David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

In What Order Should You Read the Series?

My recent blog post about the Dune prequels brought up an interesting point about series order. Said commenter Secher Nbiw in his comment:

As you pointed out, there are soon to be twelve novels written by Brian and Kevin, while there are only six novels written by the original author. For someone who is new to Dune, that means you will have to worm your way through perhaps six novels that are inferior in every which way to the originals, before you reach the originals.

Dune, Book 7 in the Dune SeriesIt took me a minute to figure out what Secher was talking about. What do you mean, you have to worm your way through the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson prequels before tackling the original Dune? And then it hit me that there are plenty of readers out there whose natural inclination is to read a series in fictive chronological order. Under that scheme, Secher’s right: The Butlerian Jihad comes first, and then The Machine Crusade, and then more BH/KA subpar-ness, and finally you hit the original Dune several thousand pages later.

So the question is: in what order should you read an SF/F series, and why?

It’s an especially pertinent question to genre fiction, because serial storytelling is so much a part of what we do. I don’t recall anyone ever arguing or much caring whether you should read Richard Ford‘s Independence Day before The Sportswriter, or God forbid skip straight to The Lay of the Land. Even most genre fiction besides science fiction doesn’t have this problem; I don’t think Sue Grafton gives a bloody razor whether you read E Is for Evidence before G Is for Gingivitis or P Is for Pterodactyl. (What, those aren’t the actual titles? Fine, you go look them up.)

But in science fiction and fantasy, it matters deeply whether the Empire struck back before or after the clones attacked. When I sit my children down to watch the Star Wars movies, you can be damn sure that I will make sure they’re properly shocked and surprised to see (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader reveal himself as Luke Skywalker’s father. And I will continue to send anonymous nastygrams to HarperCollins editors insisting that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes before The Magician’s Nephew until they pry those old editions from my cold, dead hands.

This peculiarity of science fiction and fantasy and related genres is a weakness related, I think, to the overemphasis we often place on the plot in such stories. The obsession with “spoilers” is a related weakness. It reduces stories to a hollow enterprise of surface tension and mechanical plot twists. As if an SF/F story is nothing more than manipulative melodrama + funky SFnal idea.

But it’s a weakness I share with so many others. Believe me, if someone had told me ahead of time what happens at the Red Wedding in book 3 of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire,” I would have been pissed.

So back to the question. What order should you read the books in? The easy answer, of course, is that you should read the series in whatever order the author believes you should read it in. It’s the author’s world, after all, and the author’s decision.

The Magician\'s Nephew, Book 1But can we always trust an author to know what’s right for his/her series? George Lucas would have you believe that you’ll get the most out of the Star Wars series if your first exposure to it is through the lens of a mercantile dispute between the Trade Federation and the planet of Naboo. And yet the number of people who would prefer to have seen episodes I-III of Star Wars before episodes IV-VI could probably fit into Yoda’s jockstrap. C.S. Lewis is on record telling readers to start the Narnia series with the somewhat-lacking sixth book, The Magician’s Nephew, instead of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Isaac Asimov suggested that you should read Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation before actually tackling Foundation, which is kind of, well, dumb.

I can think of a number of authors whose judgment grew somewhat… suspect, I guess you could say, as they grew older. Robert Heinlein didn’t hesitate to start trotting out old characters and planting seeds in long-fallow fields as he grumbled his way towards the grave. Orson Scott Card seems hell-bent on creating alternate storylines in the Ender universe, creating great consternation for borderline OCD sufferers like me who can’t decide whether to file Ender’s Shadow before Speaker for the Dead (where it belongs chronologically) or after Children of the Mind (where it belongs in order of publication). (Honestly, I think he would have been better off stopping after Speaker for the Dead.)

So let me answer the fucking question already. Personally, my feeling is that, when presented with a series of interconnected SF novels, it’s best to follow order of publication. I find that there’s a fascinating progression in the way authors gradually develop and unveil their imaginary universes which is part of the fun. One of the oldest and most satisfying traditions of Western literature is to begin stories in medias res, just like Homer did in The Odyssey. This lets the reader develop a sense of the characters, the setting, and the conflict; it gives us a viewpoint for the background that’s to follow. And it taps into that Western cultural drive for discovery. Give us something to explore! Show us the map, point out that blank area on the edge where Thar Be Dragons, and then let us get on over there and explore the sucker. Only textbooks start off by explaining everything outright. Where’s the fun in that?

Of course, there are exceptions where the first published work shouldn’t necessarily be read first. I’m thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which was begun decades before The Lord of the Rings ever saw the light of day — in the trenches during World War I, if I’m not mistaken — but only hit the shelves posthumously in 1977. Even had he completed the book back before LOTR hit the shelves, The Silmarillion would have been, frankly, unpublishable. And yet… if you crack open The Fellowship of the Ring without knowing anything about the First Age and the struggle against Morgoth for the Silmarils, you’re missing crucial context that Tolkien clearly intended to put there all along.

But to Secher Nbiw and all those neophyte Dune readers out there, I say: you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you pick up Dune and work your way through all six Frank Herbert books before you tackle the BH/KA books.

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  1. David J. Williams on June 12, 2008 at 12:24 pm  Chain link

    Great post, DLE. To which I would only add that part of the issue here is that prequels rolled out AFTER a franchise has attained mega-popularity tend to be incredibly self-referential. So even if we put aside, say, the literary quality of the Dune prequels, one of the ones I picked up (I forget which) has Baron Harkonnen on the first page, and emphasizes how thin the man is. Obviously this only takes on significance if we’ve already read Dune itself, and it’s clearly meant as an inside joke. Star Wars I-III are riddled with this kind of thing, sufficiently so as to undermine any assertion by Lucas that watching them first is really the best way to go (again, leaving aside the quality issue).

  2. David Louis Edelman on June 12, 2008 at 12:54 pm  Chain link

    If I remember correctly, the thin Baron Harkonnen reference is on the very first page of the very first prequel BH & KA wrote (Dune: House Atreides). Maybe even in the very first sentence.

  3. Colleen on June 12, 2008 at 5:07 pm  Chain link

    Oh, gods yes! I have been combing the shelves trying to find Narnia books that are in the “correct” order – the one in which we are just as new to Narnia as Lucy is when she goes through the wardrobe for the first time. I actually wrote a similar (but less elegantly worded) diatribe on my own blog when I went to go see Prince Caspian. And I don’t think that all writers know what’s going to happen to their world when they set out with book 1 – even if they end up writing prequels. Prequels are meant to add richness and possibly even nostalgia to a collected body of work. Those self-referential tendencies that David Williams brings up are part of that. How much less would you enjoy them if you didn’t even know they were there? How much less moving is the wonderment of Narnia if you walk into the wardrobe knowing what you’re going to see?

  4. ET on June 12, 2008 at 5:32 pm  Chain link

    Good luck with that Colleen – if you find one, let us know! My ancient boxed paperback set is starting to wear out and the one time I trusted someone enough to loan them out… yep, didn’t get one back.

    DLE, I think you’re right on the money, and your response neatly covers posthumous collaborations as well. That said, I agree that there are exceptions. I think there are probably a couple of long-running and wide-ranging series that can be read in any order (I’m thinking particularly of the Darkover novels here, and some of Heinlein, although I suspect others would occur to me if I wandered in the other room to scope the bookshelves.) I agree with you in principle about The Silmarillion, although it would be a bit of a slog to get to the trilogy reading that first.

  5. George Pedrosa on June 12, 2008 at 9:51 pm  Chain link

    Interesting topic, interesting article. I actually spent some time thinking to myself in what order my girlfriend should watch Star Wars. I decided to show her IV, and V first, so as not to spoil the Darth Vader revelation (and because they serve as a better introduction to the series), then I showed her I, II and III. It was interesting to realize that the revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings works better that way. She thought the other twin would die, and was very surprised when Padme named her Leia. Finally, I showed her VI.

    The only problem was she thought that Return of the Jedi would be something of a Greek tragedy, with Luke finding out that his lover is his sister, and that would help bringing him to the Dark Side. Kind of a disappointment, I guess…

  6. David Louis Edelman on June 12, 2008 at 10:17 pm  Chain link

    George: I’ve heard of people showing the Star Wars films in that order before. The way I saw it expressed was that films IV and V take place in the “present,” and then films I-III are a kind of flashback of Darth Vader’s, triggered presumably by the discovery that he has a son. Finally film VI wraps things up.

    Not sure if I’d actually show someone the films in that order for the first time, but it’s an interesting idea.

  7. hnu on June 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm  Chain link

    I have published the Romanian edition of the first trilogy of DUNE prequels (the Houses books), with The Butlerian Jihad and the rest to follow soon. I would have never thought that these should be read before the original series and I’d never recommend to anyone that reading order. And I have always referenced these prequels to the original
    I think that each series has, besides its fictional chronology, a specific inside logical order, which is, more often than not, the one in which the books were written (and not necessarily published, nota bene!).
    And, reading DLE’s post it occured to me to try and remember another series, besides LOTR + The Silmarillion, where I’d recommend the fictional chronology over the writing dates as a reading order. Couldn’t find any on the spot, but there probably are some. And, as a coincidence, I was just thinking these last two days in which order I should publish the DARKOVER books… Any ideas there?

  8. Davor on June 29, 2010 at 6:56 pm  Chain link

    Yes, the prequels and sequels the son and his friend are writing are sub-par to the original series, but they give satisfaction to us who wish for the show to go on. And why not? At one point I WAS bothered by the fact that they are milking his father’s ideas for all they’re worth, but I now realize that I’m happier with the fact that they are expanding for us the universe Frank Herbert so beautifully created. You could even think of it as approved fan-art (approved by whom… I know, but nevertheless).
    Anyway, the reader should definitely start with the original books, probably without in-between books such as Paul of Dune and The Winds of Dune, and then, if they liked it, they can try the prequels.
    I’ve read the originals, the Butlerian Jihad trilogy and The Sandworms of Dune (I wasn’t aware of the book Hunters of Dune at the time – I got a little pissed of when I realized and it put me off the last book – still haven’t finished it).
    My current plan is to gather up all the books (gonna take time and money) and read them chronologically. And we’ll see where that goes…

  9. Dune Scholar on May 4, 2011 at 10:44 am  Chain link

    The question of correct order is harder when all the books are consistent with each other – at that point you can read any of the books and still understand the essence of the story and the author’s intentions.

