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Where are the massive epic science fiction series?


I’ve really been enjoying the invective-laden “debate” between Sam Sykes and Ari Marmell over at Babel Clash this past week. Their discussion, essentially on “standalone fantasy novels” versus “single-story epic fantasy series” raised an interesting question in my mind. With door-stopper tomes so common in fantasy, why does fantasy’s cousin science fiction not have similar Chihuahua-killers?

It’s hard to think of contemporary fantasy without the likes of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Erikson, Brent Weeks, etc. There’s quite a bit of commonality across these authors: first, they have written (or are writing) series telling a single story across more than four books, which take up entire shelves at the bookstore, and where each individual book is heavy enough to weigh down a tent.

The last thirty years in fantasy can generally be described as giving us longer series, and longer individual titles within those series. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Tolkien-inspired, 300-page apiece trilogy was the general rule. In the 1980’s, David and Leigh Eddings gave us the quintet (where again, each title was about 300 pages). In the ’90s, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin gave us the N-teen volume epic series, with each title clocking in at 600 – 1000 pages. In the 2000’s, we have a fresh bevy of fantasists like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and Steven Erikson continuing the process. Where are science fiction’s gargantuan multi-volume epics?

If we can generally say that over the last thirty years, a significant portion of fantasy has used (a) more books, and (b) longer books, to tell a single story, why has this trend not appeared in science fiction? Sure, science fiction has its share of series. But these series tend to be trilogies or duologies (with a very rare quartet). Each of the novels in best-selling “series” by authors like Alastair Reynolds or Iain M. Banks is a standalone title, sharing a universe with its siblings, but little else. So…why is this?

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, although I do have some thoughts on narrowing down the cause. The way I see it, the reason that science fiction hasn’t expanded the way fantasy has can be laid at the feet of one of four actors in the process: the readers, the writers, the publishers, or the stories.
Saying that “science fiction readers are different from fantasy readers” doesn’t fly for me. Sure, the two audiences differ. But there is very significant overlap between the two, and, fundamentally, people are people. The drive to lose oneself in a fantasy universe applies just as strongly to a science fictional universe. That’s one of the many reasons why Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are so popular, as are Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. So I don’t buy any argument that says “readers of science fiction wouldn’t like it.” To me, that’s the equivalent of someone in 1965 saying that readers of fantasy would never accept a quintet. Time and time again, readers have proven such accepted wisdom wrong.

So if the readers aren’t at fault, what about the writers? Are science fiction writers too good to produce what some would call bloated epics? Or – to apply the flip side of that coin – are they too limited in their outlook to conceive of a story/universe on so grand a scale? I think the answer to both questions would have to be “no.” Science fiction writers are just as talented – and just as fallible – as their fantasist counterparts. Saying that there are no multi-volume, large science fiction epics because of the writers is too simplistic. Nature and publishing abhor a vacuum, and sooner or later a new author would come along and write one. After all, the fantasy genre didn’t typically expand beyond trilogies until the 80’s. And the door-stoppers didn’t show up until the 1990s. It all starts somewhere.

So maybe the fault lies with the publishers. Here, my natural cynicism makes me want to say “Aha!” and blame editors and acquisitions departments. But again, I fear that’s too much of an oversimplification. If at some point an author tried to write a multi-volume science fiction epic, then sooner or later some editor would take a chance on it. And if it did well, then others would quickly follow suit. That’s the nature of the industry (Vampires, anyone? Zombies?). So I don’t think this is a case of publishers not wanting to publish books like that because they don’t want to take a chance. Eventually, someone would try it out and a new trend would start.
If the reader, the writer, and the publisher aren’t at fault, is there something intrinsic to the science fictional story that precludes a 10+ volume series? Is fantasy somehow exceptional as a genre in that it either enables or requires such series where other genres do not? If the story is to blame, then the fault must lie in its setting, characters, or plot.

We fantasy fans talk about these giant series in terms of losing ourselves in a fictional universe. We love to take our time exploring the richly imagined lands of Westeros, or Genabckis, or Randland. But science fictional settings can be just as richly imagined, just as Other, as fantastical ones. What’s the difference between Arrakis and Westeros? Or the universe of the Culture and Randland? From a technical standpoint, the real differences are window-dressing: spacecraft and ray-guns rather than galleons and swords. Sure, that’s flippant and over-simplified, but any science fictional world is just as fantastical as a fantasy world. This applies just as much to space opera, sociological SF, the future (whether post-apocalyptic or not), time travel stories, etc. The quality of the world-building rests in the author’s hands, and science fiction presents just as much opportunity for involved and interesting world-building. I don’t believe that fantasy settings do something that science fictional settings don’t (or vice versa). They’re settings, imagined universes with rules and actors and factions as complex or as simplistic as the author wishes to make them. Alien is alien, whether they carry swords or blasters.

