People who know me only through my hoidy-toidy literary persona are often surprised to learn that I’m a great fan of trashy science fiction. Give me aliens, spaceships and time machines any day over tales of finding one’s identity or of a young girl’s coming of age in rural Saskatchewan. Right now, I am happily devouring Larry Niven‘s latest missive, Ringworld’s Children. It ain’t Pasternak, but it scratches an itch.
For those unbaptized into the canon of Niven’s “Known Space” books, Ringworld was his 1970 masterpiece, followed 10 years later by the much anticipated sequel, The Ringworld Engineers. Here’s an artist’s rendition of the actual Ringworld, which is an artificial “world” made by deconstructing a solar system and rebuilding a thin ring about its sun’s equator:
A funny thing happened after Niven wrote the sequel. Sixteen years passed, then he suddenly produced a flurry of sequels, including a series of short stories set in the same universe. Even funnier is that many of the masters of classic science fiction followed a similar path near the ends of their lives, I hope Niven isn’t about to kick the can anytime soon!
First, Isaac Asimov revisited his Foundation Trilogy of 1951 with a fourth book thirty years later. He then quickly produced a fifth book, then a number of prequels, and linked the books to his other unrelated books, notably Pebble In The Sky and his classic Robot Series, all within the last handful of his years. (A first edition of the first Foundation book, then called The Thousand Year Plan, is the jewel of my personal book collection.)
Similarly, Asimov’s Golden Age co-Master, Robert Heinlein drew together his most famous plotlines in the last books of his storied life, in such seminal finales as The Number Of The Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, both of which feature Heinlein’s favourite character, the immortal Lazarus Long.
And the last surviving Grand Master of “hard” science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, is following a near identical path. Fans waited 17 years for the sequel to Clarke’s 1972 masterpiece, Rendezvous With Rama. But four years later, two more sequels were written! It’s as if the old masters accelerate their sequel creation in the final years of their lives, finally accepting that fans wish to read more about their greatest creations, and not necessarily about anything new they might wish to create.
Frank Herbert was an outside case. He wrote many books, but few of note, and even fewer that were actually enjoyable. But his one indisputable masterpiece was 1965’s Dune. He produced 5 sequels, and was working on a sixth when he died in 1986. His son Brian has capitalized on his father’s fame by cranking out a series of forgettable Dune prequels. I don’t think Frank HErbert’s situation was comparable to the other authors I’ve mentioned. He was no grandmaster, and fans didn’t care for anything from him that wasn’t Dune related, so his hands were tied.
I love novel sequels. Just love ’em. But there’s someting to be said for leaving well enough alone. The original Foundation Trilogy was a perfect little tale that ended well and with enough mystery to set one’s imagination on fire. Its subsequent books were surely enjoyable; but now the majesty of the standalone trilogy is gone foreverer.