Serdar Yegulalp posted the
other day over at Infinimata Press about his reasons for each of his
novels being “volume 1 in a series of 1.” He identifies two motivations
which drive writers to generate series:
From the commercial perspective, readers who like a series’s first
act are highly likely to buy its second and third and so forth. This
builds a kind of reliability into the sale of such works.
From the attention economy perspective, one could view the series as
the maximization of the effectiveness of a hook. If a writer
discovers an effective hook, why use it to generate one novel when
you could use it to generate three, five, or eight instead?
I found myself agreeing with this assessment, but I also had the thought
that neither of these principles captures the motivation that once
caused me to pursue the series format. It seemed there was another
reason out there, and so I went looking for it.
As many of my early influences were from television as from books.
Between 1990 and 2000, I was aged eight to eighteen, and so the nineties
are my television SF touchstone. During that time period, I was most
enthralled by Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes such as “Who
Watches the Watchers?”, “Darmok,” and “The Inner Light.” I followed all
the nineties Star Trek shows straight through to Voyager’s finale
before setting off for college.
Most of Star Trek takes a traditional approach to the series format.
Each episode is a self-contained story. A viewer could theoretically
select an episode at random and enjoy it without requiring any context
from any prior episodes.
During the decade of the aughts, thinking on this would change in a big
way. Television shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost retained
their episodic facade, but in terms of real structure, the shows were
one continuous story that just happened to pause at 45-minute intervals.
These are series in form but not in spirit.
The show that most influenced my thinking on narrative was neither from the
Star Trek franchise nor from the series of my undergrad and graduate
school years. It was, rather, another nineties show called Babylon 5.
When Babylon 5 first appeared, it seemed a kind of Star Trek knock
off. I paid attention to it peripherally, not particularly interested or
disinterested in it. In terms of structure, it appeared Star
Trek-like. In fact, some weeks I did miss it, and that had been fine by
Then, unexpectedly, in the middle of season two, I happened to miss an
episode called “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum.” When I tuned in to later
episodes, it became clear that I had missed something big. The
characters referred ominously to portentious events and hinted at
secrets they dared not speak again. I found myself piecing those events
together over the course of season three (recall that this was the time
before one could simply stream episodes at will; one had to wait for
them to be re-broadcast).
An interesting thing happened as Babylon 5 progressed. Although one
could nominally pick up any episode at random and largely comprehend the
plot, the characters, and their motivations, the individual stories took
on more and more aspects of reference to past episodes. None of these
references were strictly necessary to enjoy the individual stories of
Babylon 5. The series was not, as the later aughts shows would be, one
enormous story with strategically positioned breaks, but neither was it
merely a sequence of one-off stories sharing characters and a setting.
Babylon 5, somehow, managed to make magic happen. Its pieces were
distinct pieces, but they also transcended their sum.
By the time I was in college, the DVD player had become a thing, and
this ushered in the age of DVD sets of television series. When I
re-watched Babylon 5, I remember being shocked at how, during the
first two seasons, the series writer J. Michael Straczynski had included
dozens upon dozens of details that could only have been conceived of
together with the whole of the five-season arc. These early episodes,
which I’d found unremarkable at the time of my first viewing (“just a
Star Trek spin off,” I’d thought), had actually contained all the
complexity and inter-relatedness I had appreciated about the later
episodes. Those later episodes had not worked “better” than the earlier
ones. The later ones had had a more powerful effect on me because I had
gained more context of the world and its characters. That same context,
brought back to the earlier episodes, enriched them as well.
I became so enamored of this effect of a well-structured series, that I
set out to recreate it. My Voyage books were intended to do just that.
I’ve written before
about the reasons I have written only two of the five books in that
series and have published only one. The most irksome aspect of the
situation is the fact that Voyage Embarkation, the first book,
contains dozens and dozens of references to the events that will happen
in the written-but-unpublished Windbound, and the
unwritten-but-outlined Adrift, Wake, and Tempest.
What I have discovered since is that one does not necessarily need the
structure of an episodic series in order to create the effect of
self-referentiality. In Schrödinger’s City, I achieved it within a
single, 80,000-word story. When I wrote the Palípoli stories of The
Shipwright, I built it into the collection without worrying about
generating a mega-arc. The same is true of my recent drafts of stories
set on Ytria. I have come back around to something more like
individualized story structure of Star Trek, but with a dash of the
self-referentiality of Babylon 5—stories connected by characters and
setting, which are more than the sum of their parts, but which do not
necessarily form an elaborate and preconceived arc.
I could add to Serdar’s list of a third motivation for an author to
construct a series: From the perspective of narrative structure, the
writer is pursuing a format in which smaller, individual stories
achieve the quality of being more than the sum of their parts through
inter-textual references. However, this motivation is rare for just the
reason I discovered—one hiccup in the middle of what will necessarily be
a large project can cause the whole thing to come tumbling down, and if
self-referentiality—that moment of discovering that an innocuous detail
is in fact meaningful—is one of the writer’s motivations, as it is for
me, then that is easily enough achieved through other means.