Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chronological Controversies in Fiction

I was reading Neil Gaiman's new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, today.  In the book Neil referenced C. S. Lewis's Narnia series of books, and as often happens when I read, this sent my mind off on thoughts of my first experiences of reading those books.  This led to additional thoughts on the internal chronology of book series versus the order of their writing/publication. 

For some reason, I never got around to reading Narnia as a child or teen, which is surprising for several reasons.  The foremost reason is that I was (and still am) a great lover of Tolkien, and I knew that he and Lewis were friends and often shared their works in progress with one another.  So I'd obviously heard of Narnia, but for whatever reason, I didn't get around to checking it out until I was an adult, and was making the attempt to read a broad swash of fantasy literature to broaden my own knowledge of the genre.

When I decided to start the Narnia series, I didn't really think much about the chronology of the series, I simply went to the bookstore and bought the Narnia book that had a large number one on the cover, which surely was the book one should start with, no?  This was of course the one called "The Magician's Nephew."

I read the book and found myself a bit disappointed.  It really didn't do much for me, and thus I didn’t follow up with reading the other books for quite a while.  My experience with TMN led me to believe the Narnia books just weren't all they were cracked up to be.  There was also the strange feeling I had while reading TMN that the author assumed I knew more than I did about the world of Narnia. 

A few years later the first of the Narnia films was released:  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  I saw the film and quite enjoyed it, but I wondered why this one was made first, and not TMN.  My thought at the time was that perhaps they'd taken what was the best of the books and made that movie first.  Of course, this wasn't the case.  What they'd done is taken the first book that was written and published in the series and made that the first film.  I acquired that book and read it, finding it much better, in my opinion, than TMN.  I almost felt I had been ripped off by the publisher listing TMN as the first book.  Sure, the events of that book took place at an earlier time than TLTW&TW, but it was actually the sixth book written.  Not only does this sixth book seem to assume the reader has some knowledge of the first five, but reading it first takes away some of the charm and delight of reading TLTW&TW first, when we have no idea what the wardrobe does, and we discover Narnia slowly and with subtlety. 

I've since learned that there is something of a controversy among Lewis's fans over the order in which the books should be read.  Well, put me firmly in the camp of original writing order.  I find this applies to most if not all other series of books and films that I've enjoyed.  Take for example the Star Wars films.  I believe that now that six of them have been made, George Lucas has stated that viewing them from one to six is appropriate, as he as somehow retconned the whole of the story into something he calls "The Tragedy of Darth Vader."  To me, and to the nine-year-old me that watched Star Wars many times in the theater in the summer of 1977, this is utter bullshit.  Introducing a new viewer to the series with that god-awful mess of a film called The Phantom Menace not only risks turning them off with a far lesser product, but it takes away the power of the earlier (though chronologically later) films as they slowly reveal facts (Such as Darth's relationship to Luke) that are the ultimate moments of those films. 

Another series of books that I was quite fond of as a child, and still continue to revisit from time to time, is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series.  These books now number more than twenty, with more coming, as her son Todd has taken over the helm of writing them.  I read the first six books when I was a kid in the early '80s, then additional ones as they were published.  Since the books jump back and forth through Pern's several thousand year history over the course of many volumes, I could see that a potential controversy similar to the Narnia series could develop.  Does one start reading with the later volume Dragonsdawn, when the colonists first settled Pern, or with the first book in the series that McCaffrey published, Dragonflight?  The author herself weighs in on the matter.  On some of the cover pages of the later novels a blub by McCaffrey states:  The author respectfully suggests that the books in the Pern series be read in the order in which they were published

I couldn't agree more.  Readers deserve to discover the wonders of a rich speculative world by way of the same path that the writer did.