RRT: Favorite First Lines in Speculative Fiction

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On September - 9 - 2010


One year ago, 9/9/09, Rocket Kapre officially launched. In celebration of our first year anniversary, here’s a new installment of one of our most popular features: the Rocket Round Table. For this batch, the question – to coincide with the anniversary – is: “What is your favorite first line in speculative fiction?” Prose and graphic novels/comics were fair game (movies and television were not), as were local and foreign works – I only asked that the respondents include any first lines from Filipino-made spec fic that stood out for them. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Thanks to all those who took time to participate in the round table, and for all those who have supported Rocket Kapre in its first year. Here’s to many more to come!

[Warning: Some language may not be safe for work, or children, or adults who like to pretend they're as innocent as children.]

ELBERT OR Comic book creator, university lecturer, graphic designer, freelance writer, entrepreneur (he’s part of Brain Food, which gives speech and writing workshops) Elbert is a jack of all trades and master of… well, lots. He currently runs Global Art and the Komiksabado Comics Workshop.

Happy first year, RK! How time flies!
I owe much of my interest in current Philippine SF to Dean Alfar’s “Kite of Stars,” and its first line/ paragraph which grabbed firm hold of me and has still not let me go:

The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him.

I wish I could say though that memory allowed me to remember each word, but I admit only to committing the first eleven words. But the blame lies solely on me and my poor memory.

Here’s to the next ten years for Rocket Kapre!

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CATHERINE BATAC WALDERCatherine is based in England and works as a research group administrator at the Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London. From 2005 to 2007, she moved across Norway, Finland and Portugal for a European MPhil. scholarship. Her fiction appears in Big Pulp, Demons of the New Year, Philippines Graphic, Ruin and Resolve Anthology, Expanded Horizons, and Philippines Free Press. She blogs at http://deckshoes.wordpress.com/

Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.” – The Small Assassin, comics adaptation of a tale by Ray Bradbury

At some time near dawn, on March 25, 1913, there came a loud knocking at the front door of the Uyterhoevens’ home in the Dayton View section of Dayton, Ohio.” – The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen

At first glance, the picture looked like any other in a family album of that time, the sepia shade and tone, the formal poses, the men in solemn Sunday suits and the women, severely coiffed, in long skirts and billowing blouses.” – Fade by Robert Cormier

““I can do this,” I told my squirrel.” - Speed Dating and Spirit Guides by Rod M. Santos

In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” – Spar by Kij Johnson

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.” – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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G.M. CORONELA Marketing Management graduate of De La Salle University in 1985, he is a first-time author with no literary background to speak of other than a genuine love of reading and a passion for writing. Coming across back issues of Writer’s Digest a few years ago started his writing career. Some previous personal encounters with the paranormal convinced him to pursue the horror genre. He believes that stories to tell and experiences to share are best put in written words. He is the author of Tragic Theater.

The night wind howls like a wounded dying animal.” (Trese Murder on Balete Drive) — This is a very compelling first line and it engages the reader’s interest in the story.

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DON JAUCIAN - Don regularly reviews books for several publications, both print and on-line. He is the resident bitch of the film blog Pelikula Tumblr. His book dump is http://chinoisdead.livejournal.com

The Ascension of Our Lady Boy – Mia Tijam (PDF of Expanded Horizons #14, which includes the story.)

Let us begin with my earliest memory as a lady: Daddy had complained to Iyay who was my yaya(and his yaya before and his mama’s yaya before that) that I was lacking something strong in my bones and in my hips.

Tijam’s Lady Boy is hands down one of my favorite spec fic stories. It effectively combined Philippine culture, gay-isms and the whole ‘triumph of the heart’ thing. I like how the first line promises a wonderful story, equal parts whimsical and endearing, like Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros and it really delivers.

Visitors – Luis Katigbak

When they first arrived, they transformed themselves into everything we ever secretly wanted to be.

Stories of ‘encounters’ are never amusing. They mostly run as dubious paranoiac rants but in a few words, Katigbak manages to brush off the fluff usually associated with this tripe. ‘Visitors’ is beautiful, a different approach into the Wonderful World of Alien Mysteries; humanized and hopeful.

Brigada – Joey Nacino

When the news came, Captain Fernando Tabora of the Philippine Navy was meeting with the two-man salvage team at the top of Manila Hotel.

I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories and Manila Hotel underwater is just too awesome to ignore. Just like the head of Statue of Liberty chopped off in Cloverfield!

Flicker – Ian Rosales Casocot

Something had apparently come to live, or stir, in the house down the road, that old mansion on the corner before one turned left down Mango Street, which led toward the coconut groves that bordered the farthest end of the village.

Suburban horror stories always fascinate me and Casocot’s ‘Flicker’ definitely sustains the tension from the first sentence to the last. It is eerie, ominous and it’s refreshing to see a horror story devoid of hysterics and cheap scare tactics.

[More after the cut]

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MEANN ORTIZ The co-Editor in Chief of NewWorlds.ph, a website that caters to Filipino enthusiasts of science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture.  She believes books are like the sirens of Greek mythology, for she often cannot resist their enchanting call, and she finds herself virtually shipwrecked upon the shores of a bookstore.

My favorite first line from a foreign work is:  “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning The Graveyard Book.  I love it because it’s short but unforgettable, and it brilliantly sets up the rest of the story.  It’s the kind of opening that makes you stop to think about what may happen next, and then compels you to turn the page.

My favorite first line from an Filipino SF work is not so much a line as the work’s entire opening paragraph:  “The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him.”  This one’s from The Kite of Stars by Dean Francis Alfar.  I love this opening because it puts the reader right into the action.  It’s not as wonderfully vague as the one by Gaiman, but after that kind of glimpse into the heart of the story, how can you possibly stop reading?

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TINA MATANGUIHANTina is a web content developer by day (or night, depending on her shift) who would rather debug than write code and while dabbling on other projects with her spare time. She’s an avid reader who’s recently started to love reading spec fic. Every November since 2004, she turns into a manic novelist and cheerleader for the Filipino National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) community. She’s planning to write her first fantasy novel this year and she hopes to get hit by inspiration soon.

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot — in this case, my brother, Shaun — deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. - Feed by Mira Grant

Rush Hour. So many armpits, so little deodorant. Tall Story by Candy Gourlay

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ELIZA VICTORIA - Eliza has won a Palanca Award for her poetry, has been named as a finalist at the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, and has had her works accepted in many publications, including Expanded Horizons,  the Farthest Shore, and Demons of the New Year. She also writes for the Philippine Online Chronicles.

It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. - 1984, George Orwell

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

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ELAINE CUYEGKENGLibrarian and writer. Alas, at present, she has no familiars, but lives with her partner in a little brick flat in Melbourne. “The Widow and the Princess of the Dwende” is her first short story under Usok (in the upcoming second issue).

The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him.”- “The Kite of Stars,” Dean Francis Alfar.  Ok. So I cheated (or Dean cheated). It’s an opening line that’s also an opening paragraph. But it’s absolutely perfect, the way Dean uses it to frame and set up the story. He establishes both Maria and Lorenzo as characters, parallels their desires: Maria for Lorenzo, Lorenzo for the stars. It’s unapologetically romantic. And it neatly leads to the complicated chain of events that sets Maria on her journey. It’s a beautifully constructed opening line, and I would kill to one day have Dean’s skill.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight in the kitchen.”-The Northern Lights, Philip Pullman.  Not only does Philip Pullman establish the key difference between our world and Lyra’s — the presence of daemons — but it draws you into the story, the narrative, and what Lyra and her daemon are doing. What are they up to? Who are they hiding from? It’s a succinct and clear first line — the way a YA story should be. But there’s so much going on and it just pulls you in.

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PHIL CORPUZA full-time dataminer and part time game master, he wishes he could reverse that situation. When not chugging away at the data mines, he writes for the Philippine Online Chronicles, plays various tabletop games, and indulges in various bits of geekery.

For the longest time, my favorite was William Gibson’s opening to Neuromancer, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” It just sets the scene of his technological crapsack world so effectively and efficiently. Two lines did roll in recently that stuck in my mind for sheer, jarring cheekiness, Dan Simmons’ Olympos (“Helen of Troy awakens at dawn to the sound of air raid sirens.“) and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (“‘Do your neighbors burn one another alive?’ was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.“).

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SHARMAINE GALVE - Reads a lot.  Writes a lot.  Gets published sometimes.  A serious hypochondriac who spouts medical terms.  Slaughterhouse Five is one of the novels I have read a lot ever since I bought it in a bargain bin and wanted to see what the big deal was about Vonnegut.  It espouses my major views: the silliness of war and time.

All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.  One guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I’ve changed all the names. –Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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KATYA OLIVA-LLEGOA geek neophyte, her poetry and fiction pieces have been published on Expanded Horizons, Scifaikuest, Moon Drenched Fables, and Static Movement.

(1)”The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him.” – The Kite of Stars by Dean Francis Alfar.

It’s actually the entire first paragraph of the story, but I couldn’t really cut it anywhere before the period and call it a first line. I loved this because it promised a story of adventure and love, and it delivered.

