EARCs, if you aren’t familar, are a publishing innovation pioneered by Baen. ARC stands for “Advance Reader Copy,” which is a pre-publication, unproofed version of the book often sent out to reviewers, or handed out at conferences. (I have many, many of them from when I attended BookExpo America a year or so ago that I haven’t even read yet.) Baen tacks on an “Electronic” at the front to make “EARCs,” which are Electronic Advance Reader Copies, that it sells for $15 months before even the hardcover version comes out. You can only get them direct from Baen, and they stop being sold when the “real” version hits the stands, but they slake the thirst of severe book addicts. Like me.
This isn’t the final version of the book; some typos and other errors might be corrected before the “final” version, and in some cases even major structural changes have been made to books between EARC and publication. But it’s usually close enough to the final version that anything I say about it now will still hold true when the publication version comes out.
So, for the last day or so I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Neogenesis, and I finished it today. (Well, “yesterday” by the clock now.) On the whole, I’m very happy with it, because this is the book I’ve been waiting literally years for. But there are a couple of areas where I do still feel it falls short.
Waiting for Plot Parity
The Liaden Universe is an immense series, spanning broad areas in both time and space. That’s part of what I love about it. By reading all the books and short stories, you start to get a sense of a universe that is connected as a cohesive whole. The universe feels fully populated with a wide variety of people and places. It’s one of the places that you can grow to wish you could live in.
I’ve had some experience in writing (for free online publication) some settings like that. And while I hesitate to compare my own chicken-scratchings directly to a professionally published series I love, one of the things I’ve discovered about writing in broad-ranging settings is that, at times, some areas of the setting can get “ahead” of others. Maybe they’re areas you had the most fun with writing, so you work on them to the exclusion of all else. Or maybe they’re areas you were required to write by external necessities (such as a publisher demanding more sequels featuring the same character right after each other).
When that happens, sooner or later you realize that other areas of the setting you’ve had to neglect are stuck several volumes behind—and you have to put the stories you were writing “on hold” until the others catch up.
This has been the situation the Liaden Universe has been stuck in for the last several years. Right after the Liaden universe got picked up by Baen, the publishers asked for more books featuring the characters (Theo Waitley at al) who featured in the books that were being written right at the time the series was picked up. And when you’ve had as chaotic a publisher history as Lee and Miller had up to that point, naturally your first impulse is to do whatever you can to keep them happy. So, after Fledgling and Saltation, we got Ghost Ship and Dragon Ship, carrying on the story of Theo and friends—when, in the absence of such requests, we’d probably have gotten more books focusing on other characters first, alternating with more Theo books by and by.
At that point, the authors realized that Theo had rushed way out in front, and they needed to write more about the rest of the universe so it could catch up to her before things carried on. Happily, the publisher was understanding and willing to let the writers have their head. I hate to think what might have happened otherwise.
(This wasn’t the first time that had happened in the Liaden Universe, either. After publishing the first four volumes of the “main sequence” of the original series, the authors apparently realized they’d misplaced a character, and about half of the fifth volume, I Dare, comprised the adventures of said character that ideally should have been told during previous books in order to catch him up to where he needed to be by the end.)
But this is the sort of thing that happens when you have to publish your nearly-too-large-to-keep-track-of setting piecemeal, and can’t wait until you have the whole thing written and go back and add bits in where needed retrospectively. Don’t blame the authors, or even the publisher; blame the way the publishing industry works. It’s great for stories told in the traditional one-book-after-another manner, but not so much for settings that have multiple, even myriad simultaneous ongoing plotlines that have to be kept in parity with one another. Sacrifices have to be made.
This is why fans of Theo Waitley had to wait four years (and several books) between Dragon Ship and The Gathering Edge to see where she ended up next…and why Daav yos’Phelium and Aellianna Caylon had to languish over the course of about three books without much happening to them apart from readers being reminded every so often that, yes, they still did actually exist. The setting wasn’t ready for them yet.
