The Science Fiction Sentence

The language of speculative fiction is unlike that of mundane fiction; the metaphors are often literal, it's full of neologisms, and each word needs to perform multiple functions worldbuilding while intimating story and character and setting and so forth. A few common examples, and a few from my own stories:

"Her world exploded."
"She turned on her left side."
"He was mining monopoles in the outer asteroid belt."
"It seemed like I'd died only yesterday, but of course it was almost certainly centuries ago."
"Bill Lundsburg groaned when the printer in his lab started humming; hed left on the receiver, because he wasnt expecting guests."
"The man formerly known as Gary strode across a lot of sun-baked grass and kicked open the door of an abandoned factory."
"People use these phrases: True love, the power of love, other phrases of great magnitude spoken unknowingly and, thus, powerless. We toss around these words as if we understand them, as if words truly spoken do not contain all the power of the  universe, as if they cannot mend broken hearts, bridge chasms bottomless with pain, create bright worlds in the darkness between stars."

Good SF sentences evoke much beyond the literal meaning of the words, creating a wonderful frisson of alienness. Next is a nice essay that goes into depth, examining a few such sentences, and after that is Samuel Delany discussing the SF sentence.

Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction

By Charlie Jane Anders, at i09

You can tell a lot about a science fiction book from its first sentence. Those first few words (or few dozen, in some cases) have to pull you into the story and bring you into a whole alternate world. A good first sentence "hooks" you, pulling you into the story with a quick jolt of action and mystery. But a great first sentence does way more than that - it establishes a tone, it sticks in your mind, and it's like a little otherworldly koan, confounding your expectations. And maybe freaking your shit a little. Here are our favorite science fiction opening sentences.

Having looked through a few thousand opening sentences at the bookstore and online - no exaggeration - I can generalize a bit. There are a lot of opening sentences that announce the start of a rollicking yarn, with an action sentence. Like this, from Dan Brown's Angels & Demons: "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own." Boom! A guy's flesh is burning. It's exciting! A slight variation is the juxtaposition of the mundane activity with the exciting thing that interrupts it, sort of like, "I was hanging some kitchen shelves when the cyber-rhinoceros burst through my floor, tusks exploding with brilliant fire."

And then there are tons of opening sentences that are just quirky, or rambling, letting you know the author is settling in to tell a long, rumbly bulldozer of a story. And honestly, most of the opening sentences I looked at were either very business-like, or not very interesting. Or both.

Here are the ones which actually stuck with me and lodged in my brain a bit:

"'I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.'" - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Starting a story, let alone a novel, with a piece of dialog is a bold choice, and most of the time it's super cheesy. I really like this line, though, because it's so intriguing and it drops in a lot of info. How have they been watching through his eyes? Listening through his ears, and what's "the one"?

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." - William Gibson, Neuromancer. People always cite this as a great opening line, and it's easy to see why. It's such a vivid image.

"They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair." - Count Zero by William Gibson. Okay, come on. This is just so fun. It's got the wacky jargon: "slamhound," "slotted," and the idea that it can be tied to random things like hair color and pheromones. And it's crackling with energy!

"The morning after he killed Eugene Shapiro, Andre Deschenes woke early." - Undertow by Elizabeth Bear. This is almost the mundane/exciting juxtaposition, but it's more than that, because the mundane comes after the exciting. And it makes you curious about Andre Deschenes and how he can sleep after killing a guy. And who Eugene Shapiro is. I was reading Undertow a while back, and this sentence sucked me in.

"Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets." - Rudy Rucker, The Hacker And The Ants, Version 2.0. Surreal - transreal, even - and garish and weird. And the fact that there are 21 real estate agents just makes it that much better.

"I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society, to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work." - Cory Doctorow, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. I like a nice brisk opening. Again, the wacky jargon (the "Bitchun Society") and the weird longevity, and then the personal suddenly gives way to the larger picture, with the death of the workplace.

"He woke, and remembered dying." - Ken MacLeod, The Stone Canal. I don't really think I need to explain why this is a great opening. It's spare and intriguing. And no adjectives or adverbs. Yay!

"The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries." - Vernor Vinge, A Deepness In The Sky. This is pretty close to being your standard brisk, action-packed opening. Except for the huge scope of it, coupled with the precision.

"Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony." - Samuel R. Delany, The Star Pit. It's almost a poem, and it zooms outwards in a lovely way, from the dirt tunnels to the ant colony. For a moment, you think it could be an alien zoo or something.

"The five small craft passed from shadow, emerging with the suddenness of coins thrown into sunlight." - Scott Westerfeld, The Risen Empire. This one, I was on the fence about. It's a little adjective-heavy, and it has the passive construction at the end. But I really liked the coins thrown into sunlight, it's a lovely image and it's about the last thing that comes to mind when you think about spaceships emerging from somewhere.

"At the end, the bottom, the very worst of it, with the world afire and hell's flamewinged angels calling him by name, Lee Crane blamed himself." - Theodore Sturgeon, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. Again, it's got great energy, and even though it has my pet peeve - the random "it" occupying the space where a real world should be - it's got the Blakeian imagery, and then you absolutely have to know why Lee Crane blames himself.

"In the summer of his twelfth year - the summer the stars began to fall from the sky - the boy Isaac discovered that he could tell East from West with his eyes closed." - Axis, Robert Charles Wilson. It's got so much going on, what with the coming-of-age thing and the stars falling. But then you get that human-compass thing, which is intriguing and fascinating. And this is a nice, spare sentence, with no excess clutter. It's snappy!

"Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the final extinction of my One True Love, as close as I can date it." - Saturn's Children, Charles Stross. It's like the start of a romance novel, except for the mention of 200 years and the word "extinction." They stick out like jagged little spurs, amidst the shmoopy "One True Love" jargon.

Samuel Delaney on the SF Sentence


updated 8/14/2012