What Are Your Favorite SF/Fantasy Story or Novel Beginnings?

I’m currently working on a creative writing book for Abrams and writing the Beginnings chapter. I’ve got my own ideas about some of the best story or novel openings in the history of SF/Fantasy, but I’m curious about yours—and to make sure I don’t miss anything great.

So: opening sentence or sentences to a story or novel that you found particularly effective? Please include the quote and also tell us why you found it effective.

I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in the book if you comment.

Comments

  1. Kai in NYC says

    I’m not going to quote, and its too much anyway, but those languorous beginning pages of Kushiel’s Dart: loved ‘em! Not everyone loves old school fantasy; not everyone loves a slow build, rich in mood and world and voice; not everyone loves immense fat books which can’t be polished off in an evening or two or three. But if you do love these things, Jacqueline Carey provides unapologetic and consummate satisfaction.

  2. says

    I’ve seen some strongly negative reactions to it, but the first sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer has always stuck with me. It’s partly a matter of timing (one of the first brilliant works of sf I would read) and partly: The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.

    (Some other openings outside of sf/f have stuck as well, particularly memorable are Ken Follett’s openings to both World Without End and The Pillars of the Earth. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind which begins: I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. — Loved that.)

    Others, more recent: “Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.” (The Magicians, Lev Grossman.) And, well, very much so: Finch, at the apartment door, breathing heavy from five flights of stairs, taken fast.

    Hm. A last one: The opening to AA Attanasio’s re-telling/imagining of Arthurian legend “The Dragon and the Unicorn” is another one which has really stuck with me: There is only one Dragon. It lives inside the Earth and is as huge as the whole planet. Its mind thrives with the magnetic field thrown off from the core. Its blood circulates with the slow convections of magma beneath the rocky crust that serves as its perdurable hide. Slowly molting with the sliding of tectonic plates, the Dragon renews itself over aeons: Mountain ranges fin from its back like thorny scales replenished every hundred million years as maritime trenches subsume its old flesh. (And I still don’t know what perdurable means.)

    OK one more. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. “2024. Prodigy is at its essence adaptability and persistent positive obsession. Without persistence what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, nothing remains at all. Earthseed, the Books of the Living. Chapter 1. All that you touch, yo uchange. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. Earthseed, the Books of the Living. Saturday, July 20, 2024. I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it. …”

    And, oh, when you get to Endings…

  3. says

    When I re-read Dune a few months ago, I was struck by how awesome the first line was:

    “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

    It hooked me the same way it did over 10 years ago when I read that book the first time. Something about the skittery-fluttery feeling of the name Arrakis, the introduction of three characters at once, only one of which is named, and that the crone was visiting the mother, not the boy (immediately, at any rate). It feels so weighty with portents, which is appropriate given that Dune is perhaps 87% portents.

  4. Georges Dodds says

    There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.

    But all the afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour; he had strayed in fairyland.

    Arthur Machen “The Hill of Dreams”

  5. says

    The opening invocation for William Burroughs’ The Cities of the Red Night, a book which I still think now and then of creating illustrations for. Burroughs summons a list of “the nameless gods of dispersal and emptiness” and dedicates the book to “all the scribes and artists and practitioners of magic through whom these spirits have been manifested”. He also calls upon “Kutulu” and a number of other semi-Lovecraftian deities borrowed from the Simon Necronomicon. It makes the book seem more than just a piratical and homoerotic fantasy, turning it into something closer to an act of magic.

  6. says

    “A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised — it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice — he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.”

    Many don’t like the opening paragraph of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep but rare is the paragraph that instantly transports you to **somewhere else** so subtly.

  7. Sam Gunn says

    Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
    -Douglas Adams

    Best.Opening.Ever.

  8. Jess Nevins says

    Stretching this, slightly, to include horror: Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House:

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

    Chilling, hints but does not reveal, well-written, pregnant with implications…just wonderful.

  9. Felix Gilman says

    I always loved the opening line of Lord Valentine’s Castle: “And then, after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered about him like fine wet fleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcropping white stone overlooking the city of Pidruid.”

    perhaps only because it was the first time I encountered the trick of opening with “and then” but also because it has a good sense of place, colour, light, sensation, openness, invitingness if that’s a word.

  10. says

    Here are some of my faves off the top of my head…I’m at work, so I’m going by memory here-

    Clute’s Appleseed starts off with a fairly normal SFnal sentence (Freer longing for a sky in planet cities) and then delving into a language soup of terms, lingo, jargon, all of it unexplained and wonderfully poetic. A good start to a novel that refuses to explain anything.

    Delany’s Nova…it has that whole bit about the old man putting his hand on his face, and then in parenthesis calling them spider feet. Old blind man, screaming about the sun exploding around him. Damn, still is strong in my mind, his description of his burning nerves.

    You’re own The Situation (this is not sucking up, by the by, I mean it)- had an amazing start with the boss’s paper skin and fluttering leaf heart. You get this distinct sense of everything familiar (boss yelling, etc) being turned inside out. The bones are what we know every day, the surface is from somewhere far off and gone…

    Perdido Street Station, with it following the basket down to the ground, and in doing so does a dynamic tour of the city with constant motion, the line of the text propelling the reader to follow follow follow, it’s a scene that would be boring, but isn’t at all, it’s fraught with motion, with tension, but we can’t see where it’s coming from.

    Tender Morsels- Egad. Egad. Egad. It scarred my brain tissue. Poetry and child abuse all presented in raw agony. I wanted to stop reading. I couldn’t.

    The Mount – The prose is addicting in the first few scenes, and also stomach turning. Something so realistically put forth- humans as pets, just the way it was put, it just made me sick and I had to keep going onward.

  11. says

    A new holiday reading Novel is available to read…

    Just when you thought that women on earth had it bad!

    I Got Kicked Out Of Heaven Because Of My P.M.S blends elements of farce and fantasy to provide a comedic look at a serious topic, the so-called “monthly curse.” Bernadette Jackson, is a Physics student at Harvard. One day while on her way to class, she is hit by a semi-truck and killed. At the crash site, she is approached by two angels who ask her to become a guardian angel. But that wasn’t the only thing that she had to deal with. Bernadette also had to deal with the effects of her holy period; which drives her into doing something that she later regrets. While in heaven…… http://www.lyndiatitus.com

    Regards
    Lyndia

  12. says

    There are beginnings that don’t just bring you into the story, into the world of the book, but let you know in a few sentences what *sort* of book it is going to be. Here are a few that come to mind. In all these examples, the entire first page or section is worth reading, as it continues at the same level of efficiency and stylistic bravado.

    Ditto “Neuromancer”, continuing through the first paragraphs.

    Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

    CJ Cherryh, The Pride of Chanur: “There had been something loose about the station dock all morning, skulking in amongst the gantries and the lines and the canisters which were waiting to be moved, lurking wherever shadows fell among the rampway accesses of the many ships at dock at Meetpoint. It was pale, naked, starved-looking in what fleeting glimpses anyone on The Pride of Chanur had had of it. Evidently no one had reported it to station authorities, nor did The Pride.”

    John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless: “Hating the Earth was easy. It was always there to hate, a flimsy blue eye hanging in the black sky, winking side to side.”

    Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast: “Titus is seven. His confines: Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows: weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is _child_.”

    Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light: “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then again, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.”

    And finally, the first paragraph of your own Shriek. Like the examples above, it does much more than it seems to at first.

  13. says

    The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle ranks among my very favorite novel openings of all time, but it obviously doesn’t fit under the SFF umbrella half as much as some of her other works. Still, enviably fabulous, evocative writing: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

    Tolkien’s opening to The Hobbit is as good as anything that comes after, if not more so. The tone, the cadence, overt yet simultaneously subtle world-building, everything is there: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

    I’m sure you’re the last person who needs to be reminded, but Angela Carter’s openings tend to be peerless; lush tone-setters that snatch the reader from the first few words. Pretty much any story in The Bloody Chamber serves as an example of perfect openings, especially the “The Company of Wolves,” and, if memory serves the titular story, with the narrator on the train. Perfection.

    Hmmm, these all seem a bit obvious, but then I suppose they’re classics for a reason. I remember loving the opening to Eyes of the Overworld, but don’t have a copy handy. Like Peake’s similarly awesome opening to Titus Groan, Vance goes for stage-setting while showing off the sly, wry style that will characterize the work. I think!

  14. DiversHands says

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” It’s all right there! Stephen King’s ‘The Gunslinger’ actually opens with a line that distills the entire plot, point, and purpose of the story (and tangentially, the entire series to follow) into one line. And he has the stones to make the apotheosis of his work the very first line. Twelve words – twelve BASIC words, nothing fancy here, that instantly and perfectly seize every detail of the title character’s impetus. It’s a study in simplicity, that grows increasingly more complex as you come to know more about the story that follows. It hides nothing, but lies in wait at the stories beginning, taunting the reader with what they do not yet know is to come.

    “Our Ariadne has brushed by you – in every city.” Michael Cisco’s first statement in ‘The Tyrant’ may act as the antipodean ideal to King’s “The Gunslinger”. Through careful choice of word, through hinted myth, through it’s odd choice of address, the opening line of ‘The Tyrant’ reveals nothing, actually revels in it’s own mystery, but remains gripping all the same. It starts with an adjective that implies a specific type of narrator, an intimate first person narrative set up – compounded by the familiar tone it takes using “you” – that is never actually delivered by the text. Layered over this is the inherent mystery of the collective indicated by “our”. Is it a group the narrator belongs to? A fraternal intimation that we, the reader, the assumed “you”, are in some type of collusion with the author? Is it a general use of the adverb; an “our” that refers to all of humanity, to whom we can assume the ancient tale of Ariadne now belongs? And Ariadne: the “most holy” of Greek myth, who unraveled the mystery of the labyrinth for Theseus, only to be abandoned to the god of wine and prophecy. The name conjures a collection of ideas, of associations, centered around manipulation and mystery. Combined with the sentence conclusion, separated intentionally from the bulk of the sentence, we are left with implications of a tale whose potential extends to every city, into the urban mystery, even possibly into the manipulation of the modern plight. Little does the hapless reader know that they are the one’s being manipulated now.

  15. says

    “We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled the emptiness with drugs.” Bruce Sterling, Involution Ocean.

  16. says

    Fahrenheit 451 – It was a pleasure to burn.

    Such a simple sentence. 6 words. Perfectly encapsulating the overall theme of censorship. And so evocative. The following paragraphs expand on it, but Bradbury could have stopped right there. We all know the pleasure of destruction.

  17. says

    The opening to Friday by Heinlein, as the titular protagonist deftly and quickly deals with trouble following her in paragraph one.

    The opening to Nine Princes in Amber, by Zelazny, giving us a mysterious protagonist who doesn’t even remember who *he* is, evocatively described and invoked.

  18. says

    The first sentence of Samuel Delany’s “Aye & Gomorrah” comes about as close as you can get to starting in the middle of the action:

    “And came down in Paris:”

    And it’s not just how quickly it puts me in the story, this opening sets a pace that is pretty relentless throughout, and it does so with only five words.

  19. says

    The opening lines to Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer sprang to mind when I read the heading to this post. They are “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” closely followed by the first few sentences of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash – “The Deliverator belongs to an elite order; a hallowed subcategory . He’s got esprit up to here.”

  20. Rene Rodriguez says

    “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
    -Stephen King
    The Gunslinger

  21. JimOsmer says

    I think the openings of
    Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    stand out to me the most.

  22. says

    I am french, and firstly sorry for my very poor English. But despite this, I am able to appreciate the prose of Peake ; the first paragraph of Gormenghast is a treasure of literariness, rhythm and punctuation :

    “Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is child.”

    This is not far to be poetized prose.

  23. Hannu Blommila says

    Personal favorites:

    “The abyss should shut you up.”
    -Starfish by Peter Watts

    “Denver pissed him off.”
    -Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman

    Simple, yet effective. Grabbed me instantly.

  24. says

    Lots of good ones allready, but not a single one from Michael Swanwick? He’s really good with story openings.

