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Master And Commander: Thoughts on series fiction

A.V. Club Staff and Donna Bowman

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, Patrick O'Brian's Master And Commander, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat today at 3:30 p.m. CST. Watch this space for a link to the chat this afternoon.

Donna Bowman: Is there anything better than reading a great book and knowing that it's the first of a series? I've always been a glutton in my cultural consumption. If I like something, I want there to be as much of it as possible. My dearest wish is to stand in front of a mountain of chocolately series goodness with a spoon in my hand, anticipating months or years of pleasure. More is more.


But that's not necessarily what we're doing here at Wrapped Up In Books. If my recollection is correct, Master And Commander is our first selection that is part of a series. And immediately after it was announced, readers began to weigh in on whether it was the best place to start. That's a perennial question with series; should you start from the beginning? (I almost always do; it pains my sense of orderliness to jump around, and I have the nagging feeling I'm missing something.) Or should you start from the series' best entry, the better to let it get its hooks in you?

Reading Master And Commander again, I can't imagine a better introduction to the series; everything that delighted me the first time was still engaging, and I gained new insight into the sailing scenes. I wouldn't advise a later book to be read first, for the simple reason that these characters would have a history unknown to the reader; maybe that doesn't matter to some recommenders, and maybe it would make no difference to the person who picked up the books out of order, but I would feel queasy about it.

The other question that series fiction raises is whether any of the books can stand alone. If Master And Commander were the only Aubrey-Maturin novel you read, would it be satisfying as a solo entry? Or is it tainted and attenuated by its role as the kick-off to volume after volume of adventures? Perhaps the best way to approach that question is to think about the hearing that closes the novel. Does it matter to you, the reader, whether Aubrey is cleared of responsibility for losing the Sophie and regains his command? Does it matter even if there were no other books to come, or if you never intended to read them? It's hard for me to answer that question, because I always intended to read them, and I was ecstatic to turn those pages knowing that the end of the book was the beginning of Aubrey's long career. I think it works regardless, but those who are new to the series can perhaps speak to that question more definitively.

Ellen Wernecke: I love a good series as much as you do, Donna, but I must be more of a stickler than I thought, because it never occurred to me to start the series (or any, for that matter) anywhere else than on the first book. Such a rule-follower am I that even when I discovered C.S. Lewis’ desired re-ordering of the Chronicles Of Narnia, I couldn’t bring myself to reach for the sixth volume in the box set first when I re-read them.


That said, anyone who’s seen Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World could potentially be accused of leaping ahead in the series, since it takes its name and, from what I’ve read, some of its plot from the 10th book. (Commenters who have read into the series enough to know, please jump in and correct me if I’m wrong.) I saw this movie in 2004 just before the Oscars, and I vaguely remember liking it at the time, but the plot has disappeared from my memory. Looking back, I sort of can’t believe it was nominated for Best Picture, but that's a different article altogether.

Knowing that there are many books to come definitely saps the hearing at the end of the book of any real tension, and to a certain extent, the episode aboard the Desaix, which I’m hoping we can get into in the chat this week. Throwing Aubrey a reversal in the form of a court-martial would be a nifty trick mid-series (if you can indeed come back from a court-martial, which I’m pretty sure you can’t) but didn’t seem plausible given his progress through the book. So to answer your question, no, I don’t think it would be a satisfying ending if I were approaching this book as a stand-alone entry, but… I didn’t have to, and I think most readers wouldn’t.


My interest in the Aubrey/Maturin series was definitely piqued by this first book, something I hadn’t expected at all, but before I charge in, I confess to a very specific fear related to our first entry: I don’t know that I want to see a wise old Captain Aubrey with a sensible haircut, someone who can finally make the correct literary allusions and never screws up. Someone promise me he doesn’t learn—at least, not insofar as O’Brian presses the liveliness out of him—and I’ll come aboard.

Zack Handlen: Of course you start with the first book! Gosh, I get shivers just thinking otherwise.


I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading more Aubrey/Maturin novels, although I'd like to; these days, it seems like I can't promise much more than finishing whatever I have on hand. But if I didn't have so many demands on my literary time, yeah, I can easily imagine myself tearing through the rest of the series. There is something tremendously appealing about the consistency of a perpetuated fiction world, and picking up a book and knowing roughly what kind of experience you can expect to get from it (while at the same time not knowing the particulars, or being bored in advance) is really comforting. I always have a hard time judging individual entries in long series, even when other fans start to grumble about a drop in quality, because I'm just so invested in making sure that world continues to exist that I don't notice the flaws. After a while, these characters become so real that a lapse in the writing becomes irrelevant. It's not like I tell old friends I can't hang out with them anymore because their dialogue has lost its sparkle.

