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Variation in Content

Having discussed variation in form in another essay, I'll now restrict myself not only to books, but to books in which the idea is to put words into grammatical sentences and paragraphs. I'll also restrict myself to fiction, not because nonfiction can't be art, but because it's a different kind of art. The kinds of variation that remain I think can justly be described as variation in content.

Actually, I've found it more convenient to talk in terms of sameness rather than variation, but, as I said, they're just different aspects of the same thing.

The first thing that strikes me is that the works of any single author have a certain sameness of style, whether the author intends them to or not. The style may be more or less distinctive, and more or less easily described, but it's always there. (Well, maybe not always, but I can't think of any counterexamples offhand.)

I'm not sure it's quite the same thing, but here's something Sturgeon once wrote, quoted secondhand from the notes in Thunder and Roses.

This story was, I think, the emergence of thething I say.” James Blish and Damon Knight once produced the hypothesis that every writer has a thing he says, and he says it over and over again (in different ways, of course) every time he writes. I think they were right.

The story, if you're curious, was Maturity.

There's another kind of sameness that is closely related to the sameness of being part of the same work (see Rating Composite Works), and that's the sameness of being part of a series of works. I'd distinguish three different types of series.

In some series, there is a basic set of unchanging characters that appear in all the works. The best examples here are comic strips and TV shows (e.g., Star Trek), but there are certainly series of books that behave the same way. Since the characters are unchanging, the works may be experienced in pretty much any order, so maybe “series” isn't the best name; on the other hand, the works were at least produced in some order.

In other series, there's still a basic set of characters, but the characters are allowed to develop over time. Again, the best examples are probably comic strips and TV shows. By “best”, by the way, I don't mean “best in quality”, I mean “best as an example”, or “most easily brought to mind”, or something like that. The Vlad Taltos series is a fine example, too, and is also of good quality.

Back when I used to watch a lot of TV, I always thought of the absence of character development in series of the first kind as a flaw, but now I'm not so sure. It's true that an absence of character development is unrealistic; the thing I'm not so sure about is whether realism is always desirable. I tend to equate realism with naturalism—rightly so, since they're the same thing—and to equate the use of static characters with romanticism. Since romantic characters represent values or archetypes, there's no need for them to change, you see. Homer Simpson, for example, represents the archetypal fool … heck, I could write a whole dissertation about the Simpsons. Anyway, the point is that nowadays, given a choice between romantic and naturalistic art, I usually prefer the romantic. By the way, I got all these concepts from The Romantic Manifesto.

Finally, there are series in which the unchanging element isn't the characters but rather the fictional universe in which the action takes place. Heinlein's Future History stories and Niven's books and stories set in Known Space are prime examples; I'm also quite fond of what I call the Six-Part Ensemble.

The above isn't really a complete list of types of series. For any attribute a work can have, a series can hold it constant or vary it; characters and universe are just the most common cases. As another example, consider The Twilight Zone, which, although neither characters nor universe are constant, does have some kind of sameness, perhaps a sameness of concept.

So, to summarize, we've seen that content can vary in style, characters, universe, and concept. Being a series isn't so much a dimension in which content can vary as a recognition that one or more things are being held constant. Although my examples above all held the style, or author, constant, even that isn't necessary—these days there are plenty of collections of stories by different authors, all set in the same universe. However, I don't usually find such things very appealing, perhaps because they strike me as unwarranted bundling, or perhaps because I identify style too strongly with universe.

Another way to look at sameness of concept is to look at works that are derivative. As far as I'm concerned, the whole field of epic fantasy can serve as an example. There's one original work, Lord of the Rings, with an incredible depth and originality of style and concept, and then there are a jillion derivative works with the same concept. Somehow Spinrad (see Science Fiction) omitted to include epic fantasy in his list, so I'll add it here.


This indeed is a reliable formula for successful commercial fiction. Crank it through wizards, elves, and quests and you have epic fantasy.

I'm being a little unfair, but only a little. Tolkien had antecedents, I suppose, including folk mythology; and there are occasional excellent and non-derivative works involving wizards and quests, such as Earthsea. In my mind, though, it's almost tautological: a work qualifies as epic fantasy if and only if it's derivative of Tolkien.

Well, I feel like I lost track of the point somewhere in there. I hope I've given you some idea of what I mean by variation in content, and of the kinds of variation that are possible, even if I've swept most of it under the rug as variation in concept.


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o April (2000)
@ September (2000)