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Shared Worlds

Entry updated 6 September 2019. Tagged: Theme.


Stories and novels written by different hands but sharing a setting are in this encyclopedia called shared-world stories. They are usually (but not always) published as contributions to original-Anthology series, in turn usually (but not always) edited by the creator(s) of the original setting, who also controls the "bible". This "bible" is a set of rules controlling a shared world by defining the roles, actors, venues, genres, plots and significance of any story written within that world, and is usually shaped in the first instance by the owner(s) and/or creator(s) of the shared world in question, although it may often be augmented by later contributors, who may or may not own a share of the enterprise. A mature "bible" – like that for Jerry E Pournelle's War World – will almost certainly accrete, over the years, an onion growth of supplementary speculations, genealogies, tables, maps and ancillary tales; but at heart it remains a set of instructions, a kind of genetic code, for writing stories.

It could be argued that the first shared-world anthology to make a significant impact on the Western World was the Christian New Testament, and that the authors of the various pieces which were eventually assembled under that name used the Old Testament as their "bible". It is, of course, understood that the Old Testament typologies which the authors of the New Testament felt impelled to match served for them as profound adumbrations of a Story which was True; but the point is made to underline the fact that the concept of pooling a vision of the Universe did not originate (as has been asserted by some) in the Thieves' World anthologies (published from 1979) created by Robert Asprin. Beneath and beyond the commercial shared-world enterprises of today lies a vision of (and perhaps a nostalgia for) a human Universe in the hands of a Creator, whose Book we obey (and share).

If we place Round-Robin novels to one side as being forms of collaboration, we find that the first relevant shared-world enterprises were probably the Christmas Annual anthology/special issues produced by popular magazines and publishers in the UK after about 1860. The most significant shared-world anthology thus produced was probably Mugby Junction (anth 1866 chap) edited by Charles Dickens, a special Christmas issue of All the Year Round, a self-contained volume entirely given over to two frame narratives plus six stories (the most famous being Dickens's own "No. 1 Branch Line, the Signalman") set at the eponymous railway stop; it involved five writers, four of them following Dickens's instructions. Other examples of the form include Beeton's Christmas Annual (anth 1880), which contained Max Adeler's "Professor Baffin's Adventures" (vt "The Fortunate Island" in The Fortunate Island and Other Stories, coll 1882), a long Lost-Race tale that served as the centrepiece of a series of linked stories over-titled The Fortunate Island, and was quite probably a source for Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889); and some of the parodic journal Truth's Christmas Numbers, including The Spookeries (anth 1893 chap), Munchausen [sic] Up to Date (anth 1894 chap), Phon-Photopsy-Grams, or Speaking Likenesses (anth 1897 chap), Nineteen Hundred and Seven (anth 1900 chap) and Interview with the Departed (anth 1908 chap).

Again ignoring Round-Robin collaborations, the first shared-world anthology in Genre SF was The Petrified Planet (anth 1952) edited by Fletcher Pratt, which contained long stories by Judith Merril, H Beam Piper and Pratt. These stories were set on the world of the title, were written according to a primitive "bible", and were the first to engage upon what would become a central activity of sf shared-world writers: world-building. While almost any premise, however loose, can become the basis of a shared world, in sf the essential shared world is literally a world, and the "bible" serves as a manual for world-building (or, in less rigorously constructed collaborations, for Planetary-Romance excursions). A World Named Cleopatra (anth 1977) edited by Roger Elwood from a concept by Poul Anderson, Medea: Harlan's World (anth 1985) edited by Harlan Ellison and Murasaki (anth 1992) edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Harry Greenberg are examples of planet-building exercises, and all stand close to the heart of sf. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover sequence is an example of the planetary-romance shared world.