As to how well Master And Commander works as a stand-alone, I think the ending is a disappointment. I don't have a problem with the false suspense of the court-martial, so much as the abruptness of the final line. I can only imagine that O'Brian was already intending to continue with Aubrey, because otherwise, there's a bizarre, almost existential emptiness to the finale that doesn't sit well with the rest of the novel. It's interesting that Master doesn't end on Aubrey's greatest triumph; instead, we see the Sophie captured, Jack sidelined from a tremendous battle, and then a trial that doesn't do much more than maintain the status quo. If there had been no sequel, the conclusion here would seem more like a writer realizing he had to stop eventually than any natural culmination of the story. But seeing as how there are a good many more books to go, it works fine.


Leonard Pierce: First of all, I think a distinction needs to be made between series fiction—a set of books belonging to the same series, but which don't necessarily need to be read in order—and serial fiction, in which the books are deliberately meant to be taken one after another.  Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, for example, are a series, but they don't necessarily need to be read in order; one could read a later novel and then skip back to an earlier one without missing much, because while there is consistent character development over time, there is no sense of real continuity, and what happens in one book does not always have any relationship to what happens in the next. J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings series, on the other hand, is serial fiction: events proceed apace from one book to the next, and an understanding of what went on before is of great importance to the narrative, so it's generally of great importance to start with the first book.

I share the love of series fiction that's common around here, though I can't say I prefer it to stand-alone novels; to me, that's like asking "Do you like a really well-directed stand-alone movie, or a skillfully done television series?"  They're different things with different strengths, and it's hard to judge one against another, because they aren't trying to accomplish the same goals. While I enjoyed Master And Commander enough to investigate more of the series, I can say with some certainty that I won't be reading the whole thing; 20 novels is ridiculously daunting, and given my necessary intake of other media, I just can't conceive when I'd have the time to invest in such a massive undertaking.  I've never even heard of a series lasting so long, outside of "men's adventure" books that are understood to be little more than lurid pulp; for a series of quality and pretensions of literary merit, it's almost unthinkable. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's read further into the series: Does it maintain its quality and literary tone all the way into the teens, or is there a decline? And while I assume it at least goes in chronological order, is this serial fiction or series fiction?


As for the main question before us—would Master And Commander have worked as well if it were a stand-alone novel?—I think it wouldn't, whether I decide to pursue the series or not.  Not only, as Zack points out, does the ending seem unsatisfying for a one-off novel, but O'Brian goes to such pains to establish the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin, you could sense, even if you didn't know already, that he wasn't just going to give us so much of it and then let it drop.  If anything keeps me coming back to these stories, it'll be that, and I think O'Brian knows it.

Todd VanDerWerff: I love series (or serial) fiction. I've loved it since I was a little kid. And, obviously, I'm a big fan of serialized storytelling if I do so much writing about television. And as I reached the end of Master and Commander, that's what it ended up most reminding me of: a TV series. The novel is episodic by design, so it feels like, say, a six- or seven-episode arc in a 22-episode season of TV about these characters, with the big midseason cliffhanger falling right around when it looks like Aubrey has lost everything by losing the Sophie and that he'll never find a way to come back from this one.


To extend the television metaphor further, the very end of the book feels a little like the abrupt end of a pilot that needs to fit in the sense that there will be many, many adventures to come in just one scene. The last paragraph might as well just read, "And Aubrey and pals will be having many wacky adventures to come! Just you wait!" I quite liked the ending here, but the court martial scene was abrupt, almost as if O'Brian wanted some way to retroactively force an overarching plot on a novel that had steadfastly resisted it up until that point, and I'm not sure that the last few pages really work, though I do like the way O'Brian plays out that final naval battle from Aubrey and Maturin watching it on shore in the dark. (And the relevant events are related to the two later by other people, which apparently becomes a recurring motif in the series if my research — see, Wikipedia — is any indication.)

I was rather in the same boat as Ellen here, as I'd seen the film version and really enjoyed that but I knew that it was based on later books in the series, which meant that I was going to be getting plenty of things I wasn't quite expecting from this book. (I was also surprised at how little I would have picked Russell Crowe for the role of Aubrey reading the book, though I recall he did a fine job as the character on screen.) But that may have played into my main problem with the novel: The whole thing plays rather like backstory. To return to that television comparison, all of this feels like something that might be imparted through flashbacks or monologues throughout the run of a first season. Seeing it as a narrative in and of itself feels a little incomplete, as if the story is only really getting going when it ends.


But, that said, I was really swept along by what was going on as the book reached its final passages. Is it going to be enough to bring me back for the next book? I hope that I'll get around to it someday - like Zack, I only seem to be able to read things I've been assigned for work nowadays - but the fact that the second book, according to commenters, is simultaneously one of the hardest to read and one of the most rewarding once you get into it doesn't bode well for just picking it up for some light reading. If I'm taking anything away from Master and Commander, it's just how demanding the book ends up being and yet just how fun it is once you get past the steep learning curve. O'Brian's ability to keep it all grounded in character is the thing that most makes me think I'll be back for later books, but for that to happen, I'll need to have some time. Perhaps a long sea voyage?

Tasha Robinson: You haven’t heard of a non-pulp series running this long, Leonard? Clearly you aren’t a big fantasy nerd. Allow me to introduce you to Terry Pratchett’s bestselling Discworld series, currently on book No. 38. This is the only really long-running series I’d recommend as something that holds up over time, and also the only series I’ve ever recommended that newbies read out of order. Normally, I’m a stickler for order—I think series- and serial-fiction novels should always be read in the order they were written, not just in series chronological order, so I’m right there with you on Magician’s Nephew, Ellen—but the Discworld series has been going on for more than 25 years, and Pratchett’s writing and plotting have improved a great deal over the years. Besides, the series breaks down into comfortable sub-threads involving separate characters, each with their own introductions and storylines, which makes it easy to start at the heart and then head for the margins.


But Discworld aside, I tend to be deeply leery of long-series fiction, because it always seems to degrade significantly over time. What else goes on that fantasy long-series list? Well, by rough count, there are 22 Pern novels at this point, at least 23 Mercedes Lackey Valdemar books (depending on how you count), and Jesus, 33 Xanth books, with two more on the way?!? And all of those are series I abandoned long ago because I got thoroughly sick of them. So I can’t say I’m aching for another 20 Aubrey-Maturin books. But that’s also because I have shelves and shelves of unread books at home, and as much as I love series binging—someday I’m going to do a series of blog posts specifically about the way I read books in binges—at this point, anything coming along at this size seems more like a weary obligation than a great joy.

Also, while I really enjoyed Master And Commander, I suspect that part of my enjoyment was from the novelty of having not read many books like it before, and if I continued with it over installment after installment, I’m not sure I’d maintain my enthusiasm. A lot of what I loved about this book was the surprising little details, like Maturin’s rapture over the remora, and the revelation that the Sophie’s crew honestly believed that having it attached to the ship was holding them back. Or the moment where Maturin, in a fit of pique, claims that a harmless snake in his room will probably leap on the frightened Aubrey and attempt to devour him at any second. Little human moments like this broke me out of the big sailing plot and kept me smiling, but I doubt they’d maintain their novelty either, after 10 books with these characters.


No, the end of the book wasn’t particularly satisfying were this a stand-alone novel. The whole court-martial reads as pretty dry—it’s more about process than tension, about letting us know how a court-martial proceeds rather than keeping us on the edge of our seats. I was interested in that process, but never breathlessly so. And the ending seems fairly abrupt and kind of a letdown after the heights of the battle that preceded it. That said, I was perfectly happy with it as, essentially, a winding-down of one chapter of what readers have said is really a 21-chapter mega-novel, and the prep for a new chapter. I can easily see myself carrying on with the series in the future, but at the moment, I’m back to a different series binge that Master And Commander interrupted, so off to the Massive Mental Queue Patrick O’Brian goes.

Keith Phipps: It takes a little bit of bending, but I think you could make the argument that the conclusion works just fine as the end of a standalone novel. It’s a little perverse to spend the whole novel focusing on a pair of characters, then remove them from the center of the action, but there’s something true to the naval experience about that as well. And, ultimately, O’Brian is telling a bigger story about the way men lived and fought in the Napoleonic age. Sometimes you’re delivering broadsides against the enemy. Other times, you’re hanging out on shore and watching the battle secondhand.


But it’s probably the other sort of bigger story he’s telling that leads to Master And Commander’s unexpected, but appropriate, anti-climax. He’s going to stick with these guys for a while, and he wants his readers to as well. Hooked? Here’s some more bait to bring you back.

I don’t read a lot of series fiction, but I get the appeal when I do. I tore through Walter Mosley’s “Easy” Rawlins novels in part because I enjoyed returning to the world he created so well, and I enjoyed seeing the changes he brought to that world with the passing of time. It’s kind of fascinating to watch series evolve past the point the authors thought they’d have use for them. Over at my Box Of Paperbacks column, I’ve made a study of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and it’s easy to sense the author getting bored in the superspy, then regaining interest. (At one point, he even kills him off, only to bring him back as if realizing the golden eggs weren’t going to lay themselves.)


Donna could better answer whether this series qualifies as series or serial fiction, but I suspect the former is a better fit. O’Brian already seems to be sizing these guys up for long-term plans. Does the tendency toward decline matter? I’ve never read deep enough into a work of serial fiction to answer definitively, but based on my experience with television, I suspect I’d have a reaction much like Zack’s. I’m usually not the first to notice a show has gone into decline, in part because I hate to see anything I love make a downward turn. Why can’t the things that give us pleasure last forever? One of the appeals of serialized stories—be they TV, comics, or seafaring adventures—is the illusion they can. Just wait long enough, and there’ll always be another chapter to a story that never ends.

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