(2)”Life is a stick with a death on each end.” – Messenger by Julia M. Sidorova (Clarkesworld Magazine)

When I read this line, I asked: What, how, and why. I’m thankful for the engaging first line because it made me read the story to the end. The story was beautiful and thought-provoking, and the emotions induced by it will probably stay with me for a long time.

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KM REYNALDOTine is an English major in bardo. Prose pruner by day, brain soup cook and wannabe-yogini by night, she is often found spaced out in her imaginary apartment on the top floor: http://mirageode.wordpress.com/

  • My father lost me to the Beast at cards.” – “Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter
  • I do not know what manner of thing she is. None of us do. She killed her mother in the birthing, but that’s never enough to account for it.” – “Snow, Glass, Apples”by Neil Gaiman
  • MYTHICAL! Ha! I’m as real as the waves, as this sea you cannot even begin to know or imagine. What dumb silence echoes in those empty heads of yours that you are so quickly enticed? One song and you are asleep. Another and you are mine. And the sea’s. who, then, is the myth? Whose lives are so quick to end?” – “A Song in the Wind”by Maria Elena Paterno
  • If you wish to find the woman who sells dreams, go to the most run-down part of the city.” – “The Forgotten City” by Vincent C. Sales
These are just the stuff I found online as I currently have no access to my library :(
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RICA BOLIPATA SANTOS - An assistant professor at the Ateneo de Manila University where she teaches at the English and Fine Arts departments. Her first collection of essays, published by Milflores, Love, Desire, Children, Etc. won the prestigious Madrigal Gonzales Best First Book Award in 2007. Her new collection of essays, Lost and Found, was just published by the UP Press last July 2010. Her first foray into SF produced the story Just Man, which appears in Philippine Speculative Fiction 5.

The story I’ve chosen is the The Fix by Percival Everett, about a guy who knows how to fix everything! It’s funny, light and does take things to the extreme…which is why the first line to me is hilarious:
“Douglas Langley owned a little sandwich shop at the intersection of Fourteen and T streets in the District. Beside his shop was a seldom used alley and above his shop lived a man by the name of Sherman Olney whom Douglad had seen beaten to near extinction by a couple of silky-looking men who seemed to know Sherman and wanted something in particular from him.
-It turns out the silky-looking men wanted Sherman to fix something for them (some thing that could be a weapon for mass destruction or something!)

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FIDELIS TANFidelis’ work has been published in Heights, Philippine Speculative Fiction vol. 5, Love and Heartbreak, After the Storm: Stories on Ondoy, and various indie komiks. She is a regular contributor to the Philippine Online Chronicles (www.thepoc.net).

The door to Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s memory palace is in the darkness at the center of his mind and it has a latch that can be found by touch alone.”
-From Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris (a book which I didn’t really like compared to the other Hannibal books, but it has a nice first line :D )

[inverted] “Carl Conrad Coreander, Old Books” [Fidelis sent this to me properly inverted, but sadly WordPress won't register it.]

- From Neverending Story, Michael Ende.

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

- Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe

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TIN LAOTin is a lawyer who used to write for a newspaper, dabbles in poetry and prose (that wants to be poetry). Her fiction has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume V.
Here’s an opening line that hooked me immediately, from Kij Johnson’s Spar:

“In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.”
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MACOY TANGCreator of excellent indie komiks such as Ang Maskot and School Run, and a writer for the Philippine Online Chronicles. Blogs at mababang langit.
You just can’t get any better than “Once upon a time.” sorry if everybody else says that too :)

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CHILES SAMANIEGO - wrote things that were published in Story Philippines, the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Free Press, Parole (the UP Portia Society’s literary folio), Usok, Ruin and Resolve, and Weird Tales Magazine.

congratulations on your anniversary!whenever anyone asks about first lines, this one springs immediately to mind:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood and she lived alone. (The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle)

almost immediately after that, this follows, but here i’ll have to whip out my trusty old secondhand Ballantine Books ed., because i’m never going to be able to quote this from memory:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls. (Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake)

compare/contrast that with the relative economy of this:

A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon)
the latter may seem at first to be a bit wrong-footing, given how willfully impenetrable Pynchon’s prose famously is, but in fact both are concise demonstrations of the kind of linguistic performance you’re in for when you venture into these books; even at his most polysyllabic, leaving aside the lyric excesses of those notorious musical numbers, a love for archaisms/anachronisms & obscure jargony words, &c, Pynchon’s prose is just as colloquial, colorful, & economical (perhaps efficient is the better word; i’ll have to think about that) as that first line suggests. from here on, i’ll leave out the pretentious pseudoacademic commentary & let the lines, as it were, speak for themselves. knowing how inclusive your preferred definition of ‘speculative fiction’ is, i’ll just throw in whatever i find that i happen to fancy at the mo:

  • In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson)
  • In the deep chill and the darkness of the Fourth Galaxy, in the black sparkle of deep space, oh so lonely, see a figure in a blue coverall tumbling over and over as it comes towards you: no space suit, no helmet, no oxygen. (Fremder, Russell Hoban)
  • With the discovery of God on the far side of the Moon, and the subsequent gigantic and hazardous towing operation that brought Him back to start His reign anew, there began on Earth, as one might assume, a period of far-reaching change. (‘Settling the World’, M. John Harrison)
  • I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. (‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Borges)
  • Egnaro is a secret known to everyone but yourself. (‘Egnaro’, M. John Harrison)
  • In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper. (Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov)
  • Vic Serotonin sat in a bar on Straint Street, just outside the aureole of the Saudade event, in conversation with a fat man from another planet who called himself Antoyne. (Nova Swing, M. John Harrison)
  • On the day of the enthronement of the new archbishop, the ‘badly decomposed’ body of a man was found on the roof of York Minster by a TV technician. (‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’, M. John Harrison)
  • Today, by radio, and also on giant hoardings, a rabbi, an admiral notorious for his links to Masonry, a trio of cardinals, a trio, too, of insignificant politicians (bought and paid for by a rich and corrupt Anglo-Canadian banking corporation), inform us all of how our country now risks dying of starvation. (A Void, Georges Perec, tr. by Gilbert Adair)
  • Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. (The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares)
  • Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom. (‘Birds’, Bruno Schulz)
  • The affair of the birds was the last colorful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter. (‘Tailors’ Dummies’, Bruno Schulz)
  • ‘Lor’ love you, sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. (Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter)

and finally, though i’m rather less than enamored with this line, it did get me to sit up & take notice, & i feel obligated to share something by a Filipino writer, though i imagine this stretches your definition of ‘speculative fiction’ to the very limits:

I had not read General Mata’s journals when I spoke last year to a Mürkian psychoanalyst about the possibility of hysterical abreactions occurring on a national scale. (The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, Gina Apostol)

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CRYSTAL KOOhas been published online and in print in various international venues. In 2007, she won a Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature for her short story “Benito Salazar’s Last Creation,” and in 2009, her play “The Foundling” was performed in Hong Kong by Burnt Mango Theatre Productions. She is currently an English lecturer at the College of International Education of Hong Kong Baptist University. She maintains a blog at http://swordskill.wordpress.com.

Mine would be from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
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ERICA GONZALES - is a Christian by grace, a doctor by training and a writer by inclination.Her Haya Project stories have been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 4, the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Ruin and Resolve, and Inscribed: A Magazine for Writers.

Oh dear, I can’t seem to remember first lines immediately, most books get an overall feel from me, and I’m more impressed by the overall impact than first lines.  For instance, I most remember how Artemis Fowl II was introduced in the whole. I remember being astounded by Dune, Hyperion, and The Dispossessed, but their first lines did not strike me.

Here are the ones I most liked:

1. Opening of the original short story version of Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keynes:

progris riport 1-martch 5, 1965

            Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing
         that happins to me from now on, I dont know why but he says its
         importint so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me.
         Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be
         smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old. I have
         nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.

The basic fact that the opening is written like this makes you perk up and pay attention at once. This was required reading back in Comm1 in college. We all sobbed at it. I went on to read the whole book.

2. The opening line to the original novella form of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card:

“Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember — the enemy’s gate is down. If you step through your own door like you’re out for a stroll, you’re a big target and you deserve to get hit. With more than a flasher.” Ender Wiggins paused and looked over the group.

This version of the story is the first one I read; the full force of the concept and its ending is heavier in this original version. You may not understand what the terms are, but the fact that a boy (no adult is called ‘Ender’, at least before this boy) is barking them out makes you take notice. I still like this version more than the novel version.

3. Whatever was the opening line to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, because of Kyon’s supreme boredom and snark from the very first sentence. (“The question of how long someone believed in Santa Claus is a worthless topic that would never come up in idle conversation.”)

Of the local stuff:

1. “It was a Monday when Frances De Jesus, senior copywriter, decided to become God.” (The Day that Frances, The Copywriter, Became God; Monique Francisco, Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 4 )

The title and opening line makes you take notice, is this girl serious or what, and while I know it’s a fantasy story, how much of a god will she be?  The rest of the story doesn’t disappoint.

2. “The day I finally returned home, I was carrying my sister’s corpse on my back.” (Lex Talionis; Paolo Chikiamco, A Time for Dragons and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009)

You gotta salute a guy who carries his sister’s corpse (not a girlfriend’s?) on his back, first of all, then you wonder why he’s doing it, the circumstances around it.

