Great Openings

Note: This is a totally subjective list, comprised of openings I found most amusing, intriguing, or arresting. You will not find “Call me Ishmael” here, largely because I never read the book. It’s a fine sentence, but it’s all I need. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is also excluded, even though I read A Tale of Two Cities and liked it. It’s a good opening, but the appeal has worn thin. Maybe it’s just been quoted one too many times for me.

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, The Seventh Sally (technically, a short story – but who said that wasn’t allowed?)

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

You don’t know me yet, so there is no reason you should care that I’m stuck on a highway with a blowout. But maybe we can relate to each other. Cheryl Mckay and Rene Gutteridge, Never the Bride

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this learn carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Ann Coulter, Treason

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map

And now a drum roll, please, for our final winner, the mother of all memorable first lines, never forgotten to this day, an irreducible part of Western culture …

It was a dark and stormy night. (I don’t know, and neither do you)

I was going to research the name of the author and novel – I saw it somewhere once – but that would just ruin the mystique. Nearly everyone knows this line, and yet they haven’t the faintest idea where it came from. It has not only outlived its author, it has outlived its book. That deserves recognition.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Very Antithesis of a Mechanism [Spoilers]

Not wanting to build a mere clocklike mechanism, you inadvertently – in your own punctilious way – created that which was possible, logical and inevitable, that which became the very antithesis of a mechanism …”

“Please, no more!”

– Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Three stories.

“The universe is infinite yet bounded.” So begins the Seventh Sally, the story of how Trurl’s perfection led to no good. The great constructor-benefactor once came upon a king exiled alone on an asteroid. The king insisted that the renowned constructor restore him to his kingdom, “and his iron fingers clutched the air, as if already closing around the throats of his beloved subjects.”

Naturally Trurl rejected the request. Yet he wanted to console the king, and so he built a tiny replica of a kingdom, contained in a box. Trurl perfected it so that the great Excelsius accepted it in the stead of his throne.

Trurl returned home in triumph, and told his friend Klapaucius how he had indulged the despot and protected his erstwhile subjects at the same time. And Klapaucius rebuked him: “Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality! Trurl, you took an untold number of creatures capable of suffering and abandoned them forever to the rule of a wicked tyrant. … Trurl, you have committed a terrible crime!”

They rushed to save Excelsius’s small subjects, only to discover that they had saved themselves.

There is also the story of Aule. Impatient for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men, he made children of his own. He made the Dwarves beneath the mountains of Middle Earth. And when he finished, he heard the voice of Iluvatar: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more.”

And Aule, weeping, lifted up a hammer to destroy the Dwarves. But they shrank from him and begged for mercy, and again he heard Iluvatar, “Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.”

Iluvatar had made the Dwarves the children of his adoption; he made them living beings.

Finally, there is the story of Travis and Nicholas Mackenzie. They have a world of “artificial intelligence. AI. Emotions, pattern recognition, free will, the ability to hold contradictory views … [H]uman consciousness. The whole enchilada.” It was difficult to create a digital world whose inhabitants think and act freely; preserving it may be more difficult yet.

The linchpin of The God-Hater is that a group of people managed to create beings with independent wills. The linchpin of Tolkien’s story is that only God can do that. Of course, in Bill Myers’ story the method was one Tolkien could not have imagined: computer programming. Bits and bytes, Travis calls his creations. Pixels and teraflops. But if they’re not real to him, they are very real to themselves – and each other.

My question here is not whether it is possible to make a computer program that becomes, like Adam, a living being. My question is whether that is what happened in The God-Hater. Emotionally, the book tugs strongly in that direction. But Myers never explicitly settled the question.

So let’s apply Klapaucius’ test. Remember his words to Trurl: When the imitation is perfect, the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality. Travis stressed the perfection of his imitation, and his pretense of real, free beings became a reality.

Later in his argument with Trurl, Klapaucius gave an even more convincing test: “You say there’s no way of knowing whether Excelsius’ subjects groan, when beaten, purely because of the electrons hopping about inside – like wheels grinding out the mimicry of a voice – or whether they really groan, that is, because they honestly experience the pain? A pretty distinction, this! No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer!”

He might as well have said that a sufferer is one who suffers. And the one thing none of us can doubt, since we saw Alpha make his trip to the Killing Wall, is that they really do suffer.

Now here’s where things get dicey. When the whole thing ceases to be an elaborate computer game, role-playing God becomes a much more doubtful enterprise. Did anyone notice that when Alpha built a temple, he built it to Nicholas? And when he prayed, who was he praying to but Nicholas? In the end, these mimicries of humanity who became, by virtue of their ability to suffer and choose, really human – they have, as their God and Savior, Nicholas Mackenzie.

There’s something just not right about that.

It’s odd that Rebekah and Nicholas made such a big deal out of giving the – what can we call them, electronic humans? – the truth, because they never got close to it. The created-to-sell-soap thing isn’t even the biggest part of it. The greatest truth, the ultimate Reality, is God. Any existence blind to Him is necessarily starved.

I think this is a legitimate issue. I also think it’s beyond The God-Hater. Maybe Myers doesn’t really consider the digital world to be real. Or – and I lean toward this – maybe these questions are simply outside the scope of his book. Maybe it wasn’t mere oversight that Myers never resolved his AI beings’ relationship to the universe; then he’d have to resolve their relationship to the God of the universe. Make it clear that Alpha is a rational creature on the order of humans and angels, and you’ve jumped clear over Nicholas Mackenize’s head.

The intent of The God-Hater was to “justify God’s ways to man” by putting man in (analogically) God’s place. To transcend the man-made computer world to the world God made, to move the question to a much higher court – that may have derailed Myers’ purpose entirely. It would have made a different book, and not necessarily a better one.

Still, it would have been nice if, to Alpha and his choosing, suffering world, God could have been God.

The story of Aule and the Dwarves can be found in The Silmarillion. The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good, is in The Cyberiad. I once posted a review of it.

Review: The Cyberiad

Written by Stanislaw Lem

Translated by Michael Kandel

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories, “fables for the cybernetic age”. Appropriately, then, they star cybernetic beings. One of the peculiarities of the book is that the characters are robots – a fact never forgotten, and often used, by the author. (In one story the king gives orders that he be buried to his favorite song, “Old Robots Never Rust”). I first learned of The Cyberiad about a year and a half ago. My brother was reading it while I was staying with him, and I read a few of the stories. Later I bought a copy of my own.

Stanislaw Lem is a Polish science fiction writer. His works are widely translated, and Michael Kandel did an excellent job of translating The Cyberiad into English. It takes skill to carry over humor and style from one language to another, especially a style so unique and engaging as Stanislaw Lem’s. Here is a sample:

Not far from here, by a white sun, behind a green star, lived the Steelypips, illustrious, industrious, and they hadn’t a care: no spats in their vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, no trouble from matter or antimatter – for they had a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect.

There is an almost Seuss-like cadence to this.

All of Lem’s stories are original and clever, and most are played for humor. There were a handful I did not really care for; one betrayed, depressingly, the author’s Darwinian philosophy. But The Cyberiad has far more good stories than bad. The first story, “How the World was Saved”, struck me as a sci-fi version of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (of which I have always been fond). The second tells hilariously the story of the world’s stupidest thinking machine, and “A Good Shellacking” has the great literary virtue of an unexpected and satisfying ending.

After this trilogy comes the Seven Sallies of Trurl and Klapaucius (actually nine), the main body of the book. Another three follow, but oddly enough, most of what I find distasteful in the book is clustered in these. The last two stories were initially interesting, but by the time I reached the end I did not like either one. “Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines” actually contained a number of stories, some of which were good and a few of which were less so. The Fourth Sally is also in the “less so” category.

But the rest of the Sallies were as good as gold. The last, “How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good”, was a serious one, giving the readers this nugget to mull over:

Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality!

The rest of the Sallies were adventurous, with a bent toward humor. All of them were unfailingly clever and well-told. I can’t let “Trurl’s Prescription”, or “Trurl’s Electronic Bard”, go without mention. The first is particularly pleasing in style (the earlier quotation comes from it), and the second is one of the most ingenuously funny stories I have ever read. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi should give The Cyberiad a go.