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message 1: by S.C. (new)

S.C. Flynn (scyflynn) Earlier this year, Claire Armitstead in the Guardian newspaper posed the question whether genre fiction sentences can equal those found in literary writers such as Joyce or Beckett. Science fiction writers like Gibson, Banks and M. John Harrison were mentioned as possible genre sources for great sentences.

I have thought quite a lot about this since then and I think that genre fiction did not show its best side in the ensuing debate. But then, Ms Armitstead only put the question to a bunch of Guardian readers (joke), whereas I am lucky enough to be able to call on the collective mind of the SFF community!

So let's show what our genres can offer and then go back to planet Guardian with the genuinely greatest sentences in SFF.

I will start off with a brief selection from Theodore Sturgeon's novel "More Than Human", because I have just re-read it and noted candidate sentences along the way. I think these are examples of simple language creating beautiful imagery and often embodying deep insights:

1. A drawstring could not have pulled the fat man's mouth so round and tight and from it his lower lip bloomed like strawberry jam from a squeezed sandwich.

2. The sap falls and the bear sleeps and the birds fly south, not because they are all members of th same thing, but only because they are all solitary things hurt by the same thing.

3. Wrong as a squirrel with feathers or a wolf with wooden teeth; not injustice, not unfairness - just a wrongness that, under the sky, could not exist ... the idea that such as he could belong to anything.

4. The corn stretched skyward with such intensity in its lines that it seemed to be threatening its roots.

5. The open mouth was filled with carrot chips and gave her rather the appearance of a pot-bellied stove with the door open.

6. So it was that Lone came to know himself; and like the handful of people who have done so before him he found, at this pinnacle, the rugged foot of a mountain.

7. The blood was beginning to move in my hands and feet and they felt like four point-down porcupines.

8.He was as uncaring as a cat is of the bursting of a tulip bud.

9. You were the reason for the colors on a bantam rooster, you were a part of the thing that shakes the forest when the bull moose challenges; you were shining armor and a dipping pennant and my lady's girlde on your brow, you were, you were ... I was seventeen, damn it, Barrows, whatever else I was.

10. And here, too, was the guide, the beacon, for such times as humanity might be in danger; here was the Guardian of Whom all humans knew - not an exterior force nor an awesome Watcher in the sky; but a laughing thing with a human heart and a reverence for its human origins, smelling of sweat and new-turned earth rather than suffused with the pale odor of sanctity.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I often find myself looking with disdain at those who consider genre fiction to be inferior to literary fiction. Quite a bit of what's considered literary, to my mind, is incredibly boring and poorly written. Joyce may be considered one of the most influencial writers of his age, but he really isn't all that interesting; I can think of many early 20th century SFF authors I'd rather read: Lovecraft, Tolkien, Wells, Baum, Burroughs ...

Trying to show that Science Fiction and Fantasy can be as good as Literary Fiction is a losing battle as there are so many who cannot accept that some very great writers have written in genres in a way that is both entertaining and that examines and elevates the human condition.

And, personally, I don't think a single, well-written sentence does much to show the skill of an author.

Some authors - take Margaret Atwood as an example - who write very noteworthy science fiction/fantasy won't call it that due to their own opinions on literature. Atwood is a great writer, but then so is Sheri S. Tepper. I would compare The Fresco and The Gate to Women's Country equally to The Handmaid's Tale in terms of quality science fiction.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I always thought Samuel R. Delany wrote some of the finest English prose for genre fiction. I'm on the road thumbing text, so examples are lacking.

Of course, genre fiction is traditionally more focused on pulse pounding plot than prose and survive a bad writing style. Literary fiction can excuse a parsimonious plot for good writing.

And Joyce isn't boring - he isn't an exciting adventure story - but in context a lot of stuff happens - like Bloom seeing a girl's knickers at the beach. Scandal! People risked jail to print and read Joyce. Not boring, at least for the times. Now Harry Potter was boring in my mind: little boy wizard saving the world from the wicked, bad, naughty, EVIL wizard is just so ho hum. Perfunctory prose too.