The good news is, the latest book is literally everything fans have been waiting for years to see. If you’re a long-term Liaden fan, by all means you should already be putting your $15 down for the EARC—or at the least, saving your money for the month (December? January?) in which the whole final version of the thing becomes available to subscribers. Or else pre-order the hardcover via Amazon. (You can’t pre-order the ebook, apparently because of the whole EARC/monthly bundle thing.)
But if you’re new to the setting…well, read on.
Of the Necessity of Exposition
Another problem with the modern publishing industry is the emphasis that is placed upon the necessity for each latest book in an author’s series to sell extremely well, in order to assure the continued willingness of publishers to continue paying authors to write more in that series. Publishers don’t care how well earlier books sell, they want to know what you’ve done for them lately. And they apparently don’t care whether the appearance of a new book in the series causes previous books in the series to sell better as readers try to catch up. They just care about the latest one.
So, when I’ve noted in past reviews that books might not make as much sense without the context of previous books to give them greater clarity, the authors have been angry and scolded me (well, they didn’t mention me by name but it was clear who they meant) about it on Facebook. Which makes me sad, but what can you do?
This also leads to the necessity of authors making sure to throw huge amounts of exposition into their current books, in order to try to keep readers from feeling left out in the cold if they didn’t read the twenty-odd books that came before they picked up this one. It can be a tricky balance to strike, as they try to include enough information for new readers to be able to understand what’s going on, while at the same time trying not to make all those readers who’ve read those twenty-odd books roll their eyes too much.
“As you know, such-and-such enemy has chased us across the galaxy for the longest time.”
“I know, but it’s a good thing we got to such-and-such planet in time so we can find some safety, isn’t it?”
And so on. (Yes, I’ll admit, I’m exaggerating the clumsiness of such necessary exposition for comic effect, and Lee and Miller—experienced and expert writers that they are—are generally a lot less clumsy than that about shoehorning it in. And they did about as good a job setting up for new readers as it’s possible for someone to do. But there’s a limit to how much you can help people along like that, and even the cleanest insertions can stick out annoyingly like sore thumbs to folks who know all of it already.)
It can be tricky for anyone, including reviewers like me, to try to put themselves in the shoes of readers who haven’t read the last twenty-odd books—because we have read the last twenty-odd books. I literally can’t imagine what it must be like for a new reader to pick up a new book in a twenty-odd-plus-book-series without knowing anything about what came before. And I do know there’s just so much that came before that I personally can’t imagine reading this book without having known all that. So sometimes maybe I guess wrong.
(For that matter, speaking from my own experience as an author of stories in a setting with such immense continuity, I can’t imagine what it must be like for a new reader to start a late story in my setting, either, because I already know everything that’s going on in it. So how could I be sure that any amount of exposition would be enough?)
A Fitting, Delightful, Long-Awaited Coda
All that being said: if you’re a long-time reader of the series, Neogenesis is absolutely the book you’ve been waiting for. This is the book where nearly all the separate threads that have been woven througout the last half-dozen…dozen…well, all right, through pretty much every book since I Dare are gathered up into one place and woven together into a fittingly complete tapestry.
The final fate of Theo, crew, and the mysterious new passengers and other oddments they’ve gathered together, last seen in The Gathering Edge? Covered.
What happened to Daav yos’Phelium and Aelanna, in their unexpected new situation? It’s there.
The fates of Mentor Tolly Jones and his charge Admiral Bunter, Inkirani Yo and Tocohl Lorhlin, and Hazenthull Explorer, left dangling in Alliance of Equals? We’ve got it.
How do Val Con and Miri go on from Dragon in Exile, and how about their neighbors, and the kompani introduced in Necessity’s Child? Don’t worry, you won’t be left out.
Uncle and company? Yeah, got that too.
(There are one or two subplots that are missing, but presumably those will be the subject of books still to come.)
If you’ve been agonizing for years and years and books and books over how this character would react to learning that character was on Surebleak, or how the other character would react when another character showed up with the formerly-dead (other character) in tow, wonder no longer: your questions will all be answered.
In fact, Neogenesis shares a lot of parallels to I Dare, the concluding book in the first five-book cycle. It ties up in a neat bow the events from a number of books and stories that came before. It concludes the events of a long-running storyline beyond any doubt. (And it even has exactly the same sort of “…and the adventure continues” ending that I Dare did.) And that is immensely satisfying.
