First Lines

Lauren and I had a conversation a few weeks ago about the importance of a book’s opening lines or paragraphs in grabbing her attention and motivating her to continue with it. I never thought about it, so I grabbed some of my favorite books from the shelf to see how they start. I think I’m glad I apparently don’t have much dependence there — several of these are pretty underwhelming, but I loved all of them.

These are picked at random, just standing in front of our bookshelf — I’ve missed some gems, I’m sure, and they’re in no particular order.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

I reread this last year to prepare for seeing the movie, and I got Lauren to read it, too. She loved it. I think this book is a great entry to the YA-before-YA-was-cool genre. Published 1977 (at least the short story the novel is based on), which was honestly a huge surprise to me.

The Long Ships, by Frans G. Bengtsson

Along the coast the people lived together in villages, partly to be sure of food, that they might not depend entirely on the luck of their own catch, and partly for greater security; for ships rounding the Skanian peninsula often sent marauding parties ashore, both in the spring, to replenish cheaply their stock of fresh meat for the westward voyage, and in the winter, if they were returning empty-handed from unsuccessful wars.

I have read this book at least four times, starting when my dad handed me his copy when I was maybe thirteen years old. I have my own copy now, and I cannot wait to pass on the tradition to my own kids. This opening is a bit academic, almost an ethnography — but then, the book is historical fiction. I do think it sets the tone for the casual violence of Norse society.

A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

This might be my favorite of this selection of quotations.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.” I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.”

World War Z positions itself as an oral history, an academic project to record fictional events. Max Brooks even gets the introduction right.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremeties, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

The first paragraph sets the cynical, noir tone of the book, but the whole first chapter is great. As John Scalzi said, you could teach classes on worldbuilding just from this chapter.

The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks

I have a story to tell you. It has many beginnings, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic[.]

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.

I think Dan does the best job of really painting a picture with his opening lines. He doesn’t start with anything banally descriptive, and he isn’t talking about the story. The lines are just so evocative; you can so easily see the scene.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock tree six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave in the tree that I now call home.

This has always been an inspiring book to me. What could be better (as a child or an adult) than running off to the mountains and living off the land with almost no human contact? Sounds like heaven. This opening paragraph gets the point across right from the start.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect — and tax — public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.

A non-English speaker as narrator, and talk of government action and revolutionary sentiments on the Moon. A good introduction to the book.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”


When I started making this list, I also started rereading all these awesome books, beginning with Ender’s Game and My Side of the Mountain. Man, that really is a loner’s dream — the whole book makes me long to grab my pocketknife and start walking into the woods. Maybe I’ll come back next year. Maybe not.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to convince yourself as a wife to not to be offended when your husband keeps talking about running off to be alone for life. ;)

    My favorites out of these are Ender’s Game and The Algebraist. Interestingly, most of these would turn me away, especially the ones with strong sensory details/worldbuilding. (Basically, where’s the people?! I WANT PEOPLE. lol)

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