Finding the On-Ramp

I hear this all the time from fans and even casual consumers of popular culture… “You have to start at the beginning.”

But then, often in the next breath, “It doesn’t really get good until the second season.” Or “…the third book.” Or whatever.

So why not start when it gets good?

We live in a world now where everything is available. Popular culture isn’t an ephemeral thing any more. Canceled TV shows are available on disc or streaming on the internet — even crappy ones that no one watched when they aired. (My personal benchmark for who-the-hell-was-asking-for-THIS-one is probably Street Hawk, though Broken Badges is definitely a contender as well. Both inexplicably available on DVD, though if you spend more than a dollar on either you should be ashamed.)

My point is, if once you are HOOKED on a thing you want to then go back and catch up on all the backstory, it’s available to you. But often “the beginning” is not the best place to start. In fact, my personal on-ramps to most of my favorite series things were usually somewhere in the middle. Here are a few examples.

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Tarzan: Confining myself to the novels here, though really my introduction to Tarzan was Ron Ely. But the real, Burroughs Tarzan, I first encountered and fell in love with at age ten by reading the FIFTH in the series, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. First as a Gold Key comic by Russ Manning and then going to the library and finding the book.

It’s a story that’s one-stop shopping for everything cool about Tarzan, and by this fifth outing Burroughs had nailed it down. You’ve got vile white hunters, sinister Arab hordes, the high priestess La and the beast-men of Opar (the best lost city Burroughs ever created), Jane and the Waziri, and the great apes (“mangani”) and their culture… all introduced with a minimum of fuss in the course of a plot filled with twists and counter-twists that unfolds at a breakneck pace.

I’m not the only one that feels this way– this was the story Roy Thomas chose to adapt as the opening arc when Marvel Comics got the Tarzan license in the mid-70s, and for pretty much the reasons I gave. It’s got EVERYTHING.

As an added bonus, there is far less of the problematic racist attitude and addlepated jungle lore than you would find in Tarzan of the Apes. After you dip your toe in this end of the pool, sure, go back and get caught up if you want to know about how Tarzan became lord of the jungle and met Jane and all of that. But the best introduction to the Burroughs version of Tarzan is Opar.

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Robert A. Heinlein: As an introduction, I think we can safely skip the first novel of Mr. Heinlein– technically, this would be Rocket Ship Galileo, the first of the juveniles, but really it’s Revolt in 2100 — but both are horribly dated and either one, if it’s the introduction to the man’s work, will leave readers wondering how the hell that guy ever got to be a Grand Master. When it comes to introducing his work to a new reader most people say Heinlein’s masterpiece is Stranger In A Strange Land, though some folks opt for Starship Troopers or The Past Through Tomorrow.

Not me. For the juveniles, I think it’s gotta be Have Space Suit Will Travel, and for adults it’s Friday.

Both are recognizably Heinlein-esque, with his trademark libertarian man-is-the-toughest-animal-in-the-galaxy philosophy well in evidence, but in both of these books the social commentary is done with a much lighter hand, layered underneath a delicious candy coating of headlong adventure on a galactic scale. Neither is nearly as oppressively polemic as Heinlein often could be (like in the aforementioned Stranger or Starship Troopers) and there’s real, far-ranging SF extrapolation going on as well.

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Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe: The first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, is a MESS. It’s cobbled together out of several different previously-published short stories and it comes across as a bit schizophrenic. The next one, Farewell My Lovely, is better, but it was another patchwork job recycling older short pieces and is a little incoherent in its plotting as well.

No, the best introduction to Chandler is the Philip Marlowe collection Trouble Is My Business, a book where the short pieces are left intact to stand on their own. It’s a terrific sampler and it gives you a great sense of what all the shouting is about.

As for the novels, frankly I’d start with The Long Goodbye, which for my money is peak Chandler prose, before Hollywood and alcohol destroyed him. (Speaking of, his last full novel, Playback, is to be avoided at all costs; it is a sad legacy to a great talent.) The plot of Long Goodbye meanders a bit– plotting was not Chandler’s strong suit — but unlike some of the other books, this one comes together beautifully at the end. It’s a damn shame that the movie with Elliott Gould is so awful. For that matter, none of the movies really do Chandler and Marlowe justice, though Bogart and Mitchum got close. But the BEST adaptation is the HBO version with Powers Boothe.

