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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.