MIND MELD: The Best Endings In SF/F Series
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Sometimes it seems that every new SF/F book is part of a series and the reader will have to wait, sometimes years, for the conclusion. Happily there are many, many very good (and finished!) SF/F series, however, not all of the endings measure up to the story that preceeds it. This week we asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said… [Note: If you haven't read any of these particular series, there may be spoilers included in the responses.]
The final book in my favorite SF/F series – Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic – has not yet been published, so I cannot address it in this Mind Meld, except to observe that the third book (Water Logic) put the entire series in perspective, so I have great hopes that the forthcoming Air Logic will be equally transformational.
I did not expect the Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones to end as it did in Rainbow Bridge, though thinking about it in light of some of her essays, it’s not really a surprising ending. After all, Jones scorns the typical hero tale in which victory is improbably snatched from the jaws of defeat. The world is crumbling at the beginning of the series, but our rockstar heroes – Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda – are taking charge, and their powers are such that we believe they can save us. They do not, and by the end the Chinese have taken over the world, though whether or not they can save us, even with some technological miracles, is still an open question. The closing scene of Ax’s joy in the birth of his daughter lets the reader know the characters will continue to muddle on. Knowing that they’re still out there somewhere pleases me.
Mary Gentle’s Ash, A Secret History, was published in the U.S. as a four-book series. I read the first three books as excellent adventure stories and tended to ignore the modern researcher frame set around the book. But in the fourth book, Lost Burgundy, the frame and story came together, and I realized I was reading science fiction (with fantasy and alternate history overtones). I love it when that happens.
L. Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle starts with a dystopia not all that far removed from current reality. Classes are stratified in the U.S., and a firmly entrenched 1 percent – the Executive class – is running the show. Then the Marq’ssan arrive. It’s easy to assume that the Marq’ssan will throw out the bastards and improve the lot of the rest of humanity. But while the Marq’ssan do provide some assistance, the story takes us in unexpected directions, including an overthrow of the mostly male executive rulers by female ones, with no real change in society, and the development of an ever-growing Free Zone run on anarchistic and socialistic principles. Change is in progress in the final book, Stretto, but nothing is final. In the final pages, one human character begins to explore something much more complex than political change – a change in her mind. It’s a positive note, and leaves the story open-ended. Utopia does not yet exist, but the possibility is there.
The first two series are similar in that they are both Future Histories and may likely have the odd other work inserted while they creators are still alive. The Age of the Universe is long and everything must end, whether over tens of thousands or billions of years.
Mike Resnick’s Birthright Universe has stories of many flavours and different eras through but the stories in Birthright: The Book of Man gives a timeline for the extinction of humanity.
“We could all kneel down in front of the Kragans and pray while their firing squad mowed us down,” said the second woman with a laugh.
“Or write down your touching little speech and put it in a bottle in the hope that someone will find it someday,” added the third woman.
“Stop your snickering!” snapped the man. “If we’re going to die, at least we ought to go about it right.”
“And what is the right way for a race to die?” said the second woman.
“Not by sitting around moaning and cackling, that’s for sure!” said the man. “Don’t you want somebody to know we’ve been here, that this is where Man met his end?”
“Who do you propose to tell?” asked the second woman.
“I don’t know,” said the man. “Somebody.” He looked around the cave and his eyes fell on the device. “Everybody.” He walked over and knelt down next to it. “At least they’ll know we didn’t go out like lambs to the slaughter, that we fought to the very end to preserve all that was Man.”
He reached out and pressed the button.
It was glorious.
Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Future History, a work with a staggering scope and at times inventively looping back and around on itslef also has a collection that is highly relevant for summation of the situation: Resplendent. Part Six of which is entitled The Fall of Mankind.
“So Earth died but did not die. So Symat died, but did not die.
I did not die, of course.
How could I die? I had completed this project, but I have completed projects before, and history just keeps on piling up, whatever I do. So here I am, in the dark, alone.
Waiting for what comes next.
I remember so much, yet so little. I have seen mankind rise and fall – quite a story! But what stays with me are the faces, the endless torrent of faces from Symat the ragamuffin whom I loved, to Symat the idealistic messiah-boy whom I bred to die. Each face blossoms like a flower and fades to dust, leaving me alone once more. Each face is a betrayal. Yet they are all I have.
