I've seen a lot of questions on here about chronological order versus the published order of books and the best way to read a series. While I understand the desire to create order, are there any series in Science Fiction where the published order is not the acceptable order?

I'm not trying to ask open-ended question. What I mean is, is there series where significant spoilers exist if read in the published order, rather than the chronological order?

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    An example I can think of where this type of question could help is the star wars movies. If someone has never seen any of the movies, would you start them on episode 4 or 1? I can see merits to both approaches. Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 17:16
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    @shadow If they knew nothing about the movies, nothing at all: episode 4, 5, 6, then 1, 2, 3. Otherwise the "I am your father, Luke" moment is completely destroyed. sigh Since no-one today doesn't know who Luke's father is, they are... or: if you have kids, try to surprize them with a showing of Star Wars in the original order, before they'll learn about that whopper from somewhere else. They'll (hopefully ;-)) thank you for it. ;-) Commented Apr 17, 2011 at 17:28
  • @jae Darth Vader doesn't say "Luke." He says "No, I am your father." I read a review a few years ago where a person who hadn't watched the movies did so from 1 to 6. He felt the plot twists in 5 and 6 were made moot by the prequels. Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 21:58
  • @Jack I stand corrected on that detail (wasn't completely sure about the exact phrasing, only that "I am your father" is in there ;-) But you confirm my main point: this surprise is dead when you watch Ep 1 to 3 first. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 9:30
  • It's not restricted to Sci Fi, but see TVTROPES WARNING tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TrailersAlwaysSpoil
    – b_jonas
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 12:54

3 Answers 3


It's common practice for successful Science Fiction and Fantasy franchises and series to include prequels, "sidequels" (stories that take place at the same time as the main series, but are otherwise tangential), and other supplementary works. The idea is that most successful series are set within a rich setting that exists outside the main series narrative.

For example, in the Dune Chronicles, there are dozens of millennia of history that form the backdrop for Dune through Chapterhouse: Dune. After the death of Frank Herbert, his son Brian Herbert wrote several series of books about the events immediately and far preceding Dune. If you've read Dune, you almost certainly know the outcome of those books.

Another example is in J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium, where The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-Earth series are generally set well before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

One final example would be The Chronicles of Narnia, where only 5 of the 7 books in the series are part of the main narrative: one is a prequel that presents the creation myth for the setting, and another is set in the world but really has very little to do with the main narrative.

I mention these three series because whether reading the other books in the series are "spoilers" is dependent on the series.

If you consider the Dune Chronicles, many fans would say Brian Herbert's versions are "reimaginings" and are not really canonical. So while you would definitely know the outcome of the events in them if you read the books in publication order, Brian Herbert's books aren't particularly crucial to the main story. They can be considered merely fan service.

However, in Tolkien's legendarium, The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-Earth are by most accounts canonical: to fully understand the world, you really ought to have read them. But, like the Dune Chronicles, it's a stretch to say that reading The Lord of the Rings prior to The Silmarillion is "spoiling" anything per se: you know what ultimately happens, but the events are so disconnected that there's a whole lot of plot not covered in the original series.

Finally, the reading order vs. publication order for The Chronicles of Narnia is a particularly thorny issue. The Magician's Nephew definitely takes place before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and serves to explain a lot about the motivations behind a central character in the series. Because of this, many people (including some publishers of the series) opt to present the series in chronological order rather than publication order. But C.S. Lewis explicitly indicated that doing so lessens the impact of the series: that you should only read The Magician's Nephew after you find out what happens in the first 5 published books.

But all of this is really a moot point: knowing what happens next is such a small part of the enjoyment of a literary work, especially classic works that are given the liberty to expand their universe via prequels and sequels like the ones above: the plot serves as a means to explore different themes and motifs, and is not an end in and of itself. So it's very hard to say reading in publication order rather than chronological order "spoils" anything.

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    I agree. I think with prequels, for instance, there is a very clear nod to the primary work, that is part of their appeal. The author knows that you know what is going to happen and uses that to create the tension. I would just comment that The Silmarillion isn't really a novel. I've always thought of it more like the Bible. A Creation and early history, that is very detailed and very few people have read it all the way through.
    – Sam
    Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 15:44
  • @Sam I haven't even read The Lord of the Rings all the way through (at least not in one go). ;-) Commented Apr 17, 2011 at 17:32

The best illustration of why it's important can be seen by comparing several series.


In her Pern stories, Anne McCaffrey generally keeps published order and chronological order similar. There are exceptions, most notably Harper Hall trillogy parallels the second two books of the Dragonriders Trillogy, and Moreta and Nerilka predate both, and parallel each other.

Neither Moreta nor Nerilka are that engaging on their own; knowing the related events by the teaching ballad excerpts in the earlier published works increases both enthusiasm for them and the issues of inherited personality traits (without mentioning whether they are genetic or environmental, tho' Jaxom seems to indicate the author believes a mixture of both).

