The Basic Bookcase

The Fifth Shelf: Serial Killers, Killer Serials

12 September 1999

The Fifth Shelf This is the shelf for all the serial novels that don't appear on any other shelf. For example, the Ender Wiggin books (Orson Scott Card) are mentioned elsewhere, so they won't appear here. Since the number and type of editions varies so tremendously, I've abandoned any attempt for this "shelf" at trying to fit the books within a given width. Since investing in series can be rather daunting, and these serial novels are all a notch below those that have found homes (even if incompletely) on other shelves in this bookcase, I'll just list a few series and let you, Gentle Reader, choose by your taste.

What the hell is a "serial novel," anyway? It's not really the same as the Interminable Fantasy Seriestm, which is as often by accretion as by design. A "serial novel" was designed as a single work, but split for publishing purposes among several volumes. There may be synopses and such in later volumes to assist readers in "catching up," but the structure, theme, style, and characters of the serial novel are interwoven in a way that is anathema to the IFS (and ISFS). Were it not for the realities of printing and commercial publishing, Tolkien's four-novel core (The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) would be a single novel between a single set of covers. On the other hand, Terry Brooks' highly imitative Shannara series is not integrated in that sense.

English, and particularly 20th-century, fiction has a long tradition of serial novels; it's just that the sizes of the individual segments are growing longer. Swift's Gulliver's Travels was serialized in the early 18th century; almost everyone knows about Dickens (although I'm hesitant to include him as a positive example, as on balance the positive aspects of his work are oft outweighed by the negative); earlier in this century Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time shocked the publishing world with its complex, integrated narrative stretching over twelve volumes. In contemporary commercial publishing, stand-alones share shelf space with series about evenly, and a fair proportion of books that were originally published as stand-alones later becomes part of a series.

Speculative fiction is a particular home for the serial novel due to the extra, explicit effort that goes into creating the environment. All fiction invests in character and theme to an extent, which may make returning to the same characters and the same series a major aid, or occasionally crutch, for the author. "Mainstream" fiction seldom acknowledges that it must do the same with the environment. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is as much a created environment as LeGuin's Earthsea. Similarly, LeCarre's Vienna and London are invented environments; political thriller cognoscenti may not want to admit it, but many speculative fiction works are more convincing portraits of cities, precisely because the speculative fiction writer admits that such invention is an important part of her work, and does not delude herself that all she's doing is describing the "real" Vienna.

One last word, for this shelf. An "open" serial novel is one that the original author is still adding to. A "closed" serial novel is, as well as I can determine, complete as is; this is often due to the death of the author. When there is no encyclical title, I've given the title of the first book in the series.

So, here we are. Remember, if any book in the serial novel is on another shelf, the serial novel will not be mentioned here.

Closed Brian Aldiss, Helliconia
Open Poul Anderson, The Harvest of Stars
Open Greg Bear, Eon
Open M. John Harrison, Viriconium
Closed Guy Gavriel Kay, The Fionavar Tapestry
Open George R.R. Martin, A Song of Fire and Ice
Closed Patricia A. McKillip, The Riddlemaster of Hed
Open Sean Stewart, Resurrection Man
Closed John Varley, The Gaean Trilogy
Closed Gene Wolfe, The Book of the Long Sun


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