Science-Fiction

Sequelitis

sequel-small.jpgYou’d think that writing a sequel would be down to a science, considering how many get cranked out every year. Three parts more-of-the-same to two parts brand-new-adventure or some such recipe. I recently read two sequels, one that was fantastic, the other not so much. The difference? As far as I could tell, it was because of the books that came before.


Robert Charles Wilson was the only major science fiction writer (that I can think of; corrections are welcome) who had never written a sequel. His book Spin won the Hugo in 2005, and along comes a sequel called Axis, which is not fit to tie Spin‘s shoes. I don’t criticize Wilson’s recent success, since it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving writer. He’s definitely not in the habit of writing sequels though, and it shows.

Karl Schroeder has written three books so far in his Virga series, the latest being Pirate Sun. Most of his books exist in a connected universe, so you can follow the strands from one book to another. The first Virga book, Sun of Suns, was a satisfying adventure in its own right, and each of the two subsequent books have followed that with interesting, fun entries in the series.

I loved Wilson’s Spin, as did a large number of other people, including Hugo voters in 2005. I can’t think of another example of such big sf ideas matched with solid characterization. sequel-big.jpgUnfortunately, Axis doesn’t quite live up to its famous forebear. At the end of Spin, a new world is opened up for humans to visit, and Axis takes us to that world. It seems like a natural set-up for a sequel, but something went awry along the way. My guess is that Spin was not designed to be the first in a series. To me, it seems a bit like 2001: a space odyssey (with full kudos to Wilson, since the comparison does not slight him); the ending of 2001 seems like a perfect cliffhanger – there’s a Star Baby, whatever the heck that is, floating in “space” near Earth. What will this new being do next? Turns out that the Star Baby’s continuing adventures couldn’t match up to the story of its birth. Trust me, I’ve read 2010, 2061, and 3001… it’s all downhill.

Similarly, in Axis we get a story that explores the newly-opened world of Equatoria, but it’s not a mind-blowing encounter of the same kind as provided by the previous book. I liked some of the material about a boy genetically designed for a madman’s scheme, but the rest of the parts never dovetailed in the same way as happened so effortlessly in Spin.

On the other hand, Schroeder’s Virga seems perfectly constructed for any number of tales, and each book seems to be cheerfully stamped “From the continuing adventures of Virga.” That makes each individual book less of an accomplishment than Spin on its own, but the series feels like it’s more of a sustainable exercise.

The series’ basic premise: Virga is a giant balloon in space, about thousands of kilometres across. It has oxygen, an artificial sun at its centre, thousands of smaller suns floating around, but no gravity of any kind. Crucially, there’s another component: something about the main sun of Virga prevents advanced technology from operating. So Schroeder gets to play with all kinds of juxtapositions, like zero-gee battles fought with swords, smart people fighting in low-tech environments, and so forth.

Book one, Sun of Suns, told of a war between two nations, and Queen of Candesce, the second book, featured someone who is trapped in an ancient and rigid world of tiny proportions, very Iain Banks-ian. The third book, Pirate Sun, wraps up most of the storylines from the first two books. The main character, Chaison Fanning, is trying to get home, but he’s a wanted man due to his actions in the first book. Prison escapes, sword fights, speeder bikes in zero gee, floating cities crashing into each other in a disastrous form (to civilians) of total war, romance, advanced technology trying to destroy lower-tech forms of life, it’s all here.

I have both Wilson and Schroeder on my must-read list and I suspect we’ll see a few more Virga adventures, and by all accounts a second sequel to follow up on Axis. Sequels really do seem to be the name of the game in publishing, so it’s too bad that they are so hard to do successfully. For a long time, I had pointed to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead as an exemplar of what to read if you’re looking for a sequel that works on all levels, and when I went back to re-read the Ender series, that book didn’t hold up. Very disappointing. While none of the individual Virga books can match up, head-to-head, with Ender’s Game or Spin, Schroeder seems to have discovered how to keep crank out good stuff in a series. That’s a bigger accomplishment than it sounds.

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Anyone know why movies use Roman numerals to enumerate sequels but it’s regular numbers for books? Any other thoughts on sequels? Drop James a line or add a comment below.

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