The Long View

A post by James Davis Nicholl at Five SF Novels That Take the Long View of History

There are a fair number of SF novels that focus not on individual characters but on the society of which they are a part. Often the novels do so by focusing on the development of those cultures over time. Societies evolve; individuals come and go like mayflies. There’s a narrative, but not the sort of narrative we usually expect to enjoy.

You might think that it would be hard to make such books interesting. (I don’t think that anyone has ever described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a cracking thrill ride: “Could not put it down!”) The following five novels show that it is possible to write interesting works that take the long view.

The five Nicholl picks out of the herd:

1) The Healer by F Paul Wilson. That’s a fun choice! It’s been a really long time since I read that. It fits because the protagonist is basically immortal — immortal unless he’s standing at ground zero when someone drops a large bomb on him or something like that. So he lives through a lot of societal change.

2) Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

3) The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss.

4) Accelerendo by Stross.

5) Children of Time by Tchaikovsky.

I’ve never read any of these except the first. I’ve got Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang on my TBR shelves, where, at the current rate at which I’m reading those books, it may stay until the sun turns into a red giant.

I’m sure some of you have read others on this list. What did you think? I know Stross isn’t my favorite.

But I immediately thought of a lot of other books that take a long view. I’m certain I can think of another five off the top of my head:

6) Foundation. I never actually liked any of Asimov’s novels, but I’m pretty sure I recall this series taking a very, very broad view of history and the development of societies.

7) The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Nicholl says, “Because I didn’t care for the Mars trilogy. That’s why I didn’t mention it.” Well, I DID like the Mars trilogy. More than that, I admired it. I’ve read it twice. It’s not something I’ll go back to very often. But imo it’s a legitimately great work and very much deserves to be included in any list remotely like this.

8) The Oankali series by Octavia E Butler. This is a multi-generational series that shows the re-development of human society after a serious crisis. Among other things. This is very much a story that steps back and takes the long view, though it does so through several more intimate stories that are linked. But then, that’s how most (all?) stories like this work. Otherwise, they would be history or sociology textbooks, not novels.

By the way, I notice that the Oankali trilogy is $3.99 right now for the set of Kindle ebooks. I so strongly prefer to read on my phone or Kindle these days, so that I can increase text size, that I’m willing to pick up ebooks even if I already have paper copies, as long as I know I will re-read the books eventually and as long as the price is low. I’m picking these up right now. Done.

9) Cyteen. In a way, that’s not looking at such a large sweep of time since the majority of the story takes place during a relatively brief period — less than the length of one person’s normal lifespan. But in another way, it absolutely is a story that takes a very long view. That’s what Ari is all about: seeing and shaping the future of her society. Also, tangentially linked: 40,000 in Gehenna is as broad-scale as anyone could wish.

10) Seveneves. The first part is a short-term story, but then the story leaps forward into the new society that’s formed from the paltry remnants of the old. I think that absolutely counts. The novel moves from near-future to pretty far-future in one sharp step, leaving out the intermediate period, but it’s certainly taking a long, long view of societal development.

Here’s one more:

11) The Steerswoman. I realize — I FULLY REALIZE — that this series isn’t finished. Nevertheless, you all ought to read it. It’s soooo good! It also has my vote as single series I would most like to see finished in the next — let’s be realistic — the next ten years, let’s say.

I also realize that the characters do not see the truly amazing, very broad view of the past and future that is clear to the reader. VERY broad scope, here. VERY long view. Also my favorite of the eleven books here, and that’s saying something, because I love both Cyteen and the Oankali series.

What here have you most loved?

What have I missed that belongs on this list?

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9 thoughts on “The Long View”

  1. I’ve got the Nuala trilogy by Cat Kimbriel on my TBR pile, so I’m not quite sure, but I think this might be another ‘long view’ series, with each book skipping ahead generations to look at the effects on society of the changes from the previous book.

  2. Out of the original list, I’ve only read The Dazzle of Day, and I ended up only skimming that. It made me realize that I have a very difficult time reading a single story that spans generations, because as soon as I get invested in one set of characters, boom, they’re gone, now there is a whole new set of characters to care about. (Yes, I struggled a LOT with Foreigner for that very reason.) Something like the Steerswoman series, where you get the broader, deeper view of history but you are still wholly engaged with one small set of characters, works much better for me. I still might give The Dazzle of Day another try sometime, because the writing itself was beautiful, and having a better idea of what to expect going into it might make it easier for me to get through–just as it took me about three times to finally read Foreigner all the way through.

  3. Interesting, Louise, considering that Foreigner emphasizes one character’s pov so heavily. I actually do sometimes have trouble with multigenerational stories for about the same reason.

  4. Here’s one from a good while back: Crucible of Time, John Brunner. Read a lot of his stuff in the late 80s and early 90s. This is a standout. So is Total Eclipse, which involves archeologists deciphering the extinction of a lost intelligent species.

  5. I always liked Sharon Shinn’s original Samaria trilogy (Archangel, Jovah’s Angel, The Alleluia Files) for this, it felt like a realistic level of social and technological change for the hundred year jump between book (although I think The Alleluia files is a rather weak ending, probably because Jared in The Alleluia Files is the only Shinn hero/romantic lead I’ve read that I’ve actively disliked, Tamar deserved better!)

  6. Well, interestingly enough, the author of Cyteen ends up taking the long view in a different way. That is, Cyteen turns out to belong in the same universe as Mercanter’s Luck and Downbelow Station and so on. Different stories with different characters in different eras of time, but still belonging to the same universe and sharing a history.

    I agree that the Foundation series is another good example of taking the long view.

    It’s probably cheating to mention Tolkien’s Silmarillion, et al., because it’s not really one cohesive story. But if you look at all the stuff he wrote about Middle Earth as a whole, he certainly took the long view from the beginning of time until the 4th Age of Men…

  7. Oh my gosh! I don’t read sci-fi very often so I don’t have any good recommendations here — but I feel like I have to comment because I LOVE The Steerswoman. I check in on Rosemary Kirstein’s blog at least once a month to see the progress. I can’t wait for the next book particularly because I feel that the last book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, albeit a very sedate one.

    Between this and the mention of Gillian Bradshaw in some other post, I almost feel like I need to go dig up all your favorites you have mentioned and put them on my TBR pile if they weren’t on there already.

    Oh, I would possibly nominate Ender’s Game / Speaker for the Dead as taking a long view? I only read those two though and not the rest of the quintet. Plus Ender is still the main character in both books, so perhaps it doesn’t count.

  8. Pete, I am going to have to look at Total Eclipse. That sounds like a book directed straight at me.

    Sandstone, I’ve never reread The Alleluia Files. I don’t remember Jered at all, so I may have felt the same way. I didn’t care for certain plot developments, I know that.

    Jeanine, yes, I wasn’t thinking of the overall CJC universe, but I should have. Very long view in the overall collection of stories.

    TC, you will undoubtedly hear about progress in the Steerswoman series before I do. Hopefully I will check next year and be stunned to find the next book came out and I missed it. That would be great!

    Bradshaw is so good! Every time I hear anyone mention her, I instantly want to reread something of hers.

  9. I was reading Tales From the Fermi Resolution: Vol. 1: Shadow of the Tower by Moe Lane. Short stories, spanning centuries, and the focus stays on the stories, but you can see history occurring.

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