It’s ridiculously difficult to limit this list to only ten books, and to limit the quotes to opening lines only, and for sure this is about as subjective a topic as you can get, but still, let’s have some fun with it and be sure to add your favourite lines in the comments section below.
Here, in no particular order are my top 10 opening lines to science fiction books.
“If the stars should appear one time in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?” - Issac Asimov, Nightfall
This is actually from the short story by Asimov, featuring the planet Lagash and its configuration of six suns such that the people there never experience night time except for once every 2000 years or so. Rumours abound about these “stars” that appear and make you go crazy and, indeed, like Yeats’ historical gyres, the lagashian civilization destroys itself when the overwhelming night eventually arrives. By far, this is one of my favourite Asimov tales.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer
What can you say about Canadian author William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk opening line that hasn’t already been said? This sums up the mood of the story perfectly. As Stan Lee would say ‘Nuff said!
“I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” — Christopher Priest, Inverted World.
For me, it’s the kind of opening line that is at once intriguing and mysterious and non-sensical, perhaps a bit like 1984 that way. The use of distance to measure age suggests time manipulation of some kind, but let’s read the story and find out. Oh, and not to be confused with Han Solo’s use of “parsec” – a measure of distance – as a measure of time in A New Hope.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.”
George Orwell, 1984
For the longest time, the writers in my workshops and I focused on the contrast between the normal world (first part of the line) and the dystopian, I mean, how on Earth could clocks be striking 13? Yet, in military time, 13 hundred hours is one o’clock and this gives us a hint as to what’s happening in the story. At the same time, clocks don’t normally strike 13, do they, even if it is in a military context. So this opening line has so much going on, it almost forces the reader to keep going.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451
I love Bradbury’s stories, especially his short stories, and this opening line is another one of those odd, intriguing set ups. How could burning something be a pleasure, unless you’re a pyromaniac? In this case, it’s about a man whose job it is to destroy books, and like any hard-working man, he takes pride in it. But there’s also a hint of something more here. It’s the burn of passion, not just for the man who torches books, but for all of us and all of our passions for life.
“There was a wall. It did not look important.” – Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
This was the first Le Guin novel I read and I found it fascinating, especially the degree of world building in it. But never mind that: it’s the opening two lines that hooked me. Simple, matter of fact. A wall. But after considering the wall, the narrator determines that the wall did not look important, and that’s what I found so interesting. It speaks to a certain aloofness, perhaps, but that wall, even though it did not look important, carried with it a powerful message.
“Avalon outlink station lay on the border of the Polity, that expanding political dominion ruled by artificial intelligences and, to those who resented unhuman rule, the supreme autocrat: Earth Central.”
Neal Asher, Prador Moon
Chronologically, this is the first story in Asher’s Polity world and the opening line sets it up perfectly showing the contrast between the two bodies, the sheer size of it in space, and the fact that humans are a nuisance in a world of AIs.
“It had been a bad night, and when he tried to drive home, he had a terrible argument with his car.”
Philip K. Dick, The Game Players of Titan
Who among us has not talked to our cars, especially when they don’t start in the morning. In this case, the car talks back and sets up the kind of futuristic story where man and machine are interconnected.
“All this happened, more or less.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughter-house Five
Not everyone considers S-5 to be science fiction. In my own local bookstore, it’s in the fiction section, but if I look at it from a SF lens, it ticks off a lot of the genre points. Time travel? Check. Aliens? Check. So let us consider this one of those stories that is so good, it’s considered classic fiction as well as science fiction. No matter, the opening line sets the stage for a story that the reader could begin at any chapter and understand it (if you haven’t tried reading S-5 starting at any random chapter and reading around, try it!). The ambiguity of the first line is what draws us and creates a fog around all of the “war bits” and meetings with Tralfamadorians.
“I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.” -Ernest Cline, Armada
Cline’s opening line here is simple and yet intriguing because of the (wait, what?!?) flying saucer. One cannot help but keep reading here to find out how, when, where, what, who and why.
What are your favourite opening lines? Comment below!
Hi, I'm David. I write science fiction from a Christian worldview that promotes hope. Want to know the darker details? Click here.
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