The Right Order

I recently ran across an essay on the right order to watch the Star Wars films. Rather than settling for release-order or chronological-order, he prefers what he’s calling Machete Order which treats the prequels as a flashback between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”.

The idea is to tell it as the story of Luke (not Anakin) and then take a time-out in the middle to explain how [SPOILER] came to be. Notably, he also leaves out “The Phantom Menace” entirely, so you can save yourself from Jar-Jar. Go ahead and check out the link above. He makes a convincing argument for that as the best through-line for the story as well pointing out a couple of glitches along the way.

I was originally going to show Star Wars to my daughter in release order, but as she is now freaking out over Empire’s ending, switching over to Machete order might be a good idea. (An official hat-tip to Shanna Swendson for pointing this out.)

This also got me to thinking about the right order to read/view other multi-episode series. For most series it’s a moot point. Release order and chronological order are the same, and other than intentionally skipping a low point (i.e. Rocky 4, Aliens 3, Star Trek 5, etc.) there’s very little to be gained by mucking around with the order. But some series weren’t written in chronological order.

Notably, the Asimov’s unified Robots and Foundation series was not written in chronological order. Much of this was because they weren’t originally the same story, but in time he decided to patch them together. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the patchwork that was done – it has far too many retcon’s for my taste – but if I had to recommend it to someone, I would urge them to start with the original Foundation trilogy (i.e. the collected Foundation short stories & novellas) and then proceed in publication order. Anything else, and too many secrets and surprises are compromised.

Another one was Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai and related novels, a.k.a. the Childe Cycle. They jump forward and backwards in time, and it’s great seeing things from multiple perspectives. Alas, it doesn’t look like he was actually able to finish it before his death, so I haven’t gotten myself to go past “The Chantry Guild”. I think this one should be read in release order, not chronological order, because some of the prequel books make a lot more sense once you know what happens in the later Dorsai stories.

I have been told that Bujold’s Vorkosigan series was written in non-chronological order, but I flamed out after a book and a half, so I don’t have much of an opinion on the proper order to read this one.

There have been a few TV series that have suffered from being shown out of order. Notably, Fox messed around with Firefly, showing the episodes out of order. The Babylon 5 series Crusade was also shown out of order when TNT ordered a new pilot and different sets and uniforms halfway through the aborted first season. I don’t have strong opinions on the order in which those should be viewed.

I recently asked an author friend about his series. Should I read it chronological or publication order? He said his official answer was that it shouldn’t matter, that he worked to make each of the books sufficiently stand-alone that they did not need to be written in order. My disappointment in his answer must have been obvious in my face because he quickly amended it to say, “But the consensus among my fans is that they should be read in publication order.”

So how about the rest of you? What series have you run into that can – or should – be consumed out of order?

Spoilers, the Untelling of a Story

I hate spoilers. Let me just get that out there. No, I don’t want to know if the butler did it. I don’t even want to know that everyone is going to be okay. I especially don’t want to know that it’s actually the other brother in the vision. I just don’t.

Why? Well, I think I said best a few years ago when I was warning people off from possibly telling spoilers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Spoilers are pure evil. There’s no getting around it.

You see, I’m a writer… an author… whatever. I am a story teller. I have great respect for other story tellers, and one of the things I’ve learned in all these stories is that each person gets to hear the story for the first time only once. They get one shot at it. Only once do their emotions get the full ride. Only once do they nurture hope against all odds. Only once do they feel that utter despair. Only once do they find joy. For ever after, it is merely a retelling.

When you tell them something about the story ahead of time, you rob them of that experience. They’ll never get it back. Nothing you do can repair it.

So don’t.

I don’t really have a lot to add to that sentiment. It’s been a little over four years since then, and I still believe it as firmly today as I did then. The only thing I have to say on it today is that it’s hard.

Hard? How hard can it be? You just don’t tell anyone how the story came out.

Well, it’s not always that simple. Here’s a simple and common situation. You see someone reading a book you have also read, a book you loved, and you’re curious about how far they’ve gotten in the story. One of the simplest and yet most dangerous ways to ask the question is of the form, “Have you gotten to the part where his father dies?” This plays out in one of two ways: “Yes,” and “What? He dies? But how can he die? Fuck, I hate this book!”


But asking them what page they’re on doesn’t tell you much. Was the dad still alive on page 192? A better way is to ask them what’s happening “right now”. This lets them tell you something along the lines of “They’re riding the eagles towards Walter’s castle.” This can be pretty good. It lets you know that the dad is still alive, but you have to take care in how you react. “Ah, Walter’s castle, that’s the sad part.” What do you mean the sad part? What happens? Is Dad going to die? Fuck you!

An even better way is to ask them to let you glance at their place in the book when they get to a stopping point. That way you can scan in each direction and see what’s going on, but keep your reactions in check. You’re playing No-Spoilers Texas Hold’em now, and there’s no mercy at that table.

But the absolute best way to ask this question? Just don’t ask it. When you see them reading the book, smile and say, “I enjoyed that book, and I would love to talk to you about it after you’ve finished.” Because really, that’s what you’re wanting to do. You want to share your reaction to the father’s death with someone else who got to read it the right spoiler-free way. You want to tell them how it affected you and hear their reactions. You want to share that moment with them.

And if you spoil it, they will never have that moment to share with you. Instead, they’ll have the moment where some jerk spoiled it for them.

Yeah, sucks.

Another dangerous area for accidental spoilers is in the “what’s it about?” question. I really enjoyed the Harry Dresden series. I would love to recommend it to all my friends. “Ok,” they say, “what’s it about?” How much can I tell them to whet their appetite before I start getting into spoiler territory?

I think I can safely say that the series is about a wizard in modern-day Chicago. But can I tell them about the army of were-goblins or the wombat mounts? No, there are no were-goblins or riding wombats, but if you’ve read the books, then you just had that kind of just-been-spoiled reaction: were-goblins? Really? And trust me, if he had put were-goblins in the book, their nasty, oily reveal would have been far more impactful then me mentioning them in some blog post.

And then there are the purely academic discussions which can drop spoiler bombs upon the innocent haven’t-read-it-or-seen-it-yet children. The Empire Strikes Back is often held up as a great piece of scriptwriting, right up to the big reveal. Yes, there’s a big reveal. Have I already spoiled it? Or do I have to go on and say what that big reveal is? It’s been thirty-one years since the big reveal. Is it safe to say it yet? Come, surely everyone remembers that big scene on the platform where the guy tells the other guy the big secret, right? The one that changes our entire understanding of the story up to that point?

Well, all I can say is that it was still a big surprise to my daughter when we watched it together for the first time this summer. I saw in her the same reaction I had had as a kid. Was it true? What did that mean about the characters involved? What were their real motivations? Who’s on first – I mean, really on first, not just saying they’re on first? And we still haven’t gotten to Return of the Jedi, so let’s not even broach the other big reveal.

No, my daughter doesn’t read my blog. I know this because of the rarity that “fuck” shows up in her vocabulary. But what other kids haven’t watched it yet? Are there any around where you’re talking about it? At the pizza shop? The subway?

As much as Mr. Lucas has disillusioned me in later years, I still have to show respect to him as a story teller. And he deserves the chance to keep telling that story to new listeners and to tell it the right way. Yes, even George Lucas deserves that chance, and so does my little girl. (And for the record, the “right way” is NOT the special editions, thank-you-very-much-Mr-mess-with-my-childhood!)

So, please, no spoilers. When you give someone a spoiler, you’re not telling them the story. You’re un-telling them the story, because forever after, they can never truly be told that story.

So don’t, and when people slip, call them on it. Even me.

Especially me.