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The Reader's Guide to SF Series
by John O'Neill

The SF Site Reader's Guide to Science Fiction, Part I

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

I've been reading science fiction for a long time. And, to be frank, I'm not entirely sure what it is that draws both SF authors and readers to series work with such fervor.

Certainly there's the lure of the large canvas. Science fiction prides itself on being the forum for grand ideas, and there's no doubt that big ideas often call for a majestic stage -- an epic of sweeping scope and serious page count. Admittedly, when we talk about the great classics of the field, the conversation often turns to the heavyweights. The books with the biggest ideas and the biggest gravity -- the stuff that pinned us to our chair, unable to escape until we'd turned the last page and could just barely topple the volume over to the left.

Oddly enough, while everyone may feel very differently about which works rank as true classics of the field, there's more general agreement on the definition of "classic." It's what you read when you were 12-16 years old, the stuff that blew back your eyebrows and made you to forget to walk the dog. It's the work that was responsible for a lifelong love of the genre, a deep interest in science, and the permanent stain made by the dog in your parent's living room carpet.

Frank Herbert's Dune. Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Fred Pohl's breakthrough Gateway saga. If you're over seventy, it might have been E.E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark or Lensmen series, or possibly Jack Williamson's Legion of Time. Perhaps these classic examples are the impetus for the modern tendency to publish longer works. In the struggle to make an impact, it helps if you compete in the heavyweight class.

Still, not every popular SF series begins life as an outline for a 7-volume magnum opus. Sometimes it's simply sales figures and reader demand that entices an author back to the well. Let's face it, when you've created a unique world and peopled it with interesting characters, it's hard to resist the temptation to return, and writers are often drawn back to their creations as powerfully as their captive readers. In the best examples, though, the true classic series, there is a powerful thread or underlying fabric that unites the volumes and leads you towards the final act -- even if it was subconsciously woven.

Ten Classic SF Series
Dune -- Frank Herbert, (6 books)
Foundation -- Isaac Asimov, (7 volumes)
Riverworld -- Philip Jose Farmer
Skylark -- E.E. "Doc" Smith
Gateway -- Frederik Pohl
Dorsai -- Gordon R. Dickson
Berserker -- Fred Saberhagen
Cities in Flight -- James Blish
Dragonriders of Pern -- Anne McCaffrey
Ringworld -- Larry Niven (3 books)
The SF Site bows to no one in our celebration of the classics, but our interest doesn't stop there. Frankly, slavish devotion to the classics is a little bit like Top 40 radio: it keeps your toes tappin', but it gradually nudges your brain into neutral. The field of science fiction is arguably the most energetic and imaginative fiction that the 20th century has produced, and to encapsulate it with a list of "classics" -- no matter how carefully selected -- is to overlook a field whose greatest strength is its enormous range and diversity.

We bring you The SF Site Reader's Guide. Our goal with this series is two-fold. First, of course, to do right by the classics. Second -- and in our eyes, far more important -- is to shine a little light into the more overlooked corners, and illuminate the real treasures awaiting the diligent fan. We aim to be a resource to the modern SF reader, who approaches the gaudy tonnage in the SF Section of today's bookstores with a keen nose and an inquisitive eye. There are wonders aplenty to be found, if you know what to look for.

Deep Space and Beyond

Some days it seems more science fiction books are parts of series than the other way around. Even today's most exciting stand-alone novels often turn out to be -- surprise -- the kick-off volume for tomorrow's six volume series. Still, not to complain. For the most part, we like it that way (don't we?).

Still, it leaves us the problem of where to start. We need our own kick-off volume, something with scope and grandeur, something that takes the epic themes of classic science fiction and makes them reverberate with new depth, clarity, and wonder. Something familiar and yet wholly original. Something still in print.

Right. Greg Bear it is.

Bear began his writing career with the novel Hegira, but made his first big impact with Blood Music, a dazzling early novel of nanotechnology, quantum physics, and world-changing science. His later work -- such as Moving Mars and the paired Queen of Angels and Slant -- would bring him major award nominations. However, in 1985 he turned to cosmic SF of the Age-of-Wonder persuasion with the release of Eon (Warner Aspect, 503 pages, 1985; in print in paperback from Tor), a charged SF epic of alien artifacts, hyperspace travel, and man's intertwined destiny with the stars.

