Imagine a series of novels—twenty or so, let’s say. They are sword-and-sorcery high fantasy involving alternate dimensions, monsters, magic, kings and queens, intrigue, danger, and lots of action. The two main characters have much the same chemistry as Sam and Dean Winchester, Aziraphale and Crowley, or Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, and the other characters are just as fun, funny, and engaging. The books have puntastic titles like Hit or Myth, Myth Directions, and M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link. Best of all, they’re funny. God, are they funny! Sounds like a literary property over which Netflix, Hulu—heck, all the streaming services should be fighting over, right?
Sadly, to my knowledge, there’s been nary a scuffle. Not a set-to. Not a tiff. The streamers aren’t even giving each other stink-eye over the rights to this series, Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures, which began in 1978. (Before Good Omens. Before Discworld. Before Hitchhiker’s Guide.) In fact, the only person writing humorous fantasy back then was Piers Anthony, who grew up in Vermont but was born in England.
Come to think of it, the authors of the other books I just mentioned—Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams—are all English as well. Did Robert Asprin, who was born in Michigan and lived for many years in New Orleans, invent American comic fantasy?
Maybe not, but he did help to create, or at least popularize, something else: the shared world anthology. This type of anthology is a collection of stories by different authors using the same characters and setting. It is usually edited by the creator of that setting, who also writes and maintains the “bible”: a set of rules for how the world operates. Asprin’s anthology was Thieves’ World, which grew out of a 1978 dinner meeting between himself and two other writers, Lynn Abbey (whom Asprin would later marry) and Gordon Dickson. “As so often happens when several authors gather socially,” writes Asprin in “The Making of Thieves’ World,” a companion essay, “the conversation turned to the subject of writing in general and specifically to problems encountered and pet peeves.”
Asprin’s gripe was about the need to build a brand-new world for every fantasy novel. Wouldn’t it be cool, he mused, if there were already existing worlds that writers could use?
Dickson agreed. Abbey said that the ideal thing “was to be able to franchise one’s ideas and worlds out to other authors.” Buoyed by their enthusiasm Asprin started asking around, and he got a few writers, including Abbey but not Dickson, to agree to submit a story to an anthology that would be titled Thieves’ World. Then he and the group got to work creating the “bible,” which Asprin ran through a typewriter and mailed to all the contributors (how much easier this would have been with Google Docs!). Some dropped out of the project; Asprin replaced them. He also wrangled a publisher, oversaw the contracts, and found time to write his own story. The anthology appeared in 1979 and was acclaimed. A second volume appeared a year later, and a third the year after that. Thieves’ World now has 14 official collections, plus any number of unofficial ones. There are also seven novels set in the universe.
There are those among Asprin’s fans that maintain that, with Thieves’ World, he invented the first new literary form in 200 years, but he was too modest to accept those sorts of accolades. “What we did with Thieves’ World,” he said in a 1994 interview, “is no different from many TV series,” pointing out that shows like Star Trek have bibles for their writers, directors, and producers. Moreover, both Marvel and DC Comics had been using crossovers and other shared world elements for years. Aspirin introduced the concept to fantasy fiction, and the formula has endured. Without Thieves’ World, there might have been no Wild Cards. No Heroes in Hell. No Darkover anthologies.
Can someone at Amazon pick up the phone?
And there’s still more to choose from: In 1990, Asprin turned his comedic talents to science fiction with Phule’s Company, about the exploits of Space Legion captain Willard J. Phule. This was followed by Phule’s Paradise, A Phule and His Money, Phule Me Twice, No Phule Like an Old Phule, and Phule’s Errand. In all, Asprin wrote, co-wrote, or edited some 60 books over a 30-year career, many of them bestsellers. There would have been more if he hadn’t taken a break from writing in the late 1990s due to “a series of unpleasant events in my life,” not the least of which was a “five-year brawl” with the IRS. And, of course, if he hadn’t passed away in 2008 at the far-too-young age of 61. His works have been adapted into comic books, as well as board games and RPGs. But, astonishingly, nothing on the big or small screen.
