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Freedom and Fame

Borderland  (Chronicles of the Borderlands, volume 1)

Edited by Terri Windling & Mark Alan Arnold 

25 Jan, 2024

Big Hair, Big Guns!


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Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold’s 1986 Borderland is the first volume in the Chronicles of the Borderlands modern fantasy shared universe.

The Borderland is the region between Faerie and the human world (1), a region where neither elf magic nor human technology is reliable. Governed by neither side, the Borderland becomes a refuge for society’s outcasts: artists, criminals, and teenagers.

Extensive ISFDB digression warning.

While shared universes have been around at least since the days of War God of Israel and its spin-off, The Thing With Three Souls, the 1980s saw the rise and (later) fall of the format in prose fantasy and science fiction. The Chronicles of the Borderlands was a reasonably successful example of the genre, spawning four more anthologies, three novels, several websites and a roleplaying game over the course of the next two plus decades.

I perused the ISFDB entry and noted some interesting details.

First, the many publishers involved. The five volume anthologies series migrated from Signet (who published the first two volumes essentially back-to-back) to Tor in the 1990s [2] and more recently to Random House in the 2010s [3]. The novels were brought out by still other publishers.

One can see how reader tastes regarding length evolved over the decades. The length of the volumes doubled between the first installment and the most recent.

Other interesting revelations. The Essential Bordertown, whose title and length led me to mistakenly believe it was a selection of the best stories from the first two volumes, was in fact another volume of original stories. I guess I should have purchased it. Unlike most of the volumes, that’s still an option. Essential is still in print.

I discovered that the series is and has always been aimed at teen readers. I had no idea! However, there is an exception (discussed later) suggested by protagonists chosen. The teen target audience is probably responsible for a feature of the setting that I remember vexing me forty years ago. The series is extremely vague about the Borderland’s higher level political and economic structure. In retrospect, it’s probably because teens don’t get much input into how either the government or the economy work.

Borderland is a perfectly functional example of a modern fantasy apparently a vital work in the development of modern fantasy whose importance I did not grasp until people educated me. It’s so vague about details of the setting that most inconsistencies can be attributed to the characters’ different perspectives. The focus is usually on sometimes-unsavory street life, as runaways from across what is probably America search for themselves in a thriving arts community, in a sketchy neighborhood, in a city crippled by unreliable infrastructure and rife with crime and racial violence.

If a new volume appeared today, probably there would be more overtly queer teens, although at least one of the stories can be interpreted through that lens. There’s not as much depiction of drug abuse, egregious exploitation, or STDs as one might expect, which should have been a clue as to the target audience.

Borderland is out of print.

Now for the nitty-gritty.

Introduction (Borderland) • essay by Farrel Din

A quick outline of the setting, from the perspective of a recurring character.

Prodigy • [Chronicles of the Borderlands] • (1986) • novella by Steven R. Boyett

A former rock star with an inexplicably and untrained knack for magic alienates his girlfriend with his lack of ambition. When she finally dumps him, he inadvertently creates a shadow self of pure malice that sets off in pursuit of his ex. Can our loser save his ex? Will saving her from the menace he created using a talent he was warned was too dangerous to use reunite the couple?

A deadbeat musician sponging off a long-suffering girlfriend? Where do SFF authors get their ideas?

Boyett’s take on Borderland is more post-apocalyptic than the other stories and would fit in better with his Ariel setting than it does with Borderland. The tale is also not particularly teen friendly, including as it does all sorts of creepy sex content. Such as an gratuitous graphic description of a nameless twenty-something man having sex with a nameless girl in her early teens.” This is a background detail in one scene, a detail I don’t think needs to be there at all.

Gray • [Chronicles of the Borderlands] • (1986) • short fiction by Terri Windling [as by Bellamy Bach]

A runaway searching for an explanation for her feline lycanthropy teams up with a Bordertown-born elf girl. The explanation the werecat wants to hear is that she is herself part elf. To quote the musician, you can’t always get what you want.

While the werecat does not like what she learns, what she wanted would have likely been worse. Mixed-race Bordertowners are subject to prejudice and violence from both humans and elves.

If this had been written in 2024, the possibly queer subtext might have been text. Or maybe I am misreading.

Seen from a distance, elves are alien. Seen up close, it’s hard to tell them or at least their teens from Americans. This might be commentary on the immigrant experience. It may also be an example of how the presentation of shared worlds can vary from author to author.

Stick • [Chronicles of the Borderlands] • (1986) • novella by Charles de Lint

A well-meaning vigilante saves a mixed-race teen from being kicked to death by young gang members. The gang leader, inexplicably believing himself to be the protagonist, sets out gun in hand to demand recompense for the affront. Vigilante and teen forthrightly address the gang leader’s concerns.

The general lack of functional government means people are free to be whoever they want to be, whether that’s would-be rock star, a wandering hero in quest of people to save, or violent racists who (fortunately) don’t have good aim.

While there is a running theme of featuring hopeful musicians, one cannot help but notice that bands come and go with fair frequency, the few successful, sustainable acts being far outnumbered by groups that fall apart almost immediately.

Charis • [Chronicles of the Borderlands] • (1986) • novelette by Ellen Kushner

A naïve teen believes she is an inspirational fairy tale of true love triumphing over malice. She is in a fairy tale but not that one.

This story establishes that there is a local government and of course, politics.

1: The human world is most likely someplace in the US, although I don’t think the text ever actually says that.

2: Tor replaced the Phil Hale cover used above with this Thomas Canty cover.

Tor also shuffled the order in which contributor names appeared on the cover, dropping Signet’s order of appearance with what I assume is order of placement in best seller lists.

3: The Random House volume is notable because neither Windling nor Arnold edited that volume. Borderland contributors Holly Black and Ellen Kushner did.