The opening sentence of a science fiction novel, perhaps more than any other genre, has a lot of work to do. Like all good fiction, it needs to hook you, jolt you into the story and establish the tone. Yet it also needs to get you interested in a whole new alternative world, a place where you’ll live for the duration of the book. It’s a big ask. Nonetheless, there are some masterly examples of opening lines that do that and more. Here are ten that, quite literally, take our breath away.
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.
Most of the time starting a novel with dialogue is a big no, no. We don’t know who the character is, so we have no idea of the context or whether we should care what they say. Scott Card gets away with it, though, because the line is simply so intriguing and raises so many questions we need answered.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer, William Gibson.
Another often cited rule of writing is that you should never start a story with a description of the weather. With this stunningly atmospheric opener, Gibson shows why rules are made to be broken. It’s such a vivid image and hints at a very ominous world in a way that prickles the readers’ curiosity.
“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick
It’s all about the “mood organ” in Dick’s classic opener. The concept is strangely fascinating and conjures up images of an old fashioned instrument with the power to understand a human’s feelings. This opening very much sets the scene for a world we want to know more about.
“Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets.” – The Hacker And The Ants, Version 2.0, Rudy Rucker.
Surreal in the Hunter S. Thompson road trip mold, this opening freaks you out in so many different ways. Real estate agents are horrific at the best of times, but so many of them dressed so hideously shouts bizarre, bizarre, bizarre. Immediately, you empathise with the narrator but more importantly you want to know what he has done to deserve such a nightmarish visit.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” 1984, George Orwell.
Arguably, one of the most famous sci-fi opening lines, what makes this such a classic is the way it lulls you into thinking nothing is amiss until the very final word. Clocks don’t strike 13, we tell ourselves. Then the full implications of the sentence become apparent. Here is a world where the very nature of time keeping itself has been redefined. Who wouldn’t want to know how and, more importantly, why?
“The morning after he killed Eugene Shapiro, Andre Deschenes woke early.” – Undertow, Elizabeth Bear.
It’s the juxtaposition between the everyday and the horrific, which makes this such a fantastic opening sentence. Its added kick comes from the fact the mundane comes after the horrific. It makes you wonder what sort of person could sleep at all and what Eugene Shapiro did to deserve his fate.
“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.” – Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Theodore Sturgeon.
We love the drama and amazing energy of this opening. Add to that the Blakeian imagery, and you absolutely have to know why Lee Crane blames himself.
“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.” - A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
While breathtaking might not be the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of Adams’s classic, this opening ticks all the right boxes. Firstly, the way it underlines the vastness of the universe and, secondly, how it shows how utterly insignificant humans and everything we hold dear are. Brilliant stuff.
“The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.” – A Deepness In The Sky, Vernor Vinge.
A manhunt is always dramatic, but a manhunt across one hundred light years and eight centuries is obsessive and incredible, both in terms of human endeavour and technology. We want to meet the chaser and the chased and the world that enables them to do such a fantastical thing.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.
Along with Orwell’s magnificent 1984, Bradbury’s opening line is one of the most famous in science fiction. Succinct yet vivid, it prompts a ton of questions. What was a pleasure to burn? Why was it a pleasure? Who found it pleasurable? Fire is such a sensationally powerful phenomenon, it’s no surprise this line appeals to both our head and our heart.
Joel Willans is an award-winning copywriter, the founder of Ink Tank Media and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello.