisher over the years, sometimes with some lengthy gaps in between. It seems to be coming out fairly regularly these days, probably due to the strength of the George R.R. Martin name. Thieves’ World attempted a comeback seven or eight years ago, but disappeared again after a novel and two anthologies. If there’s anything of their like on the shelves now, I’m certainly not aware of it. (There is a new Bordertown anthology, but it’s unclear to me if it’s the start of a new series, or a one-off anniversary book.)

Fortunately, it appears that the rise of the ebook is also helping revive the shared-world series. As I’ve discussed previously, not having to claim space on bookstore shelves helps. Being able to sell short stories or short novels individually for low prices instead of asking new readers to spend eight dollars or more on a new concept helps. Not having to slot a book into a physical publishing and printing schedule, or make readers wait an extended period of time helps as well.

For that matter, I’m sure that the more rapid communication methods of today help these projects as well. Instead of authors having to physically mail stories to each other and to editors to coordinate things, they can email them almost instantly. So it’s easier and cheaper to coordinate a shared-world project like this. So now we see series like the Scattered Earth and O.C.L.T. reaching fruition.

The Scattered Earth series concept, according to their Facebook page, is that at some point in the far future, the Earth is destroyed and the survivors scattered across various planets. Each of the planets of survivors now believes themselves to be the original Earth. Created by three authors (David Niall Wilson, Aaron Rosenberg, and Steve Saville) and with books announced from another couple of authors beyond them, it looks like each writer, at first, is focusing on a specific planet or region. They’ve said that more definite connections won’t appear until the second or third wave of novels. So, right now, each author’s series can be read individually.

So far, Crossroad has published a novel and short story in Rosenberg’s Dread Remora series. Focusing on the first ship to carry an amphibious race beyond the atmosphere of a water-covered world, it feels like a classic nautical adventure crossed with a space exploration series along the lines of Star Trek. The first novel, The Birth of the Dread Remora, is an exciting origin story, telling the tale of the launch of the Remora and how its crew handles going into space and encountering the varied life forms to be found out there. Turns out, it’s a dangerous place, and the crew has to make some hard choices in order to not let themselves be seen as pushovers.

The second Scattered Earth story to be released is a Dread Remora short story, Crossed Paths. On its own, it’s a bit unsatisfying, seeming to set things up for the future rather than tell a complete tale in its own right. However, since this is an ebook series, with novels costing less than $3 and short stories for less than a buck, I’m okay with getting something that’s just an installment in a longer tale. (As long as the questions this story raises do get answered eventually, that is.) Already, I’ve gotten more than a novel-length’s worth of story for way less than a paperback book would cost me.

The third Scattered Earth story released to date, Wilson’s The Second Veil, tells another story of a planet leaving its atmosphere for the first time. This time, we visit a world where a toxic atmosphere is held at bay by a system of domes and purifying pumps and filters, all put in place to protect humanity by a mysterious power ages ago. Civilization has stagnated, and blind faith has replaced scientific curiosity in most of the population. However, when a mysterious object plunges to earth from space, they realize the time has come to begin to explore and understand the greater universe beyond their domes.

The idea of a society stagnating, replacing technological advancement and inquisitiveness with religious ritual isn’t particularly new, I suppose. However, given that there are folks who still refuse all scientific evidence about climate change and evolution, I think it’s still a theme worth exploring. In his book, Wilson creates some interesting characters who I’ll enjoy spending some time with. Like the Dread Remora series, this appears to be about the first group of explorers to leave their planet. However, while the Dread Remora starts with the ship leaving the planet, The Second Veil ends at that point, so it’ll be interesting to see how the series differ.

The third book, by Keith R.A. DeCandido, is supposed to be released soon, and I enjoyed the excerpt he read on his podcast. Unlike the first two series, he’s writing about a civilization that has already established itself across the stars. So that’ll definitely be different.

The other series from Crossroad Press that I’ve started is O.C.L.T., also created by Wilson and Rosenberg. So far, two short stories (one each by Rosenberg and Wilson) and a novel (by Wilson) have been released. So far, I’ve read the two stories, and am about 3/4 of the way through the novel. Interestingly, all three stories so far are actually prequels, introducing the characters who will feature in the series, but not actually bringing them all together yet.

O.C.L.T. appears to be a paranormal investigation series set in a world close to ours, only dealing with the magic and mythical creatures and events living in the shadows and between the cracks. I appreciate that the series is taking the time to introduce the characters and the world gradually, instead of throwing us in the deep end. And, again, at less than a buck for each story, and less than three bucks for the novel, it’s not that much of an investment for me. I’m enjoying the characters, and the adventures they’re having, and will definitely keep following the series.

So far, the O.C.L.T. series is a bit less distinctive than Scattered Earth, probably because these sort of paranormal investigation series are much more common in print and on television. In fact, both series feel a bit like good tie-in series based on TV shows. This may be because the writers—including DeCandido—are mainly known for writing media tie-in novels. Having said that, these do not feel like Stargate/Star Trek/Fringe novels with the serial numbers filed off. Some of the motifs are familiar enough to bring in genre fans looking for something new but still comfortable. But the series still feel wholly original.