SF Book Openings

The fine folks at SfSignal have asked your humble servant, among others, to hold forth on the best book opens that open when you open a book. Here is my answer:


The purpose of an opening line in a story is to invite the reader into a new world. But when the story is a science fiction story, a fantasy, a ghost story, or any other tale of wonder, the purpose is to lure him into a world of strangeness.

The art of injecting strangeness into a tale of wonder is like cutting a diamond: a proper stroke will bring out the brilliance, and an awkward stroke will shatter the diamond.

Let me offer two examples, in an opening line, of a single strange word or phrase that tells the reader he is opening a curious door into a world not his own:

“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.”Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

Such is when it is done well. Invented words should have invented roots: something that implies the word grew up from the world. The fact that hobbits live to one hundred and eleven years is peculiar, and something of their rustic quaintness is implied by the neologism “eleventy-one.” If it is not something country gentry say, it sounds like it should be.

Again, the fact that the clocks strike thirteen hints that the future world of 1984 has gone to a decimal dial, with all the unpleasant associations of revolutionaries who revise calendars, making it Thermidor of Year One, and so on. It is done poorly when the newly-coined word has no roots and tells you nothing about the world involved.

And, of course, the other purpose is to arrest the reader’s attention, provoke his curiosity, tell him just enough of the new and strange world to allure him.

At times with his done curtly, wryly, directly:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

This establishes the spooky mood, slightly tongue-in-cheek, of the famous Dickens’ tale. It is ghost story, to be sure, but one where the ghosts perform the exorcism on the mortal, not the other way around.


“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

This establishes character, namely, the personality of our protagonist, a strongly pyrokenetic and mildly pyromaniac wizard from Chicago, with the punch of a well-timed one -liner.


“On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.” — Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia

This establishes setting, for it puts across the personality of the hyperkinetic and violent world.

And adroit gambit for an opening line is to introduce an ambiguity, and oddity, which will resonant with any ambiguities present in the rest of the book. Again, two examples, both of which establish theme:

“Once upon a time there was a Martian by the name of Valentine Michael Smith.” Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The contrast of the oddest of oddities, a Martian, and the most quotidian of names, Smith is here on display. The reader’s eye is pulled as if magnetically to the next line to discover how a Martian can have so very terrestrial a name. Also present is the slightest hint of one of the philosophical points of the novel: Smith is a not a man from Mars, for he is not a man at all, since by upbringing he is an alien. In other words, this story asks what it means to be human, and that opening line serves to establish the question to be asked.

“Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.” ~ Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This contrast may be harder for the modern reader, raised on reading twitters and combox flamewars, to spot at first, but the oddity of the spelling errors and the command of the doctor to write down thoughts and experiences forms a contrast central to the story, which is of a man undergoing an intelligence augmentation experiment. This tale asks, if man is an intelligent animal, what it means to be intelligent?

In my humble opinion, however, the best opening lines are ones that do more than establish character or setting, mood or theme. Here are two examples that establish what I can only call the spirit of the story, and from the very first lines of these famous tales, the living force of the personality, a subtle and unmistakable, informs the opening.

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin


“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.”Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe,

Here words fail. If you, dear reader, cannot hear the strange and echoing depth of wonder and wisdom promised (and, in my opinion, richly fulfilled) by the adroit mastery of implied by the archaic and pregnant word presentment or the richness implied by the deceptively simple statement that Truth is a matter of imagination, my words cannot aid you. My only task is to invite you to read these classics if you have not already, to envy you the delight of a first encounter with Le Guin or Wolfe, to step aside with a bow, and fall silent.