Click to viewWhy do so many amazing novels sprawl into so-so trilogies? Let alone blah tetralogies, or dull ten-book series? Blame "Herbert's Syndrome," in which a great writer gets tempted to keep writing about a popular universe, like Frank Herbert's Dune, long after its expiration date. (The Fantasy Review coined the term "Herbert's Syndrome" back in 1984, so Brian Herbert didn't enter into it.) Here's a handy guide to the symptoms and causes of Herbert's unfortunate ailment.

The sprawling saga that loses the thread is a more common problem in fantasy books than in science fiction — think the Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time, or Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books. But science fiction still has its own never-ending stories that really ought to end. Here are the biggest problems:

Changing the rules: When I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer, I was incredibly excited by its story of an artificial planet where everybody who's ever lived comes back to life. Until I got to the end of the book and realized it was actually Book One in a long series, and none of my nagging questions about the resurrection planet, Riverworld, would be answered for another three or four books. I was even more annoyed when a friend of mine told me that Farmer changes the rules of Riverworld after the first book, to make it easier to keep spinning out tales. I think there my have been some book-throwing involved.


The heir apparent. As I mentioned, a reviewer coined the term "Herbert's Syndrome" in 1984, when Frank Herbert was still alive and had yet to publish his sixth Dune novel, Chapterhouse: Dune. The reviewer defined it as when "a large advance induces a good writer to extend a successful series beyond its natural span." You may have your own opinions about whether six Dune books were too many — but since Herbert's death, his son Frank and his collaborator Kevin J. Anderson have already written seven Dune books, with more on the way. Say it with me: "The cash must flow."

The neat trilogy that becomes a messy tetralogy, and more. The first two Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy books by Douglas Adams seemed pretty well-rounded, encompassing more or less the same arc as the original radio series and TV series. So I was a little nervous about the third book, Life, The Universe And Everything, but it was still a fun ride and seemed to move things forward. I was less thrilled by the fourth volume in what Adams called "the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's trilogy." So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, felt sort of anemic, as if Adams really didn't have any more ideas for the series, but he needed the Ningis. And then I think I read the fifth volume, but I have no memory of it whatsoever.

The need to explain the meaning of everything. Feminist science fiction blogger Liz Henry says this is where many series break down:

People write a series, and then they feel the need to finish it off and Explain it and they go all mystical and metaphysical. [They] try to solve every giant Burning Issue of Existence and good and evil, and why does the universe exist at all, and [the meaning of] utopia. So often, you get the underlying Manifesto or attempt to come up with a coherent philsopy of the author, but all too often, you sure wish they hadn't. By the time Herbert hits God Emperor of Dune, he has gone compeltely mad, trying to explain Everything, and there is no plot any more.


Another example: Gene Wolfe's Urth Of The New Sun, which is a follow-up to the four-book Book Of The New Sun series. In the Urth books, Wolfe tries to tie everything from the first series together, while throwing in a lot of mystical ideas, including kabbalah.

The random left turn. Isaac Asimov gave into fans' pressure, after a thirty-year gap, and started writing more Foundation novels again. And few would argue that Foundation's Edge or Foundation And Earth are in the same league as the original trilogy. One major problem: a slew of new characters, including one who's introduced right at the end of Foundation And Earth, who might have played a bigger role in a final Foundation book, had Asimov written one. But in the end, it just feels as though Asimov is floundering a bit, in the unnecessary sequels.


The miraculous save. In Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue series, there's a clan of women and children who become language experts, and learn a ton of alien languages so they can serve as translators. But over time, they create their own secret language that the men don't understand. Which is great, but then in the third book, suddenly the women discover that they can eat sounds. They can survive by ingesting noises — sort of like a plant's photosynthesis, except noisier.


The shrinking protagonist. Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books become less and less fun, as his roguish protagonist, Slippery Jim DiGriz, becomes more and more of a pussycat. But worse yet is when we get a new protagonist whose story cheapens our original hero, like Bean in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow.

To be fair, why shouldn't novels go on and on and on? It's what movies do, with their endless sequels. And TV series — who really thinks Smallville deserves an eighth season? On the other hand, the thing that makes novels superior to other media is the fact that they have a single author, who puts his/her stamp on them. When that one person runs out of ideas, the novels themselves start to deflate.

With TV, movies, comics and other media, as long as the corporate copyright-holder can find another Akiva Goldsman or Roberto Orci to spin out a new idea, you can have endless installments. In theory, no TV series ever needs to go stale, as long as the writers have the grace to leave when they run out of ideas. (Which almost never happens.) It's a bit harder with books though — and I like picking up a novel and discovering a new universe for the first time.