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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?

REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson


My apologies for posting this on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. I know I’m late, but I got caught up with day-job work and so…sorry. Hope the timely review makes up for the delay.

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson Title: The Crippled God: Book Ten of The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
The impressive culmination of an epic eleven years in the making.

The word “epic” gets thrown around more often when talking about fantasy than a well-aimed dagger. I’ve seen it applied (and done so myself) to Tolkien, Brooks, and Donaldson, to Jordan, Martin, and Eddings, to Jemisin, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, and the list goes on. In most of these cases, the word “epic” is an apt descriptor. But I would argue that Steven Erikson and his ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen out-epic all of these other epics in its epic-ness. The world created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont, each individual book in Erikson’s series, and the complexity of the story Erikson planned out from the beginning: each of these alone can be justly described as epic in scope, epic in scale. But in this genre that tosses around the E-word like it was going out of style, I believe that Erikson’s ambition is the most epic of all. And having now read Erikson’s The Crippled God, the tenth and final installment in his Malazan Book of the Fallen, I believe that Erikson delivered on the “epic” promised back in 1999.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is “better” than the Wheel of Time, or A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Belgariad, or Shannara, or insert-your-favorite-fantasy-series-here. However, I do believe that it is different. This difference especially applies to its world building and plot structure, and in many respects to its themes and characterization. In its plot structure and world building especially, I find it far more complex than those other series I just mentioned. But “more complex” does not mean better. It just means more complicated.

A little over eleven years ago I was waiting to board a transatlantic flight in Warsaw, Poland, idly browsing the tiny English-language section of a little airport bookstore, when I stumbled across a thick book. Tantalizingly titled Gardens of the Moon, by an author I’d never heard of before, and with a cover not-quite-sf/not-quite-fantasy by Chris Moore that instantly set it apart from the contemporary Chihuahua killer epic fantasies of Jordan, Martin, and Goodkind, I had to buy it. I spent the next nine or ten hours sucked into Steven Erikson’s visceral, violent, gripping world. Since that fateful afternoon, I have eagerly anticipated each new volume in Erikson’s opus, and so it was with childish delight (and squeeing) that I stumbled upon a copy of The Crippled God two days before its official pub date in my local Borders.

Gardens of the Moon (via Wikipedia)

Gardens of the Moon by Chris Moore (via Wikipedia)

To read Erikson’s work, one must be prepared to immediately suspend disbelief, and to dive headfirst into a world rich with layers of history, culture, politics, and mythology that would make Tolkien’s head spin. Readers not already well-versed in the conventions of the fantasy genre might find it all a bit confusing at first. But for those readers able to suspend their disbelief, and who are prepared to intuit or await elucidation, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an immensely enjoyable series. The Malazan world was created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont in their role-playing campaigns. But the two brought to their creation their extensive expertise in anthropology and archaeology, resulting in a world with intricate, distinct cultures, complex historical societal relationships, economic balances, and military history.

Over the course of the ten book series, we follow many (I lost count at around forty five) distinct groups of characters. Some groups are small, numbering maybe one or two members, while others are large factions with many characters going nameless. However, each of these groups is presented completely, meaning that they are drawn as round (using E.M. Forster’s definition), fully-fleshed characters. Erikson shows us everyone’s fears, doubts, concerns to such a degree that by the time we’re halfway through the first book, the very concept of “hero” and “villain” has lost all meaning. It is this moral ambiguity, this rationalization and justification of character choices and ethical mistakes, that drive the series’ themes.

The first five or six books in the series are self-contained wholes. The events of each book occur non-linearly, following several distinct “tracks” of events separated by both time and space. The main tracks comprise different books in the series, at least in the beginning. This makes it possible for a reader to start either with Gardens of the Moon (Book 1), or say Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), or Memories of Ice (Book 3).

Reading them in order of their publication, I was initially surprised and confused by their non-linearity. Where were the characters I had met and fallen in love with in the earlier books? What had happened to them? What were they doing? But like a master weaver, Erikson successfully introduces new strands while maintaining interest in those that came before. This separation across books in the series begins to collapse around Midnight Tides (Book 5), where a new reader coming into the story would be so completely lost in the whirling politics of gods, cities, armies, factions, squads, races, creeds, etc. as to make it an exercise in futility.

It is at this point in the series (books 6 – 8), that Erikson stumbles for the first time. This stumble is interesting to note, precisely because it touches upon his introduction of higher-level, more abstract philosophical themes into the story. The first six (arguably seven) books are largely plot driven. We follow the striving of different groups of characters – especially the Malazan military – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The books are thematically interesting, but there is a palpable sense that reader doesn’t yet know everything. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Erikson thickens the plot by explaining more complex historical relationships, and introducing new gods, and new players. The introduction of this history, and metaphysical motivation for certain characters introduced in the eighth book, slows the pacing significantly. These latter books remain readable, but I had to read them at least twice in order to really understand what was happening. They are not bad, but they are much more dense than the other books in the series, and those books are already more dense than most epic fantasy fare. Thankfully, Erikson again hits his stride in Dust of Dreams (book nine) as he now has all of the actors on stage and moving towards the climax in The Crippled God.

