Saturday, August 26, 2006

Old Beginnings 9

Science Fiction Today. Intrigued by these beginnings, or moving on? Sources posted at the bottom.

1. Let's set the existence-of-God issues aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo-which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead.

2. "Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man." The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn't look five years older than me. So if he'd ever killed a man in combat, silently or otherwise, he'd done it as an infant.

I already knew eighty ways to kill people, but most of them were pretty noisy. I sat up straight in my chair and assumed a look of polite attention and fell asleep with my eyes open. So did most everybody else. We'd learned that they never scheduled anything important for these after-chop classes.

The projector woke me up and I sat through a short tape showing the "eight silent ways." Some of the actors must have been brainwipes, since they were actually killed.

3. As he glided by the extremely small, out-of-the-way cemetery in his airborne prowl car, late at night, Officer Joseph Tinbane heard unfortunate and familiar sounds. A voice. At once he sent his prowl car up over the spiked iron poles of the badly maintained cemetery fence, descended on the far side, listened.

The voice said, muffled and faint, "My name is Mrs. Tilly M. Benton, and I want to get out. Can anybody hear me?"Officer Tinbane flashed his light. The voice came from beneath the grass. As he had expected: Mrs. Tilly M. Benton was underground.

Snapping on the microphone of his car radio Tinbane said, "I'm at Forest Knolls Cemetery--I think it's called--and I have a 1206, here. Better send an ambulance out with a digging crew; from the sound of her voice it's urgent."

"Chang," the radio said in answer. "Our digging crew will be out before morning. Can you sink a temporary emergency shaft to give her adequate air? Until our crew gets there--say nine or ten a.m."

4. Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages. The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its people were gone. Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years. Those villagers they had not herded away, they had slaughtered. Doro found human bones, hair, bits of desiccated flesh missed by scavengers. He stood over a very small skeleton-the bones of a child-and wondered where the survivors had been taken. Which country or New World colony? How far would he have to travel to find the remnants of what had been a healthy, vigorous people?

5. The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. 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. Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere, when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision. And he put it to us in this way - marking the points with a lean forefinger - as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it) and his fecundity.

"You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception."

Old Beginnings 9

1. Cryptonomicon....Neal Stephenson
2. The Forever War....Joe Haldeman
3. Counter-Clock World....Philip K. Dick
4. Wild Seed....Octavia Butler
5. The Time Machine....H.G. Wells


Anonymous said...

Did I mention that I'm a ho for science fiction also?

1. Ooh, I've read this one - and it does slurp you right into the story, although that's not necessarily a good thing. Some people think Cryptonomicon is the most amazing book ever written, and some find it has moments of geeky brilliance embedded in 1000+ pages of story that doesn't quite hold together. I was unfortunately in the latter category. Read Snow Crash instead; Neal Stephenson is amazing, but he wasn't self-editing himself very well for this one.

2. I'd keep reading. The POV character has an attitude that is coming across well, there are flashes of humour, and I've already got a few questions I want answered.

3. I'd keep reading. Again, there's some humour there, and I've got questions I want answered. It's an interesting world and I'm willing to immerse myself in it.

4. I'd keep reading, but this was a slower start. It was almost all backstory - although it was interesting backstory - and does make me wonder where the story is located. The first sentence says that a living woman was found, but that fact didn't really keep my interest going as well as it should have.

5. I'd keep reading (I think I heard this story as a recording as a child, but I've never read the book), although this again has a slower pace. However, the guest-groping chairs and the introduction of the host as a time traveller do get my curiosity in gear.

Anonymous said...

1. No. Wouldn't "once upon a time" have been easier and less wasteful of paper and ink?

2. Meh.

3. Wow. Fascinating situation set up here. Definitely yes.

4. Not bad. I'm somewhat interested in reading more.

5. Yawn.

Anonymous said...

1. If it hadn't had my favorite SF author's name on the cover, I probably would have been daunted by the prolixity, and set this one back on the shelf. But I was already addicted, so continued to read, even though it took about 400 pages before I decided that, yes, I really did like this book.