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DOMINIQUE CIMAFRANCADominique is a Davao based teacher and author, and a self-proclaimed geek–before it was fashionable. A fellow at the 2006 Siliman National Writer’s Workshop, a finalist in the 3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards for his story, and currently busy organizing Taboan 2011.

The most memorable opening line in speculative fiction, i.e., the one that I can quote without looking up any references is: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.“However, that’s nothing compared to the most memorable opening lines that I can recall which are, strangely enough, from the classics:

  • In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.”
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  • “Call me Ishmael.”
  • Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this Sun of York.”

As is the most memorable closing line:

It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to than I have ever gone.”

Is it coincidence that two books I quote have both been featured in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan?”  It was “Wrath of Khan” that brought me to the classics.

For some reason, I keep recalling this line from “Don Quixote”:

The reason for your unreasonable treatment of my reason gives me reason to complain of your beauty.”

The best opening chapter for a speculative fiction story, though — and I’m sorry I can’t quote it verbatim — was “A Game of Universe” by Eric Nylund.  It was the only time I every bought a book from an author I didn’t know on the basis of the first chapter.

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ADAM DAVIDAdam is an indie publisher, published author, opinionated blogger, and columnist/reviewer for The Philippine Online Chronicles. He was  awarded the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award for his book, The El Bimbo Variation – the first self published book to have won the prestigious award.

After much thinking, I’ve decided to choose six first lines that I feel are six of the best first lines I’ve read so far not only from the ever widening shelf of speculative fiction, but also from the greater shelves of Literature.

I divided the six lines by language and by nationality, meaning: two are in Filipino and four are in English, four are from the Philippines and two are from America.

Like most if not all people who’ve answered the roundtable question, the six first lines I’ve chosen are from texts that I feel deserve wider readership here in the Philippines, texts that suffer obscurity by the complexly simple problem of not being widely accessible physically, ie they either came out in books that have limited distribution or are simply not carried by our local bookstores. I hope that my briefs on the lines and their source texts will help change that even by just a little.

From foreign works:

“This is what Abhor, who’s my partner, part robot, and part black; told me was her childhood:”

- and so begins Kathy Acker’s EMPIRE OF THE SENSELESS. Technically the first line of the first paragraph, it is set up by the chapter title – I. Rape by the Father – and a subtitle – “(Abhor speaks through Thivai)” – basically accurately encapsulating the book as an exhibition of incestual rape and blood and guts and interracial lesbian lip-locks – literal and metaphorical – and tattoos as memoralising personal and public narratives and various other atrocities that people do for/to the ones they love, and above all that, it is also an exercise on plagiarism. A very important book for me from a very important writer. It left enough of an impact on me I had one of the tattoos in the book tattooed on my left forearm. Acker died in Mexico more than ten years ago from cancer. EMPIRE OF THE SENSELESS is published by the perverts of Grove Press.

“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”

- from David Markson’s WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS, a book that David Foster Wallace liked to call one of the few truly experimental novels published in the West. The book is the story of a woman who is convinced she is the last person left on Earth. It is made up of single lines uttered monosyllabically one after the other, almost an enumeration and a chant at the same time an effort to preserve sanity amidst an insane situation, the first line being one of the most powerful – a desperate attempt for communication, any communication, to anyone, even when you already know that no one is listening. The entire book is a monologue – or rather a dialectic – on loneliness and reality and art and art as salvation from the loneliness of reality. It’s been labeled as Wittgenstein’s various arguments on language and reality – most especially bits from TRACTATUS – refracted into creative writing. All these things said, the most incredible thing about this book is that it was rejected by book publishers 54 times. Markson died June 2010. WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS is published by the weirdos from the Dalkey Archive.

From English-language Filipino works:

“the people are ruled by a king.”

- from Dana Delgado’s “In Saudi Arabia,” an essay that is also a love letter that is also a piece of psychogeography that is also a riff on the Eastern almanacs written and compiled by Western imperialist explorers a la Marco Polo in China. It dryly lists dry facts on Saudi Arabia, a place that is very much close to ours by way of global labour and by effect familial ties not to mention the shared Muslim heritage but still inexplicably remaining foreign to us. As someone who actually grew up in Saudi Arabia, Delgado’s listing of facts seems to be an effort to demystify the place to us, the facts snowballing into a pointillist landscape of a place that still somehow remains again inexplicably foreign, now definitely almost alien. My defense for reading “In Saudi Arabia” – a very cut and dried factual essay – as speculative fiction is that the most immediate response upon reading it is one of bewilderment due to the absurdness of the factual information being relayed, facts that border on Borgesian-Calvinoesque fantasy. The first line captures this vibe thoroughly, when contextualised on our irrepressibly global urban nagpapaka-firstworld democratic Catholic/Christian sensibility – in its mere seven words, all we know about contemporary living is already being confronted, basically what the rule of thumb should be in speculative fiction. This was published in the first volume of the UP DIliman creative writing journal &, as edited by Conchitina Cruz. I’m not sure if there are still copies of it in UP, but I think there are plans on releasing it as a PDF one of these days. Or you can ask Dana herself about getting a copy of the text!

