The Geomancer


Masterpieces & the Problematic Trilogy

The October/November 2006 double issue of Asimov's Science Fiction has an On Books column from Norman Spinrad entitled "The Big Kahuna." This time out, Spinrad reviews our books - John Meaney's Resolution and Ian McDonald's River of Gods, along with Del Rey author Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained.

Thematically, the piece is something of a follow-up to his earlier "Aussies, Brits and Yanks," which appeared in the April/May 2006 Double Issue of Asimov's and which was exclusively devoted to five Pyr titles - all reviewed quite favorably. In fact, Spinrad quotes extensively from that review in this one.

This time out, Spinrad is less than 100% about John Meaney, though it is worth noting that his criticisms of the work are more to do with what he sees as the marketing and economic realities of SF publishing today, which- as dictated by the major chains refusal to stock hardcover works with a price point over $25 - in his opinion force publishers to break works which should have been single mammoth tomes into a duology or trilogy format.

Spinrad says, "This presents the writer with a literary problem, it produces a paradox that is inherently impossible to resolve fully. To wit, do you presume that the only readership for books two and three are people who have already read book one--and worse, that the only readership for book three is those who have read the first two volumes? Or do you attempt to make each book a novel that anyone can pick up and read cold?"

Whichever way the author chooses to address these questions leads to compromise in Spinrad's estimation, though he acknowledges that Meaney "does as good and clever a job of bringing the reader who missed the first two up to date without turning off the reader who hasn't as perhaps can be done." Along the way he praises Meaney for certain courageous narrative choices and even gives him points for making good on a promise that Frank Herbert never lived to fulfill in his own Dune series. (So, I'm pretty happy with his overall assessment.)

Now, I cannot speak as to what editorial pressures might or might not have shaped the Nulapeiron Sequence as the work was already available from its UK publisher (Bantam/Transworld) before I came on the scene. It was then, and remains today, one of my favorite works of hard science fiction from the last decade. Nor have I read Peter F. Hamilton's duology, which Spinrad sees as suffering from the same problem. Though I must say Spinrad's assessment of Pandora's Star does pique my interest and turn me off for the very reason's he states. (I may end up adding it to the enormous reading pile eventually, however, being tipped over the edge by learning here that Hamilton uses the speculative device of interstellar railway lines connecting commuters across the stars via wormhole traversing trains - an idea which fascinated me when I first encountered it back in 1992 in Ben Aaronovitch's brilliant Transit, one of the best of the Doctor Who books from the Virgin line and a media tie-in work that managed that rare feat of being genuine speculative fiction. Come to think of it, Peter did look a bit like Colin Baker at Interaction last year. But I digress...)

Norman Spinrad does raise an interesting point, whether correctly or incorrectly applied in this case. I know that I would have much preferred Gene Wolfe's recent Wizard Knight as the single book which Locus insists on calling it. And I did pick up the SFBC's edition of Sean Williams's and Shane Dix's Geodesica, precisely because I wanted to read that work in its one intended volume. That and the collector that I am always prefer hardcovers to paperbacks. But it's hard to fault publishers when they are up against the realities of what the chains will or will not bear - I think we're all agreed that it's certainly better to publish a Gene Wolfe work in two volumes than not at all - and I couldn't truthfully promise you'd never, ever see such a contrived duology from Pyr. (None so far but never say never.) Nor is this phenomenon necessarily new - wasn't The Lord of the Rings originally conceived as one tome? Still, I'm curious about Spinrad's proposed alternative, as with his novel Russian Spring, which his French publisher elected to publish "as two volumes without hiding that this was one continuous novel and published them simultaneously. You could buy volume one and read it before you decided whether you wanted to go on, and if you did, you could buy the second volume immediately, or you could buy both at one time, or, in the case of Russian Spring, the two volumes in a fancy boxed set." Would such a solution work over here? I don't know, but it bears thinking about, and I'd love to hear some further discussion on the subject.

Meanwhile, I can't say I'm anything but absolutely thrilled with Spinrad's opinion that Ian McDonald's River of Gods is "a literary masterpiece." Spinrad writes that "I can't think of a better science fiction novel I've read in years.... This novel is a masterpiece of science fiction by any meaningful standard and even some that are not." Spinrad is certainly not the first to offer this sort of opinion, with the Washington Post proclaiming that River is "a major achievement from a writer who is becoming one of the best sf novelists of our time" and F&SF hailing the work as one of those once in a blue moon masterpieces like Neuromancer, Altered Carbon, or Perdido Street Station. Certainly, River of Gods is the book that has best plugged into the immediate zeitgeist (Charles Stross's Accelerando sequence being the previous holder of that honor, though I would place their greatest impact as when his tales appeared in their original Asimov's run as individual stories.) But it will be interesting to see if a) like Charlie's Accelerando narrative, River of Gods gives rise/calls attention to any similar global/nonWestern centric works in its wake, in the way that Charlie kick started the recent wave of Vingean Singularity fiction to the forefront, and b) if decades hence McDonald's masterpiece will indeed be remembered on a par with such classics as Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, or Neuromancer. Time will shortly answer that first question but we'll have to wait a bit longer before we are sure of the latter.


  1. One unfortunate consequence of cutting a long book up is that the author is often judged unfairly. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons together form one of the best science fiction novels of the past generation, but some readers still dismiss it because they say Hyperion doesn't have a good ending.