In Which Things Conclude
You know the whole gag from Rocky Horror Picture Show about “antici………pation”? It might be just a silly gag, but between Dr. Furter’s “antici…” and “…pation” a degree of stress builds up (you can see it in the reaction shot they cut to) as you wait for the conclusion to the word, to the point where the conclusion is actually satisfying just because it was a conclusion.
To no small extent, Neogenesis is like that. This is the conclusion long-time Liaden readers have been waiting for. Multiple conclusions. The ones that (as mentioned above) you’ve been waiting multiple books to see. Like I said, it’s immensely satisfying to see all these things come to a head, and to a conclusion, precisely because you’ve been waiting so long to see them.
It’s possible that they don’t get to conclude in the way you’d hoped they would. (People who’d been hoping for catfights between a certain pair of characters will probably be disappointed.) Maybe they don’t conclude in the way you’d expected they would (due to new factors coming from out of left field to change the way it appeared they’d end up). But they do conclude. And that’s immensely satisfying just because it’s been so, soooooo long between the “antici…” and the final “…pation.”
But What to Tell New Readers?
But what am I supposed to tell readers who are completely new to the series? They won’t have been waiting for multiple books to see how things ended up. They won’t have that sense of anticipation. They probably just won’t get those things. I can’t lie about that. The events are definitely interesting, but I don’t know how interesting they’ll be to people who see them happen without any context, and haven’t been waiting all this time for them to happen. Because they won’t have been waiting all this time. (But they should definitely buy Neogenesis anyway, because I want more of these books to be written.)
The structure of the book is a bit odd, coming as it does as the capstone to multiple separate books that each covered the adventures and viewpoints of entirely different sets of characters. There are huge chunks written from the viewpoint of a couple of those sets, then they entirely vanish for half the book as we switch over to another set of characters, then we come back to the first couple of sets in the end. One major set of characters doesn’t even appear until about 2/3 of the way through the book, and they start out looking like they’re somebody else (due to the authors leaving out key aspects of their identity in order to fool the reader for several scenes—cute when it happened, but seeming a bit like a cheap trick in retrospect, like murder mysteries written from the point of view of the person who turns out to be the killer but just never thinks about having done it while you were in their head). There are a few incidents that (at least to me) seemed oddly anticlimactic after waiting so long for them, but maybe they won’t seem that way to others.
I don’t know. To someone who hasn’t been reading all the books, I would think all this viewpoint-hopping, and leaving behind of characters you just started to get to know in this book for the sake of other characters, and bad things happening to characters you hardly even know, would be more confusing than anything else. In a perfect world, I’d be free to recommend people start from earlier in the series to build up some context, so they could properly appreciate the amazing job the authors have done in tying it all together at the end. It just feels to me as though, without that context, new readers will just be scratching their head and saying “…tying what together? What was the point of all this supposed to be?”
But that’s not the way the publishing industry works, and because the publishing industry places so much emphasis on “yes, but what have you done for me lately?” I have to tell people, “Yes, by all means, do buy this book, even if I think it would leave you utterly confused and put you off checking out any of the writer’s other works ever again, because sales of this book is what counts for publishers being willing to pay the authors to write the next one. So buy it, because I want writers to write more books that I care about because I’ve actually read the twenty-odd books that came before. I don’t really give a damn if you can’t understand what’s going on. Just buy it, so I can get more of what I want.”
But hey, maybe I’m underestimating your ability to put up with being utterly confused by characters I can’t imagine meeting for the first time in this book, rather than a dozen-odd books ago. Buy the book; enjoy it; prove me wrong.
For that matter, I do think there is one point where the book falls short even for people who have read the series to this point: it’s only the length of a single book, but it has to cover the conclusion to events that have happened in the last half dozen or so. Hence, some characters end up getting pretty short shrift in terms of screen time. There are a few characters who seem like they get just enough scenes to cover readers getting to find out What Happened When X Met Y, but otherwise pretty much vanish altogether from the narrative, despite having had several books to themselves previously. Whereas other, seemingly relatively minor characters, only introduced a book or two back, expand to take up a huge amount of the story.
