Science fiction series that suck

Complete series of Nero Wolfe booksOver at io9, Charlie Jane Anders digs for the root cause of an accepted truism of genre (and, I think, all) writing: the longer a series gets, the more it starts to suck.

I guess you could put it down to the law of diminishing returns, which is far from being exclusive to media and entertainment. But whatever the cause, there are a number of cases where all but the most ardent uncritical fanboy starts thinking “you should have let it be”. [image by deadeyebart]

Anders uses the obvious (but extremely valid) example of the seemingly endless Dune saga; while I’ll agree that Frank Herbert‘s sequels were less than brilliant, their level of suck completely pales when held up against the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson continuations.

Personally, as much as I’d jump in front of a speeding train for Douglas Adams it was plain to see by the last few Hitchhikers books that he should have moved on and focussed on some of his other ideas. Also, dreadful sequels and series in general are the main reason I gave up television completely eight years ago.

And if you want uncompromising sequel-rage, you should try asking Jonathan McCalmont about Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake books …

What are the sequels you love to hate? And which ones have you continued with – despite the suck?

22 thoughts on “Science fiction series that suck”

  1. I’d actually claim the last two books of Herbert’s Dune series were better-written than the earlier novels. Admittedly, it’s hard to judge their plotting since Herbert died before he finished them. And, some of the ideas are way more implausible than any in Dune…

    Time I wish I’d not wasted: reading the Wheel of Time series after the 6th book, reading the Honor Harrington series after the third book, reading A Song of Ice and Fire after the second book…

    Having said all that, it’s not just series that suffer from suckquelitis (to coin a word). Pretty much any sf or fantasy who hits the big time, their works starts to suffer the more popular they become. Like Heinlein. No series, but all his novels after Stranger in a Stranger Land were tosh.

  2. Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series comes to mind. It started out in “Wizard’s First Rule” as one of the most original and well-written heroic fantasy novels I’d read, making me eagerly anticipate the next book. By the time we got to “Faith of the Fallen”, the series had turned into a pale imitation of Ayn Rand’s work. If I want to read “The Fountainhead”, I’ll read “The Fountainhead”, not “Lord of the Rings Meets the Fountainhead”.
    By “Chainfire”, the writing had gotten so bad, I couldn’t even finish the audiobook, and I haven’t even tried to pick up the most recent two novels.
    This series pretty much finished me for picking up any new fantasy series.

    On the other hand, Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series carries on fairly consistently, even though he’s up to book seventy million (or something like that…), so I guess it’s not all bad.

  3. The second Dune trilogy is, in my view, excellent. God Emperor is perhaps my favourite of the six, jostling for position alongside the original Dune. Heretics and Chapter House are the weakest but I still love them.

    I think the God Emperor and the Scattering are really, really interesting ideas. Thematically the later books are true to the earlier books, and there’s a consistency to the series – despite the timescales – that I envy. I don’t know of anyone who has written about consequences – ecologically, socially, culturally, politically, theologically – as well as Herbert has. FH broke my heart as a teenager with what happened to his characters and his people, and revolutionised the ways in which I understand history, politics and fiction.

  4. Actually, having just posted that, I think the two FH Dune trilogies are interesting because of the ways in which they defy the conventions you talk about in your post, Paul. Sequelitis is a horrible wasting disease which afflicts series that begin to run dry, repeating as they do the same characters and places and ideas. Sometimes new characters are added, or they’re dropped into a new place, but fundamentally the stories remain the same.

    This is not true of the 2nd Dune trilogy. The results of Paul Muad’dib’s jihad are then understood to have unleashed more death and suffering, and threatened the future of humanity, more than the impending collapse of the feudal system that hangs over the first book. The planet Arrakis itself is a pathetic shadow of its former self, as are what little remains of the Fremen. New power structures have arisen, and are themselves torn down, inverted and replaced. Ideas, ideologies, political and religious institutions and systems of faith… they are all destroyed, subverted, eroded by time, perverted into mockeries of their former selves. In the Duniverse, only change endures.

    I’ve always wondered to what extent the accepted wisdom of the Dune series (“only the first book is worth reading”, or to a lesser extent “only the first three”) is down to people struggling with the later books making them look likes fools for daring to believe in a hero, or an idea. I know that a lot of people were very unhappy when they read Dune Messiah and realised that they’d been cheering along a man who’d unleashed a manically fundamentalism army on the galaxy, resulting in the death of billions, and had only really succeeded in planting himself at the top of a precarious feudal pile. Kind of hurts those easy-to-assume moral simplicities of evil Harkonnen/Corrino and good Atreides/fremen, you know?

  5. I heartily echo Dominic’s bemoaning of Goodkind. Persevered with those for longer than anyone should have had to.

    And when it comes to Pratchett, I’m pretty sure he hit his sweet spot between 1998-2004. The earlier Discworld books are parody of fantasy novels, while the later ones are parodies of (then) current affairs. The novels he wrote in that sweet spot, on the other hand, were pure satirical gold.

  6. I’d stick with the tried-and-true trilogy format. Anything that carries on beyond that isn’t likely to be any good. I stopped Star Wars after the Zelazny set, and Dune got to be too much to handle.

