This Easter at the Olympus 2012 Eastercon, I’ll be on a panel with no less a set of luminaries than Patrick Hayden, Sophia McDougall and finally, George R R Martin himself, whose Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most epic of epics right now, on page and screen. The panel is “Epic Legends of the Hierarchs,” which is probably better than “The Road Goes Ever On and On.” The role, therefore, of the Great Big Series.
There are two types of GBS, one of which is rather more widespread than the other, and like every other two-category system, the division is somewhat fuzzy. Some series are episodic – each book is separate but usually there’s a single lead character – possibly a setting or some manner of maguffin, but usually a character. This is a mainstay of the crime/detective/thriller genre – whether it’s Bond or Morse, Cadfael or Sherlock Holmes, each story can be read on its own merits, on its own.
Whilst there can be a chronology, it is seldom expressed as a plot arc so much as a long-term, slow-progression character arc of the lead and his significant others. Should something catastrophic happen to that lead in one book, such as being horribly stabbed to death by an author desperate to write something different, then the format allows for fill-in stories from earlier in the deceased’s life. Because the key property is the character, and not the plot/world, this sort of series is also a gift for other authors to come in and moonlight – Bond and Holmes are both rather more travelled these days than they ever were in the hands of their creators, and have even taken to gallivanting across genres – both, for example, have had close run ins with HP Lovecraft’s mythos.
It’s not that fantasy doesn’t do this, and in fact it’s surprising that it isn’t the wholly dominant model of series in fantasy too, given that there’s plenty of precedent. Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber both work like this – character-driven independent stories in a world that, while it develops over the course of the series, does so very much in the background. However, the ongoing story model – where each volume in a series continues the plot of the last, and therefore cannot readily be picked up and perused out of order, is a big part of fantasy writing. Whether it’s trilogies or, these days perhaps more commonly, howevermanyofthemologies, the landscape is heavily influenced by works such as Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Dead, Novak’s Temeraire series and of course, Mr Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire.
It’s worth noting that discrete-book series do tend to hop the border at a certain point in their development. Moorcock’s Elric stories start very much in the pulp vein but, as the series goes on, and more and more recurring characters turn up, the character and the world/plot essentially end up yoked in tandem – the future of Elric is the future of the world, and the stories follow on one to another more and more directly. The same happens with Butcher’s Dresden Files, where the earlier books are looser and more individual, but eventually enough recurring characters and plot threads get woven into the main story that you could not, for example, pick up Changes and read it very easily without being familiar with its precursors. The overarching story, which may or may not have even been in the author’s mind at the start, takes over.
I think the impetus for this sort of transformation comes to a certain extent from the momentum the setting itself builds up. Whilst it’s possible to have a chain of separate murder cases or swashbuckling adventures, say, unless the hero suffers from chronic amnesia (1), or the author rigorously sterilises the setting in between stories, pruning back all the little growing creepers of development and interconnectedness that begin to grow between the lead and his/her fellow characters and environment, some sort of overall continuity is bound to grow up organically, so that those of us who are deliberately writing the GBS are really just hothousing a natural process to strengthen and speed it up.
The model I’ve worked to with Shadows of the Apt is something of a variant on the GBS. Certainly I’m on the first draft of book 10 of a line of 10 books, and I suspect that if you picked up book 6 in a vacuum it would be something of a bewildering read. Because I myself find Great Big Series of Great Big Books something of an intimidating prospect, however (I never started on the Wheel of Time for just this reason), I’ve taken my insect-themed fantasy epic and segmented it, so that the reader is getting a payoff with each book, and also with each few books. The first four books form the first arc, then the next three are relatively stand-alone (or that was the idea) following various characters after the war, and then the last three (the first of which, The Air War, will be coming out this August) comprise a final sequence to round things off, accelerating inevitably towards the final volume that I’m currently working on. It turned out to be unexpectedly difficult to tame the momentum of the series into this structure, and when writing Heirs of the Blade (book 7) I went through I don’t know how many rewrites and restructurings to make the plot work, not because the actual story itself was problematic, but because in that same book I had to deal with all the baggage of the previous volumes, and at the same time sort out all the necessary foreshadowing that books 8-10 required, whilst not compromising the actual plot of Heirs. In the end I was very happy with the result, but I’ve never had that much do-over with any piece of writing before. The smoothness of the next couple of volumes tells me that whatever piece of turbulence I ran into, it was very much a function of the GBS, and so far the anticipated multiple-character pileup I was anticipating in the last volume hasn’t happened (2). It will be interesting to see if other authors at the Eastercon panel have had similar experiences.
(1) Except in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier series where the hero is a chronic amnesiac, but the books follow on from one another even so.
(2) Although frankly I did kind of thin the herd in book 9.