It’s criminal that it’s no longer available on home video, though you can find it used for gouger’s prices. There are a couple of them up on YouTube, as well.

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Narnia: I was thinking about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books this morning mostly because Bilquis Evely shared a sketch of Jadis of Charn, who left that dead world for Narnia and rose to power as the White Witch.

Jadis and her backstory were revealed in The Magician’s Nephew, which was the first Narnia book I read and in the new editions it is presented as the first in the series, since it deals with Narnia’s creation.

But it was actually the sixth one published. The FIRST one is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is why that was the first one made into a movie.

But neither one of those is the one I’d present to an interested newbie. No, I’d give them The Silver Chair.

It’s the best-plotted of the series, and there are wonderfully tantalizing hints about the other books that make you want to read them all, yet it’s a completely satisfying one-off. Plus the Christian allegory is minimal (as opposed to, say, The Last Battle, where it’s laid on so thick that it’s frankly annoying.)

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I could go on and on, but this is getting a bit long as it is. Let’s call it the first in an irregular series… because I never got around to the best starting points for Travis McGee or Arthur C. Clarke or Mike Hammer or Conan the Barbarian or Nero Wolfe or… well, you get the idea. And I’m sure you all have recommendations of your own, as well as those of you are anxiously waiting to tell me where I’m wrong.

Have at it down in the comments, and I’ll be back next week with something cool.

28 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I believe the first Narnia book I read was Voyage Of The Dawntreader, which did an excellent job of hooking me.

    But, to answer the thesis of this article, I give two examples:

    Start Babylon 5 at the beginning, (but not In The Beginning), it doesn’t really get good until the second season.
    Discworld doesn’t really get good until the third book.

    Hmm… interesting that both my examples work in exactly the way you phrased them…
    My first Discworld book was Moving Pictures (which is the tenth book). Reading it was a pleasure, and starting so late in the series did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of it.

    However, with B5, season 1 sets up so much of what you see in season 2 that you can’t really enjoy / appreciate what’s going on in season 2 without the (lesser) season 1. (I think, I watched that one from the beginning.)

    Basically, I think it depends on how serialised it is. Do you need to read / watch the lead-up to appreciate the later works? If so, you may need to start at the beginning. If not, jump in where you want.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Definitely true about B5. Season one is kind of shaky, as they were busy establishing characters and the world. However, the arc-centric episodes are so good that they make up for the weaker ones. Originally, I was pretty on the fence about the series, until Mr Morden was introduced, in “Signs and Portents.” That made me stick around, even through boring episodes revolving around bad kickboxing. The season finale clinched it, with the assassination plot and betrayals.

      By the same token, Season 4 just covers so much great narrative territory that Season 5 wasn’t left with much (since it originally wasn’t going to happen). When it did get greenlit, they were left spinning their wheels for a bit. The emotional impact comes in the latter third, and the really fun Psi-Corps-perspective episode standing out.

      In regards the B5 media tie-ins, start the novels with To Dream in the City of Sorrows and skip most of the earlier ones. They don’t really connect well to the series; but, this one deals with Sinclair on Minbar and the training of the Rangers. It deals with Marcus’ backstory and also explains what happened to Catherine Sakai (Sinclair’s fiance) and why he was so willing to take that final journey that closed his arc. Peter David’s Centauri trilogy is probably the best of the bunch, focusing on Londo and Vir, as Londo ascends to the throne and Vir steps out of the shadows to assume a role that will surprise, if you only saw him at the beginning of the series.

      The comics are fine, though the final issue of the regular series, from the Psi Corps point of view, is by far the best and does tie into the series. The earlier issues cover Sinclair’s arrival on Minbar and a conspiracy and then Garibaldi’s time on Mars, before coming to B5. Later, they covered the arrival of Valen, on Minbar, in the past, creating the society that would later produce Delenn and Neroon.

        1. Jeff Nettleton

          David wrote “Soul Mates,” where we are introduced to Timov, Daggaire and Mariel, Londo’s three wives. The dialogue is a hoot, especially Timov. David brings Timov heavily into the story. We also see Galen, the technomage from Crusade, who helps stir things up. It’s set after the Drakh have begun inserting their influence on Centauri Prime, as Vir becomes part of a conspiracy to expose them and drive them off. We see Londo’s heroic efforts to protect those he loves, and his people from the Drakh threat. We get the unseen parts of his meeting with Sheridan and Delenn, as seen in “War Without End” and “In the Beginning.” We get the full force of Londo’s end and the actions that will make Vir emperor. David really had a handle on Vir and Londo and the Centauri, as a whole.

  2. frasersherman

    I’d pick Mitchum over Boothe. And Farewell my Lovely is where I started and it blew me away. It also rereads better than Long Goodbye, which is less entertaining when I know the Big Reveal.
    Jewels of Opar is great though nothing beats the shock of seeing how Tarzan/Jane turns out at the end of Book One. especially as I was in one of those periods where not much Tarzan was available.
    On the other hand, the original Mars trilogy is definitely the place to go for Barsoom.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Interesting that you mention the Tarzan comics – that was actually my introduction to Tarzan, if you don’t count the Ron Ely show and a few of the b&w movies. I came in somewhere near the end of John Buscema’s run on the title, after which kid brother Sal took up the art chores. That got me interested in reading the books, which like a good completist I stared with the first one. Never gave it much thought, as I’ve never gone back and re-read those books, but you’re probably right about the Jewels of Opar being a good starting point (although honestly, I think Jungle Tales was my personal favorite of the original books by Burroughs).

    Heinlein is a writer I don’t like as much as I used to back in my teens, but I definitely agree about Have Spacesuit…, although I also think two of his other juveniles, Red Planet and Starman Jones, are pretty solid. As for his other stuff, I think the absolute best one to read is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It really a well-written, tightly plotted novel, and the way he presented his usual economic, social and political/philosophical commentary didn’t weigh down the story or make it seem preachy. (And I’ve always thought some of his other novels that are usually included in those occasional “must-read” SF lists, like Stranger in a Strange Land and Number of the Beast, are totally overrated).

    Don’t really have an opinion on Chandler and the Marlowe books – only read two of them and found them just all right (I’m more of a Hammett fan myself).
    And my first Narnia book was The Horse and His Boy – don’t know if that’s the best place to start, but it’s still my most fondly remembered book from that series. I really like the characters: the horse, his boy, the other horse and her girl.

    As for the Travis McGee books, what’s wrong with the Deep Blue Good-by? That’s the one I started with – actually it’s the only one I’ve read so far, but it’s really good and it prompted me to purchase some of the others (which have yet to be read).

    1. I’m curious to hear what you think the best starting point for Sherlock Holmes is, Greg. I’m not an expert, but when I read them in college I was thinking Sign of Four was really where we got everything that I associate with Holmes.

      Me too. Sign of Four is my pick.

      As for the Travis McGee books, what’s wrong with the Deep Blue Good-by?

      Nothing… except that most of the other ones are BETTER.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    My intro to Discworld was Night Watch, which features City Watch commander Sam Vimes travelling back through time and meeting his younger self, assuming the role of his old mentor. I knew nothing of the characters, but have found that I like the City Watch books best. They are police procedurals with the twist of a fantasy world police force, with humans, dwarves, trolls, a werewolf, and some others, with a cynical and satirical edge. The Witches are a close second. Night Watch turned out to be a perfect entry point as it lets you meet the characters in the present, then see their younger days.

    For Discworld proper, Equal Rites is where I really thought Pratchett found his voice, after the somewhat uneven Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (which really form one story). Rincewind was always a bit weak of a character for me, and even Pratchett admitted it was hard to write for a character who was always running from trouble. He worked better when he shared space with the faculty of Unseen University. For the Witches, Witches Abroad is the one I think is stronger, of the early ones. Wyrd Sisters is fine parody; but, the personalities are better formed in Abroad. of course, Granny Weatherwax had a great debut, in Equal Rites. For the Tiffany Aching books, you have to start at the beginning. You really need to see Tiffany grow into her role, gain confidence and experience, and take responsibility for things. I just wish Pratchett’s health hadn’t declined so badly, as Shepherd’s crown really feels like he had a lot of massaging to do, to really give it the ending he wanted. It and Raising Steam, feel like they were kind of sped up because his health was going into a steep decline. By contrast, Snuff, the last City Watch book, is as solid as any that came before.

    Ironically, NPR just had a piece about the terms of Pratchett’s will being carried out. He didn’t want unfinished works being drug out and potentially mishandled, after his death; so, he dictated that his hard drive, with his unfinished works, was to be destroyed. In keeping with the glory of Discworld, it was smashed by a vintage steamroller.

  5. Donmilliken

    It’s funny, I was just reading another article about this very subject, though that one was focused specifically on tv shows available for streaming on Netflix. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Just because something ended up being great doesn’t mean it started out that way, a lot of series take a while to find their voice and there is absolutely no reason to start at the beginning if you don’t have to.

    A couple of personal examples:

    I didn’t start watching Deep Space 9 until season two. This was back before catching up on shows if you’d missed previous episodes wasn’t that easy and for years I regretted missing that first season. Of course, I now know the first season was terrible and the show doesn’t even start getting good until season two, so that actually worked out okay.

    On the other hand, starting at the beginning nearly turned me off the Discworld series entirely. Thankfully, something made me decide to get The Colour of Magic out of the library again and give it another shot. Which reminds me I still haven’t read the last few Discworld books. I’ll get around to them eventually, but I think part of me feels like as long as there are some out there I haven’t read, the series isn’t really over.

    1. Le Messor

      “I think part of me feels like as long as there are some out there I haven’t read, the series isn’t really over.”

      I have a friend who’s the same. His favourite series is Wheel Of Time, but he can’t bring himself to read the last book so there’ll always be more Wheel Of Time to look forward to.

  6. Louis Bright-Raven

    Greg Hatcher: “My personal benchmark for who-the-hell-was-asking-for-THIS-one is probably Street Hawk.”

    Bruce Lansbury (Producer for WILD, WILD WEST and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, two of your all time favorite TV shows as I recall) is the one who “asked” for it and developed it. I figure given that at the time that KNIGHT RIDER was entering it’s third season and the original AIRWOLF debuted at roughly the same time (they would have aired the same fall season of 1984, but ABC pushed HAWK as a mid-season replacement to January 1985), it really isn’t too much of a shocker that somebody’d do an amped up super-motorcycle show, too. I really liked STREET HAWK’s opening theme music by Tangerine Dream / Christopher Franke. The actual show… I don’t know. I was 12 when it aired, and it was seemingly better than anything else on at 8 PM on a Friday night (Central time zone – aired 9 PM everywhere else and if I’d had to wait until 9 PM I probably wouldn’t have watched it because IIRC I was usually in bed by 9:30 PM in that era anyway – it competed against DALLAS which I had absolutely no interest in, and NBC’s HUNTER, which for whatever reasons didn’t appeal to me comparatively though later I would watch HUNTER in reruns and of course it is the better series, but I think I just liked STREET HAWK as the SF super heroics and it was just goofy enough to appeal to my child side). One season was certainly enough of that, though.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Yeah it’s Smith, aka Black Daredevil. I’m really glad they didn’t go through with Iron Man, at that time, as it was in development for a Hulk movie or stand-alone. I can only imagine how bad the armor would have been with the budget those things had. The Death of the Incredible Hulk was the only one I thought was any good (though the “death” was ludicrous), making great use of a pseudo-Black Widow, as well as the always excellent Andreas (G’Kar) Katsulas.

        1. Le Messor

          “Iron Man, at that time, as it was in development for a Hulk movie or stand-alone. I can only imagine how bad the armor would have been”

          I don’t think I knew about that. The first this is, though, he wouldn’t have been able to fly.

          1. Le Messor

            Funny, I’m just listening to Storybook Love right now.
            I always thought he looked like the Dread Pirate Wesley in those 12 episodes. (Not to mention my TV watching at the moment is season 2 – second viewing.)

            That said, I don’t love the Netflix Marvel shows. I don’t care if they’re critically acclaimed; they’re brutal and much less fun than the movies.

            * I did that on purpose.

      2. Louis Bright-Raven

        Travis:

        Honestly, if the only way I could ever see the show again was by buying it on DVD, I can’t say I wouldn’t buy it just for sake of nostalgia / shits and giggles. (Thankfully we can see most anything through the internet these days for ‘free’.) But yeah, I somehow misread the context of what Greg had said. And yes, it’s Rex Smith AKA Daredevil from Trial of Incredible Hulk, though honestly I preferred him in STREET HAWK than as Daredevil. But then I REALLY, REALLY loathed those Hulk movies. (I tend to think everybody hated that Hulk movie, because NBC/Universal was very high on doing a Rex Smith DAREDEVIL TV series with the movie introducing the character to viewers, but the movie was so poorly received they never got the series production green lighted as I recall.)

