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Tie-In Fiction: Fantasy’s Gateway Drug

Dragons of Autumn Twilight (cover)Tie-in fiction—specifically the Dragonlance universe—was my first introduction to wonderful world of epic, serial fantasy. Before Eddings, before Jordan and Feist, there were Weis and Hickman. The Dragonlance Chronicles are a touchstone for me and countless others. Just take a look at the forum here on Fantasy-Faction, or at the r/fantasy or r/Dragonlance subreddits. The influence of those books is undeniable. And the entire Dragonlance universe is work-for-hire tie-in fiction.

The most recent episode of Tor.com’s excellent Rocket Talk podcast was an extended discussion with James L. Sutter, managing editor of Paizo Publishing. Paizo is the company behind the Pathfinder pen-and-paper RPG that draws heavily from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition. And like TSR/Wizards of the Coast, Paizo has expanded their universe to include tie-in novels. Paizo has just inked a deal with Tor, a fantasy powerhouse by any measure, to publish, distribute and provide support to the Pathfinder novel team. The podcast was a fascinating look at tie-in fiction and the conflicting feelings it engenders in the publishing world and in the hearts of readers.

I may be naïve, but even as an adult I never once considered that there was a “stigma” associated with tie-in fiction. Perhaps the reason why is that I came to Dragonlance as a reader, not a gamer. I didn’t see the novels as a cash-in on something else—I saw them as a story. That there was a game based on that story was irrelevant. So to hear Sutter and a Tor editor to talk about very real conversations where tie-in fiction was denigrated as “writing for a paycheck” or somehow less than an “original” work was a real shock.

Halo - The Fall of Reach (cover)From my perspective, writing in a shared universe would be an amazing honor. Who wouldn’t want to write a story that takes place in the alleys of Palanthas, or in Icewind Dale or in the Halo universe? There’s no stigma associated with writers of the caliber of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison telling tales in Gotham City and Metropolis. Why should prose novels be any different? The fact of the matter is that tie-in fiction was, and still is, a gateway to the larger world of genre fiction.

I’m sure those of you who are old enough can recall the bookshelves at your local bookseller in the late 80s and early 90s. The fantasy and sci-fi sections were absolutely filled with books with the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Star Trek and Star Wars logos. As a burgeoning genre reader, I know that I was drawn to these books that were “branded” with those familiar logos. In the case of Dragonlance, the sheer number of novels available in 1989/1990 was, right or wrong, an indication that these books had a large audience and thus were probably good enough to deserve my time. It was that simple. Sure, I noticed other books too. But the authors’ names and the covers and the titles were intimidating to a 10-year-old.

Heir To The Empire (cover)And then there was Star Wars. When Heir to the Empire was published, and the story of my favorite movies of all time once again progressed, I was overjoyed. This galaxy far, far away that I loved so much was once again a living, breathing, evolving thing. Tie-in fiction. Work-for-hire. But can anyone deny the influence of the Star Wars EU? Other than Disney and JJ Abrams, I mean…

Timothy Zahn named Coruscant. His influence on galactic geography is greater than that of even George Lucas. His contributions to the Star Wars mythos is immeasurable. That his original ideas needed to be approved prior to release is completely irrelevant. The method of delivery doesn’t negate the product delivered. A good story is a good story, regardless of how the author is paid or the conditions based on his writing.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and that includes the logo featured thereon. Mass appeal doesn’t always equal “dumbed down.” Tie-ins aren’t always cash-grabs. For many of us, to paraphrase a “crazy old wizard” that lived on the edge of the Dune Sea, tie-ins were the first steps taken into a much larger world. And the value of that is immeasurable.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Michael Gapen says:

    Pawn of Prophecy, according to wiki, was published in 1982. 1984 for Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

  2. Avatar Michael Gapen says:

    On the other hand, he may have been relating his personal experience, as I read it again. Sorry if that’s the case. I understand.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      Exactly. I came to all of the works listed a few years after they were published–not until ’87 or so.

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