My favorite Asprin effort will always be the Myth series. I was introduced to the books in 1987, my freshman year in high school, by my friend Andy, who lived with his father, brother, and sister. Andy’s parents were divorced. I, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, knew no one else with divorced parents. Andy got mediocre grades, which I never understood because he was brilliant. He read Tolkien, Bertrand Russell, and Ayn Rand; he played D&D; he knew everything about Norse mythology. I learned about Douglas Adams and “Weird Al” Yankovic from him. Just before we lost touch after school, he sent me a postcard with Vincent Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait on the front. On the back, he encouraged me to “drop a line, lend an ear.” I still have some of the poetry he wrote (eat your heart out, e.e. cummings).
The first book in the series, Another Fine Myth, opens with Skeeve, a young magician’s apprentice, witnessing his mentor Garkin summoning an old friend—a green, scaly demon from the dimension of Perv. An assassin bursts into Garkin’s hut, and both Garkin and the assassin end up dead. The demon introduces himself to Skeeve thusly:
“Please ta meetcha, kid. I’m Aahz.”
Aahz is a wizard as well, but the summoning stripped him of his powers, and he can’t get himself back to Perv. Meanwhile, another magician named Isstvan has plans to conquer all dimensions, making himself their ultimate ruler. Aahz decides to stop Isstvan. With his teacher gone, Skeeve tags along. Many people they meet recognize Aahz as a Pervert—i.e., a native of Perv. (“It’s Pervect,” he corrects them toothily, one of the series’ many running jokes.) Skeeve, meanwhile, increases his magical skill thanks to Aahz’s tutelage. In the end, they defeat Isstvan, which sets them up for a bigger adventure in book two, an even bigger one in book three, and so on.
Roku, if you’re listening…
I hadn’t re-read any of the books for thirty years, though they’ve flitted across my memory now and then, especially the faux quotes that open each chapter. (My favorite, from Myth-Nomers & Im-Pervections: “Holy Batshit, Fatman! I mean…” –Robin.) Then I had a thought: has anyone done Asprin’s series as audiobooks? Turns out, someone has. Noah Michael Levine reads the series for Recorded Books, and he is outstanding. He gives Aahz a Billy Crystal-as-an-older-Buddy Young voice. His Tanda, a female assassin, is sexy but menacing. Big Julie, a military leader, sounds like a character straight out of The Sopranos. Gleep the dragon only ever utters one sound, “Gleep,” which Levine imbues with all sorts of meanings through his intonations. The Myth books lend themselves especially well to an aural medium because they are short, lively, and fun.
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…But they’re not completely frivolous. Skeeve starts out as a thief but grows in confidence and wisdom (though not in luck). His bond with Aahz is the series’ emotional core, and it progresses as well, from a mentor/mentee relationship to full partnership in an interdimensional detective agency. As for literary heft, one of Skeeve’s best spells is disillusionment: the ability to make others see what isn’t there. He relies on shifting identities over and over to confuse and confound, with mixed results—a device employed in many of Shakespeare’s comedies and which has been widely used ever since. There’s also an argument to be made that Asprin’s overarching goal was to affectionately satirize the familiar tropes and conventions of fantasy, and you can certainly read the series in that light.
Of course, not every novel has to engage our deeper literary sensibilities. Some can simply entertain. While the British humor of Gaiman and Pratchett and Adams certainly engages in its fair share of slapstick, whimsy, and puns, these elements are Asprin’s bread and butter. He excels at them—the more outrageous, the better. Just look at the ending of Myth Conceptions, in which Aahz and Skeeve, now court magicians of the kingdom of Possiltum, have vanquished an invading army and its commander, The Brute, only to be confronted by The Brute’s boss, Big Julie, who admits:
“I was getting a little worried about the Brute, you know what I mean? … He was getting a little too ambitious.”
“In that case. …” I smiled.
“Still…” Julie continued, “that’s a bad way to go. Hacked apart by your own men. I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.”
“You should have fed him to the dragons,” Aahz said bluntly.
“The Brute?” Julie frowned. “Fed to the dragons? Why?”
“Because then he could have been ‘et, too’!”
HBO? Peacock? Okay, screw it. I’m doing a YouTube series!
In the meantime, let’s hear from you—if you’re a fan of Asprin’s work, please feel free to recommend your favorite books, or your favorite puns! And are there any other fantasy or sci-fi works that carry on the spirit of the Myth Adventure books, and which have a similar sense of humor? Let us know in the comments…
Anthony Aycock is a librarian and freelance writer who has published in Slate, the Washington Post, Medium, the Missouri Review, the Gettysburg Review, and other venues. See more of his work at his website.