  7. I’m going to agree with the people who have already mentioned Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. In fact, I think the Sword of Truth books could be the poster child for sequelitis. Wizard’s First Rule was a great read, and the next two were decent, but it was Temple of the Winds, number 4, that began to turn me off to the series, and by the end of Faith of the Fallen, I gave up entirely. Haven’t picked one up since.

    I have to disagree with whoever mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire, however. I don’t get even the slightest impression that George R R Martin is running out of ideas or getting stale. I’ll admit that because of the length they are sometimes difficult to get through, but there’s less a sense that they’re separate books in a series and more that it’s one long story in several volumes, and book three is as full of rich character development and surprising events as the first two. I, at least, am still intensely excited to see where it’s going.

  8. I think Im gonna have to throw another vote for Terry Goodkind. I really enjoyed Faith of the Fallen and it set up a perfect end, but nope he had to keep on writing and it plummeted down hill. I did finish it but more for the just finishing it part.
    The Wheel of Time once again is another key example of an idea that got carried on too long. I love some of the characters while others I love to hate. I got half way through book 10 before stopping (for a while) as new characters were continued to be introduced into an already saturated story. I should get round to finishing this soon but I dont know when.

    Talking of Terry Prachett, he does appear to be an exception to the rule. While he may no longer be at his peak, the books are still enjoyable and it is a series I definitly see myself continuing. (Its a pity about “The Colour of Magic” TV show though.

  9. Speaking of Zelazny, the first Amber series held up well through 7 novels, the second set, well it’s still Zelazny, and thus good by definition, but maybe not as good 🙂

    Song of Fire and Ice series (Martin) has held up reasonably well through so far…


  10. “Jeremy wrote: “I stopped Star Wars after the Zelazny set…”


    Er…the Zahn set. I plead the decade since I read them, and…uh…they both start with Z?

  11. Any series of books presumably has to have a very strong and popular
    first book. Certainly any famous book and series seems to have that.
    Otherwise why would the author follow up an unsuccessful book.

    Then it is the size of the story that the author is trying to tell.
    they could have a large fully thought story ark for
    1,2,3,5,7 books. Then after that if they continue because of
    financial success they have to generate something new that
    they did not plan on originally.

    Then how expandable is the universe for new stories.
    How much is writer able to innovate instead of making
    cookie-cutter/formulaic follow ups while still maximum reader
    interest ?

    Is the original landscape compelling enough such that there is
    more interesting “canvas” to be added in a follow on series of novels.

    Each new book does not always have to be an astoundingly creative
    addition, but there has to be some new creativity and it has to
    be something that people want to read and it has to be somewhat
    accessible for new readers.

    Each of the three Lord of the Rings books > The Hobbit.

  12. If Zelazny had written Star Wars … that’s an sf-nal “what if” in its own right! Thanks for the props, Charlie Jane. 🙂

  13. I guess I’ve been wise to stay away from continuations and “shared universe” novels. Frankly, series books intimidate me; it seems like the best stories I encounter are around 300 pages long.

  14. How about the collections of short stories that kept quite well? I’m thinking of the James Retief stories, and also the Stainless Steel Rat stories. Is it easier to keep an interest for readers in a short story format? Is it easier on a writer? But for long novels, I completely agree with the thread. The trilogy is just about as long as you can make interesting.

  15. OK, got another one for you….Piers Anthony’s “Bio of a Space Tyrant”. The first book was everything a space opera should be…dark, gritty, violent, sexy, and yet uplifting and hopeful at the same time. Utterly brilliant.
    By contrast, book 5 feels like it was written with a gun to his head. It should have been subtitled “The Contractual Obligation Book”.

  16. As a kid I initially loved and tried to struggle through Simon Hawke’s “The Wizard of 4th Street” series but eventually gave up on it. Started very funny and imaginative, with a nice mix of scifi and fantasy, but after so many books you get wise that it’s more or less the same plot every time. I think I gave up around the seventh book out of the nine (which included a prequel).

  17. David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series comes to mind. I love the earlier books in the series but it effectively ended (and ended well) in “Ashes of Honor”….but he kept writing the same series.
    Everything after that book has been a slowly elevating level of bad.

  18. I would have to echo disagreement on the Dune series. I would say the final three books are actually my favorite of the six, being more heady, more complicated and more subtle than the first three; which seem to exude a sort of “standard-fair adventure” type style — with the occasional smattering of a political and/or philosophical musing. I enjoy all six, but the later ones seem somehow more penetrating to me.

    Goodkind has his moments, but yeah, seems the series has lost its potency somewhere along the lines. Same with Jordan. I remember reading that in the nineteenth century authors were paid by the word, or, as they are today, by the “installment.” It makes me wonder if it isn’t natural to place some of the blame on the publishing companies and the contracts they devise, etc. … I mean, nobody pays someone for 20 years to write one book … but maybe if they did, we would see more creative genius on the scale of a James Joyce, or a Tolkien. I mean, when you churn creativity through a meat-grinder is it surprising you get mostly mush?

  19. David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series was, to me, gripping — up until the last volume. Big letdown.

    Hoping Stephen King’s Gunslinger books don’t let me down. So far (vol. 4) I’m enjoying them quite a bit.

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