    A Few examples:

    “The bureaucrat fell from the sky.” (Stations of the Tide)

    “The changeling’s decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor.” (The Iron Dragon’s Daughter)

    “It was late afternoon when the blinded Minotaur was led through the waterfront. He cried openly, without shame, lost in his helplessness.” (“The Blind Minotaur”)

    And my own favourite:

    “In the Year One, we came in an armada of a million spacecraft to settle upon, colonize, and claim for our homeland this giant grasshopper on which we now dwell.” (“Mother Grasshopper”)

  25. Toni says

    And about those Swanwick-openings:

    They really grab your attention and you just have to know what the heck this is about.

  26. NullApostle says

    “The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

    Steven King, first “Dark Tower” novel.

  27. says

    The first two that come to mind have already been mentioned.

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    and

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    It will be interesting to see what Mr. Vandermeer has mind :)

  28. Stephen J. says

    Nobody quoted the Master yet?

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

  29. says

    Oh, I almost forgot this classic opening:

    “-to wound the autumnal city.
    So howled out for the world to give him a name.
    The in-dark answered with wind.”

    No, I’m not going to tell you where’s it’s from, because you should really know.;)
    What makes this interesting is, that it’s really up for a reader to decide wheter this really is an opening line or just something from the middle of a closed loop…

  30. Destructo the Mad says

    Count Zero, William Gibson:

    “They set a Slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

    He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.”

    How can you not love a book where the author literally blows his viewpoint character into tiny bloody pieces in the opening scene of the novel?

  31. Jonny Strange says

    My favorite is “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang:

    “This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God.”

    It’s simple, storybook prose that also works as journalistic exposition, and it carries the weight of tragedy behind it when you read it after having finished the story.

  32. C Bryant says

    The opening of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Maybe it is a little longer than the openings mentioned earlier. But it was so well crafted and just sucked me in. I turned to my wife after 3 pages and told her this was the best book I had read in years.

  33. Gerard says

    Perhaps not fantasy as such, but a brilliant novel, with a brilliant opening, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler:

    “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

    Another nice one (Terry Pratchett – Night Watch)
    “Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it”

  34. PhilRM says

    Vance’s The Last Castle:

    “Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed.”

    A world in a sentence – how can you not want to know the story behind that opening?

  35. PhilRM says

    P.S. Not to mention the extraordinarily vivid scene-setting he accomplishes in those first nineteen words.

  36. joshua says

    “Snow Crash”

    The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like a gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

    When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway – might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aerostyled, lightweight, the kind of gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

    The Deliverator never pulled his gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn’t want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball hat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doohickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned in to a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn’t get nothing but trouble from Deliverator.

    Since then Deliverator has kept the gun in glove compartment and relied, instead, on a matched set of samurai swords, which have always been his weapon of choice anyhow. The punks in Gila Highlands weren’t afraid of the gun, so the Deliverator was forced to use it. But swords need no demonstration.

    The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact pat ches size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on peseta.

    Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it – talking trade balances here – once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microvave owens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here – once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel – once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity – y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else

    music
    movies
    microcode (software)
    high-speed pizza delivery

    The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator’s report card would say: “Hiro is _so_ bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperative skills.”

    So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved – but no cooperativity either. Just a single principle: the Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.

  37. Caleb Wilson says

    I like the opening to Dan Simmons’s Hyperion:

    “The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.”

  38. Rebecka Johansson says

    The openings that first comes to my mind is that of Don’t Bite the Sun by Tanith Lee:

    “My friend Hergal had killed himself again.”

    I read this book at 15 years old and my poor english wasn’t going to stop me (my first language is Swedish). But i had to re-read that first sentence many times to make sure i really understood what it said. Some one had killed him self again? It blew my mind.

  39. Caleb Wilson says

    The first paragraph of Kafa’s Amerika is also great, in its evocation of a new and off-kilter America, one where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword instead of a torch. (Such an interesting switch that Michael Chabon used it in Kavalier and Clay, I think, and called it the Statue of Liberation.)

  40. says

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