After All These Years: The Unexpected Sequel
The idea for this column came about a few months ago as the hype for Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, was growing. Just around the same time I read that Chuck Palahniuk was working on a graphic novel sequel to Fight Club. Both of these sequels come years, decades even, after the preceding books—39 years for King, and at least 18 years for Palahniuk. It got me thinking about sequels and about time and perspective and whether or not any of this really matters.
Sequels are tricky animals. Generally, if it’s a work that we love, they seem like a good idea. If the fictional world is engaging and there are more stories to be told, a sequel seems like a no-brainer. Why not more of a good thing? Why not a second, third or sixth helping of something that hits all the right spots?
Then again, we’ve all heard of sequelitis, right? The idea that the sequel will never be as good as the original? Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the idea no longer being as fresh. With it being known territory. But especially when the original was well-loved, the sequel has a lot to live up to.
Now delay that sequel by a decade or more. What does that mean?
These kind of sequels are nothing new, of course. Psycho II, for example, the sequel to Robert Block’s Psycho, was written 23 years after the original. The first volume in The Lord of the Rings followed The Hobbit by 17 years. Block’s sequel wasn’t hugely successful, but we all know how Tolkien’s trilogy fared (eventually).
From the writing standpoint, it’s an understandable phenomenon. As a writer, I know that it’s easy to get sick of a work, or a world, or certain characters when you’re working on them for years at a time. But give yourself some distance and that feeling fades. You start to think back to that world and those characters like old friends. You desire to revisit them. That’s great. There are many who would maintain that the best fiction comes when the writer is inspired, whether by their own work or otherwise.
That seems to be the case with King, who had an idea he wanted to write about and then felt that it fit well with characters he had already created. And from what I’ve seen, Doctor Sleep seems to be getting good reviews.
But that isn’t the only motivation for returning to a well-loved world. Sometimes the pressure is simply financial. Writers have to pay bills, too. Sometimes the publishers put pressure on the writer because they want something that will sell and don’t want to take risks on unknown properties. We tend to think of this as “selling out”, but is that really fair? In film this kind of thing happens quite a bit. Sylvester Stallone had a fallow period before returning to roles that made him famous, Rocky and Rambo. Vin Diesel likewise reprised his roles in The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black. Writers often feel the same pressure. Sometimes they just want to pay their bills (and continue to pay their bills) and a sequel is the easiest way to do that.
Still, as a reader, it’s hard not to have opinions about all of this. As readers we claim as much ownership of a work, sometimes, as the author does. And with that comes an opinion. To be perfectly honest, I was a little underwhelmed by the Fight Club sequel announcement. Don’t get me wrong—I love Chuck Palahniuk—he’s largely the reason I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2008 (he was an instructor). I loved Fight Club. But I wasn’t left wanting more Fight Club. I felt like the story had been told, and told well. I have very little interest in picking up with older versions of the characters. I suppose I’m saying the lightning struck for me. I don’t think it will strike again (as always, YMMV).
I’m not saying that Palahniuk shouldn’t do a Fight Club sequel, but there is a risk in returning to a beloved property, especially after a long time. The writer takes a risk in trying to match the level of the previous work; the reader takes a risk in picking it up and hoping it’s any good.
Perhaps the easiest example is that of the Star Wars prequels (okay, technically not sequels, but they came after the original trilogy). People loved the Star Wars movies so much that of course there was a lot of excitement when the new movies were announced. If you were like me, you grew up hearing that there was a lot more to the story and the thought of finally getting some of that had me, personally, as giddy as a schoolgirl. In the end, however, I was massively disappointed. Massively. As were a lot of other people I know who loved the original movies. On the other hand, Lucas made a LOT of money on those movies and they were successes from that standpoint, so that should be taken into account.
I think any discomfort we may feel as readers comes from that tension—the desire to revisit a world and the worry that the trip will be a disappointment. Some people are really good at separating these things. Some people are really good at separating the works, too. Me, I have a harder time with it. Once something is out there, and official, I have a hard time ignoring it.
I don't think I'm alone, but it seems a bit silly. Like I said, writers should write what they want. Who am I to protest if they want to build on their previous works? And even if I don't like it, it shouldn't ruin my appreciation of the original. That book still exists. I don't need to read the new one if I don't want to. And if I do, and don't like it, I don't need to let that color my previous opinions.
Still, I find it difficult. Take Dune, for example. I love that book so much. I think it stands on its own perfectly. I read the first sequel and it was okay, but soon realized I was likely to get diminishing returns so I left it at that. George R. R. Martin once told a group of people I was sitting with that Frank Herbert wanted to write other things but they weren’t selling and the publishers just wanted more Dune. So he had to return. But that doesn't mean that I have to. Still, as with the Star Wars movies, the Dune novels have been incredibly successful, even the recent books written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (which came 14 years after the previous Dune book).
There is one key thing that these long delays offer, though, and that's a change of perspective. An older writer, wiser, better at the craft, can accomplish things they might not have been able to in the past. They see things differently. Perhaps the brashness of youth is lost, but the experience of life can come through. They can look at something that they did in the past and reevaluate it with different eyes. And that, I think, is something that is worth looking at.
And, because I am the resident Science Fiction guy here, here are three examples of science fiction books with unexpected sequels that you might want to check out:
1. Vernor Vinge — A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and The Children of the Sky (2011)
2. C.J. Cherryh — Cyteen (1988) and Regenesis (2009)
3. Isaac Asimov — The Foundation Trilogy (1951-1953) and Foundation's Edge (1982)
What I really want to know is, what do you think? Does this bother you at all? Do you eagerly look forward to these books no matter what? Can you ignore them? Do you want to ignore them? Do you want more Fight Club? Please let me know in the comments.
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