I celebrated an array of excellent ways fantasy books have got started back in Wyrd and Wonder, and I promised myself I’d revisit the idea for SciFiMonth with an SF spin. Surely, surely, there are some brilliant hooks out there in the genre?
Well of course there are.
I’ve picked seven books whose opening sentences are just too enticing to resist. Let’s start with some classics…
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.1984 – George Orwell
And like that, the mundane becomes eerie and unfamiliar. Sure, we might be talking about 1pm – although who has 24 hours of chimes – I find myself off-kilter. It’s the perfect introduction to a novel that is all about the ways in which the state governs perception and redefines reality. Required – if very uncomfortable – 2020 reading.
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
Yes, fine, I like unnerving opening sentences. This is one of my all-time favourite books – right from the very first line, which works for me because it’s so relatable. The scene that follows begins by keeping the stakes personal, deriving tension from the narrator’s concern about his sight, and then takes advantage of his situation to go all-out creepy with horrifying noises off and visceral shocks. Sometimes is indeed seriously wrong somewhere. Right here.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
The first of two from John Scalzi, who has a frankly unfair gift for first line hooks. Just in case you thought the title of the book was metaphorical, this first line lets you know that no, that’s what we’re here for: old people kicking ass. While the book deconstructs this quite quickly, it does so with charm and it never feels like a bait and switch. Our hero is still an experienced old man at heart, whatever body he’s wearing.
By the time Duane Chapman died on the Hilketa field, his head had already been torn off twice.Head On – John Scalzi
See what I mean about Scalzi? He doesn’t do it every single time, but when he does… zing. Tell me more. Even coming at Head On on the back of Lock In and knowing that Haden’s Syndrome means that characters may not be in their own bodies, this one provides a kick of cognitive dissonance that leaves you wide open for the fast paced and often hilarious conspiracy thriller that follows.
I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realised I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.All Systems Red – Martha Wells
Possibly my favourite character introduction – and in the novella’s opening line, no less – tells us almost everything we need to know about Murderbot. Sentient, free-range, dangerous and way more interested in fictional drama than your drama. No seriously, keep that shit to yourself. The way Wells builds on this to have us wondering whether Murderbot was a mass murderer before it hacked its governor module is a whole other story…
In the myriadic year of our Lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
Speaking of awesome opening lines that are also brilliant character thumbnails, let’s hear it for Gideon Nav. Priorities? Getting the fuck out of here. Go bag? Sword, shoes, dirty magazines. That’s my girl. Gideon has two things on her mind, and she won’t get very far barefoot. I love the way this sets the tone for the novel: a combination of totally extra, utterly irreverent, with a shot of Gothic flair and a side of mulish stubbornness.
If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers has a knack for piercing my heart, but it was her stand-alone novella that did it with the opening line. It’s so plaintive; you can sense the writer’s uncertainty. There’s no expectation of response, just a desperate plea. I instantly wanted to know more – and the more I learned, the more invested I became in the team’s situation.
What are some of your favourite opening lines in SF?