“The thin, feathery, tall grass swayed with the wind in an endless wave of goodbye.”

- from Tara Sering’s ”Reconnaissance,” teetering on the brink of OAness, held back mere inches by the second line, lifting it up to the sunlight to better see it for what it is: a story fine-tuning its notes before it starts its ode. I may be the only person who’d even hazard to argue that this story can be read as speculative fiction, and my argument for that reading is to highlight the story’s subtle and terse proclamations on the oscillation of memory and identity and the elasticity of social and moral and temporal boundaries (private – public, fantasy – reality, past – present, etc etc), done with the brash classiness and clear-eyed prose of Ray Bradbury – and/or Greg Brillantes, while I’m at it – tinged with just enough nearly-Lovecraftian – and/or Franz Arcellanaish – unease in the narrative’s physical and metaphysical levels that upon reading, you just know it’s not just merely contemporary English-language Filipino realist fiction; you just know it is something that is actually better. This was published in the 1999 volume of the Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction, from UP Press, and republished in Tara Sering’s collection RECONNAISSANCE, inexplicably side by side with her first chicklit novel, also from UP Press, although I recommend finding the Likhaan printing, as that includes a hell of a lot more stories and poems – for the most part fairly good to very good – written by other people, and in books, “more stuff” is always equal to “a good deal.”

From Filipino-language works:

“Lumalangoy na naman ang anak ko.”

- from Piya Constantino’s “Langoy,” a fairly innocuous bright sunny opening that transforms rather quickly into a cold dead thing by the story’s end. It’s a horror story, along the lines of Stephen King’s MISERY and, quite accurately pointedly, PET SEMETARY, and not by way of zombie animals but by way of terrifyingly terribly terrible things done out of love. I’m trying not to talk about this story much here as I plan to republish this in a journal I’m working on, and this is a rather short story – just two pages when it was originally published in UP Diliman in the second UP UGAT literary folio – so there’s not much to say about it without risking on spoiling it for everyone. Suffice it to say that this first line demonstrates the power of the technique of the Slow Reveal, of the Plot Twist pulled off very subtly, almost off-handedly, of the Revelation that changes everything preceding it into Something Else Entirely. One of the best things I’ve read written in Filipino in the past ten years.

“Walang iisang bisyon na maglalagom sa karanasan ng buhay sa Lungsod.”

- from Jay Fernando’s “Bagong Developments sa Pagbubuo ng MITO NG LUNGSOD,” a text that would probably be read today as a lyric essay if it didn’t already win first place in the Palancas’s Future Fiction category back when it was still alive in 2003 – a story chock-full of footnotes and marginalia, written in almost-mock academese, interrupted by song numbers not only from the City’s denizens but also of/on social conditions the City’s denizens find themselves co-existing with. The first line is a thesis statement, the story announcing in advance what it plans to tell you in excruciating detail, and it is also its narrative device, how it chooses to tell its story – it is saying, these are fragments of city narratives, narratives that are already fragmented, told in fragments via fragmented perspectives, fragmented because city narratives are by their very nature fragmented and cannot be told in any other way, only the reading process is almost always inescapably linear, the mind always looking for coherence, and all this metafictional oscillation in fragmentation and coherence ends fittingly – the only way it (the oscillation, the city, stories themselves) could end – in two atomising explosions, one that is yet to come in fifty years’ time, and one that has already happened fifty years ago. It’s a crazy crazy crazy story, marred only by its award. It was first published in the same UP UGAT folio where Constantino’s “Langoy” was published, and, like “Langoy,” I plan to republish this in a journal I’m working on. Hopefully, it’ll be out by the end of 2010.

* * *

ZARAH GAGATIGAInfluential blogger, librarian, storyteller, and chair of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, she is one of the staunchest advocates for books and literacy in the Philippines.

(Zarah posted her list on her blog.)