2. I'd probably continue long enough to decide if this guy is somebody I'm going to like, or not. But the last line of the first para doesn't seem to add up, so I'm wary.

3. Good hook, I'd read on, even though it is a little clunky. ("...temporary emergency shaft to give her adequate air")

4. No. Everybody hates slavers; I don't need to be told (or shown) how bad they are, especially not on the first page. I'd worry that the rest of the book will continue to belabor the obvious.

5. You know, as tendentious as it is, I'd probably keep reading it. I have kind of a weakness for flowery SF writing with a vaguely archaic tone.

Anonymous said...

By the way, is Cryptonomicon really SF?

The opening paragraph of Snow Crash might have been a fairer selection: clearly SF, and third pubbed - before he could get away with the excesses of Crypto.. Also, it rocks.

Anonymous said...

Sample 4 was 'belabouring the obvious' by showing the MC hating slavers? Um, the MC there *doesn't* hate the slavers, or have any strong feelings on them at all, other than annoyance. Even when he's standing over the bones of a child he's emotionless. This is intriguing, and that's the point of the opening, not the badness, or otherwise, of the slavers. I'd definitely read on.

Anonymous said...

My high school had a credit course devoted to Science Fiction. Of course, I signed up.

1. I haven't read it and don't recognize it, but I'd keep reading.

2. I like the twist and turn in the opening, but I don't know if I'd read it.

3. The voice reminded me of Bladerunner, and when I checked, I was pretty close - same author. I loved the movie and I'm scrambling around to find a copy of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'. Maybe I'll check this one out, too.

4. Seems too depressing.

5. Ha! Read it!

HawkOwl said...

1. Hell no. I got through maybe five sentences, but I hated it right from "let's see the existence-of-God issues aside."

2. No. I really don't care to read books about killing each other, let alone when someone's being facetious or jaded about it.

3. I'd keep reading this one, because I want to know why it's commonplace for people to be buried alive.

4. No. It wasn't terribly bad, but it was tedious and it was gonna be about war again.

5. At least a few more pages to see where it's going. The writing is just the right level of showiness for me - anything more and I'd find it overdone.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I'm four for five at having read them! (Nos. 2-5, if you care.)

I think the Haldeman is the most inviting beginning. (The novel's a classic.) The Dick is intriguing as well. And I do love the way Octavia Butler writes. (Another soon-to-be classic (it's probably not old enough yet to wear the label).)

For the Wells, you have the name on the cover, so you make allowances--and the writing isn't bad, but this is a slow start.

The first one seems a little too--I don't know, it's too sassy, I guess. Which is fine for me in a first-person narrator, but not in an omniscient third. If we read on a few pages and determined that, okay, this is a character narrating, then maybe I'll cut him some slack.

HawkOwl said...

#1 was Cryptonomicon? LOL I loved that book. Shows how unreliable this exercise is, really. Normally you'd have a lot more to judge a book by than the first N words; such as cover art, back copy, reviews from people who have read it, and the ability to open the book in the middle and see if there is anything catchy there.

Anonymous said...

1. I don't see the necessity for the lesson on evolution as a way to introduce the character, so this opening seems odd. Since I like biology, the first half was more interesting than the second half for me, and I assume the book is more about the second half than the first. So... no.

2. I'm in edit-mode for my novel right now, so anything with "actually" in it is going to make me rip up the book. (I managed to write a 90,000-word novel with only 4 actuallys and 2 actuals... very proud of myself. I've have an actually-fetish since my 6th grade teacher told me you can remove that word from any sentence and not change the meaning of the sentence. It's actually true!) This is a no mainly because of the subject matter.

3. Edit-hat on again, "extremely small" made me wince. I didn't "get" this excerpt. Mrs. Tilly Benton didn't sound "urgent" at all.

4. I read this opening a few weeks ago and I've forgotten where it comes from. "Seed villages" is fascinating so I'd read on.

5. This sounds like it's going to be "Sit down, make yourself comfortable, for I have a tale to tell..." and I hate that story structure. I liked the last two sentences, though, so I might read a bit further.

Dave Fragments said...

I recognized #1, #2, and #5.

this is interesting. I just can't bring myself to read #1 because its so long.

#2 I recognized becaue of the plot. That's the novel that Amazon pushed at me for 37 weeks and I hate that. Makes me not read a novel. Imagine never reading a novel and recognizing the first 150 words from the advertising blurbs.

And #5 is H.G. Wells, of course. I thin I read that when I was 12.

I wouldn't need #3 because of the setting - routine premature burial is not what I want to read about.

#4 is intriguing.

Anonymous said...

One lesson we can learn from the comments is that you can't judge a plot by a book's first 150 words. Wild Seed isn't about slavers or war, it's about an alien who takes over human bodies. And there are no premature burials in Counter-Clock World (time is going backwards, so people are coming back to life (not as zombies); the plot involves the implications when a great religious leader is due to return to life.

Maybe we should be concentrating on the author's control of language, style, tone, vocabulary, etc. if we're going to judge a book only by its beginning. Do you feel you're in the hands of a competent writer or a hack?

Anonymous said...

1. No, reading the opening was too much work.
2. Yes, I want to know more about what's going on.
3. The story began at an interesting moment, but all the same it's a bit far-fetched. If a woman has been buried underground, would she speak that way?
4. Compelling writing
5. Yes. The line about geometry is brilliant.

braun said...

I haven't actually read #1 (not sure if it's worth the effort) but give Stephenson credit for having an instantly recognizable voice.

Easy there, HawkOwl, #2 is "The Forever War" and it's about the most anti-war novel imaginable. Jumping to conclusions get you far recently?

#3 I don't know at all. I might keep reading, if there was nothing else to read.

#4 I hate the trope of 'peaceful native villagers' because its a cliche and a false generalization, but this actually piques my interest enough to want to check it out.

#5 I need to reread this.

HawkOwl said...

Minion 828 - You're right about judging the plots by the first 150 words, but I think the pointillist kind of critique that some minions enjoy and the desire to be more literary than populist aren't altogther relevant either. I doubt most of the authors are gonna go back through the entire book to conform with the minions' ideas on commas and "voice," much less try to upgrade themselves from "hack" to "author."

Everyone's having fun in their own way. Personally I like EE's original question: would you read more of this?

Anonymous said...

First impressions:

1) Love this. Great names-blanche and Bunyan Waterhouse; Godfrey the IV; Murdo. Going to be fun.

2) No. There's a disconnect in the logic immediately. The MC disbelieves the teacher's credibility at murder because the teacher is not much older than the MC; then the MC tells us he himself knows 80 ways to kill. (So why wouldn't an older teacher know 8 silent ways?) And I didn't like the death-of-the-actors thing.

3) This is too scary, but yes. I'd definitely keep reading. (Someone trapped underground in a grave-what evil lurks?)

4) Yes. Seed colonies and slavers; what's not to love?

5) No. The brilliant teacher-ick.

Anonymous said...

As my grandmother would say, "shut my mouth."

#2-Joe Haldeman (Forever War). LOVED that book! Obviously read it a long time ago and didn't remember it. Good thing I look at more than just openings to decide whether to read/buy.

McKoala said...

1. You what? No.

2. No. Bland writing, illogical content.

3. Yes, for the interesting set up - but 'extremely' in the first sentence puts me off a little - not needed!

4. No. This has got to be a distressing sight, but I don't sense a bit of it. Our hero could just as easily be contemplating his afternoon tea.

5. Yes. Great writing, dull situation, but I'm reading on. A slow start is fine in the hands of a good writer.

Rei said...

I agree with Minion 828. In fact, from what I've gathered, if the writing is good (most isn't), agents will typically give a book two to three pages to "hook" them before they set it down.

