Six for a Start!
The age-old publishing maxim (it’s actually a maxim for everything, but we’ll stay on our home ground), “Stick With What Works,” has few starker applications than the books-in-series that have long afflicted the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Long after whole forests were pulped to make endless “Gor” and “Lensman” books possible (although nothing could make them readable), the series as an economic imperative is still going strong. New York Times-bestselling vampire-fraudling Justin Cronin was awarded a squintillion dollars not for one gawd-awful book but for a series of them. Fifty Shades of Grey (I’ve now finally read it, and hoo-boy, it belongs in the sci-fi/fantasy category if anything does) will inevitably be 50 books. Harry Potter stuck around for a shelf-full of interminable books (and will certainly return). Any open-minded reader browsing the New Releases shelves of the last few remaining bookstores will be hard-pressed to find a novel that doesn’t announce itself as “Third Book in the Galaxy Wives series” or some such – practically a warning that the uninitiated need not apply. And yet, there are great pleasures to be reaped from exploring the innards of books-in-series. There’s the cliffhanger element, of course, and in skilled hands, there’s a great deal of interest in watching whole casts of characters put through their paces. Books-in-series can indulge in the one thing even the longest stand-alone novels can’t: they can postpone ‘The End’ almost indefinitely. If you like living in fictional worlds, books-in-series are the ideal venue for you – here are six entry-points to such worlds:
Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg – this 1980 novel introduces readers to the immense world of Majipoor, a place of twenty billion living beings, some of half a dozen different races – all of them immigrants to the planet over the last few thousand years (except for the few scattered indigenous inhabitants who are – in a classic Silverbergian touch – shape-changers who can look like any of the other peoples). Majipoor is so big it’s sleepy; its sprawling oceans and massive continents have been visited occasionally by spaceships from other worlds, but it hardly causes a ripple; the billions of inhabitants of Majipoor live in blissfully seventh-century lifestyles punctuated by castles, overlords, mounted travel, sail-powered sea-going vessels, Renaissance faires as far as the eye can see. In Lord Valentine’s Castle Silverberg gives us a fantastic, panoramic introduction to this world and its people – and to his sexy, amnesiac wanderer Valentine, who could be a mere vagabond but could also be destined for stereotypical great things. Valentine’s adventures in this book reflect a bit too heavily on Silverberg’s fascination at the time with juggling, but it hardly matters: the real draw here is the world of Majipoor itself.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey – 1968 saw the first Anne McCaffrey’s dozens and dozens of novels set on the planet Pern which, when we get there in Dragonflight, has been settled for centuries into a fantasy pattern: quasi-medieval Holds go about their business in commerce and war, hardly giving any notice to the red star that glows so balefully in the morning sky and enduring with sullen grace the presence in their society of ‘dragonmen’ – riders of enormous winged dragons. The ancient lore of Pern warns that the dragonmen are the only defence against the threat of the Red Star, and there’s science buried underneath the lore: Pern’s orbit periodically brings it into contact with a cloud of spaceborn acidic spores – called Thread in the legends – and the dragonmen’s awesome mounts belch fire that can destroy Thread before it makes landfall and destroys all living material. Dragonflight tells the story of the young woman Lessa, who’s fated to lead the dragonmen when Thread returns – but the Pern books went on open-endedly to tell hundreds of stories about Pern, ranging from the very beginning (when human colonists first arrived there and began genetically adapting native lizards to fight spores) to … well, who knows when, since the late Anne’s son has undertaken to keep the series going indefinitely.
Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card – In Card’s beguiling 1988 novel, he presents readers with an alternate-history colonial-era America in which the Eastern seacoast is sub-divided into Crown Colonies, the United States, New England – and the western territories like Huron, Hio, and Wobbish are home to not only native peoples but to settlers pushing steadily into their territories. In Card’s imagining, it’s not just the history and the politics that’s different – the people are too: they have ‘knacks’ of various kinds. There are ‘torches’ who can see hidden things; there are ‘sparks’ who can mentally cause fires; and most importantly for these books, there are, once in a great while, ‘makers’ who can command and manipulate all matter on the subatomic level. The main character of these books, a boy named Alvin, is just such a maker, and the first three books in the series (before their content began to be watered down by the direct participation of fans – a deplorable thing that’s also happened to George R. R. Martin … these people really ought not to open their mail) grippingly show him coming to terms with his awesome power.
The Many-Colored Land by Julian May – This 1981 novel introduces May’s great concept of the Pliocene Exile, in which the disgruntled, disabused, or simply anti-social of 2034 have an option for the ultimate getaway: a time portal discovered in France that’s very localized and very specific, leading one-way six million years into the past, dumping its dazed passengers into the same area of France in the Pliocene epoch. Through this portal travels our core group of characters – some sane, some stable, others violently not – and when they stagger out of it on the other side, they make a stunning discovery: a group of aliens have crash-landed in Pliocene Europe, and they’ve been steadily enslaving all time-travellers who come through the portal. In 2034, mankind is a member of the galaxy-spanning Galactic Milieu, and humans have tapped their latent psionic abilities – abilities shared by those Pliocene aliens, abilities dangerously destabilized by passage through the time portal. May is the strongest prose stylist of our group today, and she has a slam-bang feel for action and drama, and it serves her throughout half a dozen further Galactic Milieu novels.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – If Orson Scott Card opened a dangerous door by actually listening to his fans, Robert Jordan opened a far more dangerous one with this, the first book in his “Wheel of Time” series: the idea of an officially open-ended storyline. Jordan in fact opens his series with the explicit embracing of its own infinitude – the Wheel of Time turns, Ages come and go, stories are told and re-told. The particular permutation of the Wheel that concern him in this book (by far the most effective of all the books in this series) revolve around a trio of small-town boys who get caught up in a great war between good and evil – a conflicted boy named Rand, a band of heroic energy-wielders (wizards, if you would) called the Aes Sedai, and their requisite evil counterparts. Jordan had some distinct writing ability (some of his Conan novels are quite enjoyable), but he stabs it in the back by removing an absolutely crucial element of storytelling: plot. If you very consciously decide that your series of books will have no ending, you disable plot – and make it the sustained attention of your readers a purely masochistic thing, a pleasure-free endurance contest. Jordan freely proclaimed that he intended to keep writing these books until they nailed his coffin shut, and he did – his series is finally being brought to a close by another’s hand.
Meg by Steve Alten – This is the first book in what would go on to become a somewhat piecemeal but epic series, and in its thrillingly brainless pages, Alten gives us a great imaginative twist: what if Carcharodon megalodon, the prehistoric sixty-foot giant killer shark, somehow survived to the present day and were suddenly re-introduced into an ocean full of defenseless whales and fatty humans? Alten’s main problem is that if the ocean were still teeming with these monsters, people would have noticed them – and he comes up with the quickest convenient explanation: he blames the Mariana Trench. In its Stygian depths, megalodons have been grimly breeding and thriving and dying all this time, separated from the smorgasbord of the upper world by the crushing pressure variant. It takes Alten about five minutes to get around that, and then the feeding frenzy begins – and continues through five deliciously chompable books, most of them starring heroic marine biologist Jonas Taylor. In later books – in ways that, again, even a very long stand-alone book could do as well – Taylor is joined by his teen-himbo son in an apparently generational struggle against these giant killer sharks.
There are plenty of other series, of course – eventually, we’ll get to all of them here at Stevereads – but these six have plenty of reading joys to start you off … or at least their first books do.