Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Epic Vision (Part I)

I was strolling through the local Chapters last week with Aaron, and we eventually found ourselves perusing the fantasy/science fiction subgenres of the Fiction section. Lots of good (and not-so-good) "escapist" literature in there. We started pointing out authors and series that we each enjoyed, and voiced our opinions on others. It struck me (and I've been thinking about it ever since) that we don't really see too many one-shot fantasy novels.

I wonder why that is? Was it ever any different? I mean, if we go back far enough...say, to Beowulf...then we get epic fantasy in one-volume sections. But there's Homer's Illiad and Odyssey, which might be considered sequels (certainly they share characters). The more recent Lord Of The Rings was actually a one-story one-volume book - though the publishers were nervous about the page-length it would require, and so broke it up. And, of course, you get the Brooks, the Goodkinds, the Jordans, the McCaffreys and the <shudder> Salvatores.

It's not limited to fantasy, of course. Orson Scott Card's Ender series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation-Robot-Empire series(es?), Star Trek and Star Wars (though these are largely in their own categories, as they are written by multiple authors), and so forth. But it seems to me that the tendency to go multi-volume is much greater in the fantasy subgenre than it is anywhere else.

It's come far enough that I'm actually disappointed when I see that an author is writing a sequel. Case in point: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Truly a remarkable, fantastic book, and a tale that has a solid, if open, conclusion. You finish this novel, and you feel sated. It's great stuff. So when I found out he was writing (and had written) a follow-up - and not just one, but two or more? Disappointment. Not because I don't think he's a good writer - he's one of the best, and a personal favorite. I just don't want to revisit this world, see everything that's been settled (or left purposefully unsettled) disturbed again. It's like a painter who has finished his masterpiece returning to the full canvas, stapling another half-board onto the side and painting on another section.

And it's not always the addition of unneccessary material. Perhaps the story isn't actually finished, or the author always intended to write more...the trouble is, with most novels like this, the quality of the storytelling and writing tends to degrade over time.

Robert Jordan is a perfect example from the contemporary era, and Asimov is just as good from the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. Jordan started off well - in my view - and sucks the reader fully into his world. The next few books, through number six or so, sustain that enthusiasm and excitement, or let it drop only a little. But once we reach the last half (please?) of the series, the story makes it obvious that Jordan doesn't know exactly where he's going, and things begin to break down. When the entirety of a 700 page book chronicles only the events in a single day, you know there's going to be trouble moving the plot.

Asimov's Foundation series is similar. The first three are fantastic (they were given the Hugo Award for "Best Sci-Fi Series Ever" in 1999), mind-bending stuff of grand scale and amazing storycraft. But then he wanted to explore some more. So he wrote a second trilogy. Then he started filling in gaps, with short stories and further novels (one-shots in the continuum of an overarching series). As one reads further and further in, the stories begin to wear thin, and it feels like Mr. Asimov is just a book-writing machine (and with more than 300 books to his name - more if you count his non-fiction - he basically was).

As much as this may read like a whine, or a complaint (and as much as it really is, in some sense), I don't begrudge the authors their artistic decisions. It's completely up to them, obviously, to do whatever they like with their stories and their worlds. I just wonder if we're missing something really important.

This has gotten rather long, and though I'm coming to a conclusion, I've got more to I'll title this "Part I" and come back to it in a new post.

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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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