A Celebration of
Great Opening Lines
in World Literature

Launched: January 1, 2022

This website is dedicated to the memory of John O. Huston (1945-2022)

Genre:  Science-Fiction

Result set has 41 entries.
Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [book one in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1979)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.


In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.“

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator went on: “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper....“

Douglas Adams
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.“


If you can begin a novel with an observation that has every chance of becoming a world-class quotation, you’re off to a great start—and that’s exactly what happened with this first sentence (all of the major quotation anthologies quickly picked it up).

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk.“

Douglas Adams
The Restaurant At the End of the Universe [book 2 in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1980)

The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.


These are the first words of Chapter 1, and it’s hard to imagine a better way to begin the book.

The first words of a brief Preamble to the book are also beautifully expressed: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.“

M. T. Anderson
Feed (2002)

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.


This delightful opening line suggests that teenagers will always have their own special argot, even in the dystopian future. The words come from a shallow, fun-loving teenager known only as Titus. After a disappointing trip to the moon, the “feed” going into his brain begins to malfunction—and the temporary absence of spoon-fed information from corporate controllers reawakens a questioning attitude that has been almost completely extinguished.

In a 2007 NPR blog post “Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers,” Nancy Pearl wrote: “Who could resist the first line of the chillingly satirical Feed by M. T. Anderson?” She went on to add: “That line sets the stage for the plot of this futuristic world that’s become overrun with rampant consumerism. Computer chips are implanted in most babies at birth. There’s no need to go to school, since you can Google any information you might need; there’s no need to talk to anyone, since you can IM instantaneously. There’s certainly no need to think, especially since the banner ads that float through your mind tell you exactly what you need to buy, do, and be to join the “in” crowd. But what happens when someone hacks into the computer feed that everyone is receiving? This is a terrific choice for both teen and adult book discussion groups.”

Anderson’s cyberpunk novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and went on to be included in Time magazine’s list of the “100 Best YA Books of All Time.”

Isaac Asimov
The Robots of Dawn (1983)

Elijah Baley found himself in the shade of the tree and muttered to himself, “I knew it. I’m sweating.“

He paused, straightened up, wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand, then looked dourly at the moisture that covered it.

I hate sweating,“ he said to no one, throwing it out as a cosmic law. And once again he felt annoyance with the Universe for making something both essential and unpleasant.

Isaac Asimov
I, Robot (1950)

I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. I’d spent three days at U. S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home with the Encyclopedia Tellurica.


The name of the encyclopedia immediately suggests a place that exists in the future. But where? And when? And how does it differ from the present day?

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
Nightfall (1990)

It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon.


In only six simple words, we already know we have left earth and are about to have an out-of-this-world adventure

Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake (2003)

Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide come in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

Margaret Atwood
The Heart Goes Last (2015)

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it's no palace to begin with. If it was a van they'd have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they're lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn't make the car any bigger.

Margaret Atwood
The Testaments (2019)

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin (2000)

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.


The opening words come from Iris Chase, an elderly woman who is reflecting on the death of her younger sister in 1945, at age twenty-five. At her death, Laura left behind a sci-fi novel titled The Blind Assassin, which went on to become a posthumous cult classic. Atwood’s complex, multi-layered, novel-within-a novel was panned by many critics, but went on to win numerous awards, including the 2000 Booker Prize.

David Brin
The Postman (1985)

In dust and blood—with the sharp tang of terror stark in his nostrils—a man’s mind will sometimes pull forth odd relevancies.


The narrator is describing the mind of protagonist Gordon Krantz, a wandering apocalypse survivor who, after losing everything to bandits, stumbles upon a United States Postal Service uniform. He originally dons the uniform solely for warmth, but eventually decides it will be helpful in his attempt to build faith in a “restored” United States of America (the tale was brought to the big screen in a 1997 film adaptation, starring Kevin Costner).

