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Book Series

This rant on SF/F Book series got me thinking, which in and of itself is a formidable feat. I have mixed feelings about book series and wanted to hear what others have to say…

The Perception Conflict

On the one hand, if a book is good, the reader can’t help but want more. I read Gene Brewer’s K-PAX and loved it. (This is really a poor genre example since I would not classify K-PAX as SF, but anyway?) The story was well told and completed by book’s end. And yet there was a sequel. And then another sequel. I read the second book and found it considerably weaker. The thing that drew me to K-PAX was simply missing in the sequel.

So then, on the other hand, having told a story the author set out to tell, what more needs to be said? The apparent publishers’ mandate that <godvoice>90% of new SFF shall formeth a series</godvoice> annoys me. It always carries the aroma of “milking it for all it’s worth”, usually to the effect of ruining a good thing or otherwise marring a perfectly respectable piece of work. It can be argued that, having built a new world, there is merit in exploring that world. There’s no logical reason why an author’s work cannot be leveraged for future novels. And, of course, as a reader, you can always stop reading the stories. For all the dislike the original ranter had about Jordan and Goodkind, he still bought and read all the volumes.

So, are series good or bad ideas? I suppose it depends on the series. I though the Sten series had a strong start, but petered out after the third or fourth book. I Klausnered through books five through seven and then, with the realization that I was no longer enjoying the series, skipped the eighth and final book altogether. I enjoyed Peter F. Hamilton’s Nights Dawn Trilogy and wanted more, but the story had been told. Thankfully, the collection Second Chance at Eden provided more by way of short stories set in the same universe.

Perhaps what matters is what attracts you to a particular book in the first place. If it’s the story line, then the series will be attractive for as long as the story line is held up. If it is the world building, you might be a bit more tolerant of weaker plotlines.

The Startup Problem

Then there’s always daunting task of approaching an as-yet-unread multi-volume series. At the cost of my own SFF enjoyment, I’ve been shying away from starting many a series because either (A) the commitment involved, or (B) the author is still churning out books and I don’t want to wait 18 memory-draining months (cough-cough, George R. R. Martin, cough-cough) to read a next installment. OK, admittedly these are anal-retentive reasons. I don’t have to read every book in a series and there are summaries of previous books to alleviate the forgetfulness that literary dry-spells induce. But still…

The Quality Issue

It is generally accepted that series tend to decline in quality. For trilogies, there is the “middle book syndrome” that cites the second installment as the weakest of the three. Do you agree? I’m hard-pressed to name any series that maintains top-notch quality throughout.

To be fair, there are some book series that I haven’t read that, I am told, maintain a relatively high level of quality: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (30 books), The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson (currently 6 books with, according the aforementioned rant, another 4 books in the works).

Open-Mike Night

So what do people think?

  • Are most series justified? Or is the author/publisher just milking the audience?
  • What are your favorites SF series?
  • What are your favorites Fantasy series?
  • Are sf series different than fantasy series? How?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

8 Comments on Book Series

  1. Are series justified?

    I guess that depends on how you define ‘justified’. Justified in the sense that the story demands it as opposed to the publisher demanding it. I would say the first sense is the best. The author has things to say and consequences to explore and the series is a natural extension to that. The other way is the ‘milk it till it blows’ process. I’d say the “Wheel of Time” series hit that during the first book… Oh, that would be a bad thing.

    Favorite Series (SF and F)

    Wow, there are a lot. Foundation, Night’s Dawn, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Sten (you didn’t like this because you don’t like reading Scottish brogues, ya panzy), Revelation Space, The Uplift Series and probably more.

    Difference between SF and F series

    Well one is SF and the other F. Duh…..

    I find F to, usually, recycle the usual tropes: elves, dwarves, orcs, magic, prophecy, quest of good to destroy evil, blah, blah, blah. Oc course, the Fantasy I do like doesn’t necessarily use those things. Covenant and Fire and Ice come to mind. To me, SF seems to have a wider field to play in. I think that’s because our understanding of the world is constantly changing. New ideas and technology are always appearing. This allows a lot of latitude for the SF author to play with and explore. It seems like there will always be something new in SF, whereas F feels like ‘been there, done that 500 pages ago”…

  2. I tend to prefer sf over fantasy for the same reasons. I do like the writing of Alastair Reynolds, although his shorter fiction was way better than the only novel of his that I read (Revelation Space). I chalk that up to experience and plan on reading Chasm City real soon.

    How do you handle the long dry spells between series installments that are still in progress? Do you wait or dive right in? Do you rely on memory/synopses or do you just re-read the previous books?

  3. I’m of a mixed mind. On the one hand, many SF series were my lifeblood during my youth (SF and chronological). The tales of Asimov’s robots, the Foundation and Empire books. The tales of the traders and the stories of Ensign Flandry by Poul Anderson. Alan Dean Foster’s ongoing stories of the Humanx Commonwealth. And much more.

