Monday, September 17, 2007

James Oliver Rigney, Jr., 1948-2007

There are many authors who have borrowed characters created by someone else. Kevin Anderson has made a living off writing books set in the Star Wars universe that George Lucas created; numerous authors, including Hugo winner Vonda McIntyre, have penned Star Trek novels. John Gardner became known for his novels featuring Ian Fleming's superspy James Bond. Few of the authors who use another's existing characters are themselves good writers or notable.

One of the most popular characters who has been borrowed by other authors is Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard's most enduring creation. In 1990, one of Howard's borrowers branched out and embarked upon the most ambitious fantasy story arc in the history of the genre. Alas, he won't finish it.

Fantasy fiction, created largely by George MacDonald and E.R. Eddison and established as a viable literary genre by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, was a niche market in the 1980s. There were some fairly popular series and stories, but widespread acclaim and success was rare.

Then Tor published The Eye of The World in 1989. Written by Robert Jordan, the first volume of The Wheel of Time cycle became a huge success -- a NY Times bestseller with a genre-changing scope, strong female characters, coldly evil villains, and the subversive premise of chronicling the life of the messiah from the time he was marked as a savior to the Final Battle. Filled with various cultures and a cast of characters that would make War and Peace look tightly written, The Wheel of Time now spans 11 volumes, all 800+ pages in paperback in what is now the most popular fantasy series written by an American. And despite the criticisms of the various Tolkien clones who have put pen to paper in an effort to get their fantasy stories published, it was the Wheel of Time that established the viability of fantasy fiction as best-seller material.

Jordan's life before WoT is less known. A highly decorated war hero who served two tours in Vietnam, he graduated from The Citadel (South Carolina's military academy) and worked as a nuclear engineer at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Thirty years ago he quit his day job to write full time, first as Reagan O'Neal, an author of historical fiction and later as Robert Jordan, author of fantasy fiction. Both pseudonyms have a common element -- the names have initials from the author's real name, James Oliver Rigney, Jr.

A Southerner all his life, Jordan died yesterday after a protracted battle with amyloidosis -- a rare blood disease. He never completed the 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time series, nor the two prequels Jordan wanted to author.

James Oliver Rigney, Jr., RIP.

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