The first sentence of a book is one of the most important to get right.
The first line is what a lot of readers use to decide whether they want to read on, which is a lot of pressure for writers of sci-fi and fantasy novels—who so often have to set fantastic scenes on their way to the meat of their stories.
Finding the perfect first line is a tough task, but some writers are up to it – particularly the ones who we’re highlighting below. These are the best opening lines in science fiction and fantasy books.
“I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.”
The opening line of Bellamy’s utopian science fiction novel inverts one of the most common opening-line strategies in science fiction.
Instead of saying something nonsensical, Bellamy says something perfectly reasonable–this book was published in 1888, so 1857 is a very reasonable year in this context.
But Looking Backward is set in the then-distant year of 2000, which makes the normality of this line to 1880s readers somewhat unexpected in its own way.
Bellamy plunges into his premise in the lines immediately following, putting words in the mouths of his readers (“’What!’ you say, ‘eighteen fifty-seven? … He means nineteen fifty-seven, of course.’”), making them a part of his story while establishing his premise and retroactively making his opening line a hook.
After all: how did someone from the 1800s end up in 2000s Boston?
“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.”
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Published in 1870, Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea opens with this matter-of-fact reference to what turns out to be a terrifying sea monster sighting and subsequent undersea expedition.
But since none of this actually happened, the understated opening acts instead as a hook. It must have worked particularly well on readers at the time of publication, who would certainly have remembered any such incident just a few years before.
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
The War of the Worlds
A lot of the best opening lines in fantasy and science fiction try to hook the reader and therefore buy time for the explanations that must follow.
But Wells goes a different route in The War of the Worlds, and instead keeps things moving with a long roller-coaster of a first sentence that lays out the creepy first portion of his book’s premise.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Adams’ opening sentence sets up the tone of his novel from the start. It’s funny: that’s a heck of a way to describe what we guess has to be our sun, and the “unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm” is an absurd re-imagining of the galaxy as a community with hip and un-hip areas (and cardinal directions, for that matter).
On top of that, the distant and condescending tone establishes a central theme of the book from the start: that we are, in the grand scheme of things, not particularly important. We may even be a little un-hip.
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale
There’s a lot that can be pulled from this opening line, but the most important thing may be the unsettling memory evoked by “what had once been the gymnasium.”
Gymnasiums, apparently, are not gymnasiums anymore. But our narrator knows what gymnasiums used to be, so we know that, whatever has gone wrong, it happened recently.
Science fiction dystopias are often presented as being long-tenured, but The Handmaid’s Tale is so effective and so upsetting because it takes place in the near-future, in which readers can better appreciate the characters’ plight.
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
A popular pick for the greatest opening line in sci-fi history, Bradbury’s quick, punchy line does a little less work than some of the others on this list.
But what it lacks in versatility it makes up for in force, as it unsubtly drops the book’s disturbing central theme—book burning—while connecting it from the start with the flawed, sick things that bring people pleasure.
It’s an almost-intimate sentence, and Bradbury drops it at the opening so that readers’ stomachs sink immediately.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
The novel that coined the term “cyberspace” is tech-obsessed and often grim. Both of those things come across in Gibson’s iconic opening line, which references television static to describe the world—foreshadowing the way in which the book will use fictional “cyberspace” as a virtual-reality setting within its own fictional world.
But we soon learn that this is the real sky, not something from cyberspace–in this book, even the real world is grey and mechanical.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
It’s possible to do too much with an opening line. Lewis greets readers returning to his Chronicles of Narnia series knowing full well that they know plenty of strange details about his settings from prior books, so he spends his first sentence introducing a key new character and establishing that he’s not such a likeable guy. We don’t really know why, or who this kid is, or where we are, but that’s okay—Lewis has the whole rest of the book to do all of that. Here, he’s content with an introduction, a laugh, and a memorable opening line.
“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The opening sentence of 1984 is often cited as one of the greatest opening lines in the history of literature—not just the science fiction genre. It’s easy to see why: Orwell’s opening line turns expectations on their heads, catching the reader’s attention from the start. But this scene offers more than just a hook: the ominous abnormality puts us ill-at-ease, the matter-of-fact way that this impossible fact is presented anticipates the bold lying of the government of Oceania, and even the details about the day—“cold” and “bright”—serve a purpose, helping us begin to narrow down where the story is set. He does all of this while alluding to an old saying that connects thirteen strokes of a clock to doubt and falsehoods. That’s a lot of work done before we hit the second sentence!
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The opening sentence of Rowling’s Harry Potter series establishes the tone right from the start. With Harry off-camera, we meet the Dursleys in a sentence that they take over and, in their voices, wrap up with a snooty “thank you very much.” Rowling sets up her story to be exciting and fun by instantly convincing her readers to dislike the “normal” and its representatives. The fact that the magical world doesn’t feel immediately menacing in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (even though magic killed Harry’s parents, which seems like a big deal) is a mark of Rowling’s skill as a writer. She accomplished this by cultivating the prissy, boring, normal world and its Dursley inhabitants as a foil to the colorful world of magic—a strategy that is in motion from the very first sentence of the book.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Like a lot of writers on this list, Tolkien wastes no time in introducing one of the weird and absurd elements of his story, instead choosing to use that thing (in this case, the existence of something called hobbits) as the story’s opening hook while also beginning to do the work of explaining some things. While he’s at this, Tolkien uses the syntax and diction of his opening sentence to emulate the cadence fairy tale or nursery rhyme style. It makes the hook a little more familiar and a little less frustrating while setting up the tone of The Hobbit, which was written for children and has much more of a bedtime-story vibe than Tolkien’s epic follow-up, The Lord of the Rings.
“All of this happened, more or less.”
Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel is a satirical blend of semi-autobiographical fiction and chaotic science fiction. Some parts of his novel will be more (or less!) true than other parts, and the distinction does not appear to be of much importance in the book. And none of this has to be gleaned from the back cover or critical reviews or a study of Vonnegut’s work – it’s all in the actual text of the book as it opens. And that means we know one other thing: the narrator, whoever they may turn out to be, has already outed him or herself as unreliable even within the fictional world of the story.
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Featured image: "Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation"