Great opening lines from sf

IO9's done a roundup of their favorite opening lines from science fiction. Some good reading here (and I'm flattered to have been included):
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." – William Gibson, Neuromancer. People always cite this as a great opening line, and it's easy to see why. It's such a vivid image.
Link Thanks, Marilyn!)



  1. Hmm, maybe I fail at imagination, but I’m not sure what color this means. Black? “snow”? Heh. :p

  2. Gibson is a genius! TALIA, it’s not the color that is important here but the sense imagery!
    Very poetic, very arresting!
    I like! :-)

  3. “We were 32 parsecs from Kessel when the drugs began to take hold”
    (from “Fear and Loathing on the Death Star”)

  4. Funny thing is, I got these two ancient CNN Gulf War I ‘greatest hits tapes’, and it opens with Wolf Blitzer saying those very lines, but no credits or anything. They just nicked it!

  5. Not sf, I know, but from a great sf writer:
    “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
    (Iain Banks, The Crow Road)

  6. Ha, is this not just a thinly sci-fi translation of “it was a dark and stormy night?”

  7. I did publications for PhilCon for a year or two, which meant typesetting the pocket program and program books. For the cover of the last pocket program I did, I assembled a number of “first lines” from great SF and fantasy novels. Thing is, I chose the lines based on the fame of the books, instead of whether they were “great opening lines” or not.

    I just thought it was a neat design idea. Turned out that a number of people at the Con thought it was some kind of contest or game, so during the con I’d see pocket progams with the book titles written in.

    The one that stumped everyone was “The primroses were over.”

    Brian Siano

  8. The funny thing is…
    when that line was written, it was (I think) a nice dynamic sensory image of television “snow”.

    But how long until a reader thinks of a dead channel as that bright, electric blue??

  9. 6: Actually, another writer… I think it was Neil Gaiman, already played with that, with an opening line that went “The sky (somewhere) was the clear untroubled blue of a television set, tuned to a dead channel.” or something to that effect.

  10. Dear Penthouse Forum,

    I never thought I’d write to you, but the most unbelievable thing happened to me the last time I visited Mos Eisley…

  11. 6, 7: Cory’s showing his age here, and you guys are right – the original context for the image is now lost.

  12. One of my faves is a one word sentence, from James Blish in a story called “Common Time.”


  13. I actually have a habit of memorizing the first sentence of books I like. And yes, Neuromancer is the one that always comes first to my mind.

  14. I really like the image and the words but (though I hate to go against clever, informed consensus) I really don’t like that comma.

    I think it disrupts both the sense and the rhythm since it pulls out ‘the color of television’ (which isn’t a colour) and also breaks up the lovely construction: television tuned to a dead channel.

  15. “It was a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you. But it was April 30, and of course it would happen like it always did.”

    “Trumps of Doom” — Roger Zelazny.

  16. “It was a dark and stormy night when Cory first posted about great opening lines …. little did he know about the online furor it would cause, the sleepless nights, the public embarrassment, the relentless arguing from those in the know ……”

  17. @ Jack,
    Perhaps the comma was meant to put a different twist on the image – the sky was the color of television. And the sky (being like a television) was tuned to a dead channel.

  18. Matthb…

    A screaming comes across the sky?

    I’m in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies?

    Nice choices (though I did have to internet for IJ (even though it is my favourite book)).

  19. “‘Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man'”

    The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

  20. “And came down in Paris: Where we raced along the Rue de Medicis with Bo and Lou and Muse inside the fence, Kelly and me outside, making faces through the bars, making noise, making the Luxembourg Gardens roar at two in the morning.” Samuel R. Delaney, from “Aye, and Gomorrah”

    The fact that it starts with “And” is intriguing by itself, like you are interrupting into the narrators thoughts. But it also sets up the tone of the story, which is about the weird sexual routine of the neutered spacemen and their groupies back on earth. Its an oddly memorable line, like a lot of Delaney’s writing.

  21. Meh, all it proves is that Gibson is a Doors fan.
    From their song “My eyes have seen you”:

    My eyes have seen you
    Free from disguise
    Gazing on a city under
    Television skies,
    Television skies,
    Television skies.

    Personally I thought Neuromancer was atrocious. I’ll stick with Asimov, thanks.

  22. “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions.”

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney

  23. The opening line to Neuromancer soon will lose its relevance, and so will the scenes in Poltergeist but anyone who has ever seen the snow/noise effect rarely will forget it. I had only heard of the book and had the local library in Toronto do an interlibrary loan for it, upon getting it knew that opening line was to herald something special. That line was at least for me was so vivid that I could immediately identify with it, and its a line that I won’t soon forget (nor will I forget the book, which I eventually bought and read over and over again until it literally fell apart in my hands).

  24. I actually prefer the opening line to Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition.” I don’t have it on me…I read it in the bookshop and swooned.


  25. @ ZikZak

    Yeah – I like that, but it still leaves ‘the color of television’ out on it’s own, which is what I (very pedanticly) think spoils it a little (but only a little).

  26. To #21: I’m a huge Asimov fan, he’s probably my favorite writer, and I love his “transparent” style, but Gibson inspires me in other ways, and Neuromancer, while it now shows its age, and is harder to read than anything Asimov wrote (anything is harder to read compared with Asimov) it is also very rewarding.

    I will admit, however, that the short story collection, Burning Chrome, and the novels that came after Gibson’s first trilogy (composed of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) seem more mature and better written. I just loved Virtual Light.

  27. I love the dead TV/sky opener, but I hate how often it’s alluded to – like a budding proto-geek who thinks quoting Monty Python is an obscure in-joke

  28. I read an interview with Gibson, I think while he was touring for Spook Country and I think it was Wired, where he addresses the dead TV thing. Also, I think he mentions that kids will wonder why no one has phones.

  29. I also managed to spoil my own comment (a little (but only a little)) by putting an apostrophe in its – sorry

  30. I also managed to spoil my own comment (a little (but only a little)) by putting an apostrophe in its – sorry

  31. MindFantastic:
    I disagree and agree :)

    It’s like the old telephone “rrring, rrring!” that has been co-opted as a retro ring tone. Tv snow is still used in films and shows as ‘static’, for shaky cam scenes, “transmission” effects etc. etc. Static/snow (in all it’s guises) has it’s place in the arsenal of movie language, and will for a long time yet, regardless of it’s place IRL.
    You often see cheap/lazy tv effects where the transmission source is supposed to be digital and there’s obviously analogue interference and noise.

    A similar mismach is when people are talking on mobile/cell phones on tv or in the movies, and they hang-up, more often than not the foley folk use the analogue telephone hang-up sound (the sound of the electrical connection between two landlines being disconnected). Mobile calls don’t make that noise, they just end silently, but because it’s still a useful meme that we understand (with nothing to do with it’s use IRL) it’s still employed today.

  32. Apparently Gibson once said he was trying to do Delany for the ’80s (just as Delany, early on, said he was trying to do Bester for the ’60s; Pat Cadigan tells the story here).

    I think the first line of Neuromancer (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”) is an homage to, and update of, Delany. The opening of Babel-17:

    It’s a port city.

    Here fumes rust the sky, the General thought. Industrial gases flushed the evening with oranges, salmons, purples with too much red.

    If you like Gibson (and you should), try early Delany! Start with Nova, though, that’s the masterpiece.

  33. For shame that no one has dredged up: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    Eric Blair just called and he wants you to know he’s pissed (in both senses of the term).

  34. Another fantastic Gibson opening (competing with Neuromancer for my personal favourite):

    Five hours’ New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.

    It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.

    — Pattern Recognition

    Okay, technically that’s the opening two lines, but I’m continually amazed at the beauty of “awash in limbic tides”….

    Then again, I’m more than happy to admit I’m a total Gibson fanboy.

  35. That first line was enough to draw me into reading the entire book… four or five times over the years. I can’t start it without plunking myself down with a jack&coke and killing it over the course of a late evening.

    Not many authors have such command of incredibly descriptive prose.

  36. I admit it’s stretching things a bit to call it SF–closer to fantasy or the dreaded “magic realism”, but the opening of Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is stellar. Then again, so is the whole book:

    “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

    I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

    “Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.

    I’m good at recognizing people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.

    “Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?”

    “To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.” Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.

    “Understand each other?”

    “Each other’s feelings.”

    I leaned over and peeked through the kitchen door. The spaghetti pot was steaming nicely, and Claudio Abbado was still conducting The Thieving Magpie.

    “Sorry, but you caught me in the middle of making spaghetti. Can I ask you to call back later?”

    “Spaghetti!? What are you doing cooking spaghetti at ten-thirty in the morning?”

    His description of a man being flayed alive later in the book is possible the most horrifying thing I have ever read.

  37. A little off topic, but it reminds me of my favorite chapter in SF. I loved it so much, I memorized it in its entirety:

    “Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night. ”

    Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

  38. Scott Westerfeld has a great and vivid homaging opening line in his Uglies:

    “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”

  39. “He awoke and wanted Mars. The valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them?”

    –Philip K. Dick, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

  40. “This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying . . . but nobody thought so.”

    –Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

  41. yeah you can’t beat Samuel Delany’s “Dhalgren”:

    to wound the autumnal city.
    So howled out for the world to give him a name.
    The in-dark answered with wind.

    at first i thought it was a missprint or something

  42. And what about Adams?
    It’s an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, Man had always assumed that he was the most intelligent species occupying the planet, instead of the *third* most intelligent. The second most intelligent were of course dolphins. Dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of earth and had on many occasions tried to alert mankind but their warnings were mistakenly interpreted as attempts to punch footballs or whistle for titbits.