In this case, reading in publication order is superior, tho' either trillogy is a fine start point; Dragonriders second already has spoilers galore in Harper Hall, but if one reads Dragonflight and then Harper Hall, they are minimized. Moreta and Nerilka answer questions which arise only from reading the Dragonriders and Harper Hall trillogies. Later works include multiple time frames in the same volume, and build upon prior works in both timeline chunks, but again, publication order is essentially chronological order for each of the 3 major timeframes.


In the case of Bujold's Vorkosigan series, I have read them in both publication order and chronological order. With the exception of Cetaganda, they work best in a unique order: The Warriors Apprentice OR the omnibus Cordelia's Honor as start point. Then the other. Then chronological following of miles. Then the distant prequel, Falling Free, followed by Ethan of Athos, as, like Moreta and Nerilka, they answer questions raised in the main, but unlike those two, either can stand alone viably. Cetaganda suffers slightly for this, but it is an excellent book in its own right.

Captain VorPatril's Alliance and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen are novels that seem to stand alone; Gentleman is strongly tied to many items; it benefits even from following the side novels. It's truly a "capstone" work - supported by all which were published prior. Alliance is strongly tied to prior novels as well, but can stand alone.

Both Alliance and Gentleman Jole include major spoilers, if read out of chronology; both are the latest two in writing order, release order, and chronological order, however, so it's not much an issue.


In the Dune sequence, most of the Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson "House" series of prequels add consistent depth to many characters from the main Frank Herber Dune-Chapterhouse sequence. While they could be read prior (and my purchase of them lead to rereading the Dune-Chapterhouse sequence), they are far more interesting when one sees how BH/KJA work FH's notes into a viable prequel. They reveal new information, but also just how small the actual courts of the Imperium are. The stories are often considered non-canonical by some fans, but are firmly based in FH's notes, and the relationships revealed are consistent with canon. They should not be read before Dune, and probably not before Messiah and Children, but can be read at any point after these without too many spoilers.

The main sequence (Dune, Messiah, Children, God-Emperor, Heretics, Chapterhouse) could be followed easily by Hunters and Sandworms, ignoring the prequels entirely, and not miss much at all, but certain characters will be "new" in that case. (I'll note that, when I hit the ending of Sandworms, I had to check a bunch of stuff in the main sequence to confirm it, but the ending was very much a "DUH!" moment for me.)

The distant prequels are an excellent story, but feel decidedly off. The only reasonable place to read them is before hunters; Hunters and Sandworms both spoil certain elements of the series. While I had read them prior to Hunters and Sandworms, I'd not read them in some time, and the links to them were not terribly obvious save for the names of certain characters. That said, they do stand alone fairly well, and could be read on their own prior to any of the others.

Some of the newer prequels fall into the "Shouldn't be read" category; Paul of Dune was decidedly not in line with what I expected... and unfinishable for me. Worse, it's a timeline jump novel... it starts in one timeline, then changes to a different, earlier one.

The non-canonical book, Road to Dune, includes an early draft of Dune and explanatory essays on the main sequence. The early draft can safely be read after Dune, but the essays should not be read until the main sequence has been.


The original main sequence (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide) are a cohesive unit, with some large gaps. The parallel Shadow sequence (Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant). takes place from the same time as Ender's Game to just prior to Xenocide.

Both sequences have minor spoilers to the other when read in chronological order.

First Meetings is a collection of short stories; on their faces, they are not great stories themselves, but they answer questions raised in the main sequence and Shadow sequence.

According to the Wikipedia entry, Card suggests that children of the mind be read immediately after Xenocide, but otherwise apparently expresses no preference. I recall having read that advice from Card, as well.

Since each novel has both an internal arch, and is part of an external arch involving the particular sequence, threaded is probably best. Pick one thread, read it through in chronological order, then the other, then the subsidiary works.

Wikipedia's Ender's Game Entry has a map showing the two main threads and the timeline ordering.


Which order, publication, chronological, threaded, or other, varies by series.


What I mean is, is there series where significant spoilers exist if read in the published order, rather than the chronological order?

One example that comes to mind is Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series. The original publishing order was Shards of Honor and then Warrior's Apprentice. The end of Cordelia's story in Barrayar was not published until years (and several books) later. Now Shards and Barrayar are typically found together in the omnibus Cordelia's Honor. Even a new reader might guess that Miles survives Barrayar but that certainly is a spoiler. Many of the events of Barrayar are important in later (chronologically) books.

In the same series Cetaganda was also published well after where it would have fallen chronologically. I suspect Bujold was looking to tell a story that a more mature Miles could not have found himself caught up in. The effect is somewhat the reverse: The events of Cetaganda should have influenced chronologically later events (in previously published books) so when you read them in chronological order the lack of consciousness of the Cetaganda events stands out.

  • Well, I disagree. Bujold was very careful in writing Cetaganda, so as not to contradict anything important. Reading in internal chronological order, which means reading Cetaganda before books written and published long before Ceataganda, is definetely better than keeping Cetaganda for later.
    – Alfred
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 23:20

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