    My favorite stories when I was young, and still among my favorites today were the “future histories”. Take a look at Heinlein’s “The Past Through Tomorrow”, Blish’s “Cities in Flight”, the stories of Cordwainer Smith, or several series by (again) Poul Anderson, and you’ll see what I mean. Timelines, charts, character lists, planets…I could make my own “tech manuals” for some of these series!

    But now I find myself getting more and more picky about starting a series. Jordan, well, I never liked him when he just was another hack writing Conan stories. But there are plenty of other examples: Star Trek books (how many a month are published), D&D books, various fantasy and SF series that are written by authors that I’ve never heard of. Thanks, but given a decreasing amount of free time, I’ll concentrate on folks I know (Anderson, Foster, etc.) or folks that I hear absolute raves about (Alaistair Reynolds being a fine example there).

    A series takes a lot of investment in time, money and effort. I see no problem in restricting myself to a chosen few.

  4. Good point, Fred. Lots of sf series just give more room to expound on the things I like about sf in the first place – world building, imagination, etc. Even if the original story was told, there?s still room more sense of wonder. It can even give the stories a more epic feel.

    And I should have clarified ? personally, I was not considering media-tie-in (or otherwise ?open-license?, multi-author fiction) to be a series. They are more like money-making platforms for publishers, Berman or Lucas. I was just considering single-author series. And even that should not include house-name series like The Executioner, the men?s adventure series where only the first 42 books were written by Don Pendleton ? the next several hundred were by other authors using Pendleton as a house pen name.

    Although, maybe a case (and a new post) can be made to include media tie-in books sub-series that are written by the same author? Many a sf author has penned Trek and Wars books. For example, Kevin J. Anderson has at least one sub-series set in the Star Wars universe. This raises several a couple of questions in my mind:

    • Is an author being lazy writing a story in a ready-made universe? Or, are there themes that are not so easily explored in a new universe? My response: No. while it is a potential convenience for the author, maybe they can concentrate more on the story line and les on the world building. Or, maybe the ready-made universe poses too many constraints on the author? (Thou shalt not kill Picard!)
    • Does writing series fiction in a ready-made universe cheapen an author?s image? I would say: In theory, no?there is room for enjoyable quality fiction in any fictional universe. In practice, I thought Roger MacBride Allen?s Robot novels were OK, not great, and added almost nothing to Asimov?s robot stories. Also, I haven?t read the new Dune series, nor am I inclined to.
    • What about one-shot (non-series) books in a mega-series? My response: James Blish, Joe Haldeman, Vonda McIntyre and David Gerrold are some notables who have contributed original work to the Trek books. But I haven?t read any of them.
  5. How about “shared-world” anthologies?

    Some of them have been excellent–for example the project that Harlan Ellison helmed (“Medea”) as well as similar project that Robert Silverberg ran.

    Others, have varied, such as the “Isaac’s Universe” series. But that produced some excellent stories by folks such as Hal Clement (who also contributed a novel to the series) and Poul Anderson (who later re-wrote his stories into a novel called “Heart of Glory”).

    Then there’s the Wild Cards series. I enjoyed the initial batch of ten or so. Some excellent stories by folks like Roger Zelazny can be found there.

    The whole thing collapsed under it’s own weight, though. The bottom of the cycle was probably Baen Books “Heroes in Hell” series. Thieves’ World did well for a while, but petered out when folks like John Brunner and Poul Anderson and others no longer contributed and you got second class writers taking up the bulk of the books. There was a recent revival of the TW series with a collection of short stories and a novel, but the announced follow-on volumes have yet to be seen.

  6. I would lump shared-world stories with ?open-license?, multi-author fiction. My original inquiry was about single-author series syndrome. Still, thanks for the warning about Heroes. I do own a copy of Medea…somewhere…

  7. Angelo Ventura // June 8, 2004 at 10:58 am //

    I really love good series, like the Wraeththu series of Storm Constantine or the Robot series of Isaac Asimov. Only, there are too many series, and if one wants to try a new author, often he has to buy an entire trilogy, andthat is irritating: any interesting new book you spot is the second or third book of the series this and that. Sometimes series are just uncalled for, like the pityful sequels to “2001 a space Odissey”. A phenomenon I’ve noted is “the bland sequel”, or the absolutely unnecessary addendum to an alredy perfect series. The Earthsea Trilogy of LeGuin was great: the fourth Earthsea book was really lame. A perfect series was the Otherland Quadrilogy of Tad Williams, even if some think it could have been a trilogy, as it drags in some places. The “middle book is worst” syndrome? This is the case for the Night Dawn’s trilogy, but in the Magravandias Trilogy of Storm Constantine, the middle book is best.

  8. Review Of Forty Signs Of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

    The New York Times reviews Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain which is the first book of a promised trilogy (not another one). (Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling is also reviewed in the same column). Although KSR’s Mars trilogy…

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