    With Dune, however, the new authors have wildly different intentions – as evidenced by the radical changes brought about to Frank Herbert’s canon in all the new books, changes and errors both – and they’ve warped the essence of the (wildly popular) original Dune universe – both subtly and sometimes not subtly at all.

    Reconciling the drastic changes in the Duniverse from the old series to the new is impossible, notwithstanding the attempts by KJA/BH to do so. If you care about the integrity of storylines, plots, settings, themes, etc… then the new books leave you shaking your head in bewilderment – even disgust and sometimes actual anger, bordering on rage. I don’t know that this same issue exists at such a level among fans of other works of literature (original Dune fans are not even allowed to mention or discuss these issues openly on the official fan site – an example of active censorship to maintain sales of the new books)…

    I am aware, however, that some find the McDune stories entertaining nevertheless… good for them, I say. The LCD is a broad base, and appealing to that demographic will get you monetary successes, especially if from the back of such a critically acclaimed series as FH’s Dune Chronicles.

    The irony is that Frank Herbert’s stated intention in writing Dune in the first place was NOT to cater to the LCD with pulp, but to write stories that required the exercise of critical thought and potentially inspired readers to deeply revisit what it means to be human… within the context of literary entertainment. This is demonstrably NOT what the new books do, or even aim for – to the chagrin of those whose lives were changed for the better over the past forty-odd years as a result of reading Dune.

  10. Anthony Zanos on June 25, 2011 at 9:50 pm  Chain link

    I’m currently considering in which order to RE-READ the Dune series, having read the originals as a teenager/20-something then discovering the prequels in my 30s. Now in my 40s, I am ready to once again enter the Dune universe. I’m thinking of beginning at the prequels just because it’s opposite to what I did originally.

    The question equally applies to the Sword of Shannara series … Terry Brooks dropped the ball a little with the near-future series (I’ll forgive him for that as we were all ecstastic by the mere idea when we learnt they were going to be written), however having begun reading the new ‘prequels’ I believe the difficulty involved in reading the ‘original’ ones was necessary to endure – in return for the pure bliss of experiencing Terry return to his current form.

    Anthony Zanos – Australia

  11. LE on October 13, 2011 at 11:40 pm  Chain link

    Being in my 60’s? I recently wanted to re-read the entire Dune collection to see if my particular attraction to this series has change or evolved. Recently, I purchased the series in eBook format. (my old paperbacks falling apart, no room for new). I have probably read the first 6 books 20 times over the years, however, have not followed through with Brian’s prequels. Figured it was about time to buckle under and read them all. Personally, my OCD reaction is to read first written to last. It is a problem as every time a new book (or movie for that matter) in a beloved series comes out; I have to read them all in sequence…again. Happily, tackling the first 6 books still evokes the same sense of excitement it did when I was in my teens. Virtually all the well thought out comments above, indicate the choice is moot, and personal. Fleshing them out with the pre-quels should be entertaining regardless of their philosophical or thoughtful impact. All of Frank Herbert’s books have been inspirational throughout my life, I am looking forward to deciding if Brian can, at least, tell a good story!

  12. Mark on December 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm  Chain link

    Thanks. I was wondering whether to read chronologically or in order of publication. I was leaning more towards order of publication and you confirmed that for me. Great argument.

  13. Marg on March 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm  Chain link

    Two points – first I must have read Dune series original 20 years ago and was raptly taken in and gobbled up all of his books but began losing interest with some of the
    after books (as I think of them). I downloaded a sample of the Sisterhood of Dune and I realize I am lost with so much history but there appear to be a lot of prequels etc and I would like help getting oriented here -though the writing is not up to the original I find my craving is back to go to Dune. Suggestions…

    Second as an age old sf/f reader as well as a Sue Grafton reader you should not comment on what you have not read. Though her books stand alone and they are “easy” reads they lighten your day and order oddly does matter as she develops her main character throughout the series…no I have not read them all but…the simplicity ocassionally is just what I need – like a good joke makes you smile.

  14. David Louis Edelman on March 9, 2012 at 10:47 am  Chain link

    Marg: I meant no offense to Sue Grafton or her readers. Haven’t read any of her books, but I know people who have and love them.

  15. Venor on March 19, 2012 at 10:45 pm  Chain link

    just a suggestion here but i read dune in my early teens. haven’t read it since so i have no idea either of the chronological, written, or publication of anything past dune. Also your pge comes up as the first result for dume recommended reading order; perhaps, you would be so kind as to provide links to pages with each? also your argument is very compellimg amd I shall be reading the series in publication order.

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