Sometimes it feels as if it has all been a dream, from the instant I put Gemo Cana’s pill into my mouth. Perhaps in a moment I will wake to find myself under the shining domes of Conurbation 5204. And then, with my cadre siblings, I will run, laughing, in Sol’s yellow light.”
The Lensman series – E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith
This ending I have always found interesting because the entities of power behind the scenes leave the care of everything in the hands of four women (Karen, Kathryn, Constance and Camilla Kinnison) and a man (Christopher Kinnison). Just after they save the previous hero of the series with the help of another woman overcoming a mental block. This from a book originally serialised in the late 1940s.
“The time has come, then,” Karen thought, “to go into the very important matter of our reason for being and our purpose in life. You have intimated repeatedly that you Arisians are resigning your Guardianship of Civilization and that we are to take over; and I have just perceived the terribly shocking fact that you four are now alone, that all the other Arisians have already gone. We’re not ready, Mentor; you know we’re not—this scares me through and through.”
“You are ready, children, for everything that will have to be done. You have not come to your full maturity and power, of course; that stage will come only with time. It is best for you, however, that we leave you now. Your race is potentially vastly stronger and abler than ours. We reached some time ago the highest point attainable to us: we could no longer adapt ourselves to the ever-increasing complexity of life. You, a young new race amply equipped for any emergency within reckonable time, will be able to do so. In capability and in equipment you begin where we leave off.”
“But we know—you’ve taught us—scarcely anything!” Constance protested.
“I have taught you exactly enough. That I do not know exactly what changes to anticipate is implicit in the fact that our race is out of date. Further Arisian teaching would tend to set you in the out-dated Arisian mold and thereby defeat our every purpose. As I have informed you repeatedly, we ourselves do not know what extra qualities you possess. Hence I am in no sense competent to instruct you in the natures or in the uses of them.””
The Eric John Stark stories – Leigh Brackett
The ending of this series has the iconoclast and atavistic antihero helping out his politician mentor and the people of a planet with a Dying Sun whose rulers desperately try and hang on to power rather than evacuate. Despite prophecy and technology the hired gun again flies off alone except for the faithful hounds.
“Up,” said Hargoth to his people. “Up and march. The long wait is over, and the star-roads lie before us.”
He led his people down from the hills, singing the Hymn of Deliverance.
Stark heard the chanting. He looked toward the long gray line, and sent
word swiftly that there was to be no attack. While stores were unloaded from the ship and the passengers began to embark—the willing and the unwilling, with Gelmar among the red robes that went to serve the white—Stark went with his two hounds to meet the Corn-King.
“You see?” he said. “I was the true Deliverer, after all. Will you come into the ship?”
“No,” said Hargoth. “Until all my people can go, I stay with them. But I will send two of my priests to speak for us.” He gestured, and two of the lean, gray men stepped forward. Then he glanced again at Stark. “What of the sun-haired woman?”
“The prophecy you made at Thyra was a true one,” Stark said.
He walked back to the ship with the priests beside him and the two hounds at his heels.
Ashton was waiting for him in the airlock. They went together into the ship and the outer hatch clanged shut. In a little while, the flame and thunder shook the air again and set the ground a-tremble. The shining hull sprang upward into the sky.
Old Sun watched it with a dull, uncomprehending eye until it disappeared.”
The Agent Cormac series – Neal Asher
Somewhat the reverse of the Eric John Stark situation. Here an intergalactic superagent, a cold, emotionless executioner working for the AI Polity status in Gridlinked changes to an iconoclastic agent of change, a rebel, an overseer when he works out what has really been going on in Line War.
‘Why did you allow this attack?’ he repeated.
‘Ever since the war with the Prador, humanity’s pace of development has slowed almost to the point of stagnation. Development only accelerates under threat, and we know that complacency kills.’
‘It is a dangerous universe, Cormac, one in which a decadent and lazy human race could at any time face extinction.’”
‘Millions died,’ Cormac repeated.
‘But I did not kill them; I merely did not save them.’
‘That’s a very fine line.’
‘Are you here to destroy me, Cormac?’ the hologram enquired. ‘Very few will notice any difference, for the moment I cease to function, one of my sub-minds will take up the reins. It will take only a matter of microseconds for it to assume my duties.’
