I’m re-reading C.J. Cherryh’s Atevi books—there are nine of them, and another three promised, which makes them one of the longer SF series around. [Editor’s note: this article was originally published in 2008; as of 2022, there are 21 Atevi novels and 2 short stories.] I was thinking, as I made my way through book 2, Invader, that there are some things about a long series, any long series, that are quite different from an individual novel, perhaps in the same way an individual novel is different from a short story.
A novel is one story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Diane Duane’s Door Into… books, when people are going to tell a story they begin, where we’d start “Once upon a time,” with the formula “This is the story of /whatever/ and this is the way I tell it.” I find it quite useful myself to think of that as the unwritten first line of any novel, because knowing what story it is and how I tell it is a very useful thing. The Iliad starts off with “Sing Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles” and the story you get is the wrath of Achilles, not the whole saga of the Trojan war—it begins ten years into the war, with the reasons for Achilles’s wrath, and ends when he stops being angry, with Troy still unfallen. Next of Kin is the story of how Leeming single-handedly won the war against the Lathians. Citizen of the Galaxy is the story of how Thorby learned to be a free man. Random Acts of Senseless Violence is the story of how Lola and her world went to hell together… and so on.
But when you have a long series, it isn’t like that. There are artifacts of publishing where one story gets spread over multiple volumes (Charlie Stross’s The Family Trade and The Hidden Family, or The Lord of the Rings for that matter) but I’m not talking about that. There are also very long series, like Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars books, where you have one very long story in separate volumes that have individual narratives but aren’t really separable. I’m not talking about that either, though that’s interesting and I might talk about that some other time. And you get things like Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias where the different parts stand alone but comment on each other, which is also really nifty, but not what I want to talk about.
What I’m talking about is something like Cherryh’s Alliance/Universe or Atevi books, or Brust’s Vlad books, or Bujold’s Miles books, or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, where you have individual books that each tell a story and can be read alone, but each book is part of a longer history, and the books illuminate each other and the longer story and the way that is told begins to emerge as the series progresses. It isn’t Achilles’s wrath but the whole Trojan War, but it isn’t a rambling set of anecdotes either, it’s a lot more like a whole mythology.
The length itself has something to do with it. I always feel that re-reading a series like that is like embarking on a voyage, because you have many volumes in front of you. When you set off, you know you’re committing yourself to a long time in the world, you’re launching yourself into something you know is good and absorbing and is really going to last. I love that feeling, when you step again into that universe, knowing what happens, knowing the long road you have to go along before you reach the end—or the present end. When a series is still ongoing, I usually re-read it when a new volume comes out. Then there’s a lovely sense that the new volume is waiting there at the end for me, that I can sail happily through the known waters with unknown waters ahead. I re-read the whole Vlad series in preparation for Dzur, and may well again for Jhegaala. Ooh! What a treat!
When I do this, of course, one thing I really notice is any minor inconsistencies. I used to have a problem understanding this. If I could see them, why couldn’t the author see them and reconcile them? If I could launch myself into the universe and re-read so happily, why couldn’t the author? Since then, I have written series myself, and now I am far more sympathetic. Re-reading one’s own work is unlikely to bring the same warm glow of trusting yourself to the words on the page and the world they create. And remembering one’s own work, one remembers what one meant to do and the broad sweep of intent, not every detail of what one actually put down. Oh well.
I also notice the felicities of connection that I might have missed before. This minor character will become a major character several books later! This antagonist will become a friend, and this friend a traitor. (Cherryh is particularly good at this.) Also, you can really appreciate set-up. Through nine Vlad books, Brust mentions Valabar’s as a wonderful restaurant, but before Dzur we never see it.
It isn’t just seeing details, though. I think there’s a way that a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference. Really long series can do different things. Partly the difference is just a case of having longer to build your spear to drive home your spearpoints. If the reader has lived with the characters for a long time and knows them really well, a line like “Ivan you idiot, what are you doing here?” can bring tears to their eyes. (Bujold’s Memory. Read the other seven books first.) The same goes for Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense, where I’ve known several people who have read only that book not be knocked over by the events at the end, whereas people who have read from the beginning of the series (it’s book four) reliably are.
Beyond all this, in a long series we have history. This can be the ability to give a historical perspective—Cherryh’s Alliance/Union books are brilliant at that, because they’re written from different angles on a long history. But even books that use the same points of view can do it—we see history change in the Miles books and in the Atevi books. We see people go from being a glint in someone’s eye to viewpoint characters in a length of time that feels emotionally long enough for that to happen. In a really long series, there’s time for characters to really grow and change in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or forced. And in SF, as we’ve noted before, the world is a character. So there’s time and space for the world to grow and change. The world growing and changing is what history is, and seeing it happening before our eyes is a wonderful thing that provides a new and fascinating kind of perspective.
This article was originally published in July 2008.
Jo Walton has published fifteen novels, most recently Or What You Will. She has also published three poetry collections, two essay collections and a short story collection. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, the World Fantasy Award for Tooth and Claw in 2004, the Hugo and Nebula awards for Among Others in 2012, and in 2014 both the Tiptree Award for My Real Children and the Locus Non Fiction award for What Makes This Book So Great. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are much better. She gets bored easily so she tends to write books that are different from each other. She also reads a lot, enjoys travel, talking about books, and eating great food. She plans to live to be ninety-nine and write a book every year.