Series

Tagged: Theme

Although book series were not given separate headwords in past editions of this encyclopedia (if only for space reasons), a number of brief examples have been added to this third online edition. This is partly for the sake of internal search engine efficiency. The online Search feature gives priority to terms appearing in headwords, so a search for "Lensman" would formerly report the relevant game as top result, with E E Smith himself some places down the list; but the new entry for Lensman books appears with suitable prominence.

Current book-related series entries – some of them shaped more as theme entries, some including surveys of Sequels by Other Hands and contributions to Shared Worlds – are: Berserkers (Fred Saberhagen), The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe), Nick Carter (multiple authors, usually writing as Carter), Cthulhu Mythos (H P Lovecraft and his circle), Darkover (Marion Zimmer Bradley), Discworld (Terry Pratchett), Dune (Frank Herbert), Dying Earth (Jack Vance), Foundation (Isaac Asimov), Fu Manchu (Sax Rohmer), Gulliver (Jonathan Swift), Jerry Cornelius (Michael Moorcock), Known Space (Larry Niven), Lensman (E E Smith), Miles Vorkosigan (Lois McMaster Bujold), Pern (Anne McCaffrey), Sector General (James White), Sexton Blake Library (multiple authors), She (H Rider Haggard's Ayesha), Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs), Tom Swift (multiple authors writing as Victor Appleton), Wold Newton Family (Philip José Farmer) and Xeelee (Stephen Baxter). More are to be added.

There have been series in popular fiction, both within and outside Genre SF, at least since there have been Magazines. For example, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle waited eagerly in the 1890s for the next Sherlock Holmes story, or, inside sf and a bit later, the next Professor Challenger story. Series are fun to write, fun to read, and they help sell magazines. There were many sf series before the advent of specialized sf magazines, examples being the Quatermain books of H Rider Haggard and the much loved Barsoom and Pellucidar stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or, popular at the time but now mostly forgotten, the Dr Hackensaw series of Clement Fezandié. (In this encyclopedia we show series titles in bold type.) There is no point here in trying to list the most popular fantasy and sf series from, say, Robert E Howard's Conan through Nelson S Bond's Pat Pending, but there may be a point in spelling out some of the ways sf Publishing has affected, and been affected by, series publication.

In the 1930s, it became quite common to devote entire Pulp magazines – or at least their lead novels – to a single series featuring one main character and his (or her) sidekicks. Examples include scientific detective Craig Kennedy in Scientific Detective Monthly (1930) or Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds (1934-1935), or, more spectacularly in terms of longevity, Doc Savage in Doc Savage magazine (1933-1949) or The Shadow (1931-1949) (see The Shadow) or Captain Future (1940-1944).

When, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, Small Presses were set up devoted to republishing classic magazine sf, it quite often happened that their sometimes arbitrary dividing up of a series into books set the shape by which that series was ever afterwards known. Thus Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of eight stories (mostly novelettes), published in Astounding (1942-1949), appeared in book form as if comprising three novels: Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951), Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952) and Second Foundation (January 1948 and November 1949-January 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953). In this instance the illusion of them being novels was not difficult to sustain, because the stories had been well planned to fit a coherent and developing pattern.

When a series of stories is collected in book form, however, it is not always easy to decide, bibliographically, the degree of cohesion the stories (often revised for this format) have been given. Thus we might describe one book as "coll of linked stories" and another as a Fixup, the latter term being used by us to describe stories sufficiently jelled together even in their first writing, or woven together by rewriting, for the result to be called a novel. To take examples, it seems fair to call George O Smith's Venus Equilateral (stories October 1942-November 1945 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1947; exp 1975 UK 2vols; vt The Complete Venus Equilateral 1976) a collection of linked stories, although we describe A E van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951) as a fixup (a term its author also uses), because the degree of cohesion and plotting towards a climax is very much greater in the latter than in the former. But what, for example, of Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972) This is described by many bibliographers as a collection of linked stories, which is true. But when one comes to examine the links, including those that lie half-concealed beneath the surface of the text, then the interweaving comes to appear so strong that the book, although indeed in three parts, must surely be read as a single novel.

