Since the reintroduction and consequent explosion of the Lord of the Rings in the United States during the 1960’s, the vaunted trilogy is something that has haunted the genres of fantasy and science fiction. It became almost a rite of passage. You weren’t a serious practicer of the craft if you hadn’t a trilogy to your name or some other long-running series. Forget duologies, tetrologies, quintologies. It was three or as many as it took for you to die of natural causes a la Robert Jordan, then someone else steps in to finish your dirty work. How many narratives were structured – naturally or purposefully – by this unspoken rule, none can say. We may say with some certainty, however, that the trend has definitely shaped the market.
Historically an affectation of the fantasy genre, the trilogy has started to parasitize science fiction as that medium starts to take on more and more of the tropes of its cousin. Indeed, the genres themselves have seemed to start blending together and not in the healthy and interesting ways that lead to crazed tales of cybernetic trolls and spell-flinging bounty hunters. More than anything else, they’ve become conventional distillations of the all the worst elements of genre writing with the simple backdrop of this or that loosely-related piece of technologic or magical fabric. That’s a topic for another time, though. Right now, we’re talking cheap gimmicks and marketing strategies.
The structure has limped along through the years, surviving on waxing nostalgia for its place as a hallmark of the genre(s) and by changing its terminology. These days, you don’t see Trilogy much anymore. And, if you do, it’s something applied after the fact by critics or the community. No, more common are its failed offspring that are much more egregious for also being overwrought: Cycle, Chronicle, Archive, Saga, etc. In addition to this being a nice and cheap ploy to map out butcher-paper knockoffs, consistent repeats of the narratives we’ve been reading for 50 years, it’s also an easy way to grab an extra $30 off a prospective buyer. Some might just grab the first volume and call it a day, choosing not to continue with the tripe. But I’d be a rich man if I received the sticker price every time I heard or read someone detailing the experience of reading this or that trilogy in such starry-eyed language as “struggled through to the end; started the journey, so I might as well finish it; skipped over the boring stuff and the good parts were pretty entertaining”, and so on. You get the idea. It isn’t hard to miss.
Is this really the standard we want to hold ourselves to as readers and, dare I say it, writers? Is our time really so cheap that we can afford to throw hours and hours away on something we feel compelled to skip through? The answers should come easy. We all deserve good entertainment for our time and money. Let’s be honest: we only stand to gain when hacks are forced out of the medium and into some other corner of the creative tent. Give them a SyFy original series to ejaculate over the airwaves, if wasting our time is the height of their achievement. Throw them the doomed run of a sideline superhero to rehabilitate. Make them come back for more, if they want more. Make them prove they deserve the keys to the city and, for the love of God, make sure they don’t know the doorman.