The day before yesterday I finished Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long Mars, and then promptly started Jeff Vandermeer’s conclusion to the ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’, Acceptance. As both books are the third in their series it reminded me of my fondness for trilogies or short series. I’ve noticed recently that I am becoming increasingly impatient with what I judge to be ‘filler’ or time wasting; unnecessary detail, boring exposition, conversations that go nowhere et cetera. However, I will happily admit to being a hypocrite in that when it comes to good world building, I prefer more excessive detail, sometimes to the point where I would rather read a travelogue of an imaginary land than the exploits of the characters who live there (I found this particularly noticeable in Stella Gemmell’s The City and Steph Swainston’s Fourlands series).
But back to why I love trilogies, and that’s predominantly the structure. A series with no defined endpoint, or a planned end that’s many books away, has the inevitable tendency to drag and/or run out of steam before the big finale (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, come on down!). Before The Long Mars, I’d actually started Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves and I’ve only managed to get approximately a fifth of the way through by forcing myself to read a chapter at a time. The Republic of Thieves is the third in the ‘Gentlemen Bastard’ series and it seems to represent everything I dislike about series of indeterminate length (I note that Goodreads lists a further 4 proposed books to finish the series).
1. Overhang from the book before: I’m 118 pages in and the cliffhanger from the previous book (Red Seas Under Red Skies) still hasn’t been resolved. This should have been sorted within about three chapters.
2. Endless flashbacks: so many and yet so pointless. There have already been two books in this series and yet now is apparently the time to throw in every tedious detail about Locke Lamora’s crummy background and creepy obsession with Sabetha.
3. Faffing about and filler: All I remember from Red Seas Under Red Skies is that the entire middle section could have been ripped out and the story would be no poorer for it. It seemed like Lynch had come up with the start and then the cliffhanger ending, but had no idea how to fill the space between, so just chucked in some boats and piracy to pass the time. In The Republic of Thieves it is taking far too long for the main plot to kick in, and instead of boats, this time it’s politics.
In contrast, ‘The Long Earth’ series seems to do the opposite. Although I will admit here that ‘The Long Earth’ series is not a trilogy (as far as I’m aware) and may in fact be one of those dreaded series of indeterminate length. However, the difference to me is that each book of ‘The Long Earth’ series concludes by tying up all the main plot lines, could happily exist as the published trilogy and each book could probably actually stand alone.
1. Each book centres around at least one major event: although the second and third books (The Long War and The Long Mars) do reference events from the book(s) before, a quick summary of the important facts are given where necessary and then the story moves on.
2. Flashbacks are few and exposition is kept to a minimum (mostly): the main characters will occasionally get a flashback, but only when it reveals something important to the plot. As there is quite a lot of science woven in the explanations are helpful to me, but might drag a little for those who have a good grasp of the theories.
3. There is no faffing about!: reading The Long Mars has revealed to me my new favourite literary device: skipping merrily ahead in the plot and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps. ‘The Long Earth’ series is full of these jumps, so instead of wasting time describing a return journey upon which nothing much happens, the travelling party returned safely and the plot rolls on. Instead of cramming a ridiculous number of significant events into a few weeks or months, the plot will jump forward a few years, or even a decade, in order to maintain a good pace so nothing drags, but nothing is rushed either.
As a planned trilogy, I give the ‘Southern Reach‘ books a little more leeway to rely on each other, although I think the first, Annihilation, would work perfectly well as a stand alone epic journey type novel. The second, Authority, is a more personal examination of an individual struggling to discover himself as the world falls apart around him (he likes to be referred to as ‘Control’, which says everything really). But the ending is actually a bit of a cliffhanger (which did annoy me), so it does rely on another book to follow it, but then I think Authority was the weakest of the three and definitely had to come in the middle of the trilogy. So far, Acceptance is almost a combination of the first two books, as the characters go on an epic journey while struggling to discover themselves (Control is still having trouble), but as the final book I can read safely knowing that it will be all drawn together somehow (although Vandermeer doesn’t really do conclusive endings, happily-ever-after or otherwise).