The quality of science fiction sequels will tend to vary inversely as the square of the distance from the original. (Somebody who knows math or something might want to straighten me out on how to express that.)

In other words, Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) is a landmark, The Ringworld Engineers (1980) is tolerable, and The Ringworld Throne (1997) is a travesty, a mortal insult to anybody with a brain. The same thing happened much more rapidly with The Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand.

This principle is also illustrated by Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series, Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, and Frank Herbert's Dune series. These things have become franchises. Hell, Larry Niven has rented out his Known Space universe to other writers, like Lassie or something. Ugh. Then there's Robert Silverberg's masterpiece Lord Valentine's Castle: Majipoor Chronicles worked because he explored unrelated parts of the same world, but from there on in it's been downhill.

If that's what it takes to put one's kids through college, I guess I can't object too much, but it just seems shameful and depressing when a good writer mutates into a hack.

This seems to happen when writers return to worlds and sets of characters that they just don't care about any more. Have you read Xenocide by Orson Scott Card? Card just didn't give a damn about Ender any more by the time he wrote that. He kept on writing about the guy not because he had to, but because he wanted to. The parts of Xenocide that happen on the OCD planet are vintage Card, because that was a new place with new characters and he was still exploring it all. He was excited about it.

Counterexamples include any series by Jack Vance, or anything at all by Jack Vance. Jack Vance is your lord and savior whether you know it or not. Does this apply to other genres? I'm not sure. Raymond Chandler never had this problem, and Ross MacDonald's quality seems to vary stochastically. Go figure.



Uberfetus: Clarke was one of those damned idea writers. I hate those. I mean, yeah, hey, fine, ideas are great and all, but must it all be medicine? Jesus, ideas are purely secondary in fiction. If it's not first and foremost an engaging story, it's not much. Heinlein got away with it because a) half his ideas were about sex, and b) in between ideas he'd blow stuff up.

Crux: William Gibson has earned the Wharfinger Seal of Approval. He's one of the few writers I'll buy in hardcover the minute anything appears. I never got through Mona Lisa Overdrive, but the last (current?) series (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties) has been consistently good throughout. He often seems to write the same damn book over and over, and most of his stuff is totally plotless, but he's intense and fun to read and that's good enough for me. The Law doesn't necessarily apply in all cases; Fritz Leiber and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote great sequels too.

In my opinion, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey series is perhaps the classic case of wharfinger's law. The original is brilliant, 2010 is quite good, 2061 is tolerable, and 3001: The Final Odyssey is incredibly boring.

I blame this on Clarke's tendency to replace intriguing plot with long-winded descriptions of mostly boring futuristic technology as the series progressed. Character development also seemed to disappear into thin air near the end of the series.

I have a couple of theories as to why this Law might occur, and why the occasional exception which proves the rule pops up as well. I open them to discussion:

  • The Infinite Monkeys theory -- As everyone knows, an infinite number of monkeys working feverishly on an infinite number of typewriters will, eventually, produce all the great works of Shakespeare. Logically, they will also produce all the great works of science fiction. The corollary is that a sufficiently large number of writers will, over time, produce all the great SF novels that will ever be written, but once such a novel appears, the odds of that particular writer reproducing it is remote at best.
  • The Big Bang theory -- Whenever a new science fiction universe pops into existence in the mind (and writing) of a particular SF writer, the number of potentially great novels that can occur in that universe is fixed -- and usually very small. Sometimes that number is zero; often it is between one and two. So, once the first novel is published and revealed to be a fantastic hit, the writer has less than a whole great novel available to him, but because of his contractual obligation to the publisher must write it anyways.
  • The Lottery theory -- a fixed number of characters in a fixed number of settings may, against long odds, produce a great story out of themselves. However, once they beat those odds once, the odds of it recurring is remote.
I don't know about these "book" thingies you people like, but it's a clearly observable phenomenon in Sci-Fi movies.

Star Wars : OK, the first two sequels were cool. George Lucas had enough common sense to keep things fresh. The indicator that things were going to go awry : Ewoks. Lucas then waits 20 years. In the intervening period, he has had legions of fans consistently tell him he's a god. He makes a new movie, and he fills it with Ewok-principle marketable cutesy kiddie crap. An alternate analysis would include the Star Wars Holiday Special as the nadir, and incorporate the lengthy hiatus (and the need to make the 4th movie a prequel) as necessary to repair the Star Wars universe from this damage.

Star Trek : "Diminishing returns" sums it up. Trek hit its peak with later-period TNG. Then, with Gene Roddenbury out of the way and (inexplicable) cancellation of TNG, a small core of cast and production have pledged to kill Star Trek dead. Step one : "Let's make a show where they no longer boldly go anywhere!" Step Two : "Let's have one where they're boldly going like crazy, but are all personality-free, corny fuckwits!" Whoever dreamt up that fucking Neelix character should be forced to listen to The Transformed Man until they promise to do better.

