MIND MELD: The Best Opening Scenes in Science Fiction & Fantasy
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
As the calendar rolls over to the beginning of another year, it brings with it the promise of new things and new beginnings. With that in mind, we asked this week’s panelists this question:
Here’s what they said:
I’m sure that most of my favorite opening scenes are from the same classics that many readers would recognize — the gom jabbar test in Dune; Louis Wu’s globe-hopping birthday trip in Ringworld; the introduction of Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land — so I won’t reiterate them. And while I have a number of favorite opening lines as well — a personal favorite is from Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide: “The bureaucrat fell from the sky” — they’re not quite the same thing as a good first scene, which — if done right — will pull the reader into the book.
A perfect example of both is the beginning of The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon. Here’s the first paragraph:
They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium, and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.
Exactly what the kid — whose name is Horty — was doing is not immediately explained. If you’re like most readers, though, you’ve probably got a good idea … particularly when you’re told that his guardians (who are not his parents; they’re introduced later) were just as horrified as the school principal, the teachers, and the other kids. But it’s not until you’re a couple of pages into the book that you discover Horty was…
So what did you think he was doing? And now that you’ve learned that it’s probably not what you were expecting, aren’t you interested in finding out why an eight-year-old boy was eating ants?
Sturgeon was a master storyteller, and he set up this scene beautifully. It is a textbook example of a perfect narrative hook.
She walked through the fair in the light of a northern summer evening, looking for me. Of the hundreds of people around her, the thousands in the town and the thousands on the project, only I would serve her purpose. My voice and visage, mind and body were her target acquisition parameters.
The next paragraph segues into a description of the fairground and a dance, and when I very first read it I was convinced it was a reference to Christina Rosetti’s work, or that of Hope Mirrlees. There was something ineffably pre-Raphaelite about it, both in the use of light, and in that wonderful sweep from the intimate “looking for me” to the technical, “My voice and visage, mind and body were her target acquisition parameters.” The pre-Raphaelites, with their fascination with the dignity of work, added a romantic strain to science fiction which is centered on the beauty of the perfect technical fix even
as many of them would have been horrified by the modern world. David Nye identifies this in his book The American Technological Sublime and we see this kind of romance, which links the personal with the technological over and over again in sf. The other book in which this stratagem opens the story is Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, (1998) in a glorious, sweeping romance:
Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn’t know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn’t know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.
A beginning scene is the place in a story where the world we are entering opens up and we are first exposed to the wonders we will soon encounter. These scenes are constructed carefully in an attempt to hook the audience quickly and keep them holding on, craving more. The opening scene from the anime Ghost in the Shell does just that. It leaves the audience craving for more, more, more! The scene is mechanical, biological, and even sexual. The haunting beat of the opening score by Kenji Kawai thumps as we observe the various means by which this cybernetic entity is being constructed. There are no words as the body is bathed in unknown fluids. It passes through a series of canals and spins in the fetal position only to emerge into the open air still and lifeless. The scene ends with the cybernetic woman waking up to an ordinary day. We watch her flawless movements in shadow. She is perfectly ordinary because she is extraordinarily perfect. The scene tells you so much and yet nothing at all. Who is this woman? We want to know. We want to know everything about her.
The opening scene from The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead is an example of how great writing, combined with a bit of fantasy and mechanical engineering to create a really intriguing and funny moment. This novel is not usually classified as SF/F, but in my humble opinion it’s as speculative as it gets. It is about the world of elevator inspectors and how a new form of intuitionist inspection is changing everything. It’s about race and class and the distribution of power. But most of all it is about change. I love the opening scene for its imagination and its humor.
Lila Mae, the protagonist, has come to inspect an elevator. The super for the building is not expecting someone who looks like her. There is tension. She does the inspection the way an Intuitionist would do it, not the way an Empiricist would. She finds a problem and issues a ticket. The super places a bribe in her shirt pocket. Lila Mae still gives him the ticket. The super objects. She responds, “If you want to give away your hard-earned money … I see it as a curious, although in this case fortuitous, habit of yours that has nothing to do with me.”
