Colin Burrow, Dave Hutchinson, Gene Wolfe, Henry James, John Banville, John Crowley, Michael Wood, Philip Pullman
There is a congruence in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (4 January 2018) that I find interesting and instructive.
In the final paragraph of his review of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, Colin Burrow remarks:
A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. (8)
On the facing page, almost exactly parallel to this passage, in a review of Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Michael Wood says:
But the straightforward concept of a sequel tends to literalise the story that went before it, as if it were a solid historical structure rather than a fiction – that is, the reflection of a whole map of choices and inventions. (9)
And there you have it, as neat an encapsulation as you could wish of the fact that prequels and sequels are bound by the same iron chains. An original work of fiction is an “elastic imagining”, a “map of choices and inventions”. But once those inventions are set in stone, the sequel or prequel is restricted in what creativity it can bring to the fiction. The prequel has to work towards a known end-point, within circumstances already established by the fiction which it approaches. A sequel has to continue from a known starting point, within circumstances already established by the fiction it is building upon. To change what is known, to reinvent those circumstances, would not necessarily damage the particular prequel or sequel, but it risks irreparable damage to the original.
But if you are working within those strictures, then you are voluntarily abandoning much of the invention that made the original work worthy of a prequel or sequel.
There are other links in this imprisoning chain that neither Burrow nor Wood specifically reference (though they are, perhaps, implicit in the bodies of their reviews): that what prompts a prequel or sequel in the first place is often a strange love affair between the readers and the original book. I love such-and-such a character. I love such-and-such a world. This is both the major reason why sequels and prequels get written, and the thing that most encumbers the author. Because it is necessary to retain and often to repeat what is loved, otherwise the whole exercise is futile. This is why the later volumes in some long-standing series read as though they are simply checklists: this is the point where character A is loveable, this is where character B repeats her catchphrase, this is where character C repeats his catchphrase, this is where character D proves she is secretly a goody, this is where character E saves the day again.
There remains a market for such works, because there is clearly an enthusiastic readership who like to be reminded of what they loved in previous volumes. I am not part of that market. In the main I find prequels and sequels creatively stultifying.
I must be careful here: this is not intended as a blanket condemnation. Multi-volume works that were conceived and intended as a single work, such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun or, perhaps, John Crowley’s Aegypt (though I think here the original conception continued to change and grow over the 20 years of its execution), don’t fit the pattern. Here the invention of the first volume and the invention of the last volume are part of the same enterprise.
Nor am I saying that it is impossible to write a good sequel. The third volume of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, Europe in Winter, is, I think a better novel than the first volume, Europe in Autumn. Though at the same time I think Europe in Autumn, which was not intended to have any sequels when originally written, is the volume that contains the most invention, the most science-fictional creativity.
The trouble is that what I look for in science fiction is creativity, invention, novelty; what I see in the vast majority of sequels and prequels is the exact opposite of that, familiarity and repetition. What Colin Burrow and Michael Wood do, separately and in their congruence (which is, I’m sure, not entirely coincidental), is to point out that to take on a belated sequel or prequel is to voluntarily don a straightjacket, a set of limitations and restrictions laid out by the very cause of the sequel or prequel, the original work.
As it happens, both Burrow and Wood conclude that their respective subjects, Pullman and Banville, manage to avoid being entirely constricted by their chosen form. It can be done. But it is rare; rarer than the continuous churn of sequels and prequels might lead us to imagine. It is a hard thing to do successfully, it requires bravery, spirit, and probably more invention than the original. Which is why it should be the exception rather than the rule.
And that is why I look with jaundiced and dubious eye on anything that proclaims itself the new addition to the X universe, the further adventures of Y, a long-awaited return to Z …
Why should I want to go there again when there are always new places, unknown places, awaiting my attention?