Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill.

In my post on A Million Open Doors I mentioned the advice give to someone on rec.art.sf.written when they asked about the reading order for the Dune series. “Read the first one. Then stop.” In the comments, R. Fife said:

I feel your pain. I have not read Barnes in particular, but I have read the first three Dune books. After the third one, I was left with a kind of disillusioned aftertaste that has led me to not finish the other three. Same with Sword of Truth, where I forced my way to Naked Empire then gave up (and had to start forcing after Faith of the Fallen). Heck, The Dark Tower by Steven King did it to me after Wolves of the Calla (read two pages of Song of Susannah and threw the book).

So, is it better to have loved and lost than never loved before? Is it better to pretend the series could still be good and never read the disappointing sequels, but still know they are out there, somewhere, and possibly even why they were disappointing, than to experience it first hand?

I think that’s a very interesting question. And there’s a related question—is it worth reading the early good books, if the series isn’t going to live up to its promise?

There has been no case in the whole of my history where somebody has told me not to read the sequels and I have listened to them. I have always gone on to read the disappointing sequels, and been disappointed. Occasionally, I’ve read the sequels and liked them despite the consensus. But mostly the consensus is right, and I just haven’t listened. Once I stop, I stop, I don’t keep on and on if I’m no longer enjoying something. But I’m hopeless at not seeking out sequels as long as I have enjoyed the series up to that point.

So, better to have loved and lost?

I think a lot of it depends on the way in which the sequels are bad. If there’s an initial brilliant volume and then the sequels fade off with less and less originality until they’re just going through the motions, then I haven’t really lost anything. I’m thinking of the Pern books. I haven’t read all of those (goodness me, there’s one called Dolphins of Pern!) but I’ve read enough of them to be able to tell you than none of them is Dragonflight, but they’re all perfectly reasonable extra helpings of books with dragons and weyrs. None of them are going to spoil the experience of Dragonflight, except perhaps by diluting is a little. And you can’t really get back the experience that was Dragonflight, because let’s face it, you have to be twelve. If I was camping in the rain and there was nothing to read but Dolphins of Pern, I’m sure I could pass a happy enough afternoon with it. The same with the sequels to David Feintuch’s Midshipman’s Hope. I’ve read all of them. I’d urge you to stop with the first book, but the sequels haven’t done me any harm.

Where there’s a real problem is when the sequels spoil the original book.

The books about which I feel most strongly negative are all sequels to earlier books that I really like, and which spoil those earlier books. I’m immediately thinking of Card’s Xenocide, and Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light. In those cases, I can’t re-read the earlier books without the memory of the later books coming between me and the page. I know the Ender series has gone on far past Xenocide, and though, or perhaps because, I loved Ender’s Game and Speaker For the Dead so much, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them, and I can’t really re-read the first two either. With Ancient Light it’s not so bad, I have after many years been able to forget it sufficiently that I can re-read Golden Witchbreed. But I’m afraid Xenocide has poisoned the universe forever for me.

I think my problem here was that part of the fundamental pleasure of reading SF for me is putting the hints and clues together and extrapolating where they’re going, and in re-reading seeing how they go together when I know where they’re going. I can’t do that if I have to turn my eyes away from where they’re going. I honestly wish I hadn’t read those books. When we were talking about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I said that if Lacuna was real, the thing I’d have wiped would be my memory of Xenocide. “But then you’d read it again,” Sasha said. And he’s right! (In fact, the only way I know this hasn’t happened already is that I read Xenocide about three days after it was published.)

So, why is it worse when this happens in a sequel?

When a writer takes a book in a new direction, it can feel jarring, and if it’s a direction I don’t like and which doesn’t fit with what has gone before, I won’t like it. But it’s happening while I’m reading, and though I may be invested in the plot and the characters and the world, it won’t disappoint me as much as when this happens in a sequel, where I may well have read the first book(s) several times before the new one comes out. There are a number of books that I think go downhill in the last third, but I don’t start foaming at the mouth when I think of them. But when it’s a sequel, and when I already love all of the earlier books and have read it and read it and read it, sometimes when I hear there’s going to be a sequel I’m as afraid as I am delighted.This happened recently with Regenesis.

I think whether it’s worth starting a series that goes downhill depends very much on how self-contained the good books are. In the case of A Million Open Doors and Dune that isn’t a problem. The books stand alone. With something like a fantasy series (I haven’t read either of R. Fife’s examples of King and Goodkind) it’s a lot less clear-cut, because a series like that is very much a voyage where you want to feel sure of your destination. A lot of this is a problem with trusting the author. If I trust the author, I’ll put up with a lot, but once I start feeling distrusting, I start picking fault with everything.

And a lot of it is individual taste. Mostly when this has happened to me, I’ve started the series before all the books are out. I know there are people out there who won’t read series unless they’re complete. But what do you do? How do you react if someone says “Read this one, and then stop”?

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