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Thursday 20 June 2002

A Look at Some Recent Serials

by Rich Horton

  • "The Longest Way Home", by Robert Silverberg, Asimovís, October/November 2001, December 2001, January 2002
  • "Hominids", by Robert J. Sawyer, Analog, January through April, 2002
  • "The Atrocity Archive", by Charles Stross, Spectrum SF, November 2001, May 2002, July 2002

In the early days of genre SF, almost all novels were published only in the magazines, usually serialized in two or more successive issues but sometimes crammed into a single issue. Of course by the 1950s novels began to appear in book form, and the importance of the serial as a source of new SF novels began to diminish. Still, even in the mid-'70s, when I began to read the SF magazines, serials remained a regular feature. The very first issue of Galaxy I bought had two: the conclusion to Bob Shaw's "Orbitsville" and the opening to Edgar Pangborn's "The Company of Glory". In those days Analog routinely published three or even four serials a year, and Galaxy, Amazing, and Fantastic also regularly published them. Even F&SF, which has never published a great many serials, typically featured about one a year. But by the 1990s serials were a dying breed. The major newer magazines, Asimovís in the US and Interzone in the UK, didn't publish novel length serials at all (with the exception of a fairly brief experiment in Asimovís, and noting that Interzone often featured, then as now, two-part serializations of novellas). F&SF hasn't published a serial since 1988, and even Analog is down to one or maybe two serials a year. There are many reasons: reader resistance is one; many readers don't like to wait a month or more for the end of a story. The increase in the length of a typical novel is another reason: nowadays novels often need to be cut even to fit a four-part serial. Spectrum SF editor Paul Fraser notes that many book publishers buy serial rights as well. Presumably this is so they can control whether or not (and when) a novel will be serialized, depending on whether or not that fits their strategy. F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder, in explaining why he doesn't especially plan to publish any serials, points out that most serials end up as books anyway, so why take space away from good shorter fiction?

But I rather like serials, partly in the hopes that they will provide a way for novels of inconveniently short length to be published, or for quirkier work to be published, and partly, I suppose, out of sheer cheapness. Thus I'm happy to see, early this year, three serials to consider. First question: Does their publication mean that "the serial is back"? Not necessarily. One of them is from Analog, which of course has never stopped publishing serials. One is from Asimovís, and while it's their first serial in over a decade, there is no indication they will be regularly doing this. (Indeed, Gardner Dozois indicates that he has no explicit plans for future serials.) And the third is from the fine new Scottish magazine Spectrum SF, which indeed has featured part of a serial in every issue so far, and according to Paul Fraser will continue to do so, but still that is just one extra serial per year.

Next question: do these serials fill the niche I have suggested for them: a place to put novels of quirky subject matter or quirky length? Only in the one case: Charles Stross's "The Atrocity Archive" is a rather wacky combination of spy novel, science fiction, satire of a Dilbertian cubicle hell variety, and traditional magic of the "using pentagrams and spells to summon demons" sort. Fraser cites the chance to publish novels that otherwise might not find a home as one of his reasons for publishing serials. On the other hand, Robert Silverberg's "The Longest Way Home" is a very standard Young Adult coming of age story, set on a vaguely Vancean world featuring colonizing humans and oppressed humans as well as a couple of alien races. (It is, however, arguably a departure for Silverberg.) And Robert J. Sawyer's "Hominids" is the latest SF novel by a popular author, featuring a parallel world inhabited by Neanderthals. It is even the first of a trilogy! Nothing wrong with this, but it doesn't count as quirky, and it's a novel that certainly would have been published without any help from Analog.

Robert Silverberg's new novel, "The Longest Way Home", was serialized in the October/November and December 2001, and January 2002, issues of Asimovís. This is more or less a Young Adult novel, featuring anyway a 15-year-old boy as protagonist, and a fairly clear-cut moral issue for him to ponder as he quite explicitly Comes Of Age, and some sweet initiatory sex. I found it decently fun to read as, very fast moving, not particularly complex. As with much later Silverberg, the furniture of the novel seems heavily influenced by Jack Vance, though of course the prose is pure Silverberg, no trace of Vance at all.