        Jeff :

        I agree DEATH OF was the best of the Bixby movies by far, though the actual death scene was sooo horrendous for anybody who actually understood who / what the Hulk was in comics. But I think in retrospect looking at it in the context of how the character was portrayed on TV, it sort of worked. (Hulk wasn’t covering 20-50 miles each hop, had an upper strength limit in conjunction with Ferrigno’s real life abilities which were considerable enough to seem like ‘super strength’… he was not ‘invulnerable’ in the TV series, just had a high metabolic rate and could heal fast, etc.) So technically, I suppose given the injuries he could have sustained in the explosion of the plane, the fall to his death from the exploding plane could have been high enough and the impact great enough to kill him, Jeff. But as fans of the character overall, we still look upon it as totally lame and unbelievable.

        And you’re right, the ‘pseudo Black Widow’ character Jasmin was awesome. (And the actress who played the role, Elizabeth Gracen, would later become better known as Amanda on HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN.)

      3. Andrew Collins

        I LOVED Street Hawk when I was 10. I have avoided watching it as an adult though. I just know it won’t be the same.

        And as for everything being available on DVD, I am still aching to get the 80’s Mike Hammer TV series with Stacy Keach on DVD. All we have so far are the first two TV movies Keach did, but the rest of the show is in limbo for some reason.

  7. Greg Burgas

    I think Friday was my first Heinlein book – I haven’t read a lot of Heinlein, but I’m pretty sure that was the first one I did read. If you want to know why, just look at the cover again!

    I had heard that new versions of the Narnia stories put The Magician’s Nephew first, which is idiotic. There’s this compulsion to put everything in chronological order, even though thematically, The Magician’s Nephew is exactly where it should be, coming as it does right before the end of Narnia while showing the beginning of Narnia. Stupid literalists! It’s like that cut-up version of The Godfather showing it in chronological order. There’s no reason for that stupidity!!!!!

    1. I read the Narnia books back in second grade (so…ho-lee, 30 damn years ago!), and I remember back then, there was a listing of the books in the chronological order. It may have been listed on a book cover or something — “Book 5 of the Narnia story, book 1 chronologically”, perhaps. I dunno. I don’t really remember much of the books at all, though, so I can’t say if thematically they’re where they oughta be.

      1. Greg Burgas

        Huh, that’s weird. I read them a bit earlier than that, but not too much, and they didn’t have any kind of listing like that on them. I guess they figured people were too d-u-m to figure it out on their own (not you, though, Travis, because we all know you’re a genius!). And yes, they’re definitely where they ought to be thematically in the order they’re “traditionally” read. The first four are chronological, you can’t really appreciate The Horse and His Boy until you get more background on Narnia, and The Magician’s Nephew is linked to The Last Battle in that it’s the alpha to the omega. Plus, the White Witch is so much more interesting in the first book if we don’t know her origin already. Only when we see what she did to Narnia can we appreciate what she did to Charn and how that led her to loathe Narnia so much. The way she is wrapped up in Narnia’s birth, thereby planting the seeds of its destruction, is a good contrast to the birth of the “true Narnia” in The Last Battle.

        Yeah, I’ve read these books a lot over the years, if you can’t tell.

        1. On top of that, I think the reveals that you get reading the Magician’s Nephew in the original order (6 out of 7) about who Digory is and what the deal is with the lamppost and the wardrobe, etc, are far more entertaining and satisfying than the experience you get reading that book first.

          My friend agrees, but says it’s because The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is such a superior book that if someone starts with The Magician’s Nephew, they might not go any further.

          1. Greg Burgas

            Ben: That’s an excellent point. It’s fun to think, “Hey, so that’s where that came from!” when you read The Magician’s Nephew. It has much more of an impact.

            I think all the books are about the same in quality of writing, though. I like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe better simply because it was the first one and I read it more often before I even knew there were sequels, but they’re all pretty good books.

  8. M-Wolverine

    I will take no insults towards Broken Badges. It had the late, great Miguel Ferrer with a cajun accent. Do you hear me?! A-CAJUN-ACCENT. (RIP) And, apparently, a lot of Charlotte Lewis blinking. (Wow, who cut that opening; and Broken Badges gets 1:48 opening). Who didn’t cry during the “Love Hurts” scene at the jukebox? You know you did.

  9. My way of turning people onto Raymond Chandler used to be that I would just hand them Farewell, My Lovely and have them read the first page to get a sense of what I love about his writing. And that was by no means randomly selected: It’s a hell of a first page.

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