(And some characters, who you’d been led to expect would have important parts, were mysteriously nowhere to be found. A certain character who had featured in a series of scenes from The Gathering Edge, not connected to the main narrative but implied to have a role to play in the resolution of problems raised in that book, was completely absent when the problems were laid to rest in this book!)
Which is disappointing, but again, there was just enough space for one book, and so much to wrap up and conclude. Maybe if publishing industry constraints hadn’t struck, they would have had more room. Maybe there will be further chapbook side stories in the future to fill in some of that. Or maybe this is just a side effect of having had so much time to build up that antici…pation. Maybe nothing could have been completely satisfying after all that wait. Who knows?
And I can’t shake the feeling that some of the ways things are tied up came off as just a little bit too neat. I can’t get too specific without spoiling, but as an example, the way that a particular character was off-handedly mentioned as the progenitor of an entire culture whose origins had been painted as a great mystery in previous books didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, and left just a little bit of a bad taste after I’d thought about it for a while.
Also, as long as I’m discussing things that struck sour notes, another odd thing was the decision to put the Liaden Universe short story “The Space at Tinsori Light,” one of the chapbook stories from bygone times, set hundreds of years in the past but with a close connection to the novel, at the end of the book, rather than at the beginning. (You can also find this story, along with additional essay material on how it went from outline to final form, here, via Amazon.)
They could have stuck “Prologue:” on the front of the title and put it at the beginning and it would have made more sense structurally. (That was what I’d expected they were going to do when I’d heard they were throwing it in, until I came across the EARC.) Within the main body of the book itself, we meet characters from that short story. If they’re going to include the story in the book, why put it all the way at the end where people who hadn’t read it before wouldn’t encounter it until after they’d finished the book?
(Perhaps they might switch its location between EARC and final publication? In any event, if you haven’t read any of the other Liaden stories yet, but do decide to read this one, read that short story first. It might clear up a little confusion, anyway.)
Conclusion: Buy This Book!
In any event, I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. I do love this book. Maybe there are a couple of areas where it disappointed me, but on the whole, I’m absolutely delighted to see the conclusion to so many dangling plot threads I’ve wanted to see closed for such a long time. When I re- and re-re-read it, maybe I’ll even be more charitable toward some of the areas where I felt it fell short.
By the same token, I really do like Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. They’ve been great people when we met in person, and when I’ve had them on my podcast. I certainly don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them angry at me. But on the other hand, I don’t feel that requires me to agree with them or praise them in all respects, and if there are areas where I think a book falls short, as an oft-read reviewer I feel it’s my duty to say so.
Don’t misunderstand me: the Liaden Universe is one of my favorite series ever and I do desperately want more of it. And I feel that if people had read enough of it to get the context, they couldn’t help but love this new book. But I am concerned that if they hadn’t read any of it, this new book—coming as it does as the capstone to the entire sub-series of books that came before—will leave them feeling lost. And I’m concerned that will make them not want to buy any more of the series—rather than reading through the backlist first so they can truly get this book.
But reading through the backlist first isn’t what the publishers want you to do—or, apparently, the authors, who have been heard to complain loudly on Facebook about certain reviewers telling people not to buy their latest book.
So, let there be no mistake.
I want you to buy this book. I don’t care if you don’t get it. I don’t care if it confuses you. I don’t care if it makes you never want to read another Sharon Lee or Steve Miller book ever again because you’re so lost. I don’t care if you don’t even read it until you’ve caught up with all the other books in the series. I want you to buy this book because that makes it likely more books in this series that I love will get written.
So, please, please do buy Neogenesis. It is a great book if you’ve read the other books before it. I don’t know whether you’ll be able to get it if you haven’t read any of the other books before, but you know what? I don’t care. Because, thanks to the current-book-centric way the publishing industry works, caring about understanding previous works in the series first is apparently a bad thing.
Buy the book. Do. Please buy it. BUY BUY BUY.
(There. Hopefully that’s clear enough that I don’t get anonymously Facebook scolded again!)