And what a climax! The series tracks several hundred (again, I lost count) distinct plot lines. But they are all brought together in the tenth and final book. Perhaps more importantly, it is also in the The Crippled God that we see the thematic lines from the earlier books brought together. The thematic convergence in The Crippled God is one of the most impressive aspects of the series. Each of the earlier books has its own themes, which are in and of themselves complicated and well-executed. But after reading The Crippled God, the themes of earlier books are either clarified, corrected, or shown as illusory. Unifying these disparate (and oftentimes contradictory) themes without invalidating them is a neat trick, and makes the intellectual and emotional exercise of the whole series quite worth it.

From a stylistic standpoint, Erikson takes more from the gritty, boots-in-the-mud fantasy of Glen Cook than he does from the elf-and-dwarf high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson’s primary characters are soldiers, and he draws them as imperfect, swearing, and swaggering. While dragons, and Erikson’s version of elves feature quite prominently, his characters are very far removed from Smaug or Legolas. It is the darkness and grit of his world that makes it compelling, that subverts the traditional tropes of the genre. Dragons as mad almost-gods? Heroes who (along with the reader) are ignorant of their quest, and just have to do as they’re ordered? These are fun subversions.

I found Erikson’s take on women in his books particularly interesting. Historically, I have often found fantasy to be full of stereotypical square-jawed male hero-types, with damsel-in-distress ladies swooning in the wings (if they are present at all). Erikson’s female characters are more likely to break a hero’s jaw than pine or swoon. They are soldiers, and conspirators, and commanders equal in all respects to the men, while still evidencing deft characterization that makes them fully believable. Both the men and women are flawed, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes not. Erikson makes them complex, while retaining their intrinsic humanity. Which is refreshing in a genre often dominated by particular molds.

I have spent the past twelve years with these characters. Their stories have in many respects become a part of me, like old friends. The tenth book brings Erikson’s enormous cast of characters together, and wraps up their stories. With one or two (notable) exceptions, we learn what happens to everybody, how they end up. The tenth book is in many respects about closure, and Erikson unflinchingly brings the story of different groups and characters to a close. But – and this is one of his points – even though the book gets closed for some characters, life goes on. The unity of character, plot, theme, and execution in this tenth book is singularly impressive.

However, for everything good about his work, the complexity – of his characters, plots, themes – can be quite off-putting. One reader (whose opinions I respect greatly) very much dislikes Erikson’s work. She claims that it is too hard to follow, impossible to keep the myriad characters and plot lines straight even within a single book, let alone across a ten book series. For many readers, this will be a valid criticism. Erikson has produced a truly dense, complicated work of fiction. Myriad plot lines, more characters, complicated races that often go by different names, complex battle scenes shown from the perspective of multiple soldiers in the thick of it, this is writing that demands real work from the reader to keep things straight, to follow along with events. I found myself often having to read or re-read sections (and in some cases, entire books) just to really figure out what the heck actually happened. For many, this will be a weakness: why should I have to work so hard for my fiction? But I personally found that I enjoyed doing that work, that I enjoyed getting to spend time in an ugly, dark fantasy world that was realistically built while still employing the tropes of fantasy.

Back in 1999, Erikson told fans that the Malazan Book of the Fallen would be a nine book series. Like any gargantuan epic, this was an ambitious goal. However, Erikson executed on this ambition both in the creative sense, as well in the practical sense: publishers and fans like to see epic series come out with new installments on an annual basis. Publishers like it because it helps them push paperback editions of the earlier books, and fans like it because we can still remember what’s going on in the story. But in a sub-genre famous for delays (George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons has been delayed five years already and still counting), it is incredibly refreshing to come across an author whose ambition is so vast, whose story is so complicated, but who still manages to produce quality work reasonably on schedule. It’s refreshing, and my hat is off to Erikson for delivering on his vision.

Although I have read that Erikson is planning a new eleven book arc in the Malazan world, The Crippled God represents in many ways the end of an era. It is a masterfully-executed conclusion to a complicated, ambitious, dense opus. On the one hand, I am glad that the series is over, that Borders screwed up and I managed to get my hands on a copy several days before its official release, and that Erikson satisfied my (high) expectations from it. But on the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of the next book, will miss getting to laugh and cry with the characters I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve years.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a complex, involving, and emotionally powerful epic fantasy series. There is no series more deserving of the word “epic”. Pick up a copy of Gardens of the Moon, and see if you like it. Be prepared to work at it, because it is difficult. But difficult does not mean bad, and rest assured that by the time you get to The Crippled God, you will find your investment has been fully justified and amply rewarded.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

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