The setting is 21st century Earth, a planet on the brink of war, where a massive asteroid has literally appeared out of nowhere and slipped into orbit. Scientific teams from NASA, NATO and the United Nations are dispatched to investigate... each with a very different agenda. The men and women exploring the three-hundred-kilometer long slab of stone soon find evidence of a vanished civilization inside -- impossibly, a vanished human civilization, with forests, lakes, and hanging cities. As the wonders and mysteries begin to pile up, an increasing number of clues point toward futuristic origins for the gigantic artifact... and fragments of history from that mysterious future reveal a catastrophic and imminent war on Earth that will come to be called the Death. But is the asteroid from our future, or a different timeline? And is the seventh chamber of the asteroid, the one that appears to go on forever, really what it appears?

Like many novels of the early 80s, the events of history have made Eon a tad dated -- particularly in its treatment of Russia and the Soviet bloc. But the exploration of the asteroid -- including the paratroop drop inside and the ride down The Way -- will stir your imagination. Eon gives you a peek at military maneuvers in orbit, realistic space exploration in the 21st century, and even a touch of romance.

The sequel to Eon is Eternity (Warner Aspect, 399 pages, 1988; in print in paperback from Tor). It's some decades later and there is now a permanent human colony on the asteroid called Thistledown. Garry Lanier, leader of the first expedition, has grown old and weary. The exploration of the massive artifact has lead to numerous discoveries and changed the fate of mankind... but also exposed mankind to an ancient and extremely powerful enemy. When a chance comes to re-unite with another veteran of the early exploration, General Pavel Mirsky, Garry finds himself rejuvenated. For General Mirsky disappeared nearly forty years ago in the very heart of the asteroid, and no one with his team ever returned.

Bear's third and final book in the series is Legacy (Tor, 349 pages, 1989; in print in paperback from Tor), a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Technically at least, Legacy is a prequel to Eon, since the action starts downstream of Eon on the tortured timeline, but typical for Bear, not all is as it appears to be.

On Thistledown, the Way has now been in use for some time. The leaders of Axis City discover that a huge group of colonists -- 4,000 anti-technological Naderites -- has secretly landed on one of the interdicted worlds, and dropped out of human history. Troubleshooter Olmy Ap Sennon is dispatched to covertly assess the extent of the damage. What he discovers is a settled, Terran planet with an intriguing alien biology and a rapidly evolving human society already splintering off in a number of directions -- each of which Bear presents with his usual carefully detailed precision.

Ten Great Modern SF Series
Hyperion -- Dan Simmons (4 volumes)
Mars Trilogy -- Kim Stanley Robinson (3)
Uplift -- David Brin (6)
The Reality Dysfunction -- Peter F. Hamilton (3)
Beggars in Spain -- Nancy Kress (3)
The Urth of the New Sun -- Gene Wolfe (5)
The Ender Series -- Orson Scott Card (4)
Barrayar -- Lois McMaster Bujold (6)
Galactic Center -- Gregory Benford (6)
Rama -- Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee (4)
It's a world where jungles span continents and create animal-like plants to service them, and where the storms are alive, literally... What begins as an offshoot of the Eon Future History quickly becomes something else entirely, a story of mankind's contact with, and adaptation to, a world possessed of continent-spanning life forms, each endowed with a unique chemical-based intelligence. The colonists live amongst these life-forms like bacteria in a host organism, learning to interact with the native biology in new ways as they interact with each other in one of the oldest: war.

If it's star-spanning action you're interested in, there's no shortage of SF series that deliver the goods -- from Greg Benford's Galactic Center novels to Charles Sheffield's The Heritage Universe, from David Drake's Igniting the Reaches to Jeffrey A. Carver's Star Rigger books. We'll look at all of these, and many more, as we continue with our Reader's Guide to Science Fiction Series. Join us in October for the next installment.

You know where to find us.

Copyright © 1998 by John O'Neill


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