  • The night when she thought she would finally be a star, Maria Isabella du’l Cielo struggled to calm the trembling of her hands, reached over to cut the tether that tied her to the ground, and thought of that morning many years before when she’d first caught a glimpse of Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore: tall, thick-browed and handsome, his eyes closed, oblivious to the cacophony of the accident waiting to occur around him. - Kite of Stars; Dean Francis Alfar
  • First the colors.Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. – The Book Thief;  Markus Zusak
  • Clare: The Library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. – The Time Traveller’s Wife;  Audrey Niffenegger
  • When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. – The Hunger Games;  Suzanne Collins
  • In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. – Witches; Roald Dahl
  • When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. – The Fellowship of the Ring; JRR Tolkien
  • The Iron Giant came to the top of the cliff. – The Iron Giant; Ted Hughes
  • There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire. – Stardust; Neil Gaiman
  • Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; JK Rowling
  • You must understand that all of this occurred some thirteen years ago, when I was young still and the Empire had but newly begun its campaign to rid the realm of the Wildness.EmberWild; Nikki Alfar

If you read closely, these first lines are all pregnant with possibilities or contain an action waiting to happen. Alfar’s beginning for The Kite of Stars presents to us, a history that spans six decades of loving and longing. Some, like Zusak’s The Book Theif, Dahl’s The Witches, Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gaiman’s Stardust start with wonder and intrigue. Enough to keep the reader to move further on in the story or novel. Others like Collins’ Hunger Games, Hughes’ Iron Giant and Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife prepare the reader to the mood and tone of the story.

Beginnings are beautiful things. I go back to these beginnings after reading the last line and then establish connections; create hypothesis; and yes, imagine. Such capabilities that make us truly human. We get that from READING!

* * *

And I suppose it’s only fair that I put in my own two cents as well:


“This song is one I have never sung.” The Singer’s Man, by M.R.R. Arcega (Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler)

- You need to read more than just the first five lines to get the full effect, but there’s something about the first lines of the story which evoke the feeling of fireside camaraderie, where histories and secrets swapped amidst the hushed night are the just rewards after a long day. Many spec fic stories take place in “a world not our own” and it’s important for the first lines to remove the reader from his/her world somehow, to begin the process of alienation-familiarization, and these first lines do just that: they create a focal point, a persona who holds my attention, who appears to have something to say, a tale to tell.

“Surprised to see me alive, pare?” The Death and Rebirth of Nathaniel Alan Sempio, by Alexander Marcos Osias (Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Ruin and Resolve)

- This is one of the rare stories in the local spec fic scene that has a focus on plot and action — albeit largely off camera action — and the larger than life, in your face, fun of the story, as well as its very Filipino tone, are present to some extent in the first line. I love a story that fulfills its initial promise to the reader. Some of the best first lines are simple statements, yet perform a double or triple duty that only becomes clear in hindsight. [Another line that excels in a similar manner: "Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!" -  Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O'Malley]

“For numberless years, a myna had astounded travelers to the caravansary with its abilities to spew indecencies in ten languages,  and before the fight broke out, everyone assumed the old blue tongued devil on its perch by the fireplace was the one who maligned the giant African with such foulness and verve.Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon.

- Then, of course, there are those first lines which are not concise at all. Few writers can pull off such an… opulent sentence without making it a parody of eloquence, but then, few writers are Michael Chabon. There is an exhilaration in Chabon’s language that manifests itself in the occasional excesses of his prose, and the effect is magnetic.

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve.

- The easiest way for a first line to do its job–getting the reader to read the second line–is by startling the reader. The first line of the first book of the Hunger City chronicles employs a few tried and tested methods to do just that: a sudden shift (from an ordinary description of the weather to a chase scene), a strange juxtaposition (“city of London” “chasing”), a vivid image (a chase scene involving cities somehow moving across a post apocalyptic landscape). I read the first line, then the first page, then I bought the book. Mission accomplished. [Another good example, but in two lines: "The end of the world had come and gone. It turned out not to matter much in the long run." - And the Deep Blue Sea, by Elizabeth Bear.]

At an annual adulterous assembly, as Aaron, Azalea, and Ada achieved animalistic apogee, Adrian–amidst Aaron’s, Azalea’s and Ada’s aahs and awoos–arrived alone at an awkward anticlimax.” From “Abecediarya”, by Adam David.

- Of course, no mention of startling first lines is incomplete without mentioning this one. While some anthologies provide a sort of overview before each story, that’s not one of the hallmarks of the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, and as such one hits that dizzying first line unprepared–did the author just write an entire sentence using words that begin with “A”? Why would he do that? What the hell is going on? It’s hard to imagine anyone reading that line and shrugging with indifference.

6 Responses to “RRT: Favorite First Lines in Speculative Fiction”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paolo Chikiamco and m.e.a.n.n., Rocket Kapre . Rocket Kapre said: New Rocket Round Table: Fave First Lines http://ow.ly/2BtMj Thanks to @layangabi @almeldiel (the others I tagged at FB) ^_^ [...]

