I’m returning to James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, which I discussed two posts ago, this time to reflect on the strategies required to face such a long read for academic purposes.
Whereas mainstream and literary novels are usually published as stand-alone volumes, series abound in genre fiction. They are sometimes bound by the presence of a particular protagonist, whether this is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (present in her detective novels between 1930 and 1976) or Louise McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan (present in her SF novels since 1986). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy satirical series (1986-2015) was bound by its location and growing cast of characters, present in 45 novels. The marine adventure Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian ran to 20 truly exciting novels, whereas Benito Pérez-Galdós penned a formidable series of 46 historical novels for his Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). And these are by no means the longest series. Cole Salao calls attention in a post titled “12 of the Longest Book Series That Ever Existed” to heroic fantasy series the Guin Saga by Japanese author Kaoru Kurimoto (1953-2009) as the longest series ever. The series stretched to 147 volumes and 26 side-story novels, Wikipedia informs, “with the last seventeen volumes (+ five side stories) published posthumously”.
I don’t have in mind, however, extremely long series like the ones I have mentioned, but series like The Expanse which are longer than average (trilogy to heptalogy) but far shorter than these maxiseries. Fantasy and SF are plagued now by trilogies and longer series, and by this I mean that it is rarer and rarer to find stand-alone novels. Publishers, obviously, prefer to milk the cow dry if they see in a first volume the promise of later successful volumes, and writers go along with this practice exploiting a particular universe to death (sometimes literally), but for readers who (like me) prefer the variety of stand-alone novels rather than committing to a series, this is a nuisance.
In a recent conversation with friends in the Catalan SF circuit, some were commenting on how by the time the following volume appears you have forgotten what the previous one was about, supposing you’re lucky and the author does not leave you hanging out dry, as George R.R. Martin has done. Like my friends, I have passed on countless novels that have a continuation or have decided to wait until the series is over, which may be less exciting but makes more sense to me as a reader (also, increasingly, as a TV viewer of series). In the case of Harry Potter, I caught the series half-way, in the fifth volume, with two more to go, and once Rowling was done, I read it again, head to toe; this is when I really enjoyed her series. I am well aware that many readers, particularly of fantasy, love long series but, let me stress it, this is not my cup of tea.
I mentioned in my other post on The Expanse that I’m preparing a book on SF and masculinities and let me tell you that as far as research and teaching are concerned series are a major problem. My book will have fifteen shortish (6000 words) chapters, but covers fifty main novels because I need to consider series and trilogies in most cases. Choosing the novels has been quite a nightmare because I’ve had to read twice as many novels until I chose my final list. This has taken many, many, many hours along the last two years, whereas in comparison for my latest book (American Masculinities in Contemporary Documentary Film: Up Close behind the Mask, forthcoming) I have spent about 200 hours watching documentaries.
I do know that novelists do not think of researchers or teachers but of readers who want to be entertained for as long as possible when writing, yet what I’m saying here is that research and teaching are limited by time constraints and we might end up with a vision of genre fiction limited to the stand-alone novels which has little to do with its reality. I have taught Harry Potter to a class of students already familiar with the heptalogy, but if I were to teach a semestral course on newer SF or fantasy, the current popularity of the series would be a problem, for I cannot fit more than five books into a semester (around 1500 pages at the most). I could not, for instance, teach The Expanse, nor propose to a student that they write a BA or MA dissertation on it; I could perhaps suggest that it could be material for a chapter in a PhD dissertation, as it will be the subject for a chapter in my book but even so, nine novels are a lot. The last PhD dissertation I have read was based on just eight.
Specifically, the nine novels by James S.A. Corey (penname of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) are 4941 pages long: Leviathan Wakes (561), Caliban’s War (595), Abbadon’s Gate (539), Cibola Burn (581), Nemesis Games (530), Babylon’s Ashes (536), Persepolis Rising (549), Tiamat’s Rage (531) and Leviathan Falls (519), to which you need to add Memory’s Legion, the volume of associated short fiction (422), with a total of 5363 pages. I’m not writing here as a ‘common reader’, following Virginia Woolf’s label, but as an academic making decisions to use her time for a particular project. As I commented before, I read the first Expanse novel when looking for works to analyze in my book and didn’t like it, but, going through countless readers’ comments in GoodReads, I realized that I could not discuss SF and masculinity without a chapter on Captain Holden, the Quixotic holy fool. So, I bought the books (112 euros invested on just one chapter), and braced myself.
