The romance of science fiction serials

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Science fiction magazines are known for short fiction: stories, novelette, and the occasional novella, usually in that order of frequency. I’ve written before of my short fiction addiction and science fiction magazines are perfect for feeding that addiction. But every once in a rare while, science fiction magazines offer something almost unique to all fiction these days; a piece of fiction longer than a novella, yet presented in bite-sized nuggets. I’m speaking, of course, of the serial.

For those younger readers who might be unfamiliar with the term, a serial is essentially a piece of long fiction, often times a novel, that is published in a magazine over a period of several consecutive issues. Each part of the serial tends to end at a climactic point in the story, and each subsequent part begins with a synopsis of what came before. While serials are pretty rare in science fiction magazines today, they were once standard fare.  E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Gray Lensman was a 4-part serial in Astounding science fiction beginning in late 1939. Other famous serials include L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Robert Heinlein’s Sixth Column, and Isaac Asimov’s The Mule. Indeed, many famous novels from the Golden Age and the 1950s and 1960s originally appeared as serials in Astounding or Galaxy.

There is something romantic about reading a science fiction serial. Reading a serial takes you back to a time before our need for instant gratification. There is a pleasure in reading Part 1 of a story, having it end in a cliff-hander, and knowing that you have to wait a month before you find out what happens next. The anticipation for each subsequent part of the serial is akin to anticipation before a vacation, a build-up that reaches such a feverish pitch that when the issue finally appears in your mailbox, your fingers come away bleeding from paper cuts as you dig past all of the other material in the issue to find the next part of the story. While this notion of serials is commonplace today in television series, in the written form, outside of science fiction, I believe it is almost unheard of. Indeed, it may be only comic book fans that know a similar joy as they wait the next installment of the story arc for their favorite comic book.

Serials, strictly speaking, are not short fiction, but they are presented as such. Given an 80,000 word novel, you read the entire thing in four 20,000 word chunks. Each chunk is no different from reading a novella. And like novellas, you can take pleasure in immersing yourself deep in the story, getting to know the characters and the settings. In the first 24 issues of my Vacation in the Golden Age, I must have come across seven or eight serials. Now, I have all of the issues and can, if I wanted, read the serials straight through–but I don’t. There is a pleasure in waiting the two weeks until I read the next issue. Indeed, I find it amusing that while the first part of a serial is almost always the lead story of the issue, the subsequent parts are almost always the last story in the issue, as if the editors are subtly trying to save the best for last.

Analog still publishes serials, usually about one each year. Their most recent serial, beginning in the June 2011 issue (in which my story, “Take One for the Road” also appeared) was Edward M. Lerner’s Energized. In the last several years, they’ve also published serials by Joe Haldeman and Robert J. Sawyer. Indeed, my favorite recent serial was Sawyer’s Rollback which appeared in the late 2006/early 2007 issues of Astounding. Asimov’s publishes serials, although less frequently than Analog. It was in Asimov’s, I believe, that Allen Steele’s Galaxy Blues was serialized.

When serials were printed in issues of Astounding during the Golden Age, it was one of the only ways in which complete science fiction novels would appear. It wasn’t until some time later that those serials were published in novel form. These days, when serials appear, it is usually after the novel has been sold to a publisher, but just shortly before it appears in book form. Regardless, the feeling of episodic fiction is unique and I’m glad that serials are rare these days. It makes them that much more special when they appear.

In the letter columns of the old issues of Astounding it was clear that there was a Great Debate over how to read a serial. Some readers insisted that reading each part as it appeared was the only reasonable way to do it. Other readers vetoed that fiercely, assuring everyone that the only way to read a serial was to wait until you’d saved up all of the issues, and then read them all straight through. Interestingly, while I will side with the latter group when it comes to watching a TV series, when it comes to reading a serial in a science fiction magazine, I like reading each part as it comes and then waiting in high anticipation for the next part… and the next.

4 thoughts on “The romance of science fiction serials

  1. I just finished reading “Energized” and loved it; hopefully that gets collected into a novel soon. It seems Analog only saves the best stuff for the serials. I guess it’s odd format has to justified with high quality of writing…it has to be 100% sure to hook the readers.

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