  2. Paolo Chikiamco says:

    Some additional ones from chiles, via Facebook:

    2 more great first lines just occurred to me (not to imply that i can quote them from memory; i had to look them up.), that i absotivolutely should have included in my list:

    In the eyes of many, he was “paranoid about privacy, pa…ssionate about porn, and” — as his public profile made plain — “prevalently peppered his phrases with P’s.” – ‘In the Eyes of Many’, Michael Co


    “Tangerine is not a color my mother knows,” she confesses, pressing the torn page into his hands. – ‘A Kind of Flotsam’, Christelle Mariano

  3. chiles says:

    thanks, Pao! & thanks for the addendum.

    & but so (echo!*): good grief. i don’t understand how i could have quoted Bruno Schulz without giving Kafka a nod, the most obvious being:

    As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. – ‘The Metamorphosis’ (tr. by Willa & Edwin Muir)

    i hang my head in shame.

    anyway, congrats once again!

    *makes complete sense if you got here through Pao’s FB. honest.

  4. Paolo Chikiamco says:

    Here’s one more pahabol, from KARL DE MESA:

    william gibson’s towering all tomorrow’s parties never fails to inspire awe and writerly envy with the sheer impact he has with so few words, devastating as a crav maga move. it’s still one of my faves to this day. and i was lucky enough that the girlfriend found a signed copy of it at a little bookstore and bought it for me a a gift — for which i love her like choco chip cookies for. it begins thus:

    through this evening’s tide of faces unregistered, unrecognized, amid hurrying black shoes, furled umbrellas, the crowd descending like a single organism into the station’s airless heart, comes shinya yamazaki, his notebook clasped under his arm like the egg case of some modest but moderately successful marine species

    * * *
    when i was still deep into the whole poe/lovecraft/anne rice/goth obsession thing one of the writers that i gravitated to was poppy z.brite. she now writes cookbooks about cajun/mississipi cuisine. in her book swamp foetus there’s a short story titled “his mouth will taste of wormwood” that does brutality so beautifully (like the rest of her old, pre-cookbook bibliog does) as well as romantically filtered through a modern eye. nocturnal grave raids, absinthe, pale waifish women, and self-immolation from too much sensitivity. it all seemed shiveringly uber cool to me back then and remains a fond, nostalgic period in my scribbling history,

    “to the treasures and pleasures of the grave,” said my friend Louis and raised his goblet of absinthe to me in drunken benediction.

    “to the funeral lilies,” i replied, “and to the calm, pale bones.

    * * *
    one of my big heroes, clive barker has a lot of killer openers in his books and shorts but one of my personal faves is the one that kickstarts the grand, sprawling novel of magic, eroticism and politics of two worlds that is imajica:

    it was the pivotal teaching of pluthero quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the second dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme , there was ever only room for three players. between waring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. between twins, the spirit of the womb. between lovers, death. . . .

    * * *
    in pinoy lit what’s still stuck to my head likely because it had the most impact are the early fictions of tony perez. i learned quite a few lit and magik tricks from maestro tony when i hung out with him and his crew. but before that i’d already discovered his books. hmmm, it seems my cubao, pagkagat ng dilim is missing. who the fuck stole it? but wait, i still have his eros, thanatos, cubao, a cleverly packaged flipside book (in fact i have two copies on my shelf. why do i have two copies?!). anyway, we’ll make do with his intro to the eros side that just oozes with old school eloquence. does this count? hope so.

    ikaw ay taong thanatos: kung hanap mo’y kariktan ng hiwaga at paghamon sa panganib at pakikipagsapalaran.

    kung hilig mong magdiwang ng kuwaresma at ng halloween at ng todos los santos at ng mga mardi gras. kung naaakit ka ng liryo at dama de noche, ng onis at granate, ng pelus at gamusa, at brokada, , ng mga nobelang detektib at horror, ng hard rock, ng boxing at wrestling, ng ingay ng barkadsa. . .

    * * *
    peter straub of course still has one of the best openers with his short story “something about a death, something about a fire” that makes something so mundane as a taxi and a clown so tastily dreadful it must be read to be believed.

    the origin and even the nature of bobo’s magic taxi remains mysterious, and the taxi is still the enigma it was when it first appeared before us on the sawdust floor. of course it does not lack for exegetes: i possess several manila folders jammed to bursting with analyses of the taxi and speculations on its nature and construction. “the bobo industry” threatens to become giant

  5. [...] here to read the answers and join in the discussion. C’mon, I know you want [...]

  6. Paolo Chikiamco says:

    Here’s a response from YVETTE TAN:

    Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. – Dan Simmons, The Terror

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.