Come See Me!

Holy hell, it’s been a while, huh?

For the first time since the COVID pandemic hit, I’ll be taking part in a convention, the annual HerdCon at Marshall University on Saturday, March 5.*

It’s full of fun stuff related to pop culture – cosplay, panels, games, and lots of vendors. I’ll be there with a table full of books, including my latest, Widows of the Empire.

The fun starts at 10am at the Memorial Student Center. See you there!

* Fun fact – my wife got me a nifty collapsible cart to help haul my books around with for Christmas of . . . 2019. Now I finally get a chance to use it!

The Book-to-TV Pipeline

Coming late to this, but last June there was an interesting article in The Atlantic about the rise in literary adaptations on television (broadly defined to include streaming services). It’s fascinating because there’s some evidence that there is so much adaptation going on that it’s actually impacting the publishing process.

Why is that? Part of it is just because there’s so much TV content being generated these days that producers are turning to extant products to fill the demand (per another, more recent article, the same demand is also creating a new boom in work for “older” actresses). But there are also certain features that are prevalent in titles that are optioned for adaptation (although not present in all), including “episodic plots, ensemble cases, and intricate world-building.” While, certainly, there are books (or short stories) that lend themselves more easily to adaptation, I think the story overlooks one important thing and gets another wrong, both of which are important in thinking about the current TV landscape.

What the article overlooks is that the definition of “television,” and what a TV show is these days, has changed radically with the rise of streaming services. Not only are there more TV shows than ever before, but they’ve gotten more compressed compared to the sprawling network series of the past. Where a new series once had to produce two dozen episodes per season (for multiple seasons), TV is now awash with series with only eight or ten or twelve episodes per season. Beyond that, the limited series – one season and done – has gained popularity, too. Those shorter seasons (and series) fit book adaptations particularly well, giving creators enough time to cover all the events of the book without the need to create ongoing stories to feed additional episodes/seasons.

Beyond that, the TV audience is so fractured at this point that bringing already-established fans from a book to the TV show is a solid way to build some viewership. To give some perspective, the 1993-1994 season of Seinfeld (the show’s fifth season) averaged about 30 million viewers, while the top episode of scripted TV last year (from NCIS) couldn’t even manage half that. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled more than five million viewers for its first episode (across multiple showings), demonstrating the value of a built-in base audience. Even if the book being adapted isn’t a huge, sprawling series, it can bring a certain bit of gravitas to TV just by being a book!

What the article gets wrong, I think, is that “episodic” books are more likely to be snapped up for adaptation. This is presumably based on the idea that such stories lend themselves to the episodic nature of TV, but that overlooks the fact that TV is getting less and less episodic as we go along. Not only do lots of current short-season TV shows tell single, ongoing stories, they often don’t really bother making the individual episodes work on their own. To go back to Game of Thrones, episode breaks there were often purely down to time restraints, more than anything else. It would be hard to take most episodes of that show, pull them out of sequence, and show them to someone with any hope they’d know what’s going on or be hooked enough to watch more.

Truly episodic TV has a better chance to do that, at the risk of losing the overarching narrative drive. I’m thinking of two long-running series that I got into in the middle, because of episodes that told complete stories.

One was Babylon 5, famous for being designed to tell a five-season story in novelistic fashion. That said, each episode could generally be consumed as a discrete chunk (occasional multi-part episodes to one side), such as “No Surrender, No Retreat,” the first episode I saw. Now, there’s an awful lot of backstory in that season four episode that I didn’t learn until later, but the basics – who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and who might be neither – were clear. There was an objective that could be obtained or not, within the space of the episode. It wasn’t merely a set of events playing out from the prior episode and into the next one.

The other was Doctor Who, for which my entry episode was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which involves Agatha Christie and explains her famous disappearance. Now, Doctor Who isn’t nearly as tightly serialized as Babylon 5, but there was, again, a lot of lore, backstory, and character development about which I had no idea. But the episode told its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a great hook.

None of which is to say the super-serialized series that are so popular these days are doing it wrong (although maybe they sometimes do). But it does suggest that what’s drawing TV developers to literary titles is not their “episodic nature.”