  43. Completely ignores the greatest opening line in the history of science fiction (and one of my favorites from literature in general):

    It was a pleasure to burn.
    — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

  44. Philip K. Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer also has a great ending line, though I won’t spoil it for anyone.

  45. A few lines later, when Case is dubbed (by Ratz) Artiste of the Slightly Funny Deal, he sez “Somebody’s gotta be funny around here. Sure the fuck isn’t you.”

    I’ve appropriated this line for use in many bars/ parties/ family picnics. In fact, I promise you I’ll use it tonight.

    “Isn’t you either, sister. So you vanish, okay? Zone, he’s a close personal friend of mine.”

    This made me think, always — NOBODY TALKS LIKE THIS! But why would I want to read a book about boring characters who never say anything edgy? The start of Neuromancer is pure gold. A hard read? Hmmmm. Nah. It’s pop-culture joy imbedded in plain old text on paper. Yea.

  46. “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” – Frank Herbert’s _Dune_

    “Manfred’s on the road again, making strangers rich.” – Charlie Stross’s _Accelerando_

  47. There are a few things I hate about some of these opening lines. Some can’t resist the urge to introduce the main character BY NAME. Worse is introducing both the main character AND the setting by name. Then there’s the past tense. It makes everything boring.

  48. But how long before kids don’t understand the line “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” any more? Digital tv will make the line gradually worse and worse.

  49. I was discussing a fictional blog I was thinking of writing that featured worlds simulated on computers with a friend. I said I wanted to call it Static Sky.

    He instantly called up from the warehouse that is his brain that Gibson quote.

    I think it works perfectly as a name for my little ol’ blog that takes place in 2029. (at

  50. “Waiting to be cloned one thousand times and scattered across ten million light years, Paolo Venetti reclined in his favourite ceremonial bathtub[.]”

    (“Wang’s Carpets”, Greg Egan)

  51. Now we need a thread with great ending lines. My vote: “Then Baedecker touched the mountain, smiled, and opened his eyes.” from Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons

  52. I’ve always thought that to be somewhat of a terrible opening line. But then, I’ve never really liked Gibson for his writing style. But I’ve read much of his work for the stories and the ideas. A love/hate relationship, you might say.

    Kudos to all who mentioned Bradbury!

  53. I think it was originally snow, or more likely a foggy grey, but now it’s bright blue. Technology marches on, but the opening line from Neuromancer still makes sense, in a way.

    My favourite opening line is, “In ten years, the penis will be obsolete!” said the salesman.

  54. Orwell, as always, is hard to beat: “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    We are immediately told this is a familiar world (it is April, they have clocks) but something has changed (they use 24 hour time, which has militaristic overtones) and are given an ominous sense of things (thirteen portends bad happenings.) Compact, efficient, and apparently effortless.

  55. Listen. Billy Pilgrim done got unstuck in time.

    Kurt Vonnegut never resorts to wannabe pseudo-poetry to couch his otherwordly ideas. That’s why he’s the best.

  56. Where’s the Fortune file for this?

    Surely someone would want the Whuffie creating one would bring.

  57. I’ll include two from the very excellent “Starfish” by Peter Watts. One is the opening line of the Prologue, one is the opening line of the story itself, so both count, right? :D

    “The abyss should shut you up.”

    “When the lights go out in Beebe Station, you can hear the metal groan.”

  58. #9 posted by kirkjerk Author Profile Page, July 25, 2008 7:30 AM

    > But how long until a reader thinks of a dead channel as that bright, electric blue??

    Happened years ago on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup. The worst of it was that the guy was very resistant to believing Gibson could possibly have meant tv-snow instead of clear blue. There’s nothing like a usenet flamewar to lower your opinion of human nature…

  59. My favorite thing about the opening line of Neuromancer is that it has been almost completely rendered obsolete.

    How does one tune a channel? And dead channels don’t look like anything, they’re either bright blue or just plain off.

    After the internet has a few more years to penetrate, “television” and “channel” will both be meaningless too.

    It’s still a good line, though. It’s the way the future looked from 1984.

  60. My favourite opening is from “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny:

    “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.”

  61. I never did get what the big deal with Neuromancer was… the opening line or the rest of the novel. But I’m happy to see some people who appreciate Zelazny around here.

  62. Steven Crane’s classic story, ‘The Open Boat,’ begins…

    ”None of them knew the color of the sky.”

    William Gibson does. Hm, I wonder.

  63. “Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported hanging high above us in the
    computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.”

    I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison

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