Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The Science Fiction/Fantasy Dilemma

One of the most difficult genres to collect and get into is Science Fiction or Fantasy (SF&F), especially here in the Philippines. The text in itself can be beautiful, descriptive, and whatever literary praise you can give it. Neither is it too difficult to comprehend; you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand SF&F. So what then is the problem? Collecting them can be a real problem and it's not as easy as buying one book off the shelf. In order to give you a clearer picture, I will explain (and invent some of my own terms along the way) the classifications a SF&F book can fall under.

Stand-alone: These SF&F books are much like any other book. You read them and you're done. They're set in their own world and is self contained. No sequels, no cliffhanger endings. George Orwell's 1984 is an example, as well as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers, and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens. They're a great read and commitment free. (Un)fortunately, not all SF&F books are like these.

Serial: These are several books written in the same setting but each book can stand alone in itself. You don't need to read the previous book or the book before that. It's something people can get into easily and while reading the previous books lets you appreciate the series more, it's by no means a requirement. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series comes to mind, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

Cliffhanger Series: Not only do these books need to be read in a particular order, the story isn't finished until you've read the last book. It's like watching The Empire Strikes Back without seeing Return of the Jedi, or Back to the Future 2 and not Back to the Future 3. For further elaboration, one book I read falling under this category ended with the protagonist meeting the villain. Yes, that was the ending. No fight, no dialogue, just the main character seeing the main villain. How's that for suspense? Nonetheless, reading until the end is well worth it. These epics are worth all the books they're printed on. The reader should just pray that the writer doesn't die on them before the series finishes. Examples are J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice.

Stand-alone Series: While they do need to be read in a particular order, these books don't leave you suspended during an orgasm. Readers don't have to tear their heart out waiting for the next book to come. It's enjoyable at the reader's pace and still leaves the reader something good to look forward to. Examples are Frank Hebert's Dune, Anne McCaffrey's Pern, Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

Of course there are some books that mix these categories. I mean Wizards of the Coast's (formerly TSR) Forgotten Realms series is a blend of serial and stand-alone series. They have one huge setting and different writers contribute to it, each writing their own trilogies or stand-alone novels. You don't need to read the other's work to appreciate the book you're reading now and each has a distinct style. There are also those who switch styles from time to time. Terry Brooks's Shannara trilogy was a stand-alone series but his later books tend to be cliffhangers.

Potential readers should also be wary of the term "trilogy". While this usually means a series comprising of three books, that is not always the case. Some series are labeled as trilogies even though they extend to four or five books. This is probably due to the fact that publishers are trying to cash-in on the popularity of "trilogies" like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. There's also the probability that the writer wants to extend his series more, or made a miscalculation somewhere.

Sometimes, sheer numbers daunt you. I mean the Dragonlance series has more than a hundred books in its collection. It's a mixture of serials and series and it becomes complicated enough that a flowchart was made to show the sequence you should read or not read the books. Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series is divided into several trilogies, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series really has a lot of books (it's a good thing that each one can stand alone). Sometimes, you just don't know where to start, or if you do, you don't know if you'll manage to find the rest of the books.

There's also the predicament of out of print books. I mean a lot of SF&F books have been released over the years and some of them are several decades old. Well and good if they're as popular as Tolkien, warranting a reprint. But if they're not, tracking down those books can be a big problem. For example, Asimov's Foundation series has been reprinted, except for the last book, Foundation and Earth. What to do about that? Some of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series is nearly impossible to find. The biggest issue in SF&F is not finding the newest and latest books but finding the old and "classic" ones. Sure, you might get lucky in a rummage through Book Sale but you can't be lucky every time.

Online shopping has been a boon to SF&F fans... if you have the money. Don't get me wrong, the price deals you get on the Internet is cheap. It's the shipping that becomes the problem since most bookstores like and are based in the West. Ebay is also another alternative for those out of print books but you're not guaranteed unless you want to enter in a bid war.

And of course, the greatest enemy a SF&F can face is the ravages of time. Covers are ruined, pages get torn, spines loose their adhesiveness, whether it's due to loaning it to a friend, reading the book at 180 degrees, or accidentally dropping it somewhere. Considering some of those books don't get reprinted, it's a major loss to the SF&F fan. Sure, ebooks are suddenly popping up but only time can tell if they'll be popular or as "invulnerable" as most people think. I mean the files of a hard drive can "accidentally" get deleted, although recovering just one copy is enough to cater to millions.

Looking at all these problems, you wonder why people still read SF&F, especially here in the Philippines. It's because it's our passion, our craving, our need. We SF&F fans are not only readers but collectors, restorers, bargainers, and bibliophiles all rolled into one.

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