About a year ago, I read the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It is the winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it is completely deserving of that honor. The book brilliantly subverts multiple sci-fi tropes and mechanics, and its core as a mystery-infused personal drama makes the thing a page turner.
The novel is a full story, tying its loose ends and ending properly for the world and the main characters. I did not think there was a sequel. There did not need to be. And, in fact, there really couldn’t be, at least not in the traditional sense.
But I loved it so much that when I learned that there were indeed sequels two months ago, I immediately put them on my Christmas list. When I got them for Christmas, I consumed both novels within a span of about five days.
Wilson had more stories to tell in the world he concocted, and it was his right as an author to tell them. They are good novels, though the events of Spin prevent many similarities to that story. Still, both sequels–Axis and Vortex–work well, and the ending of Vortex does answer questions that were never completely answered in Spin.
However, I think that Wilson skirted danger here. Some stories don’t need sequels. That was the case with Spin–it did not need any. And while some sequels may work for these stories, sometimes sequels don’t do any good for the original story, and some even harm or retroactively modify the efficacy of the original story.
Consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for instance. I’m not going to go into detail here for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but those of you who have seen in know that seemingly immutable truths and qualities in the original trilogy are brushed aside in order to forge a new path. The new trilogy did not need to exist, necessarily; Return of the Jedi included a fitting end for the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. But exist it does, and its existence fundamentally changes the context in which the original trilogy operates. Some people like The Last Jedi because it goes its own way. Some people hate it for that reason.
In a more extreme case, take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is nothing but sequels. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to tell a self-contained story. The second Avengers movie was a wreck because it couldn’t focus on its own story and character development enough–instead, it had to serve a bunch of administrative tasks in tying the varying characters together and laying the groundwork for future movies. And beyond one example, it is almost impossible to create real tension in a cinematic universe where creative risks are stifled for the benefit of the whole.
Finally, the most innocuous of results for sequels is that they are so totally unnecessary that they can’t help but be depressingly boring. Maybe you remember the 2003 young adult novel The City of Ember (it was also adapted to film in 2008). I sure do; I was 12 at the time, and the book, which was a huge success, was written directly for my age group. It’s a great novel, but its plot is self-contained: once the inhabitants solve the city’s riddle and leave, the core elements of why the book was successful vanished.
Since it was such a success, of course there were sequels. But when a story is so tied to a specific time and place, with specific characters, can a sequel succeed? Usually not. That’s why, if you read The City of Ember, I bet you have no memory of its sequels.
We all know why sequels exist. Making creative media is expensive, and it is always more cost-effective to create something that already has word of mouth and an install base. But they don’t always need to exist. In fact, in a perfect world, most probably shouldn’t.