Kathleen said...

I didn't recogtnize any of these.

#1 - ok, I might keep reading.

#2 - excellent! I have to find out which book this is and get it.

#3 - I dont' love it like #2, but I would probably keep reading.

#4 - I was bored.

#5 - I was bored.

writtenwyrdd said...

chumplet, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is the basis for Bladerunner.

1.I could only focus on the masterful manner with which the writer kept this paragraph grammatical. It was too dense and I didn't like the writing style. I'd have read a bit further to see if I could stomach more, though.

2. Read this one ages ago. I really love this beginning. The pov character is intriguing, and a society where they actually kill people for demos gets my attention.

3. I've never heard of this one, but the situation is so odd that I would have had to find out the reasons behind it. I get the feeling it might be humor, or dystopic, or include zombies. In any case, I think I'll hunt this one up and find out.

4. I've read this one, and it's one of the best beginnings ever IMO. From the moment I'm in Doro's head, I am compelled to find out why he thinks of these dead villagers like crops or cattle. There is not human measure for the catastrophe, just his personal but undefined use for them. I love the careful use of language here, with words that reference the villagers as cattle. The clincher is when Doro stares at the bones of a child and merely wonders how far he will need to travel to regain remnants of the "healthy population."

5. I didn't like this one at all. The language was too flowery for me and nothing grabbed me.

none said...

1. Quite like the humour in this, but having discovered that it was written by the same guy who wrote about that idiotic pizza delivery dude...maybe not!

Then again, I think I've only ever given up on one SF book in my life (Egan's Diaspora). I tend to read them if I have them.

2. I've read this, and I didn't recognise it. Obviously I did read on. I like SF books about war and soldiers for the most part.

3. PKD! Of course I'd read on. Counter-Clock World, which I recognised immediately, is one of his greater novels.

4. Probably not. The lack of affect doesn't draw me in. I have read one of Butler's books, but didn't care for it much.

5. I have read this. Wells is always worth reading, imo, even if he doesn't meet modern standards.

Anonymous said...

I'd read them all, with the possible exception of #5. I especially liked #1--there's something about its quirky humor that I just loved. Stupendous badass. Love it.

#s 2 and 3 showed promise and piqued my curiosity enough that I'd continue--I might even spend money on them, if I couldn't get them at the library.

#4, well, I'd likely give it a chance. There's nothing there that would turn me off.

But #5--if you called it fantasy, I'd give it a whirl, but I always thought Sci-fi demanded a certain simplicity of style. I can't picture people in the future speaking (or writing) like Dickens.

none said...

Umm, The Time Machine wasn't set in the future, or if it was, it was a very near future that is now our past.

As for simplicity of style, meh. Some SF writers write that way; some don't. It's not a rule.

Evil Editor said...

The beginning and end are set in Victorian England. But the story the time traveller tells, recounting where he's been, takes place in the future. 802,701 AD to be exact.

HawkOwl said...

On a different forum, someone said that science-fiction doesn't necessarily have to be in the future. What makes it science fiction is (he said) having a "novum," meaning, a new paradigm that makes the world interestingly different from what it really is. The time machine definitely counts as a novum, I think.

none said...

EE, you are correct. I've suspected for a long time that you're an SF fan. I stick by the argument that the language is appropriate to the Victorian-period part of the story, at least...

What surprised me when reading the book, many years after seeing the film, is the Time Traveller's indifference to Weena's death. So she got burned up. Where's my time machine?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but Buffy, the narrator of this bit isn't the Victorian guy--it's the future guy. Now, obviously Mr. Wells didn't do his research properly. If he had, he would have traveled to 802, 701 AD, got a feel for their linguistic style, and it would have been reflected in the narrative. I mean, he had the time machine sitting right there in his cellar, didn't he?

Instead, he took the lazy man's way out, and just did it all half-ass. I hate when authors just fake their way through stuff. It shows a real disrespect for the craft of writing.