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Examples of the Second PatternThe following is a list of artists I consider to be examples of the second pattern of artistic output. But that's not all it is. The list is restricted … to authors, rather than any old kind of artists; to those I consider I to be masters; and to the fields of fantasy and science fiction. And within those restrictions, the list is, to the best of my knowledge and opinion, complete.
Here, then, in alphabetical order, are the masters of fantasy and science fiction.
Steven Brust started out writing these amazing novels, one after the other, but after a few years suddenly lost his energy. I have two unfounded guesses as to what happened. Maybe he got under contract to write more books set in Dragaera than he really wanted to, and that soured the whole business; or maybe he's actually an example of the first pattern rather than the second, just with an enormous amount of initial creative energy.
Greg Egan has written a lot of excellent novels and stories, but I'm worried that he may already be starting to decline. His latest novel, Teranesia, struck me as less full of ideas than the others … as if he's quit his day job and now can't afford to wait and let the works ripen. I guess we'll see what happens.
What can I say about Robert Heinlein? There's no doubt he is one of the great masters. You have to recognize that his early works weren't the best, and that some were intended only for kids; you also have to recognize that, starting with The Number of the Beast, he succumbed to one of the most profound cases of universe-mixing disease ever; but even after recognizing all that, you're still left with a whole lot of great works.
Ursula Le Guin is hard to characterize. She's done well at avoiding the common causes of decline, and as far as I know is still at her peak. If art is novelty, as I sometimes think, then she's more of an artist than most, tending to try all kinds of different things, so much so that I sometimes don't feel compelled to read them. I should know better.
As for Stanislaw Lem, I don't know enough about the chronology to talk about his pattern of artistic output, but, as I said in Works by Lem, Categorized, I know he's written a lot of good books. (Of course, you could also get to the list of works via the cross-references on Lem's page … but you knew that.)
Larry Niven is an unusual case. Since I'm talking about him here, of course there was a period when he was writing really good stuff, my personal favorite being Protector. However, although I'd say he has declined, I wouldn't say he's declined all the way into not being worth reading, which is the usual thing. Instead, he seems to have leveled out, and be consistently producing decent books.
I didn't appreciate Theodore Sturgeon at all when I was a kid, because a lot of his stories lack the surface appearance of science fiction (Microcosmic God being an exception). More recently, though, I happened to pick up a copy of More Than Human; that led me back into his short stories, and the rest is history.
Gene Wolfe has been writing beautiful books and stories for years and years, all the while also holding down a regular job as senior editor for an engineering magazine. I can't find the source now, but I seem to recall reading that he'd quit or retired, and, as with Egan, I worry that a change for the worse may result. I imagine I already see it—his recent novels, starting with the Book of the Long Sun, haven't appealed to me as much as his earlier works.
Roger Zelazny fits the pattern exactly: a series of masterpieces, a few earlier works that aren't quite as strong, and, in the end, a decline.
Works by Wolfe, Categorized
@ August (2000)