I read and enjoy both genre and literary fiction - but I didn't expect them to be interchangeable.

message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 26, 2014 08:33AM) (new)

One of my great failures as an English major is that I detest pretty prose for it's own sake. Wonderful writing that's also captivating is brilliant and can transcend the period it was written in.

To Kill a Mockingbird is brilliant and beautifully written. The same is true for The Lord of the Rings or Dune ..... Joyce is a great writer but he's not interesting, IMO; Portrait of an Artist is beautifully written but tedious.

Many literary writers forget that, while plot can be subservient to characterization and style, it still needs to be there ....

message 5: by Jim (new)

Jim | 418 comments I'm with you Geoffrey. If there's no plot, or the story isn't interesting, I'm afraid it'snot for me

message 6: by S.C. (new)

S.C. Flynn (scyflynn) More Great Science Fiction and Fantasy sentences:

message 7: by Ken (new)

Ken (kanthr) | 165 comments “The necropolis has never seemed a city of death to me; I know its purple roses (which other people think so hideous) shelter hundreds of small animals and birds. The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle. When I think of my own death, or the death of someone who has been kind to me, or even of the death of the sun, the image that comes to my mind is that of the nenuphar, with its glossy, pale leaves and azure flower. Under flower and leaves are black roots as fine and strong as hair, reaching down into the dark waters.”

“I was sitting there, as I said, and had been for several watches, when I came to me that I was reading no longer. For some time I was hard put to say what I had been doing. When I tried, I could only think of certain odors and textures and colors that seemed to have no connection with anything discussed in the volume I held. At last I realized that instead of reading it, I had been observing it as a physical object. The red I recalled came from the ribbon sewn to the headband so that I might mark my place. The texture that tickled my fingers still was that of the paper in which the book was printed. The smell in my nostrils was old leather, still wearing the traces of birch oil. It was only then, when I saw the books themselves, when I began to understand their care.”

His grip on my shoulder tightened. “We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with the thickest gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations—books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.”

“We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too who leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other.”

“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”

“When a gift is deserved, it is not a gift but a payment.”

“No intellect is needed to see those figures who wait beyond the void of death – every child is aware of them, blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe. They are the stuff of our earliest dreams, as of our dying visions. Rightly we feel our lives guided by them, and rightly too we feel how little we matter to them, the builders of the unimaginable, the fighters of wars beyond the totality of existence.

The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, “I will,” and “I will not,” and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.”

“A crowd is not the sum of the individuals who compose it. Rather it is a species of animal, without language or real consciousness, born when they gather, dying when they depart.”

“I have noticed that in books this sort of stalemate never seems to occur; the authors are so anxious to move their stories forward (however wooden they may be, advancing like market carts with squeaking wheels that are never still, though they go only to dusty villages where the charm of the country is lost and the pleasures of the city will never be found) that there are no such misunderstandings, no refusals to negotiate. The assassin who holds a dagger to his victim's neck is eager to discuss the whole matter, and at any length the victim or the author may wish.”

“Rain symbolizes mercy and sunlight charity, but rain and sunlight are better than mercy and charity. Otherwise they would degrade the things they symbolize.”

All of these came from one story. Yes, SFF can give literature a strong run for its money.

message 8: by S.C. (new)

S.C. Flynn (scyflynn) The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe! Just re-read it.

Thanks for these. I like the approach of choosing from one book that is full of great sentences.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I know I already shared by opinion on form or content, but what's so great about a single, great sentence?

message 10: by Ken (new)

Ken (kanthr) | 165 comments A single sentence is instantly memorable and stays with the reader.

But, if I suspect you line of thinking Geoffrey, I would agree that it takes more - a raft of great sentences AND plot development to really deserve placement on the literary-greats pedestal.

message 11: by Wastrel (last edited Nov 10, 2014 07:19AM) (new)

Wastrel | 30 comments Geoffrey wrote: "I know I already shared by opinion on form or content, but what's so great about a single, great sentence?"

Well, answering that for one of my favourites (although it's probably only a favourite because it's a first line, and hence easy to look up...):

He was one hundred and seventy days dying, and not yet dead.

We could look at that in terms of form or in terms of content.
In terms of form, look at the rhythm there. The comma acts as a caesura, and invites us to split the sentence in two: the first half of the line has four stresses and the second half has three. No wonder the weight sounds good: the couplet of a four-beat line followed by a three-beat line is the basis of vernacular English poetry and beyond (it's the 'common metre' of hymns, the 'ballad metre' of popular songs, and written on one line with the caesura optional it's the 'heptameter' of Romantic narratives and of mediaeval latin poems). It's also, incidentally, the metre of many 'great SF&F lines'... Gibson's "the SKY above the PORT was the COLour of TELevision || TUNed to a DEAD CHANnel", for instance has the same 4-caesura-3 metre.

Of course, this line doesn't fit a fixed metre: it has a sprung rhythm (i.e. the number of unstressed syllables between the stressed syllables is not constant), more natural for speech. These accentual lines were the basis of Anglo-Saxon poetry (though their lines were normally four beat, caesura, four more beats, rather than four and three, which leaves this line feeling more abrupt); AS poems also relied on consonance, which we have a suggestion of here: "huNDred aND seveNTy" "Days Dying... DeaD", "noT yeT".
Specifically, though, those unstressed syllables aren't random, but drive the reader rapidly into a brick wall. The normal poetic metre in English is the iamb - unstressed-stressed. It's what English writing tends to tend toward. [That last sentence was iambic pentameter, only with one spare unstressed syllable at the beginning]. But the first three feet in this line are stretched out: two anapaests (unstressed-unstressed-stressed) and the first foot (I'm assuming unstressed 'one') is a rare fourth paeon (3xUnstressed). What this means in practice is a hurrying, urgent rhythm: instead of the normal heavy ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM, we have a light and rushing ba-da-da-DUM ba-da-DUM ba-da-DUM. The first foot being slightly longer and the later two shorter gives a sense of moving toward closure, but that turns into a sharp end as it suddenly switches to a trochee (DUM-ba), putting two stresses together at exactly the 'woah' moment of the content (he was one HUNdred and SEVenty [ambling along everything is fine] DAYS DYing [woah!]). Then that shock is allowed to settle in by the pause of the comma. But we don't get into a new rhythm because it switches back to a iamb again (ba-DUM). And we finish off with a real nail-in-coffin spondee (DUM-DUM).
Looking at the larger level, what we have is 12 syllables for four beats (so verbose, drawn out, nothing's going to happen here move along) and then suddenly only 4 syllables for three beats, and three consecutive beats at that, which comes as a shock to the system to say the least! The caesure splits the line into two metrically, and those two are radically contrasting (with the second being both shorter and more to the point, textbook rhetoric (e.g. "shorter and much more to the point: textbook rhetoric" sounds better rhythmically than "textbook rhetoric: shorter and much more to the point", which kind of feels like you're being let off the the hook...)).

Then we can look at the content. Again, that caesura isn't random, but divides the sentence into two wildly contrasting parts. The first part is all about dying, and the second part is about life. Similarly, although both parts are grammatically present-tense, semantically there is a contrast between the past-to-present of the first half ('was 170 days dying') and the sudden emphasis on the future prospects in the second ('not YET dead'). In one sentence, we are told his present situation and his future prospects: the basic duality is echoed shortly after as he recites the rhyme:
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death's my destination

In some ways the whole of the novel is the question of whether the rhyme (repeated near the end of the book) can be changed, which is to say the question of the significance of that "not yet".

Bester's line contains nothing as flamboyant as Gibson's catachresis, of course. But it's a deceptively simple line, which gets its innovation past the radar, as it were.

First off, look at that "one hundred and seventy days dying". That's an odd construction, isn't it? In terms of the meaning, it takes the whole of that one hundred and seventy days and shoves it into the present moment: he IS his past. Consider the more normal way to write that: "he had been dying for 170 days" - ok, he had been doing that, what was he doing now? The normal construction makes that process of dying seem more remote, something spread out over time, but Bester's "he WAS 170 days dying" makes it as though he's undergoing every one of those days simultaneously. Taken literally, we're being told that that time IS who/what he is.
And then consider the connotations. It's a rare construction but one we do find now and then with other predicates: "he was forty days out from harbour", for instance, "he was forty days without a drink". Maybe it's just my imagination, but these constructions tend to be about distance, absence, privation, endurance... and also to imply an ending in the future. He was 170 days dying? To me, the strange choice of words suggests a similar sense of endurance, privation, distance, and an impending end. But this is a bit startling, because 'dying' isn't something we normally think of as having a duration - it's normally just a transient change of state. It's as though time for him has been drawn out, as though he's been held in stasis. And indeed, this simultaneous sense of being outside time and of time being compressed into a moment exactly fit his situation.

But that's not the only weird thing in that sentence. Look at that conjunction! Any normal, sane, ordinary man would have written "he was 170 days dying, but not yet dead". Bester doesn't. He says "he was 170 days dying AND not yet dead." How the hell does that work? 'and' implies congruence, but as I said above the prima facie meaning is complete opposition. Bester subtly states the going-together of two things that on the face of them couldn't be more opposite, and that's shocking and startling. Most obviously, our immediate assumption is that "dying" is bad but that "not dead" is good - so why the 'and' and not a 'but'? What is Bester saying with that 'and'? Is he saying that, yes, the dying is bad, and the not being dead is also bad? We get the sense of the protagonist having a death wish, having given up and just wanting a way out of his torment: which fits both his current certain-death situation and his more general place in a life from which he appears to have abdicated [too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love]. That 'and not yet dead' sounds almost irritated, frustrated, impatient! Or is Bester saying that not being dead yet is good AND the '170 days dying' is good? We get the sense of a joy in the struggle for life, a fierce determination, a celebration of danger, and that of course is exactly the other side of the protagonist's story throughout the novel. We also instantly get the sense of this experience as being positive in some way: 170 days dying and not yet dead, that's a dangerous combination!
Both interpretations are then encouraged by the next sentence, incidentally: He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. We can get the picture both of utter desparation - an animal that is will to self-harm, even kill itself, trying to escape - and of exuberant, bestial, furious aliveness.

But turning to the concrete, what do we really know about the protagonist from this sentence?

Well, we know that he's not just in danger, he's actually 'dying' - real immediate threat. We know that it's going to be virtually impossible for him to escape, because he's been there for 170 days already, and while he's not dead the author makes sure to specificy that he is not YET dead but is still DYING. So it's not something easy to get out of. And we can also deduce that he's alone. He's 170 days dying and nobody has saved him. I suppose we might imagine that he's dying from something nobody can prevent: we might imagine this is the first sentence of the story of a terminally ill man, for instance. But to me, the more likely option - backed up by those connotations of journeys, distances, compressions of time and so on - is that Our Hero is alone, either literally alone or only among those who will not help him. Very alone, because 170 days is a long time to not have a friendly face come along. "And not yet dead" - the sense that he is being driven into death, not merely being imprisoned or kept alive, but headed for death, yet somehow not yet there. Why is he not there yet? What could possibly be happening to him that seems like certain death yet takes more than 170 days to kill him? Something terrible and slow... but the 'and not yet dead' also suggests that his continued life is surprising, that others would have died by now.