I usually re-read the books I write about twice at least, if not three times, but I just can’t read ten volumes twice (well, I have read the first novel twice). This has been a real challenge in terms of how to make notes because I had to track everything the authors said about Holden while making sense of the plot. Fortunately for me, this is an action-driven series and the authors very generously summarize every now and then what has happened and how Holden has participated in the events, but even so I will end up with lots and lots of quotations, and notes. Possibly 25000 words.
I have spent about six weeks reading no other books but The Expanse, pencil in hand, some days for one hour, others for six hours, all the time thinking ‘this is about Holden and I need as few quotations as possible, for my chapter is only 6000 words long’. For a stand-alone novel of 500 odd pages I would normally make a note of perhaps 50 passages, take 100 notes, and go deep into it. Here I have mostly limited myself to about twelve passages each novel, but I still have to deal with 108 passages in total (more or less), when I have room for perhaps ten in the chapter. Yes, I have thought of using all the time I have spent reading, and the note-taking and so on, to write other articles, though at this point I think I should write a companion…
My reading of The Expanse has been so intensive and immersive that it has taken me a week to go back to reading other books (and I am a person who reads every day). I have read so far essays, but I just can’t read novels yet. Have I enjoyed myself? Yes, immensely. Once I got past the first book, it’s been great fun (isn’t that the point of academic life?). The authors are very clever people and they write shortish chapters, between ten and fifteen pages, which keep you reading (one more, just one more…). Also, they focalize the chapters through a variety of characters, avoiding both omniscience and a first person point of view (they call it ‘close third’), and this contributes to the reader’s enjoyment. The plot has very little that is new and it’s even at some points both pulpish and clichéd but I appreciate that the authors have made an effort to keep the pot boiling very nicely for so many thousands of pages. The hardest part of reading The Expanse has been combining its planetary wars and megalomaniac villains with the real-life events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At some points Vladimir Putin and villain Winston Duarte seemed to be the same madman, three centuries apart.
Now I know a lot about James Holden but here comes my next problem: how do I make sense of that knowledge in 6000 words, including at least fifteen secondary sources? I have decided to finish making notes and taking quotations and then write a draft without looking at them, see what my minds thinks is important or trivial. It’s funny how I can summarize 5363 pages in 25 words (it’s a story about how the manipulation of dangerous alien technology threatens human apocalypse when another alien species, who exterminated the original aliens, gets angry) but feel unable to analyze the protagonist in under 6000 words. I’m, by the way, the kind of literary scholar who truly enjoys commenting on texts, rather than paying homage to literary theory, which means that right now I feel very frustrated that I cannot show in all its extension how thoroughly James S.A. Corey characterizes Holden. I think I have found a pattern in how his girlfriend Naomi Nagata reacts to his bouts of Quixotic heroism (she’s mostly angry), and hopefully this will give me the key to the chapter. As for the rest of the chapters in my book, I feel now that if I can manage to comment on ten books in one chapter, the rest will be as we say in Spanish “pan comido” (“eaten bread”). This is, by the way, the reason I have decided to begin with The Expanse.
In short, it has been my intention in this post to, on the one hand, comment on the problem that (print) genre fiction series suppose for research and teaching and, on the other hand, encourage researchers to work on them. I cannot teach The Expanse, due to time constraints and the amount of reading students are willing to accept, but I can write about it, and I intend to do so. It is being a singular experience, but I have enjoyed my time in the company of James Holden and his Rocinante’s crew, perhaps because he is a Quixotic character and what we do keeping alive literary studies today is likewise Quixotic. So, thank you James S.A. Corey, may we find a way to reach other stars and free humankind from all inner and outer threats.