A couple of nights ago The Other Half was in a frightful bate about the intolerable difficulties and hazards of browsing for fantasy books in actual physical stores. Some people still like to rock it old school, exchanging money for slices of flattened wood pulp that are then upended one after another in a set order.
Yet despite the many centuries through which this approach to reading has been considered superior (nay, mandatory), today's paper-lover is now increasingly ignored when it comes to a critical aspect of the choosing procedure: working out if the book in your hands is standalone, the beginning of a series, the middle of a series, or the beginning or middle of a series that's part of a series of series, or a prequel to a sequel of a series of prequel series to a sequel which was carved on the haunches of a rhinoceros.
In the interests of pleasing my girlfriend, then, and having seen the amount of mad respect and moolah that Melvil Dewey accrued after inventing the decimal point (or whatever), I proudly present: the Spacesquid Serial System.
There are four stages to the SSS. First, every fantasy or science fiction book will bear a number, telling you where the novel lies chronologically in the relevant series. Thus The Magician's Nephew will be listed as 1, and not 6. If a book is standalone, this number will be 1 by default. If the book, like A Dance With Dragons, was one book in hardback and several books in paperback, this will be referenced by a decimal point. The hardback is 5, the softbacks 5.1 and 5.2.
Second will come another number, which denotes how many books exist within the current series. Sticking with The Magicians Nephew, then, the book will be labelled 1:7. Currently unfinished series will be represented by brackets: A Feast For Crows would therefore be 4:(5), the paperback A Dance With Dragons: Dreams And Dust would be 5.1:(5). If the author died partway through, an exclamation mark will be included.
The third and fourth stages involve colour coding. The first colour denotes the necessity of prior reading in order to enjoy the book. Books which start with no prior knowledge required will be given a green rating. Books which include information or settings from past instalments sufficient to make reading it alone significantly less rewarding will be given an orange rating. If trying to read the book without previous experience would render the whole exercise ridiculous, it will be defined as red. Since these are subjective criteria, a team of highly-trained literary critics will be assembled and required to pass judgement on all genre books everywhere and ever, on pain of being forced to listen to Raymond Feist books-on-tape until their own ribs stab them through the heart in hopeless disgust.
Once they've done that, they can start on the final phase, a second colour-coding informing the reader if the book ends with a sense of finality (green), wraps up major plotlines but leaves the door open for a sequel (orange), or leaves so much hanging that further reading (author output permitting) is the only way to get any sense of closure whatsoever. I am aware that this last idea is the most controversial; many would argue that this could rob the ending of some books of some of their force, if one were to know in advance how much is liable to be resolved. There are two possible solutions to this, and I can't decide between them. Either the colour coding could be placed somewhere sufficiently non-obvious in the book that it can be avoided easily, or we can tell these whingers to fuck right off and never return. Either way, it's a minor kink, to be ironed out later.
Some quick examples:
The Hobbit (J R R Tolkien) 1:1. It'd be a real shame if someone read The Hobbit and not Lord of the Rings, obviously, but there's really no narrative through line; Bilbo goes home and status quo ante is (almost restored).
The Wounded Land (Stephen Donaldson) 1:3. It would be helpful but certainly not crucial to have read the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant here, but it's that really demands further investment.
Judas Unchained (Peter F Hamilton) 2:2. Very much a judgement call for that second colour.; why should this book be considered any more of a springboard to a new series than The Hobbit? I think the difference is in the number of minor threads that are left unresolved. I'm certainly not arguing the Void Trilogy is either more closely related to its predecessor or more interesting than LOTR, but whilst that latter work expands the world of the Hobbit, it doesn't make me re-evaluate the original's world nearly so much. The two Tolkien works are just too different in scope and tone for that.
A Storm of Swords (George R R Martin) 3:(5). Obviously.
The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch) 1:(2). Because "then they left for a new adventure" could never really be anything other than orange.
Vicious Circle (Mike Carey) 1:5. The Castor novels build on each other, but they're intended to be standalone (Carey goes over the basics each time). The benefits of reading multiple books in the series is in growing familiarity with the characters, rather than a grounding in the fictional world which, after all, is just London with more ghosties.
The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) 1:(13!). Orange for the pointless prequels, red for the relentless death-march into endless bullshit.
So, there you go. Problem solved.