So we know just from this sentence that Our Hero is in a truly terrible situation, probably by himself, and that he's the sort of guy who really, really doesn't die easily [like some heavily armoured creature]. And we've been encouraged to wonder whether he really wants to survive or whether he's given up and is impatient for death... but also to wonder what this crucible is doing to him, what will happen when he does escape his situation. But we don't know what the exact situation is, or who he is - it's only near the end of the page that we work out where he is, and much longer before we work out why. But we'll read on. How can we not read on when we're introduced to a guy with "he was one hundred and seventy days dying, and not yet dead"?

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Bester actually consciously thought all of these things when he wrote the line. I imagine he just stumbled across it and recognised how great it was (it's a line so good you could almost imagine someone thinking of it out of the blue and then writing the novel to explain it). But I think these are some of the reasons why it is a great line.

In fact, the whole of that passage is just incredible. The poetic lines, the weird word choice [he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered], the striking bastard-English ["What's a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all"], the audacious breaks into other forms (the childish doggerel, the officialese personnel form), the turning of phrases to contrasting meanings (the plays on 'drift', and 'dead end' - there's a great pair of sentences, btw, the juxtaposed "Has reached a dead end" and "He had reached a dead end", two near-identical sentences with totally different, yet complementary, meanings).
And then if you want two great sentences, how about the end of that passage?
" hundred and seventy days, and the key to his awakening was in the lock. Presently it would turn and open the door to holocaust."
How's that for audacity? How's that for a slap-in-the-face turn from hope to terror? And how's that for the most chilling introduction of a "protagonist" imaginable? Yay, our hero's going to esc... wait, what, holocaust? Oh, that doesn't sound good!

message 12: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel | 30 comments While we're at it, it's more than one sentence, but the same chapter contains one of the great little monologues of the genre:

You pass me by[...] you leave me rot like dog. You leave me die, Vorga[...] No, I get out of here, me. I follow you, Vorga. I find you, Vorga. I pay you back, me. I rot you. I kill you, Vorga. I kill you filthy. [...]
Vorga, I kill you filthy.

message 13: by Micah (new)

Micah Sisk (micahrsisk) | 233 comments S. C. wrote: "...Claire Armitstead in the Guardian newspaper posed the question whether genre fiction sentences can equal those found in literary writers such as Joyce or Beckett..."

I think the whole question is wrongheaded. (You could equally turn that around and ask if Joyce or Beckett would have been able to write effective genre fiction.)

The language of a novel must work for its content, audience, and intent, no matter its genre.

For example, I'd stack Philip K. Dick's opening of A Scanner Darkly up against the beginning of Joyce's Ulysses any day--both effective writing, totally different audiences, content, and intent:

"Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs." ~ PKD

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

--Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

--Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit." ~ Joyce

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Wastrel, One of the reasons I stated I was a failure as an English major is that none of what you wrote about that sentence is of interest to me. The sentence you gave is interesting and would keep me reading, and I'm happy you get that much enjoyment from 12 words, but I don't see it.

I studied English literature because I love to read and I wanted to know all about literature. And all of that sucks the joy out of it for me because I'm interested more in the entirety of the novel or the poem than in a particular sentence or couplet.

To Kill a Mockingbird or The Parable of the Sower are majestic - as are many of Auden's sonnets or Frost's or Angelou's verse. And they can be dissected and analyzed and ingested in tiny, savory bites, but I still prefer them on their own terms.

message 15: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel | 30 comments Where does the either/or come from? I never suggested that people shouldn't read the rest of the book too. But the whole is composed of its parts: without the words and what they do, there is no 'them on their own terms' to enjoy.

message 16: by Ken (new)

Ken (kanthr) | 165 comments I can appreciate both Wastrel's analysis and the colorful imagery in sentences posted in this thread.

What I can't appreciate is To Kill a Mockingbird, but that's another story. :)

message 17: by Galaxy Press (new)

Galaxy Press (goodreadscomgalaxypress) | 5 comments The humorous ones are the ones that catch me.

I'm having too much fun with Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

Cat at Galaxy Press

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