In the meanwhile, however, the Star Trek television series began to generate adaptations of individual episodes, these first tales by James Blish being simple fleshing-out of scripts rather than contributions to a shared-world enterprise (although of course in script form they adhered to series continuity); but the Star Trek owners soon ran out of adaptable stories, and the first original novels within the world – Mack Reynolds's children's book Mission to Horatius (1968) and James Blish's adult novel Spock Must Die! (1970) – soon appeared. It is not known if Blish was tied to an extensive "bible" for the writing of this novel, but certainly later original stories – from Spock Messiah! (1976) by Theodore Cogswell and Charles A Spano Jr onward – were shaped according to a "bible" that became more and more strict as the years passed. Over a similar timespan, the approximately 140 Doctor Who ties also appeared, though many of these have been adaptations – as have been most novels tied to television series. (The simple distinction between an adaptation and a shared-world story should perhaps be made explicit: an adaptation is the reworking of an existing story or script; a shared-world tale is a narrative written according to the set of instructions, or agreements, which generate that particular setting.)

There is a general assumption – which may or may not be well founded – that almost all shared-world novels tied to television or film series are Sharecrops, and can therefore be defined as work-for-hire contributions to "franchised worlds". In this encyclopedia, however, our focus is on the literary nature of shared worlds rather than on issues of ownership, and thus we have barely used the term "franchised"; it may be noted in passing that most franchised worlds are in fact shared-world enterprises written to strict "bibles" by authors whose disenfranchisement is generally all too evident.

Star Trek and Doctor Who are examples of shared-world series whose inspiration lies in media other than the written word; the now vast Star Wars novel sequence – early contributors being L Neil Smith and Timothy Zahn – belongs in this category, as does the Dark Futures sequence edited by David Pringle, which constitutes one of the very few sf sequences based on a role-playing game (see Game-Worlds) whose authors (although the books were sharecropped) were able to write with apparent autonomy. Shared worlds based on Comics include many novels about Judge Dredd from 2000 AD – some, such as John Grant's Judge Dredd: The Hundredfold Problem (1994; rev vt The Hundredfold Problem 2003), taking surprising liberties with the character.

Since the 1980s, two rough categories of shared worlds have become popular. Stories written for the Darkover and Witch World settings by hands other than Marion Zimmer Bradley's and Andre Norton's typify the class of shared-world enterprises which are based on a setting already created by an author for his or her own use, and subsequently made available to other writers (see Closed Universe and Open Universe for brief analysis of the generally very restrictive nature of that availability). The above-cited franchises officially began with the respective anthologies The Keeper's Price and Other Stories (anth 1980) edited by Bradley and Tales of the Witch World (anth 1987) edited by Norton; both had several successors. Other shared worlds of this sort include Isaac Asimov's Robot City (the Asimov estate subsequently allowed three late-1990s novels by other hands set in the Foundation universe), Larry Niven's Man-Kzin Wars (see Known Space), Jerry Pournelle's War World and Fred Saberhagen's Berserker (see Berserkers). The second category concerns the shared-world setting created – either alone by its inventor, or by creative personnel working for hire for a packager such as the Byron Preiss enterprise, or as a communal enterprise on the part of those who plan to write within its terms – as a pure and original shared world without any preceding text to sanction or constrain it, and only a "bible" for its initial guide. Robert Asprin's Thieves' World is of this sort. Others include: Liavek, edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly; the Fleet, run by David A Drake and Bill Fawcett; Temps, The Weerde and Villains, edited by members of the Midnight Rose collective (Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, Roz Kaveney and Alex Stewart); Wild Cards, supervised by George R R Martin; Time Machine, one of several which were controlled by Byron Preiss; and Abaddon Books' The Afterblight Chronicles. There are many more.

Since such enterprises became common, the concept of the shared world has generated large masses of mediocre work, often written for hire, without much evidence of joy, or taste, or thought. But that is happily not a universal rule. Some shared worlds begin in comradeship and continue to demonstrate the pleasures of sharing. The collegial shared world is a model of the sf community at play. Good shared worlds of this sort may, we can hope, in due course drive out the bad. [JC/DRL]

see also: Series; Star General.

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