Ultimately, I think it’s great that more and more books are being developed for TV series. There’s lots of great stuff out there and it beats pointless reboots of series from decades ago. The series usually bumps the popularity of the books, too, so authors get a couple of benefits from it! I’m all for more of that.

On Time Jumps

As it happens, I wound up reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series not too long before the TV show began. As a result, as the TV series went on I read the next book in the series just before the new season dropped. Now that the TV show has finished, after six seasons, and the book series has wrapped up, after nine volumes, I decided to plow through and finish the books in one go.

The first of the last three (The Expanse is sort of three linked trilogies, really), Persepolis Rising¸ starts with a pretty audacious gambit – it skips the story forward three decades.

Before we dive in further, let me specify just what I mean when I say “time jump.” I’m talking about a narrative (either within a single work or across multiple ones) where there are large breaks during which a large period of time passes. I’m not talking about the usual passage of time – most sequels or new seasons don’t pick up right after the prior one, after all. Nor am I talking about flashbacks or flashforwards or stories about characters who, to borrow a phrase, have come “unstuck in time.” I’m talking about situations where the main narrative is still driving forward, but it’s like somebody’s picked up the needle and we’ve skipped some tracks.

It’s a bold gambit because, presumably, the world of the story continues to exist during the time that’s skipped over. Things change, just as they do in regular life over years. Picking up months or years in the future should be a means of exploring how those changes impact the characters.

A good example of this I recently read is Middlegame by  Seanan McGuire.

In the world of Middlegame, an alchemist in the modern United States is using semi-fraternal twins as a means to bring about the presence of a great power he wants to tap into. The book is the story of two twins, Roger and Dodger (the rhyming names are quite intentional) who, in spite of attempts to keep them apart, keep finding themselves over the years. The book proceeds in hunks (while also skipping around in time), first when the two are young kids, then when they’re college students, and then grown adults. Between hunks, years pass and it matters. Not only do the characters change, but their relationship to each other does, too, partly because of the passage of time.

Another good somewhat recent example is the jump in time between seasons two and three of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At the end of one season Gaius Baltar is installed as president. At the beginning of the next a year has passed and we can see what “President Baltar” really means – everything goes to shit and the Cylons return! The time skip moves the plot along while providing the writers a good way to show what went on in the interim and the impact it’s had on the characters.

Sadly, Persepolis Rising doesn’t handle the time jump nearly as well. I understand the bind  James S.A. Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working in collaboration) was in – the story needed to jump ahead decades in order to play out, but what to do with the characters you’ve spent six books lovingly developing? The answer here is mention a few extra aches and pains and leave it at that. For the crew on the Rocinante, thirty years passing was just like thirty minutes.

Which is supremely disappointing! The five folks on the ship are in exactly the same shape they were in at the end of Babylon’s Ashes: Holden and Naomi are still together, Amos and Clarissa have their weird connection, and Bobbie and Alex have whatever they’ve got. Alex has, in the intervening decades, been married and divorced again, but the only outgrowth of that is a son off screen he occasionally worries about. There’s no aggravation/shifting of loyalties that have occurred over three decades of doing the same damned thing in the same damned (small) place.

All of this violates what I’m officially dubbing Rufus’ Rule of Gullibility, which I discussed in a book review many years ago:

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. ‘Mary,’ she points out, ‘was a virgin.’ Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes: ‘The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.’

I just can’t believe that five people could live in such close quarters for three decades and nothing changes. This fall I’ll will have been in my current job for just twenty years and there has been a consistent churn of turnover among my coworkers the entire time. And we don’t have to worry about the rigors of space travel! It’s just not plausible that things stay the same all those years (after all, as the song says, things change).

Which is a shame, because where the crew ends up by the finale works really well and changes the game up significantly. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have other flaws – the bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as those in prior books and the POV bad guy, particularly, is a dweeb – but it’s still a really good read about characters we’ve come to care about.

Time jumps can be a valuable tool when writing, but you have to ask yourself two questions if you’re going to play around with them. First, why do you think the story needs to jump ahead so much? Second, what are the effects on the characters moving that far forward? If you don’t have good answers to both of those questions, probably start rethinking.