October 2004

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Bad Things Come in Threes

I’m developing serious commitment issues. Neal Stephenson is partly to blame. For the past few months, my attention has been magnetically and magnificently held by his Quicksilver trilogy. By the time you read this, I should finally be able to spread my affections around with less discrimination. One fundamental problem will still remain, however. Given the circumstances of my life, which includes a small child and a full semester, my reading time is measurable in minutes rather than hours. This isn’t a complaint; rather, it is an observation.

Most things that are scarce are also dear, like pearls or truffles or honest politicians. The same is true of my reading time, which is why my commitment issues are returning like dogs to their vomit. See, this isn’t a new thing with me. For years, I’ve had a policy not to read trilogies.

Sure, there have been exceptions: like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker and Dirk Gently books, John Varley’s Titan, Dan Simmons Hyperion or, even, J.K. Rowling’s Potter series. Technically, these aren’t all trilogies, but I’m using the word in such a way as to imply a series of books that tell one story to its completion and that story can’t be really be read in a different order without consequence. To me, a trilogy is essentially one long book broken up into smaller parts for both ease of transport and promotion.
A trilogy is different from a series of books set in a similar world inhabited by known characters. Steven Brust’s Vlad, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles or, even, Spider Robinson’s Callahan books aren’t trilogies in this sense. Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, which were a gateway drug for a few of the SF/F readers I know, are a series. Each of the individual books can stand by itself, with its own beginning, middle and end. While your reading experience may be enhanced by knowledge of what’s come before, it isn’t required. And while there may be a larger, series-crossing end in the author’s mind, there are still characters and worlds to explore before we get there.

While I suspect other genres – mystery leaps to mind – make fine use of the series, not as many seem to rely as heavily on trilogies as speculative fiction does. The standard excuse for this is always that world-building takes a lot of words to properly achieve. Bollocks.

It’s a crap excuse on a number of levels. I don’t doubt that you need more words to tell both an engaging story and develop its background – but why is it that most serial trilogy offenders (Stephen Donaldson, Mercedes Lackey and Sean Russell leap to mind) seem to beg for a swift and merciless red pen. It’s not that their worlds are more complete than the average SF writer who only writes 80,000 words. It’s that their worlds are more redundant and don’t seem at all concerned with the thrilling effects of economy.

I know, I know. True believers in the trilogy will argue that I’m cutting out boatloads of great storytelling with my own prejudices. I don’t care, frankly. Fall seems to be the special time of year when the second books come out to lure unsuspecting shoppers. I’m tired of picking up an interesting title only to discover that it is “Book Two in The Wraeththu Histories” or second in the “Hungry City Chronicles” or volume two of “The Faerie Wars.” I have no objection to books that have more than 500 pages -- it’s specifically that I just don’t have time for trilogies, neither the time to track down the first books nor to wait for the last. Nor do I have time for stories that are frequently more flab than muscle. While Stephenson has given me hope for the trilogy, I still feel that even his books could have stood a nice trim without harming his intent. That’s the thing about commitment, really. Stephenson has softened my heart enough to have it broken yet again by writers and publishers who don’t always respect the reader’s time.
Given how high the stack of non-trilogied books I can’t wait to read has become, my time is at a premium. Next on deck is Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist, which is loosely part of the Culture series, and Lucius Shepard’s Viator, which stands delightfully, simply alone. Are they lesser tales because they don’t require more than one cover design? I suspect not.