‘But it won’t be you.’
‘Another fine line.’
Cormac bowed his head for a moment. ‘Perhaps I can accept that doing less than you are able to do is no crime.’ He raised his head. ‘She said she would not be allowed to live “while the betrayer still sits on his throne”, and of course then I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Now I do. You crossed the line when you sent your own people to the Trafalgar, so that ship’s AI could use them to initiate Jain nodes. In that you are culpable of murder. I’m here for the sake of Fiddler Randal and Henrietta Ipatus Chang, and others whose names only you know.’
‘Ah, that,’ said Earth Central. ‘So you are a moral creature, Cormac?’
Cormac stepped forward through the hologram and flung Shuriken.
The throwing star shot from his hand, extending its blades only a little way, then whirred up to a scream. It hit the pillar above the Earth Central AI, and the pillar shattered, a rain of blue glass clattering down and spilling through the gratings underfoot.
Cormac swept up the ruler of the Polity in one hand.
The Evergence series by Sean Williams and Shane Dix
A woman who has been tasked with the defense of humanity against a race of cloned superwarriors was lied to about her origins and technology mastery abilities. At the end she must decide whether to destroy the clones or let them exist and likely cause the downfall of humans. An ending that is both philosophically very interesting and entirely creepy all at the same time.
“Would you change your mind?” The Crescend’s voice was clear and calm in her helmet. “Knowing what you now know, do you think you made the wrong decision?”
She kept her eyes closed and fought down the fear by focusing on his question. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Cane and his race deserved at least a fighting chance. I just wish I hadn’t been so stupid.”
“In what sense?”
“Cane told me he was Human, and I believed him!”
“He never said that, Morgan.”
“Yes he did,” she said. “After Palasian System, when we woke him from that coma Linegar Rufo put him in. He tapped out a message in code —!”
“Yes, but that’s not what he said,” said the Crescend. “His exact words were: ‘I am as Human as you are’.”
Her eyes opened, as if upon a realisation she had been blinded to.
“What are you saying?” she asked. “That I’m not Human?”
“You are as Human as I am, Morgan. As Human as Cane. Even as Human as the Box, if you like,” he said. “That’s the way you were made.”
She wanted to recoil from what the Crescend was saying, but she was trapped in her suit, in a disintegrating fighter. She had nowhere to hide from the words, no way to avoid them. All she could do was listen to him.
“The High Caste needed someone to make a decision it was not capable of making — or was not prepared to make. But we could hardly trust such a judgment to someone lacking the necessary attributes. Since mundanes are inherently unreliable, and since the person we required simply did not exist, we decided to make one. We made you, Morgan.”
She shook her head. “Why?”
“You are determined and not easily swayed. You see all sides of a dispute and try to be fair. You have a keen sense of duty, on many levels. You are honourable, and will not shirk from the truth. You may not see yourself as such, Morgan, for we also gave you a sense of humility, but you are a good person. A good Human. If the fate of the mundanes was to rest in your hands, it was important for you to be so.
“On the other hand, you needed access to information and capabilities beyond the access of a normal mundane — especially once the time came to bring you face to face with the enemy, in the form of Adoni Cane — so my relationship with the Commonwealth of Empires was exploited to allow the Box to fall into your hands.
“The only thing that set you apart from the mundanes around you was your ability to detect the enemy, and even that was limited. You were, to all intents and purposes, an ordinary person, but one fashioned in such a way that you would not break under extraordinary circumstances. That was our gift to you, Morgan — one which has served you in good stead these last few weeks.”
“How much of me … ?” She couldn’t finish the sentence. Her mind was full of conflicting images, thoughts, and feelings. Everything seemed to be shaking, falling apart around her.
“I can assure you that you are as real as anyone.”
“Ascensio — the orphanage — ?”
“Real memories,” he said. “Taken from someone else.”
She closed her eyes. “Bodh Gaya?”
“Your own experiences. Everything from your arrival at the Military College was you. But that makes those memories no more ‘real’ to you than the others. They are all yours, Morgan. They all contribute to who you are.”
She thought of the parents she had hoped to find one day, and whom she had forgotten upon joining COE Intelligence. She remembered her friends in the orphanage, and the conditions that had led her to flee her home planet. She saw again, as clearly as though it happened only yesterday, the flash of the COEI Gegenschein’s engines as it broke orbit and headed for her new home, her new future.
A shrieking of tortured metal rose around her, as though the ship were tearing up.
“I’ve never had any choice, have I?” She raised her voice to be heard over the noise, even though she knew the Crescend could read her mind just as easily as it ever had.
“Of course you have, Morgan. That was the whole point.”
“But you made me in order to do something. There was no way I could avoid that. There’s no way you would’ve let me!”
“Perhaps not, but — ”
“And could I have avoided all of this?” She saw Maii’s body, the Ana Vereine’s pyre, the golden glow of the cockpit around her. “Was I always intended to end up here?”
“That question is irrelevant,” said the Crescend. “You are here now, and the ‘now’ is all that matters.”
A siren wailed in her ears.
“Why are you bothering to talk to me at all?” she said angrily. “Why ask me about Cane? Why not just lift the information from my memories? What is it you are after? You want me to absolve you for what you’ve done? Is that it?”
“I have no need of absolution, Morgan. I have no ulterior motives, either. Your role in this phase of the war is truly finished.”
“So now I am being thrown out with the trash?” she shouted. “Is that it?”
“You are not a robot, Morgan,” the Crescend said.
“But I’m not real!”
“You may find it difficult to accept, but you are as genuine a being as anyone else you have met. You have mind, you have will, and you have character. Where your body actually came from is irrelevant.”
“Do you expect me to accept that?”
“In time, I think you will.”
“But I don’t have time,” she said. “The fighter’s burning up!”
“Yes,” the Crescend said with no suggestion of remorse. “It is. In fact, you have less than a minute before it disintegrates completely.”
She fought down a surge of panic, resisted the tears pressing at the backs of her eyes.
“I’m frightened,” she said, the words both a whisper and a sigh.
The Crescend said nothing.
She closed her eyes again, bracing herself as the fighter began to shake violently. The sound of voices was drowned out by the rattling and creaking of the ship. She thought she might be screaming, but she could hear nothing at all over the noise. She was sound: sound and movement: movement and pain: pain and —
With a burst of heat, everything went silent.
The Rynosseros Cycle – Terry Dowling
A created man in future Australia is a defender of AI and the right thing to do in general. Which the powers that be do not like at all and hence work at his destruction. This all leads to a final confrontation between sandship fleets pro AI and con. The former hopelessly outnumbered. Tom Rynosseros makes a desperate run elsewhere covered by his friends but changes his mind and turns back to face the battle with his fellow Coloured Captains. It isn’t just the human fleets with capabilities in this battle, however.
“Oh if you could see them as they ran, the seven against the dazzling thunder of the thousand, a few bright stars before the crackling storm, six kilometres becoming five, four, steadiling falling to nothing in the beat, beat, beat of the dance. Oh, if you knew how all across the land we sang in our thousands, not unision, no, no, fervent discord, sand and sang, all o fus that lived, the greatest and the least, startling noamds, travellers, vagrant stonement, delighting so many who had forgotten to remember we were always there.
And if we could show you how it was at that moment our Captain knew with all his heart, how it was at the last, before the fleets met and the sky, yet again, rained fire and ruin, and the chevron plunged into the fire we made-the belltress-how the tribes, the humans in their prid and disregard, had forgotten that, having tasted life, we too would strive, learn, borrow, use everything we had, would rise up and protect our own, what we had made.
Our Tom Rynosseros. Ours.”
When I was thinking about this, it turns out that you’re absolutely right. Many of my favorite series are still in progress. But I immediately thought of two that I think are pretty much perfect all the way through, with just the right endings.
The first is Holly Black’s Curse Workers series. Each volume is twistier than the last, but without ever breaking the world’s rules or cutting the characters–especially main character Cassel Sharpe–the tiniest break. Black Heart, the final book in the trilogy, doesn’t have a comma or an action sequence out of place. It takes the reader exactly where they want to go emotionally, without ever becoming predictable. These are masterfully constructed books that keep the reader guessing and hoping all the way through.
The second is Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize series. These are fun, funny, smart books with just the right amount of darkness. The story branches out to encompass new characters over four books, but that growth is seamless. Rather than resenting the focus on new characters, we take comfort in the presence of the ones we already love (Quincie, Kieren), while getting sucked into the stories that come with the the introduction of Zachary and Miranda. By the time the series gets to Diabolical, the last book, it–literally, and literarily–encompasses Heaven, Hell, and our world in between, and the stories of all four characters conclude in a satisfying way that leaves the world still open to our imaginations.
So many of my favorite series writers don’t actually have end points, or, like Leigh Brackett’s Skaith novels, end with a weaker entry. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories don’t really conclude, exactly, and I prefer the stories written earlier in the cycle in any case.
To my mind, the fantasy series that ends the best is Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga. The conclusion is a perfect cap to the series, and surpasses most of the final novel itself. Avert your eyes now if you want to avoid spoilers.
The novel Stormbringer ends with the sword itself triumphant. Not Elric, the doomed anti-hero who has wielded the soul-sucking blade for so long, but his blade. In the final moments of the book Elric has not just ushered in a new age for his nation, he has ushered in a new era for the entire world, the one catch being that his best friend must sacrifice himself upon Stormbringer, and the extra catch being that Stormbringer slays Elric as well. Stormbringer rises as the “last manifestation of Chaos which would remain with this new world.” The spirit that had been the sword then “looked down on the corpse of Elric of Melniboné and smiled. ‘Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!’”
It’s a bleaker end than the sort I usually like, but it is so note perfect for the series that I couldn’t help nodding at an authorial vision perfectly achieved. Years later I’ve met little to equal it, and nothing to surpass it.
My next favorite would have to be The Pnume, from Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure sequence. After four heart-pounding books following Adam Reith’s efforts to escape the planet Tschai, the reader witnesses Reith finally manage a way off, complete with a handful of loyal friends and the woman he loves. The moment is all the more superb because the four books in the Planet of Adventure sequence never flag; not in pacing, not in prose quality, not in the fabulous march of Vance’s outstanding imaginative world and culture building details. At no time have I ever had to say to someone that “well, stick with it through the third book because the fourth book makes up for it.” Nope, if you like what you find in the first, you’ll find theme, variation, and development upon it through the whole rest of the series. When you close the final cover you’ll smile to yourself with satisfaction of having read a tale well told.
Up until recently I kind of shied away from series. I made exceptions for the big guns like Dune and Lord of the Rings. And Douglas Adams kept tricking me into reading a series. I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan, and with the exception of the loosely tied-together Valis series, his books are all one-offs.
However of late, as I get exposed to more authors and more fantasy, I’ve been drawn into lots of series, none of which I’ve finished. Mainly because the authors haven’t either. So I have this gaping hole in my reading list of series which are definitively done.
As much as I absolutely adore Dune, it isn’t a great ending. And it hasn’t even properly ended with the work Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert have been doing. Lord of the Rings, as we all know, is just really a great big novel, not a proper series, though it does have one of the best endings ever.
I suppose, of the series I’ve read, the two that I finished feeling satisfied and happy are wildly different in styles. First, I was extremely satisfied with the ending of Harry Potter. For whatever you think of Rowling’s universe, she ended it in just the way I as a reader enjoy the most. That means I wasn’t sure who survived until the very end, not everyone I wanted to survive made it, which kept it interesting, and the way the survivors arrived at the end left them changed forevermore.
If Rowling ever does re-visit the universe, it won’t continue the Harry Potter story. It can’t. She wrapped up that narrative and Harry has moved on to a new life. That’s one way a good series should end.
The other I’d mention is Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle. This was the perfect grand banquet of reading for me. I compare it to a delicious meal that even though I’m eating a lot, keeps me going with tempting dishes, but never quite satisfied me until the end. The best part about this series, is I don’t remember exactly how it ended. That wasn’t the point of this story for me. As cliche as it may be to say, it was about getting there, not arriving.
I still carry images of pirates, hidden clans of diseased peasants and magnificent card-sorting systems in my head. They may not come up exactly daily, but often enough.
Of course I’m leaving out many good ones like His Dark Materials, Ender’s Game and more, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
So while I don’t often have the chance to finish an entire series because of the book clubs, one does come to mind: The Phèdre Trilogy, the first part of the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the final battle takes place in one of the darkest, scariest settings I’ve ever experienced in a book. By that point, you’re so in love with all the characters that it’s just gut-wrenching.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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