The joy of an unfinished series

A long time ago I wrote a post on series that go downhill, and whether it’s worth starting a series when everyone tells you that it isn’t worth carrying on. Just now, Kluelos commented on that old post asking about unfinished series, saying:

If you’re one of us forlorn David Gerrold fans, you know the agony of waiting forever for sequels, so that’s the opposite point, I guess. Is it better to endure a long wait, maybe never see the next book (I will never speak to James Clavell again, because he died before writing “Hag”), than to have the next book even if it is worse than disappointing? I dunno.

Well, if you come face to face with James Clavell in the afterlife, my advice is to tell him first how much you like his books, before asking if he’s had time up there to finish Hag Struan.

I have an immediate answer to the question too, it’s definitely better to endure a long wait and have a quality sequel, or no sequel, than have a bad sequel. A bad sequel can spoil the books that came before. A good sequel after a long wait enhances the previous books. No sequel, whether because the author died or lost interest in the series isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t spoil anything. “We’ll always have Paris.”

Besides, there’s something about an unfinished series that people like. I’ve been thinking about this recently. When you have a finished series, it’s like a whole book. It’s longer, but it’s the same emotional experience, it’s complete, over. An unfinished series on the other hand is much more likely to provoke conversation, because you’re wondering what will happen, and whether the clues you have spotted are clues or red herrings. People complained that The Gathering Storm wasn’t the one final volume to complete the Wheel of Time, but they’re clearly loving talking about it. And I’ve noticed a lot less conversation about Harry Potter recently, now that everyone knows as much as there is to know. The final volume of a series closes everything down. With luck, it closes it down in a satisfying way. But even the best end will convey a strong sense of everything being over. An ongoing series remains perpetually open.

One series I read where the author died without finishing it was Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I started reading it while he was still writing them, but I read the last book after he had died. It did colour my reading of Blue on the Mizzen, but one of the things I kept thinking was that O’Brian was rather fond of killing off his characters, and nobody could kill them now. I have a term for this, “forever bailing” from Four Quartets.

We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

There will be no more books, but the characters will always go on travelling hopefully.

Some people find it offputting to discover that a book is part of a long series. Other people are delighted—if they like it, there’s so much more to discover. I’ve heard people say they’re not going to start A Song of Ice and Fire until it’s finished, but I think they’re missing half the fun. My post on Who Killed Jon Arryn won’t be worth the pixels it’s written in when everything’s all down in black and white. If you read the books now, you get to speculate about where the series is going.

Anyway, reading unfinished series gives you something to look forward to. The first book I ever waited for was Silver on the Tree, the last of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books. There were other books I’d read that had sequels I couldn’t find—indeed, that was a normal condition for me. (I waited twenty years for Sylvia Engdahl’s Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains. This is my record, so far.) But Silver on the Tree was the first book that hadn’t been published yet when I started to want it, and that had a publication date that I waited for. The second, a few months later, was The Courts of Chaos. I’d gone from the normal chaotic state of turning up in a bookshop and being thrilled with whatever had come in since the last time, to a state of constant and specific anticipation of what was forthcoming. I was thirteen.

Right now, like everyone else on the planet, I’m waiting for A Dance With Dragons. I’m also waiting for Tiassa, the Vlad Taltos book that Steven Brust is writing even now. And I’m waiting desperately for The City in the Crags or whatever it ends up being called, the next Steerswoman book. (Kirstein said at Boskone that she was working on books five and six together, so maybe they’ll come out quite close together too.) I’m waiting for Deceiver, the new Atevi book, and this one, excitingly, is actually finished and coming out on May 4th. (So, what do you think, re-read of the previous ten in late April?) And there’s Bujold’s new Vorkosigan book Cryoburn, which I know is finished, but which doesn’t seem to have a release date that I can find. There’s Connie Willis’s All Clear, the sequel to (or as we say where I come from “the other half of”) Blackout. That’s coming in October.

How about you?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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