We learn that the planet Homeworld was colonized from Earth millennia previously by the ancestors of the Folk. The Folk established a rather agrarian, low-tech way of life. Centuries later, they were conquered in turn by another wave of Earth colonists, the ancestors of the current Masters, who established a higher tech system, quasi-Feudal, with the Masters ruling, and the Folk basically serfs. As presented, to be sure from a Master's POV, the Masters' rule has been quite benign, but it's still oppressive, of course. And there is a good deal of racism in the Masters' view of the Folk. The planet is also inhabited by a variety of intelligent species, most notably the so-called Indigenes, who have approximately human intelligence. The other "higher" species have somewhat lesser intelligence, but are clearly sentient and sapient, with spoken languages at least. Probably in part due to a habit of coexistence with other intelligent species, and in part due to a somewhat contemplative and fatalistic philosophy, the Indigenes tolerate the presence of both the Folk and the Masters — and after all, as far as we are allowed to see, humans of both waves of colonization seem to have been quite careful and non-exploitative in their interactions with the Indigenes and other intelligent native species of this world.

The protagonist, Joseph Master Keilloran, one of the Masters, finds himself, after barely escaping a Folk rebellion, all alone several thousand miles from his home. He decides to try to get home, on foot, with nothing but a backpack and a few implements. The basic theme that emerges is that he will have no chance without help and cooperation, from some of the alien races, and even from some of the Folk.

The story is really very simple. But it's an engaging enough read, and Joseph is a nice enough character to spend time with. The aliens Silverberg imagines are fairly neat. The central moral learning that Joseph must undergo is obvious enough — more or less that the Folk are real people and don't deserve to be enslaved, no matter how benignly, but still this message is presented well. And we can hope that he might be able to help guide the southern continent into a more just political and social change than the Rebellion in the north, which is clearly accompanied by atrocities on the level of say the Rwandan genocide, even if at some level this violence is probably understandable. Silverberg, though, doesn't really suggest what Joseph may do to accomplish this. In the end, this is decent contemporary Young Adult SF, by no means a classic-to-be but fun.

Robert J. Sawyer's "Hominids", serialized in the first four 2002 issues of Analog, is the first novel of a trilogy (The Neanderthal Parallax) about our world interacting with a parallel world in which Neanderthals are the dominant species. There are some interesting ideas in this novel, as well as some silly ones, and a plot that holds the reader's interest but also annoys with its manufactured central crisis. The characterization is standard Sawyer "TV Movie" stuff: give the main character a readily identifiable personal "issue": in Calculating God it was terminal cancer, in this novel it is being a rape victim. Otherwise the characters are obstinately two-dimensional, despite clear evidence of the author pasting tabs and slots onto his cardboard pieces to try to extend them to solidity. I will say that the novel plays very fair for the opening of a trilogy: it sets up and sufficiently resolves its main issues in this installment, at the same time leaving a clear situation to follow up on in future novels.

At a neutrino observatory in Canada, a strange individual mysteriously appears. We soon learn that he is to all appearances a Neanderthal. His name is Ponter Boddit (Sawyer having visited the Isaac Asimov Character Naming Center, apparently). We quickly learn that he is from a parallel universe, obviously one in which Neanderthals survived but Cro-Magnons died out, and that he is a physicist. The novel proceeds on parallel tracks, one following Ponter's adventures in our own universe, and the other following the travails of Ponter's partner Adikor Huld in the Neanderthal universe.

The main viewpoint character in our universe is Mary Vaughan, a DNA sequencing specialist in her late 30s who is also dealing with the trauma of a recent rape. She is called in to verify that Ponter's DNA is Neanderthal DNA, and then gets stuck with him while they ride out a media firestorm. Adikor Huld is the viewpoint character in the Neanderthal universe, as he must deal with an accusation of murder — he was the last person seen with Ponter, and Ponter has disappeared, so he must be guilty. Which seems pretty much the beginning and ending of the justice process in the Neanderthal society.

The main interest of the novel is the explication of the Neanderthal society. It is curiously organized on gender grounds: women and men live apart for 25 days of the month, only coming together while the women are menstruating (all in sync, since they live together and have fabulous senses of smell). This means they are normally infertile, but every ten years they get together once while the women are in the fertile stage of their monthly cycle. This is intended to keep the population stable, but as I run the numbers it seems instead guaranteed to cause them to die out in a fairly short time. The other key aspect of the Neanderthal society is the lack of privacy resulting from everybody wearing recording devices that are subject to real-time monitoring as well as later review.

The action of the book is mainly limited to the courtroom drama concerning Adikor's murder trial, which is unconvincingly stretched out by having the judge and the rest of society completely uninterested in niceties like actually investigating the circumstances of the alleged crime, which forces Adikor to some derring-do to gain evidence exculpating him. But even that isn't enough, until... well, the ending is sort of obvious, but I still won't spoil it. In sum, the story has points of interest, reads rapidly, but it remains marred by Sawyer's weaknesses: clunky arguments, clunky characters, plot crises too clearly forced by the author's hand.

Charles Stross's first novel to see print is "The Atrocity Archive", a serial now running in Spectrum SF. Stross is a very hot SF writer now, with stories such as his Manfred Macx series in Asimovís, as well as "Antibodies" from Interzone in 2000, having gained him considerable notice. Apparently there are a few more Stross novels in the pipeline, including a space opera, Festival of Fools, due in 2003 from Big Engine and Ace, and a fix-up of the Manfred Macx pieces.

Many folks will remember "A Colder War", Stross's story from Spectrum SF in 2000, which Gardner Dozois reprinted in his Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighteenth Annual Collection. That concerned an alternate universe in which the Russians attempt to summon shoggoths and other Lovecraftian beasties to aid them in their struggle with the US. "The Atrocity Archive" takes a basically similar idea, but throws in Nazis and nasty Islamists and a very secret branch of British Intelligence. And while "A Colder War" was a tense, very dark, story, "The Atrocity Archive" is told very wittily, though the central horrors are still pretty scary. But the overall tone is snarky and fun, not horrific.

Bob Howard is working on a desk job for the "Laundry", but he's bucking for field service. We meet him on his first trial, breaking into an industrial building to destroy the traces of a dangerous discovery a young mathematician has made. It turns out that certain kinds of math knowledge lead to the ability to summon demons from other universes — the sort of thing once done with chalked pentagrams, but much more efficiently achieved with lasers instead of chalk, and with computers to keep track of the summoning rituals. The Laundry's job is to keep such knowledge under wraps.

But aside from their dangerous job, the Laundry is just another Dilbertian government job environment. So the first few chapters show Bob dealing with bureaucratic hassles: stupid bosses demanding silly paperwork, dumb training classes, computer problems, etc. It's all very funny stuff. He's also dealing with his crazy sometime girlfriend, and his weird roommates. Then he gets sent to California to try to pry a beautiful redheaded Irish scientist from the clutches of the US — it seems she might be studying some dangerous stuff. His mission turns sour when she is kidnapped by some Islamists (who may have bitten off more than they can chew). Before long Bob is posted to a more curious part of the Laundry, with a boss straight out of classic spy fiction, and it looks like they might be dealing with a secret Nazi project — or something even scarier...

It's a very breezy, fun, and imaginative novel. Structurally there are a couple of problems — for one, the opening, though always entertaining, drags on too long; the novel proper doesn't start until about a third of the way through. But that's a minor issue: overall, this is great fun. As I've suggested, it is very much the sort of thing I see as ideal for serialization: a shortish novel, a bit offbeat in focus, perhaps difficult for book marketers to categorize. But something we readers will love if we can get our hands on it.

Rich Horton now contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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