Stand-alones, series and serials in SF&F

Reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books have got me thinking about the types of novel groupings we have in science fiction and the recent (or perhaps, persistent) trends thereof.

It seems to me there are three types of novel groupings in science fiction and fantasy:

  1. Standalone novels
  2. Novel series
  3. Novel serials

Standalone novels are those books that are not part of an overarching series and they seem to be the rarest breed in science fiction and fantasy. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Publishers are looking for franchising and in signing writers to book deals, they are looking for authors who can provide compelling stories that will sell book after book after book. And yet it seems to me that standalone novels are often some of the better novels. There is a satisfaction to standalone novels that we don’t get from series of book: the satisfaction of getting the whole story in a single volume. And yet because of the economic pressure of publishers, it seems that only well-established authors can get away with these. Examples that I have read in the last several years include Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer, The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman, and Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt.

For a long time, novel series seemed to be what dominated in science fiction and fantasy. Books like the original Foundation Trilogy (and the novels that followed) fit nicely into this category, as do books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey books. It seems to me that traditionally, series novels were written to be standalone, but fit into an overarching story. That is, you can pick up Second Foundation and in reading the first few pages, you’d get the gist of the summary of the entire series that came before. And yet the novel itself was still readable on its own. The early books of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series are written in the same way. I actually think there are two subtypes of series books:

  1. Books related by story
  2. Books related by character

The former is much more common and the Foundation series is a good example of this. The latter, books related by character, are more like standalone novels set in the same universe and making use of the same characters. Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels are a good example of this. In these books, the main characters are always the same but there isn’t an overarching arc to the series. Another example would be Connie Willis’ Oxford time travel books.

Having read the first few books of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire “series”, I realize that another category is needed, however. I call this category “serial” novels. To me, the difference between a series novel and a serial novel is that the former can be read anywhere in the series and still be understandable and present an entire story. In the case of the latter, however, one cannot start with say, A Clash of Kings, and expect to follow the story. While series books are self-contained stories within a larger overarching story, serials are one massive story split over many volumes.

I suspect that the trend toward “serials” as opposed to “series” is growing, in according with the growth of “serials” on TV shows, as opposed to series. (Think of “Magnum, P.I.” as a series, and “Lost” as a serial. You can watch any Magnum P.I. episode and get a self-contained story. Not so Lost.) I would also venture to guess that serials are more popular in epic fantasy than they are in science fiction, although that is more of a gut feeling on my part.

Of course, each of these types of novel groupings serves its own purpose. Standalones provide a complete story that can entertain someone for an afternoon or a weekend (or week, depending on how quickly you read and how much time you have to commit). Novel series provide a source of familiar characters, settings, arcs and backgrounds that span a larger story, but that can still be consumed in bite-sized chunks. Serials are for those who want to emerse themselves in the epic, who are willing to be left hanging on a cliff–at times for years on end before the next book is released. Presumably the epic story is worth those wait, but reading one book leaves you clamoring for more.

Interestingly, I can think of only two authors who were or have been fairly prolific in standalones. The first was Robert Heinlein who, outside his Future History series of short fiction, seemed to deliberately avoid series and clung to standalone novels. Back then it was probably still possible. And with the name Heinlein on the cover, anything was possible. More recently, there’s Stephen King. He has written a large number of standalones, most of which do remarkably well. Of course, some of those standalones take place against similar fictional settings, but there is very little effort to relate the stories together (sometimes just a sentence in a novel, for instance, referring to a rabid dog that once plagued that town). Of course, King has also written series, and possibly even serials (I haven’t read his Dark Tower books, so I don’t know for sure).

Publishers clearly like series and serials. But I’m curious as to what other readers like. And I am also curious if preferences vary across genre. That is, do science fiction readers prefer series? Do fantasy readers prefer serials? Does anyone prefer standalones anymore?

I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Stand-alones, series and serials in SF&F

  1. I hate serials. I refuse to read them. I don’t want to make that sort of commitment to an author or a series. Give me either stand alones or series that can be read out of order.

  2. I read Dresden Novels (series?) also Simon R. Green’s Shamon Bond books (series or serial?). I loved Jasper Fforde’s character Thursday Next and waited on the edge of my seat for the next book. But there have been many stand alone stand-outs as well. Boneshaker, The Manual of Detection, World War Z just to name a few. Guess I’m all over the map.

  3. This is an interesting post, and a good point. It makes me think about what it’s like in Children’s for Fantasy and Sci-fi. I’ve got to say, there are quite a few standalone books in fantasy. But kids love their series, having the same characters is comforting to some readers, particularly when they’re learning how to read.

  4. Pussbreboots, I generally think I am with you (although in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ll admit to being hooked). But I also think the trend is changing, at least in fantasy to more and more serial-based “series” than books that are stand-alone or ones that are part of a series that can be read in any order. Less so in science fiction.

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