So what about the characters? Huge fantasy series are replete with a dizzying cast of characters – so much so, that the appendices to keep dramatis personae and their factions straight are a cliché feature. Typically, these large casts effectively comprise different protagonists who we follow at different points in the story. Farah Mendelsohn makes a great point in her Rhetorics of Fantasy, which – if I may paraphrase somewhat – suggests that this is really a shell-game: It takes what are essentially separate epic plots, and disperses the reader’s attention across them. We think that there’s one complex story going on, but really we’re watching ten or twelve simple stories happening in parallel. This isn’t a bad device, and it is one which I enjoy very much when done well. But why does this device appear in fantasy, but not in science fiction? A complicated cast of deeply personified characters is not unique to fantasy. Ever read Victor Hugo? Or Tolstoy? Or Iain M. Banks? There is no reason why this technique, or why this character structure, cannot apply in any genre.

So that leaves the science fiction plot as the remaining culprit. Perhaps there is something in science fiction’s plots that precludes such epic myth-making. I’ve read quite a bit of theory on fantasy, and rather a lot of excellent research on the morphologies of fantasy plots (I cannot recommend Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy enough). But I haven’t come across much morphological research on science fiction. When I think about all of the criticism of SF that I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of a single piece of criticism that tries to postulate a morphology of plot structures in SF. There are many great books on the history of the genre’s evolution, on the different themes that crop up in SF, and even on the techniques by which these themes are communicated. But I can’t find anything that deals with the sequence or structure of science fiction narrative.

So rather than try and come up with some back-of-the-envelope set of structures based on the books I can remember right now, I’ll instead leave you with three questions:

1 First, does science fiction have broad categories of plots the way fantasy does?
2 If it does, then do those categories somehow preclude the development of multi-volume door-stopper epics in science fiction?
3 And if not, then why aren’t we seeing series like that get published?
8 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is of course Asimov’s Foundation series, William Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy. I was going to mention Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, although perhaps that really more fantasy. Star Wars, Star Trek each have launched a thousand novels (almost literally); Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” books, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” novels. I think they’re there, but for whatever reason, they don’t seem to draw the kind of rabid fandom that fantasy series do. It’s an interesting question, I have no answer either. Perhaps it’s the sense of romance of swashbuckling heroes swinging a sword, and lovely damsels trailing around in finery that people find more attractive than the hard-bitten girl G.I. chomping a stogie and dealing out poker cards. Sci-fi is tougher, meaner, less glamorous. The scenic descriptions in sf tend to be harder to identify with, since no one has actually spent time in those environs, whereas we all have some familiarity with medieval history and understand more readily what it would look like, feel like, sound like. Maybe it’s that sense of familiarity with the setting that is missing in ‘hard’ sf?

    BTW, on Sundays at noon PDT there is a small group of us getting together on Twitter for a #PostApocalyptic sf chat. It sort of happened out of the blue last weekend, but we had so much fun we’re doing it again this week and you would be very welcome to join if you’re interested.

    March 22, 2011
  2. You raise an interesting point in the “sense of familiarity” aspect. Isn’t it the SF author’s job to craft a world compelling enough to draw the reader in?

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the #PostApocalyptic sf chat! If I’m around on Sunday afternoon I’ll check it out.

    March 23, 2011
  3. The thing with sf is, authors are actually trying to create an alien setting, whether it’s humans in space or on alien planets, or alien cultures in toto. Hard to predict what will resonate with readers when inventing that much. We don’t know what it’s like to live and work in zero gravity (most of us, at least). I think that’s why shows that are clearly based on an “old West” model (such as Firefly) succeed. Their speech patterns, handguns, clothing, are recognizable, conventional, even though they live and work in space. There are enough touchstones to keep people feeling like they could easily assimilate into that world.

    March 24, 2011
    • So readers need to work less at fantasy to understand it / get drawn into the world? Makes sense to me.

      But even considering that, why do epic fantasy books run to such gargantuan lengths (600 – 1200 pages), while SF books tend to be shorter? If drawing a reader into an SF world requires more work on the reader’s part, wouldn’t writers spend more space trying to make that easier?

      March 25, 2011
  4. 1: Yes.
    2: No.
    3: I think a big part of this really is public expectation; JRR Tolkien set the stage with his trilogy (which he had intended to be published as a single, ultimate door-stopper book). After that the public had no problem with fantasy novels with huge page counts. But if you focus on content over page count there are numerous science-fiction epics out there today; for example David Weber’s space-opera series, Honor Harrington (a Horatio Hornblower-type military epic), and his planetary romance series, March Upcountry (an epic sci-fi retelling of Xenophone’s “Anabasis”).

    March 29, 2011
  5. benny4540 #

    does H turtledove count? he’ll drop 10 books of World war on you

    August 18, 2011
    • Come to think of it, I’d say Turtledove definitely counts! Good call!

      August 22, 2011
  6. David Weber’s Safehold series is an epic science-fiction series. Huge tomes, chock full of science and even the history of technological development.

    July 18, 2012

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