The narrator continued: “After half a lifetime in the wilderness, most of it spent struggling to survive, it still struck Gordon as odd—how obscure memories would pop into his mind right in the middle of a life-or-death fight.“ Brin’s novel was hailed from the beginning by critics, and it went on to win the 1986 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Fredric Brown
“Knock,“ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (December 1948)

There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door...

Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course, isn’t in the story at all; it’s in the ellipsis, the implication: what knocked at the door. Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies something vaguely horrible.

But it wasn’t horrible, really.


These four paragraphs serve as the introduction to a short story about university professor Walter Phelan, who believes that he and possibly one other person—a single woman—are the only survivors of a cataclysmic event two days earlier in which “the human race had been destroyed.“ The second line, which was presented in italics in the original story, has gone on to achieve an iconic status in the literary world, with many saying it amounts to one of history’s best “short-short” stories (or, as some like to call them, “One-Line Novels”).

As the story begins, the narrator suggests that the second line comes from a horror story, but Brown clearly wrote it himself, and he chose to use it in the opening lines of this short story. Without giving away anything about the plot, that second, italicized line also became the final line of the story. The underlying idea that forms the basis for the tale is not original to Brown, and he may have been inspired by the following passage in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Ponkapog Papers (1903): “Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!“

Samuel Butler
Erewhon (1872)

If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances that led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself.

Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game (2010)

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.


In a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s and young adult fiction (“Hook, Line, and Sinker”), Ciara Murphy wrote about this line: “Rarely do we start novels already rooting for a character from the very first sentence, but Orson Scott Card makes sure we do just that by immediately introducing us to ‘the one’. This line, from an unnamed narrator, describes a protagonist who we will shortly discover is named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.

Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.


These are the opening words to the book’s Foreword. Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, continued: “Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.”

Chapter One of the novel actually begins this way: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.”

Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.


Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, also offered some memorable opening words in the Foreword to the book: “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.“

Neil Gaiman
American Gods (2001)

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.


The novel begins with this extraordinary introduction to Shadow Moon, a convict who is about to be released from prison after his wife has been killed in a car accident. About these opening words, sci-fi writer Philip Palmer said in a 2011 blog post: “Wonderfully restrained evocative prose, with a laugh-out-loud funny joke in the middle sentence. After this great start, the book gets even better.”

The narrator continued: “The best thing—in Shadow’s opinion, perhaps the only good thing—about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he’d plunged as low as he could plunge and he’d hit bottom. He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.” American Gods went on to win the 2002 Nebula Award and 2002 Hugo Award.

David Gerrold
Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (2018)

The very best writing instructor I ever had was an incompetent.

A terminal alcoholic who could barely find the classroom each day, he was a bleary-eyed, red-nosed, overstuffed, walking elbow-wrinkle of a human being. Whatever writing ability he’d ever had, he’d long since drowned it, and the corpse was a layer of dried sediment at the bottom of a bottle.

He didn’t like me either.

William Gibson
Neuromancer (1984)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.


About this classic opening line, Mark Nichol wrote in a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post (“20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story”) : “Don’t expect any fluffy bunnies or fragrant blossoms or dulcet giggles to show up in this seminal cyberpunk story. A spot-on metaphor expresses the story’s nihilism, letting you know what you’re in for and lugubriously inviting you in.”

In addition to its acclaimed opening line, Neuromancer is also noteworthy for popularizing the term cyberspace and presciently imagining something very close to what we now know as the internet or World Wide Web. It was Gibson’s debut novel, and the very first novel to win the three biggest honors in the sci-fi genre: The Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.

Many years later, Gibson offered one of history’s best metaphors on the subject of great opening lines. In “The Handshake,” an essay in Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark (2017), a brilliant collection of brief works that grew out of his “By Heart” interviews in The Atlantic, Gibson wrote: “The first sentence is the handshake, on either side of the writer-reader divide. The reader shakes hands with the writer. The writer has already had to shake hands with the unknown. Assuming both have heard the click, we’ve got it going on.”

Terry Goodkind
Confessor [the 11th and final book in the Sword of Truth Series] (2007)

For the second time that day, a woman stabbed Richard.


This is the entire first paragraph, and it’s an excellent way to lure a reader in for more. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Jolted fully awake by the shock of pain, he instantly seized her bony wrist, preventing her from ripping open his thigh. A dingy dress, buttoned all the way up to her throat, covered her gaunt figure. In the dim light of distant campfires Richard saw that the square of cloth draped over her head and knotted under her angular jaw looked to be made out of a scrap of frayed burlap.”

Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.


Given the longstanding pattern of bestowing unearthly names on beings from other planets, Heinlein immediately gets our attention by going in a completely different direction (his delightful “exception to the rule” opening is now regarded as one of the sci-fi genre’s most outstanding opening lines). The allure of the first sentence is also enhanced by the traditional once upon a time beginning.

In a 2014 SFSignal.com post on “The Best Book Openings,” sci-fi writer John C. Wright wrote about Heinlein’s classic opener:

“The contrast of the oddest of oddities, a Martian, and the most quotidian of names, Smith is here on display. The reader’s eye is pulled as if magnetically to the next line to discover how a Martian can have so very terrestrial a name. Also present is the slightest hint of one of the philosophical points of the novel: Smith is a not a man from Mars, for he is not a man at all, since by upbringing he is an alien. In other words, this story asks what it means to be human, and that opening line serves to establish the question to be asked.”

Haruki Murakami
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)

The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?


In a 2017 blog post titled “20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph,” writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Everyone tells you to seek clarity in your opening, to let the reader know where you’re going to take them.” About this particular opening, though, Fox went on to write:

“Murakami blows that advice up. I love how he’s deliberately playing with confusion, so that you know that the narrator is moving inside the elevator, but you have no idea what direction. It’s a feeling of complete lack of control and awareness. It’s a fantastic mystery to start the novel, and dovetails so nicely with the wonderland of the rest of the book.”

Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003)

It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.


In this hard-to-classify novel (part romance novel, part science-fiction), the opening words come from Chicago artist Clare Anne Abshire, wife of Henry DeTamble, a librarian with a rare genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel through time.

The Time Traveller’s Wife was a stunningly successful debut novel for Niffenegger, a Chicago visual artist who said she wrote the book as a metaphor for her many failed romantic relationships. An immediate New York Times bestseller, it was named the 2003 Amazon Book of the Year.

Audrey Niffennegger
Her Fearful Symmetry (2009)

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head towards the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte
The Club Dumas (2003)

The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fixture in the center of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking pictures, the flashes threw the silhouette onto a succession of paintings, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains framing great windows beyond which the rain was falling.

Terry Pratchett
The Light Fantastic [Book 2 in Discworld Series] (1986)

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

Terry Pratchett
Wyrd Sisters [Book 6 in Discworld Series] (1988)

The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin.

Terry Pratchett
Night Watch [Book 29 in Discworld Series] (2002)

Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but finished shaving before doing anything about it.


In a 2015 blog post, Dean Koontz hailed this as a “quick-punch” opening line, adding that it “should intrigue with its mix of the hard-boiled and the comic.”

Carl Sagan
Contact (1985)

When they pulled her out, she was not crying at all. Her tiny brow was wrinkled, and then her eyes grew wide. She looked at the bright lights, the white-and green-clad figures, the woman lying on the table below her. Somehow familiar sounds washed over her. On her face was an odd expression for a newborn—puzzlement perhaps.


In this acclaimed debut novel—which won the 1986 Locus Award for Best First Novel—the narrator portentously describes the birth of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway. As the story unfolds, Ellie goes on to become a child prodigy and, as an adult, a leading figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The first work on Contact began in the late 1970s as a screenplay by Sagan, already a world-famous astronomer, and his future wife Ann Druyan. In 1981, when development of the film stalled, Simon and Schuster stepped forward with a staggering two million dollar advance to turn the screenplay into novel. It was the largest book advance ever offered at the time, and the investment paid off handsomely. It went on to become one of the Top Ten bestselling novels of 1985, selling nearly two million copies.