Another beginning scene that is a favorite of mine comes from Jeffrey Ford. In his story “The Annals of Eelin-Ok,” the opening scene actually occurs within a journal entry from the protagonist of the tale. Eelin-Ok is a Twilmish, a faerie, and he has decided to be born because, at last, he has found the perfect sand castle. The tiny architects who constructed it have named it “While Away.” Although he doesn’t understand what the name means, the castle seems to suit him just fine. This is a beautiful, haunting beginning—a beginning that we probably all had the day we were born, but can’t remember. After struggling so hard to get into the world, we are brought forth to this life and find ourselves asking, “Now what?”
My favorite opening scene is from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. The first seven pages are an egregious infodump: subversive, smart, and terribly entertaining. The subject? The life and technique of the modern Deliverator, aka the pizza delivery boy. Stephenson packs the passage with dripping sarcasm. You can’t help but love it. Here are some of my favorite bits:
“When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun.”
“The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid belt.”
“There’s only four things we [in the U.S.] do better than anyone else – music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery.”
“Pizza delivery is a major industry. A managed industry. People went to CosaNostra Pizza University four years just to learn it.”
“If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself-The Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator’s nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated-who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer’s yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy.”
And my personal favorite line of all time:
“Southern California doesn’t know whether to bustle or strangle itself on the spot.“
The book goes on from there and somewhere halfway through I totally lose the plotline, but I don’t care. I never read Stephenson books for the plot. I read them for the tangents and the sarcasm.
The obvious choice is of course the entrance of Darth Vader at the beginning of Star Wars. (Sorry if I can’t bring myself to call it A New Hope or Episode Four. I’m old.). Technically, it’s not at quite the beginning of the film, but, eh, close enough. When that music starts playing and the man in black steps into the scene, a film legacy is born. It’s fashionable to bash Star Wars. Or sing it’s praises as if it is the greatest thing since the invention of the warp drive. But I think Star Wars is just a thing now. In our modern age, a devoted fanatical following really isn’t anything noteworthy. Firefly lasted less than a season, but its diehard fans seem every bit as devoted to their particular obsession. Heck, I love Kolchack: The Nightstalker and Killer Klowns from Outer Space and while that made me peculiar in the 80’s, it just makes me a fan now.
This ease of obsession (a seeming contradiction) makes it difficult to really know what beginning scene inspires fans the most. Putting aside all the obvious choices (because I enjoy being obscure for obscurity’s sake) I think one idea immediately comes to mind. We open on a man in a leather jacket wearing a fedora and brandishing a whip as he prowls the South American jungles in search of a sacred relic. Our hero turns around and we get our first real glimpse of this iconic character:
Weird Al Yankovic
Yes, that sci if classic UHF. There are those who might question if it is a sci fi classic but it’s the story of a bunch of weirdos and lunatics who find fame and fortune by offering the most unique and strange TV shows to a public starved for something different. UHF is YouTube before YouTube. It’s Jackass before Jackass. It’s reality television before that was even really much of a concept. So if that sort of prophetic vision counts for anything than UHF is indeed a sci fi classic.
Oh, and SPOILER ALERT there is an alien in it.
But just for those negative Nellies out there who want a more conventional answer, I guess I would go with The Matrix. It’s somewhat obvious and the sequels weaken the reputation of the original, BUT the opening of the first film is a masterpiece of action, adventure, subtlety, and mystery. It makes promises that it ends up keeping. Also, a badass lady in black kicks a guy in the face in spectacular fashion. And that’s gotta count for something.
So, yeah, The Matrix is a good backup choice.
But only if UHF doesn’t count.
The start of The Lord of the Rings is my favorite start to any fantasy novel. It’s not spectacular or splashy in the way of a Bond-film opening reel, but it sets the tale and the task and introduces to you to the heroes and gives you every damn reason in the world to not just root for them but love them.
Think about it: the greatest epic fantasy of all time starts out with a birthday party in the quietest corner of the world. It shows the creeping edges of the shadow about to fall over this idyllic land, and then it reaches in with the Nazgûl and yanks the humblest of heroes right into the center of a staggering war between good and evil. It’s brilliant, poignant, and inspiring.
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