Kim Stanley Robinson is not a writer whose books I generally seek out on my own. But I really respect his work and have especially enjoyed his stand-alone novels, including the near-future “Antarctica” and the alterative history “The Years of Rice and Salt.” I’m less keen on his trilogies, “The Mars Trilogy” and “Three Californias.” They are a little too focused on politics at the expense of action, for my taste at least.
However, I liked “Forty Signs of Rain,” the initial installment of his current trilogy about catastrophic climate change. I won’t be reading “Six Days and Counting,” the final volume of the series, though. Why? Because I never got around to reading the second book, “Fifty Degrees Below.”
One of the difficulties of reviewing science fiction and fantasy is the genre’s reliance on multi-volume works. Too often, if you don’t pick up a science fiction series’ first installment, you have no hope of making sense of any subsequent volumes. I’m still kicking myself for not reading “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin when it first came out. Given the level of reader interest, I should have covered part four, “A Feast for Crows,” last year. Will I be ready for “A Dance with Dragons” whenever it hits stores? Somehow I haven’t yet found the time to make my way through the 4,000 pages the epic now entails. And I’ll bet “A Song of Ice and Fire” is not something that lends itself to easy synopsis.
Playing catch-up is just too hard. My notable exception was Kage Baker’s “Company” novels. Not knowing any better, I read the third book, “Mendoza in Hollywood” first and was bewildered and not particularly impressed. Fortunately, I sought out the next volume, “The Graveyard Game,” loved it, read “In the Garden of Iden” and “Sky Coyote,” re-read “Mendoza…” and have been captivated ever since. (In some ways, Mendoza is still my least-favorite character in the saga. I’m much more interested in the fates of Joseph and Lewis than in the botanist’s tragic love life. Maybe it’s just a guy thing.)
Other genres usually don’t make it so hard for the newcomer. You will definitely miss some of the nuances if you don’t read Lawrence Block’s “Scudder” novels in order, but none of the books will baffle you if it’s read out of sequence. (No one would be foolish enough to read Len Deighton’s “London Match,” “Mexico Set” and “Berlin Game” in that order, but that’s a special case.) I picked up Carol O’Connell’s “Find Me” after having skipped three or four of the other “Mallory” thrillers, and I followed the plot just fine. It’s not her best book, but it’s still completely comprehensible outside the context of its predecessor.
With science fiction and fantasy, you’ve got to commit yourself early. My commitment to Robinson’s estimable new trilogy obviously waned. And as for Tad Williams’ “Shadowplay,” the 600-page second installment of the “Shadowmarch” trilogy, which arrived in today’s mail, forget about it.