    I'm seeing similar comments about Paul Park's excellent new fantasy series beginning with A Princess of Roumania. People complain that the individual books don't have enough resolution. I interviewed Park the other day, and sure enough he says he intended the story as one large novel but it was too long to publish that way and had to be chopped up.

    Perhaps simultaneous publication would help reduce unfair criticism that books don't stand alone, when they were never intended to.

  2. For authors not selling so strongly that I am confident they will continue to be published, I will purchase almost any tortured format. I will resent the simple and classic split in cases where the book isn't an actual supergiant. See, for example, Behemoth.

    Without any further added value I would generally resent simultaneous publications of a work in two (or more) parts. Dropping fifty or more dollars on a novel is bad enough. Doing it at once would be prohibitive. Even now I keep seeing Context and Resolution on shelves, and the fact that they are both there makes me less likely to get Context, because it is a de facto admission that Resolution will have to enter my budget soon.

    I'm sure the publishing realities are grim, and that publishers are honestly trying to do the best they can, but this trend can push people off even if they'd rather not, budgets can be merciless things.

    I'm surprised that there is concern with Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion, as I thought they divided logically and well, and liked Hyperion alone a great deal. I feel substantially more ambivalent about Simmons these days, but those were two fine books, whatever the shape of the parent work.

  3. Aaron - I didn't realized the Paul Park was another example of this. Haven't read it yet, but from what little I have read of Park, I think he's a genius.

    Meanwhile, Jason, not quite sure I follwo what you are saying in your first paragraph, but if you are saying that for deserving authors who are published in awkward formats you will brave it, I applaud you for your support.

    Re: the Nulapeiron Sequence - I'm fairly confident this was never intended as one volume, especially since certain events in the third book constitute literary illustions to another third book in a famous series. But I might suggest you try out our just released To Hold Infinity first, a novel set in the same universe as the Nulapeiron Sequence but several centuries earlier on another world, which is ENTIRELY STAND ALONE. It was actually John's first book published in the UK, and just coming out now, and would be a good introduction to his work.

    Meanwhile, recalling how Harper divided the three books of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle into six books for the mass-market, I wonder if single book hardcovers for the library and collector market, followed by split trade or mass market paperback editions would work. I know at least one other publisher who contemplated this.

  4. I'm a big fan of Paul Park. He says he has just finished the draft of the final book of this series, and he wants to go back to science fiction next. Are you still taking requests, Lou?

  5. Well, I don't think I could/should try to get him away from his current home. But I will certainly read it when it's out.

  6. Since a lot of my enjoying SF is to read about an interesting milieu, I tend to like series, whether duologies, trilogies or multiple book series more than standalone novels. As long as the books are interesting and go somwehere I do not particularly care even if they end on a literal "cliffhanger" as Pandora's Star for example does with the heros of one of the strands of the story falling off the edge of the world.
    I do not have problems with splitting books as long as the splitting has a reasonable purpose, whether allowing a less known or less commercially succesful author to test the market and maybe get the needed extra revenue to keep being published, or just keeping the book under 1000 pages for authors who have the clout to publish "door stoppers". The only thing that I do not like is simultaneous publishing since that looks like a ripoff atempt more than anything else. At least leave a month or two between books.


  7. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Well my basic feeling on this as a reader is that as long as the story is as long as the book I don't care how long the book is. As a publisher it's more complicated but even then it can pay to take into account the above tenet. As with asteroids, it's possible to make more of an impact with a big book (if its a good big book). At least some of the fuss generated by THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION could, I believe, be attributed to the fact that people responded to a truly epic piece of story telling. It was hard for the trade and the reviewers to ignore. An unusually big book stands out from the crowd. All other considerations notwithstanding books intended to be read as one usually work best published as one.

    The mmp of Reality Dysfunction published in two volumes in the states was published as one volume in the UK and is in something like its eleventh impression despite being priced at nine pounds. The decision to put it into two volumes in the US will not have been made lightly and as far as I know the books have done extremely nicely thank you. The Wizard Knight has done well as a single trade volume in the UK, but come the mmps will be split for practical production reasons. On the other hand The two Hyperion and two Endymion books, written, I believe as stand alone volmes, have latterly done well in the UK published as two omnibus volumes and have carried on selling alongisde single volumes of the paperbacks. Not uniquely but perhaps unusually the genre reader seems to be drawn to scale. (Interestingly though my memories of reading DUNE were that it was an immensely long epic. Its not in fact. It achieves 'epicness' in relatively few pages).

    Also the tradepaperback is often the main first outing for books in the UK and there are fewer price resistance issues in that format.

    But all this counts for nothing if you can't make the costing work or the binding can't take the page count.

    Another interesting (well you know) point is that in the translation markets long books are a REAL problem. Translation costs are ruinous (especially when set against generally quite low print runs). This means that unless you are a massive name your massive novel will often struggle to get a deal in translation and if it does your German (German translates 25% longer as well!)readers may well be asking why your 'novel' ends with the Fellowship getting high in Lothlorien.
    Can I blame sketchy arguments and incomplete reasoning on the fatc that I was rushing this out over lunch? Perhaps I should have taken more time and split this into two volumes . . .