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In the beginning...

July 28, 2008 | 10:55 pm


At the dawn of every book there is a sentence, a sentence that grabs the reader or reaches out tenderly toward him or throws a fireball at his face. If all it does is just sit there on the page, it's not doing its job, and it won't get much attention. At least not from io9, which today looks at some stellar first sentences of science fiction; William Gibson and Rudy Rucker and Orson Scott Card get nods. Dan Brown, too:

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 couple of years ago, the literary journal American Book Review was hot on the case, and came up with its own 100 best first sentences. The list tends toward the iconic, memorable and short:

  • Call me Ishmael. ("Moby-Dick," Herman Melville).
  • Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. ("Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov)
  • All this happened, more or less. ("Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut)
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. ("The Color Purple," Alice Walker)
  • A screaming comes across the sky. ("Gravity's Rainbow," Thomas Pynchon)

There are many paragraph-length sentences, too, most notably #95, Raymond Federman's "Double or Nothing," which with 396 words is the longest of the bunch.

The short sentences stand out in their lack of context. Melville didn't write "'Call me Ishmael,'" he said as he hurled the harpoon." Walker doesn't tell us who's talking, but we know right away that we're being let in on a secret. Vonnegut leads with a lie, Pynchon with disorientation. And Nabokov slips from words to lust in an instant. Maybe what it takes to make a sentence great is a kind of spare universality.

But then, the two lists intersect with a sentence that's specific to the point of becoming dated. From William Gibson, no less.

It's after the jump.

Gibson's "Neuromancer" begins: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That's a great sentence, and from a seminal book. But for all of Gibson's prescience about technology, will this metaphor last? How long will readers continue to recognize that televisions can be tuned, or know what a dead channel looks like? Are there dead channels anymore?

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is the idea of something both electronic and dead; the color itself, imagined or remembered, is not that important at all. Maybe it's that the reader is invited to picture that color. Why is the sky like an electronic device? Why is death hanging over this place?

Maybe the greatest sentences open a door to a fully realized new world, while also creating a space -- offering an invitation -- for the reader's imagination to take hold.

Carolyn Kellogg

photo by Jim Winstead Jr. via Flickr