Alien : the textbook example. The first two rock harder than Ozzy. Granted. Then the third, people griped about (although it was, in fact, rather good. Not as good as Aliens, but then not a Vietnam flick with xenomorphs either). But then disaster (i.e. the French) strikes! Alien Resurrection sucks so hard it's a wonder that the Alien queen bothers to eat its paper-thin "cast" of goofballs. Apparently this film isn't part of the official Alien continuity. It shouldn't be. The previously terrifying and camera-shy Aliens are paraded around like performing dolphins. And due to having the French (and Fox) involved, It makes no. fucking. sense. whatsoever.

Don't even get me started about Planet of The Apes.

While this seems to be generally true of almost any artist's work (see the David Bowie dialogue in Trainspotting for elucidation) I have to strongly disagree when it comes to two SF series that I have read in their entirety. (Warning!! potential spoilers ahead!)

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is exhibit A. While it is not cited above, I believe it disproves the law (and as Dr. Asimov himself said, exceptions need to be taken very, very seriously). The first three books he wrote were published in the '50s and were probably the best sci-fi seen up to that time. He picked up the series again in the '80s, with Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth and Prelude to Foundation (last written but first in chronology - although it should still be read last, a similar situation to The Magician's Nephew). These later works are longer and, to my uneducated belief, incorporate more effectively a description of how a society's unspoken hopes and dreams (read: myths) effect its history. And, it seems to me, that's what the Foundation series was all about to begin with.

Exhibit B is Frank Herbert's Dune series, included above as proof of the law and an inclusion I have to take issue with. Dune is a very emotionally satisfying read: uprooted-teenage-boy-with-no-friends-his-own-age-combats-evil-pedophile-and-warmongering-emperor-and-beats-them-to-become-emperor-(and messiah)-himself. But Herbert was not out to satisfy anyone's emotions or to portray his world in terms of black and white. The whole reason he wrote Dune in the first place(according to his interviews, and common sense) was to build up a messiah figure (Paul) and then tear him down. He does this beautifully in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, the latter being easily my favorite in the series. In God Emperor of Dune he goes a step further. Having already exposed the fallacies of the Atreides, he sets up Leto II as "The Tyrant," who rules for 3500 years and does some truly horrible things. But he says he does this only for the survival of humanity, and this may just be true (of course it was Paul who jeapordized it in the first place) Before Leto dies we catch some fleeting glimpses of the tragedy that he endured in his life, and are allowed to feel compassion for him. So just who are the good guys here? In Dune the answer was simple. In the rest of the series it is not (at least books 2-4 - the Bene Gesserit seem to wear the white uniform in the last two, but you still can't be positive). You have to think more as the story progresses, and that's why they're better books.

So how do I deal with these exceptions, while still recognizing that Wharfinger's law holds true most of the time? I don't know for sure, but I suspect that it may have something to do with the motives and motivation of an author. If you accept that anyone does they're best work when they're hungry, you have to ask yourself, "hungry for what?" Our culture teaches us that large amounts of money are the only thing worth hard work, but it may be that some artists still produce for love of their art alone.


....Hey, wait!! You can't take away my membership card in the Young Cynics of the World club just for that...I...I said some...and maybe...Where are you going...Come back here with that...It's mine, I earned it, damnit!!!

While the Ender saga does follow Wharfinger's law, I'd have to say that the Bean saga (which will most likely top out at 4 books) has redeemed Orson Scott Card. I'd be the last one to argue with anybody that starting with Speaker for the Dead, it all went downhill, and I'd be the first to say that Children of the Mind was a travesty in the purest form of the word.

However, the Bean saga (so far consisting of Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, and Shadow Puppets) is different, and some would argue that Ender's Shadow surpasses Ender's Game. Ender's Game only shows Bean as a young child, a smartass who gets humbled and eventually learns to respect Ender. Ender's Shadow tells us so much more, from Bean's upbringing in Rotterdam to his leading of the Rabbit squadron after Ender's departure from Battle School, to his experiences on the asteroid when helping to control the attack on the Formic colony. The Bean saga stays fresh because OSC gets the chance to develop a multitude of characters, including Petra, Han Tzu (or Hot Soup), Peter, the ever-famous and dangerous Achilles (Pronounced A-sheel), Alai, and of course, Bean himself. Card keeps us turning the pages with action and plenty of locale changes, not the drawn-out dialogue and boring tone of the Ender books.

So, if Wharfinger ever returns, I strongly suggest he read the Bean novels and consider granting OSC at least a partial Seal of Approval.

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