These problems about sf series whose first appearance was in magazines and original anthologies came to seem somewhat old-fashioned during the 1980s and 1990s, because by far the greater number of sf series now being published were appearing in books in the first instance. That, on the face of it, is not very important, but the sinister aspect of 1980s series publishing was the implacable way in which book series were taking over more and more of the industry. These were often series thought up by a publisher or some sort of entrepreneur, or even licenced out by a film studio. That is to say, the author's primacy in writing series was beginning to lose out to the purveyors of product concept, to whose instructions the authors wrote. (The question of whether or not the authors retained copyright in the work is not necessarily connected to their following of instructions, though those authors who followed instructions but retained copyright no doubt felt rather more dignified than those who did not.) This whole depressing issue is touched on (from different perspectives) under the rubrics Game-Worlds, Publishing, Sharecrop, Shared World and Tie. Things are seldom entirely bad, however: there have been, for example, many enjoyable original novels among the 100 or so Star Trek Ties. Even the book series spun off from Games are not all bad, though many are; in the UK, the company Games Workshop persuaded several quite distinguished writers to write novels and stories set in worlds first created for a games format. Some of the shared-world series like Wild Cards have produced excellent work. But, even when the exceptions are admitted, there remains a huge residue that few demanding readers could find anything but dispiriting: series as formula, writing by numbers. In Fantasy writing, for example, for every trilogy published that actually requires three volumes for its adequate development, there are half a dozen that are trilogies (or even longer) for no better reason than to fill slots in the marketing space. In Heroic Fantasy (or Sword and Sorcery) the series mentality is especially strong, as it is in Survivalist Fiction and Post-Holocaust sf.

All this is saddening, because previously series had held a very honourable position in the history of sf's development. Many readers of an earlier generation had their innocent Sense of Wonder first awakened by E E "Doc" Smith's Lensman stories (1934-1950), and that is a comparatively straightforward Space-Opera example. In a series, there can be room for enormous conceptual elaborations which could scarcely be confined within the covers of a single book, as (arguably) in Frank Herbert's Dune series, or Larry Niven's Known Space series (a good example of the whole coming to seem greater than the sum of its parts), or Ursula K Le Guin's Hainish novels, or C J Cherryh's Union/Alliance sequence, or Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist series, or Brian W Aldiss's Helliconia novels, or Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) and its sequels, or Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, or Lois McMaster Bujold's versatile ringing of the changes on Space Opera themes in her Miles Vorkosigan sequence.

It would obviously be possible to extend such a list for a very long way even while restricting it to unusually distinguished work. Whether sf is framed as Hard SF, New Wave, Cyberpunk or Science Fantasy, it has been one of its great strengths (and one of its unifying factors) that, unlike most Mainstream fiction, it has been able to work on such broad canvases. So far as we are aware, nobody has made any academic analysis of the effect of series-writing on the History of SF, but the result would surely be a confirmation that series developments have been at sf's very heart, certainly in the special but vital case of future histories (see History of SF). It may not be too great an imaginative leap to see the whole of Genre SF as constituting a kind of gigantic meta-series or Multiverse, in which intellectual developments in the form of constantly evolving protocols and motifs are passed from writer to writer. Certainly many sf readers share an intuitive, metaphysical sense that the entirety of genre sf somehow (ignoring nitpicking distinctions) shares a common background, as if there were now a real future that has been invented by consensus of the sf community. (See also SF Megatext.) If that seems an overstatement, then at least it can be granted that some of sf's most heroic generic exploits have been conducted, and could only have been conducted, in series form. All the more tragic, then, that the word "series", ever since the 1980s, should gradually be changing its meaning to "multi-volume packaged commercial product". [PN/DRL]

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.