Friday, December 12, 2008

The Part that Is Original Is Not Good, and the Part that is Good Is Not Original

As I have been reading The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, I have been growing increasingly disappointed with it. This has been frustrating because I really do want to enjoy it. Darkover has long been one of my favorite series, ever since I found a battered copy of Stormqueen! at my tiny hometown library when I was a teen and was immediately sucked into the chilly world that seemed like a feudal society but possessed these odd telepathic powers that made them seem futuristic. Over the next several years I hunted down and devoured every one of the books.

As I read The Alton Gift, I keep having my mind jarred by things that feel out of place. Several times I have come across terms that were used in ways that didn't quite feel right, which made me want to hunt up all the old Darkover books and re-read them to see whether my memory was failing me after so many years. And then there were scenes that didn't feel like Darkover at all, but more like some other fantasy world interpolated into Darkover.

Now that I am not quite halfway through the novel, I'm realizing that there's a consistent pattern to my dislikes: the sections that ought to feel the most like classic Darkover instead feel like the old books were chopped up and bits pasted in rather badly without any real understanding of what they were about, while the sections in which it appears that Ms. Ross was attempting to take Darkover in new directions do not feel like they even belong on Darkover at all.

I've noticed this happening in the most recent books of several long-running series. For instance, I have the latest two Pern books on my shelf right now, but my attempts to read them have repeatedly ground to a halt because I simply cannot seem to get into them. And I loved the original six Pern books, and even some of the subsequent ones. But somewhere after All the Weyrs of Pern some of the old spark of Pern seemed to gutter out, and the subsequent books felt more like efforts to squeeze additional money out of an old idea than anything new and fresh. Although Anne McCaffrey's son Todd seems to have tried to take the storyline in a new direction with his three books, they are rapidly feeling less and less like the real Pern.

And of course one of the most notorious in my mind is the endless series of prequels and sequels to Dune that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have been churning out of late. Even under Frank Herbert's own hand the later books in the series had shown a decline compared to the vivid worldbuilding of the original. When I read the prequel series, it felt like fanfic that happened to be authorized by the estate. Now I like fanfic, especially the sort that knows that it's fanfic and revels in the sense of playing cheerfully in someone else's universe. However, the very pompous "this is the real stuff" message that was larded all over the Dune prequel series really turned me off.

Even when the original creator is still alive and active in the creation, it's not proof against the problem: I still remember watching the first Star Wars prequel and recognizing one scene after another as rehashes of successful scenes from the original trilogy. By the time I was done watching it, I was glad I waited to see it on video and hadn't wasted my money going to a first-run theater. And George Lucas, the guiding genius of the original Star Wars trilogy, is not only alive and well, but still the one creating the prequel trilogy.

However, length of run is no automatic prompter of decline. Some authors seem to be able to maintain the creative spark through a large number of volumes. For instance, David Weber has written over a dozen books in his Honor Harrington series, yet each new one simultaneously takes the story in new directions and continues to feel like the authentic Honorverse. His collaborations with Eric Flint, exploring the war against the genetic slavers of Mesa who were originally almost a toss-off bit of background color, are every bit as compelling as the mainline Honor series, and don't feel like something awkwardly grafted onto the Honorverse.

Yet once the slide into trouble begins for a series, there seems to be no recovering. Which raises the question of whether there really does come a time when it's best to allow a series to die a natural death -- and whether a publisher will allow it to do so as long as the books, however bad, continue to generate money from fans who just keep hoping that maybe this one will be like the ones they remembered from the days when the series was still alive and vibrant.

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