For the writer of mainstream fiction, creating detailed origins for the people and places in the story is an option. For the writer of genre fiction it’s practically a necessity. There are countless series of science fiction or fantasy novels set in mythic worlds with richly imagined futures. What stands out among them are instances where stories not originally intended to share a universe become linked. Various genre writers have attempted to create a cohesive whole from fractured bits of their imaginations, and this post will look at some examples.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a shaper of modern science fiction and an astoundingly prolific writer, publishing everything from robot stories to popular science tomes. He is arguably most famous for two separate series. The first, starting with I, Robot (1953) follows the relationship between people and robots in the relatively-near future. The Foundation trilogy (1951-1953) creates a vast space opera about attempts to predict human behavior and engineer history. While the Robot and Foundation stories initially existed in separate worlds, Asimov began merging them into one, comprehensive future history in later prequels and sequels to the Foundation trilogy in the 1980’s.
A similar example comes from Gene Wolfe (1931- ), whose notable early fiction included the novella-triptych The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), about the colonization of twin planets St. Croix and St. Anne, and The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), a multi-volume work in which the narrator undertakes a strange odyssey in a distant future when the sun is dying and the earth is littered with the confused debris of past civilizations. Wolfe later followed with The Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), a story tangentially related to New Sun. This was followed in turn by The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001), which serves as both a direct sequel to Long Sun while also revisiting the dying Earth of New Sun and the mysterious twin planets Green and Blue, once called St. Croix and St. Anne.
Another example is Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), who created his own future history. Stories about the colonization of the moon and creation of long-lived family clans were laid down in early works such as Methuselah’s Children (1941). In his later books he re-uses a variety of characters including time-traveler Lazarus Long, Long’s mother Maureen Johnson, and sentient computer ‘Mike.’ Books such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) break into the field of metafiction and suggest that all stories (especially Heinlein’s own) exist as truth on some layer of reality.
One of the most elaborate and notable examples of meta-fiction and world-building comes from Stephen King (1947- ) and his Dark Tower mythos. The original Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger (1982), was one of the first King ever wrote and was born from a youthful desire to fuse Tolkien-style fantasy, spaghetti Westerns, and a poem of Robert Browning’s about knight-errant Roland’s quest for the mythical Tower at the heart of existence. Three more volumes followed, sprinkled amidst the rest of his prodigious output, until King’s near-fatal car accident in 1999, after which he decided to finish the last three volumes while he still could. From as early as the third volume, the story began containing overt references to other books, including Richard Adams’ Shardik and The Wizard of Oz. In the fourth volume Roland’s band wanders onto the set of King’s popular novel The Stand, and around that time many of King’s other works began containing references small and large to The Dark Tower. The final three volumes up the ante further. Characters from books like ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), Insomnia (1994), and Hearts in Atlantis (1999) are directly imported into the series. The story not only references but announces its own references to its various inspirations, from Marvel Comics and Harry Potter to Robert Browning and Thomas Wolfe. Most famously, King himself appears in the two final volumes as the author of the book the characters find themselves inhabiting: first as a young alcoholic struggling with the The Gunslinger in the 1970’s, and again in 1999, where Roland must save him from a pickup truck barreling in his direction. As the final volumes came out in 2003-2004, Stephen King spoke in detail about the process by which The Dark Tower slowly enveloped his other works and he wondered aloud if he would stop writing all together. Being Stephen King, he did not, but in 2012, King published The Wind Through the Keyhole, another Dark Tower novel, signaling that he hadn’t quite let the Tower go, or perhaps, as becomes Roland in the series, the Tower hasn’t let him go, even after 40 years.