While for the most part I intend this blog to concentrate on science fiction classics, most fundamentally the discussion is about the genre of science fiction as literature– the good and the bad. To my mind, one of the worst trends in recent science fiction (especially of the past ten years or so) is the type of series in which each book may be compared to an episode of a TV series. What makes these series different than previous series of books is that the central story becomes simply a backdrop against which smaller episodic stories are told, to the detriment of the central story as a story itself. That central background story is open-ended and may not necessarily progress in more than a nominal sense in any given book of the series. One of the leading authors to make this trend popular is Robert Jordan. What distinguishes this class of series from previous series is that the reader is largely teased with a central problem which is not genuinely dealt with for the bulk of the series, rather like a protracted television series. One may think of the need to get off the desert island in the classic TV series Gilligan’s Island.
The reason such a type of series is a bad thing is that inherently it lessens the literary quality of the works by encouraging authors not to as fully develop characters or situations because whatever one writes in one book will restrict whatever books may follow. Moreover, the central problem of the series, i.e., the background story, will generally be what gets the readers’ attention and so those readers are subjected to a bait and switch whereby they are strung along without genuinely reading the story they want to read. (Clearly, some will disagree.)
Relatively recently I read an example of this unfortunate trend in recent science fiction– namely the first three books of the series The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell. Let me state though from the outset that the books are very well done apart from the inherent limitations of the trend I want to discuss: namely, the interminable series or ones that are nearly so.
The Lost Fleet series itself is only six books long, making it less interminable than some, but a reader has no indication of this in at least the first three books. The premise is compared somewhat justifiably to Xenophon‘s Anabasis, in which Greek mercenaries called afterwards the 10,000 retreat from the heart of the Persian empire where they had been fighting in a Person civil war for the side that lost. In Campbell’s work a space fleet has been lured into a trap in the heart of enemy territory in an effort to end a century-long space war, but the fleet survives the trap and has to slowly fight its way home. The other key element of the scenario is the main character John Geary who at the beginning of the first book (entitled Dauntless, which is also the name of the fleet’s flagship) becomes suddenly and unexpectedly the fleet commander.
As described in the novel Dauntless, John Geary was the commander who managed to get his people out safely after suffering a surprise attack in an engagement which started the war, but he had to stay behind himself in order to do so. A century has since passed during which Geary has been in suspended animation in a survival pod (i.e., the equivalent of a lifeboat) while unbeknownst to him, he has become a legendary hero. Due to a technicality and a posthumous promotion, Geary becomes the senior officer when the enemy captures and executes all fleet rank officers, who have come over to the enemy fleet to negotiate as per the enemy demands. The Admiral who has been fleet commander also leaves Geary as acting fleet commander in his absence, although Geary at this point in the story has only been found a couple of days previously.
The reader is never told how far exactly the fleet has to go in order to get home nor what to expect in any definite terms. Campbell skillfully describes space warfare in a realistic manner which generally gets the science correct, apart from occasionally confusing the orbit of a planet and its actual position. How Geary deals with the fleet politics, the cultural changes and tactics are all dealt with in detail. Deeper issues like the attractiveness of power and hero worship get short shrift as of course our hero is never genuinely tempted. Conveniently the century of warfare has undermined the use of tactics in battle rather than refining it. The reader never sees anyone emotionally dealing with grief or loss, and even the enemy’s atrocities are taken in stride; the explanation why this should be the case is a little too pat. So one then proceeds to the stories of Fearless and Courageous, which are again ships in the fleet– albeit not central to the respective books’ plot in the way even Dauntless is.
Each book in the series begins with Geary being confronted with a problem for the fleet on both a strategic and a personal level and culminates in a space battle whereby Geary resolves the immediate problems. As a reader, one is never left in doubt which characters one should like and which characters one should not. Teasers of issues to be addressed later are of course always included, but need for deep thought is not. I would not so much compare the books to a serving of mental candy floss as a marathon of episodes of Hogan’s Heroes.
The fault is not Jack Campbell’s ability as a writer by any means. Throughout, one sees flashes of something deeper and more interesting straining to get out, but publishers of science fiction have decided that literary quality is not what science fiction readers want. In their minds, if we did, we would not be reading the genre. Good quality science fiction like The Time Traveler’s Wife is increasingly mainstreamed and sold without any mention of the genre of science fiction. That trend is both good and bad. Largely it means that readers and publishers generally respect science fiction, so long as one doesn’t mention that that is what the book is.
- More on Sociology and Science Fiction (crookedtimber.org)