Monday, July 6, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Thieves' World

One of the things I think most obviously separates pulp fantasy from high fantasy is its literary format. While there are many pulp fantasy novels, the short story (and its cousins, the novelette and the novella) is the genre's true home and it's generally a good bet that a fantasy tale written as a short story is more likely to be a pulp fantasy than a high fantasy. It's no accident in my opinion that many of the strongest influences on early Dungeons & Dragons were short stories. Indeed, I would argue that D&D works best when a campaign consists of episodic "short stories" rather than a lengthy epic "novel."

Unfortunately, the short story seems to have fallen into disfavor, particularly in the fantasy genre, where multi-book series seem to be the norm. It's refreshing to remember that this wasn't always the case and one needn't return to the 1940s or 50s to find terrific examples of episodic fantasy. 1979, for example, saw the publication of Thieves' World, the first of twelve shared world anthologies edited by Robert Asprin concerning the inhabitants of the dissolute city of Sanctuary.

Several things elevated the Thieves' World series in my estimation, chief among them being the diversity of its authors. The first volume included short stories by Asprin, Lynn Abbey, Poul Anderson, Joe Haldeman, Andrew Offutt, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, among others. Later installments in the series included authors such as Philip José Farmer, David Drake, A.E. van Vogt, and C.J. Cherryh. As a result, the stories, especially the early ones, never fall into a rut or become repetitive, as each author brought a different perspective and style with their contributions. The series was also notable for its excellent setting and characters. Sanctuary is a wretched hive of scum and villainy that is no mere pastiche of Lankhmar, even if it clearly pays homage to Leiber's creation. Similarly, the characters of Thieves' World -- Lythal the Star-Browed, Jubal, One Thumb, and others -- are worthy to join the pantheon of great pulp fantasy protagonists ("heroes" is too unambiguous a word to describe them).

The Thieves' World series lasted for a decade, the last volume in the original series being published in 1989. As the series wore on, it showed signs of tiredness. There were fewer and fewer different contributors to each volume, with most of the short stories written by a handful of authors. Likewise, the episodic, picaresque nature of the series became less strong, as several overarching stories came to the fore, some of which veered a bit too much toward high fantasy for my liking. Even so, it's hard not to be impressed by the original volume and its immediate sequels. They injected some much-needed vibrancy into the pulp fantasy genre and their tales of Sanctuary's burglars and bandits, rebels and rapscallions remain among my favorite "modern" fantasy stories.

20 comments:

  1. I think Thieves' World is a great example of how a fantasy setting finds a hardcore fandom and, in catering to those fans, kills itself.

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  2. You shouldn't even be posting today Mr. "It's my anniversary". Cool that brain and get some sleep.

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  3. I remember hearing about a lot of infighting between the various authors as well, which hurt the series..anyone remember anything like that?

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  4. Yes. & The Chaosium's Boxed Setting was marvellous, especially with the characters written up in a dozen or so systems.

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  5. In 1981 Chaosium published a particularly compelling Thieves World RPG campaign setting. Uniquely it had stats for the major characters in several of the more popular RPG systems of the day. Making it a truly universal RPG supplement.

    It took me some time hunting on eBay to find a decent copy. Alas, I never had one as a kid and was quite jealous of the other kid's copy in middle school. Now it is mine! But it sits in a box with my other rare, "special" RPG collectors items.

    I have the recently published omnibus edition of the original Thieves World anthology and intend to read it. Just after finishing the John Carter of Mars series I'm enthralled with currently.

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  6. Similarly, the characters of Thieves' World -- Lythal the Star-Browed, Jubal,
    .
    Interesting: on a whim (and on special) I've started reading the 2nd Wild Cards mosaic novel and at one point one of the characters is called Jubal. Now I realise the writer of that story is alluding..

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  7. TW has been a huge influence on my fantasy gaming. The starting city in my C&C game was pretty much ripped off from Sanctuary, except that the city had been conquered by elves, instead of a human empire.

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  8. I just finished reading the 3rd book not long ago. I found this series though the graphic novels published in the 80s so love those as well. Sanctuary is an awesome setting. Thieves' World is definitely some of my favorite pulp fantasy.

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  9. I've just read This, as I'm running a S&W Thieves World pbp. TW was always one of those games I saw advertised in White Dwarf, dreamed of owning, but never saw in my local gamestore.

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  10. I loved TW back in the day. Of course that was also the pinnacle of my AD&D 1st ed gaming days, so yes I walked the streets and alleys of Sanctuary, met with Jubal and even crossed swords with Shadowspawn.

    I think maybe it is good time to journey back the edge of the Rankan Empire and see those streets again. Thanks for the post and the stroll down memory lane!

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  11. I just lent this to my next door neighbor, who had never heard of it. Sigh....He is now digging it.

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  12. I was just thinking over the weekend how much I missed good shared-world anthologies: along with Thieves' World, I fondly recall Liavek and Merovingen Nights. I stopped reading new fantasy much in later years because I grew tired of the "never-ending trilogies," stories maybe worth one novel padded over three or (often) more.

    I think Mearls is spot on about the decline of the series as it catered to an ever-narrowing circle of writers and readers, and I think you can see the same phenonmenon in RPGs such as GURPS, which listened to to its hardcore fans and greatly narrowed its appeal.

    Have there been good examples of shared worlds anthologies in recent years?

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  13. I loved the first few books, great stuff! I think it got a little weird (at least for me) with the Beysib situation, but it was still a pretty darn good series overall.

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  14. I really loved the early Thieve's World stories! Then, later, the series sort of degenerated into a chick-fantasy, gothy fanfic mess, with that endless blathering about the sexy, deadly, witch woman and solderly man-love. gah.

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  15. That storyline that had the streets flooded with magic weapons seemed to be a great homage (intentional or not) to D&D.

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  16. I read and really liked the first couple of the series as a kid, and ran my friends through some adventures in Sanctuary. I should pick these back up again, I don't remember them too clearly now. Thanks for the memory jog.

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  17. Using Thieves World as inspiration when running D&D may actually be an act of recursion, as Greg Stafford has claimed that Robert Aspirin conceived of the series originaly in emulation of the early rpg scene.

    Quoted from the Greg Stafford Q&A over at the Acaeum forums (www.acaeum.com/forum/about4109-0-asc-60.html):

    I had met Robert at a game of SF convention. He told me how his TW project had come about because he had played roleplaying games. One day he and a bunch of writers were complaining how difficult it is to make up a new fantasy setting every time they wanted to write a story, and he suggested the series, with him as the co-ordinator (GM) and everyone could contribute, as long as they followed the rule (i.e.- no killing each others main characters, etc.)

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  18. If you need visuals for Theives' World, there is an excellent graphic novel version.

    http://www.thievesworld.info/comics/index.htm

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  19. I remember buying the game setting that had stats for nearly every major system available at that time including Traveller.

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  20. Ah, I remember when I first came across Thieves world and how it was the coolest thing ever, when I was young. Aside from the (12?) anthologies, I seem to remember there were a number of novels set in Sanctuary near the end of the run... I had a bunch of them because of the Science Fiction Book Club.

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