Predictably, the success of the book revived interest in a film, and the novel was adapted into a 1997 film—also a critical and commercial success—with Jody Foster playing the role of Arroway.

John Scalzi
Old Man’s War (2005)

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.


This unusual statement comes from narrator and protagonist John Perry, a retired advertising writer who—at some unspecified time in the future—joins the Colonial Defense Forces, undergoes a process in which his mind is genetically reassigned to a new body, and ultimately engages in heroic exploits. This was Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a series of six “Old Man’s War” novels. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006.

John Scalzi
Redshirts (2012)

From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder and thought, Well, this sucks.

Walter Tevis
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

After two miles of walking he came to a town. At the town’s edge was a sign that read Haneyville: Pop. 1400. That was good, a good size. It was still early in the morning—he had chosen morning for the two-mile walk, because it was cooler then—and there was no one yet in the streets. He walked for several blocks in the weak light, confused at the strangeness—tense and somewhat frightened. He tried not to think of what he was going to do. He had thought about it enough already

In the small business district he found what he wanted, a tiny store called The Jewel Box. On the street corner nearby was a green wooden bench, and he went to it and seated himself, his body aching from the labor of the long walk.

It was a few minutes later that he saw a human being.


So begins the story of a human-looking extraterrestrial being who lands on earth in hopes of finding an eventual destination for the desperate citizens on his dying planet Anthea. After his arrival, he takes the name Thomas Jerome Newton, insinuates himself into the human population, and begins to implement his plan.

When the novel was adapted into a 1976 film starring David Bowie, it was only moderately successful, despite stunning visuals and an inspired performance by Bowie. The film has since become a cult classic, and it continues to hold an almost religious significance for Bowie fans. When the film was restored and re-released on its 40th anniversary in 2016, cinematographer Tony Richmond said about the casting of Bowie: “I can’t imagine any other actor in that role. It wasn’t just his defining role, but it was the role for him. He kind of glided through it like an alien, and with his face with that white, pasty skin, he was just absolutely perfect.”

About the novel, crime writer James Sallis hailed it as “Among the finest science fiction novels” in a July 2020 review in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He went on to add: “Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.”

John Varley
Steel Beach (1992)

“In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.


The Sci-Fi world has seen many great opening lines over the years, and this is one of the very best. I can’t imagine anyone reading it for the first time and declining to read further.

Jules Verne
A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)

Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.

Jules Verne
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871)

The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.

Kurt Vonnegut
The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.


It’s a far-fetched—and perhaps even ridiculous—assertion about a future world, but it certainly gets our attention. After making it, the narrator continued: “But mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.”

Andy Weir
The Martian (2011)

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.


This terse assessment of a dire situation comes from protagonist Mark Watney, an American astronaut who, six days earlier, was one of the first human beings to walk on Mars. After a catastrophic dust storm, his crew is forced to evacuate the planet without him, believing he had perished in an explosion. Watney continued: “Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.”

In 2015, the novel was adapted into a Ridley Scott film, with Matt Damon in the role of the stranded astronaut. Named by more than fifty critics as one of the Top Ten films of the year, it also became the 10th-highest grossing film of 2015. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Damon. Sadly, the novel’s opening lines didn’t make it into the film.

H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds (1898)

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 being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

H. G. Wells
The Time Machine (1895)

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.


This is a simple-but-beautiful opening line, and, at the time they were written, there was something about those three first words—the time traveller—that immediately stirred the heart of fin de siècle (turn-of-the-century) readers. The narrator continued: “His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated. The fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses.”

Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad (2016)

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.


We know from the first sentence that Cora will eventually say yes, and that this will be a tale about a man and woman fleeing slavery. As we continue reading, however, we have no clue at this point that this is an “alternate history” tale—or, more significantly, that the legendary underground railroad isn’t a metaphor, but a literal underground railroad

One of the most acclaimed books of the year, The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature. In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel at Number 30 on its list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.”

In a New York Times review, book critic Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “potent, almost hallucinatory,” adding that “It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.”