How much can you predict about a story from its title and first sentence alone? Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I are in the process of finding out! We have taken the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.]
Our third story is "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer. It begins
Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died.
Um... what? The point-of-view character appears already to have died in the first sentence! Where could it possibly be going?
(I've put a link to full story at the end of the post.)
Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):
The title is zoomed in on the small and trivial -- a few pebbles held in the palm, not even an exact number of pebbles, just “some”. In contrast, the first sentence encompasses a whole lifetime as if from far above.
“Once upon a time”. A fairy tale. There will of course be a moral. By the end we will realize that life is just pebbles in the palm. “All we are is Dust in the Wind, dude”.
There will be literal pebbles. One will almost kill someone, or end a relationship.
A digital entity decides to try embodiment. And not halfway, either, they want to do the whole thing from conception to death. Most digital entities who want to try meatspace just animate already existing machines, or hitch a ride for a while with a human or animal. The digital entity in this story will have to build the tank itself, to grow itself.
Factions both in meatspace and digital space try to make political and/or religious hay out of the entity's project and its results. Attempts are made to destroy the body and delete the entity's backups. The attempts are apparently successful, except for one thing they all forgot, that the entity didn't.
Classic opening. It throws us back to bedtime stories, fairy tales. The man could be anyone. We know nothing about him except maybe that he is ordinary, like any other man who has been born, has lived, has died.
The title makes me think of Jack and the Beanstalk with the beans in the palm, except these are pebbles, so (presumably?) will not grow anything.
But anything can happen in a story.
Could these be magic pebbles? Maybe.
I suspect this story takes place in a far away land and involves peasants and castles and bad things happening to ordinary people and maybe even good things happening to bad people. Or bad people who are ordinary in their badness, so much so that they don’t seem bad, just misguided. And maybe even some good people who are so ordinary that you don’t really root for them.
As to where the story goes from here I have no idea.
This is a fantasy. The character died in 2010, at the age of 70. Much of the story takes place in his memories from his early teens, in the fifties, when he spent a lot of time wandering the country near his house. There was a creek that ran between houses, which he could follow from his house to others, and when he was eleven, something significant happened while he was skipping stones. It was not a major dramatic or traumatic event, but something that formed his life, a small disappointment that prepared him to understand the universe was indifferent to him.
The story is narrated after his death. The voice of the narration is a distant third person, with access to his mind, but a remote tone.
The story of the character’s life is one of disappointment. He is, emotionally, a version of the character from Death of a Salesman. However, in death, he has a chance that Willie Lowman didn’t – he can learn to see past what he felt and lost to something a little sweeter in the afterlife. A friend, perhaps. Or time to wander alone in the country of his childhood.
Aliette de Bodard:
This is going to be a poetic, lyrical story. There's an interesting contrast between the fairytale format, and the cold reality of a life as stated in the opening sentence. I'm assuming that this will be focused on what can be kept/gained from a particular lifetime. Also possibly might feature several iterations of the same lifetime, or rebirths or some other kind of mechanism for multiple lives?
Most of us agree that the first sentence gives the story a big-picture flavor: The story will encompass at least a whole lifetime and its meaning. It might have some fairytale aspects (Schwitzgebel, Porter, de Bodard). It might involve a perspective on a lifetime from a transcendent point of view, whether as a digital entity (Leckie), in the afterlife (Swirsky), or via a mechanism for rebirth (de Bodard).
Further Thoughts from the Contributors:
What I like about this line by Swirsky:
It sets up a traditional storytelling device with “once upon a time,” giving the reader a clue about the tone of what will follow. The rhythm of the sentence does likewise. The question it asks is interesting because it’s basically a subversion of the idea of what should grab the reader’s attention. This is a very obvious statement, albeit phrased differently than most people would phrase it. So, why is it important enough to say?
Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:
Before getting into the what-we-got-right and what-we-got-wrong, two things:
(1.) This story is partly about first sentences! The second paragraph begins “The first few words of a story are a promise. We will have this kind of experience, not that one.”
(2.) In part two of the project, I'd guessed that “The One Who Isn’t” would have a smug, thinks-he’s-so-wise narrator. I was wrong. This story has that kind of narrator – more than any other story I can remember ever reading. It's delicious how annoying I find this narrator. And he totally got me with the pomegranate seed thing, the smartass. Grrrrr! (To be clear: My annoyance is at the artfully conveyed smugness of the narrator, not at Schneyer, who brilliantly crafted that narrative voice for this particular story.)
What we got right: Swirsky was right that there was a youthful memory about pebbles, with mostly symbolic significance (though the narrator falsely says that “the stones are not a symbol”). She was also right that there’s a kind of Willie-Lowman-like failed search for significance. Porter picked up on the ordinariness of the man – a token of all men. De Bodard was right that the story involves multiple lifetimes, including some reflection on whether anything is learned in rebirth. And I was right about the zoomed in / zoomed out perspective and “all we are is Dust in the Wind, dude” – the sophomoric seeming-profundity of that bullshit philosophy. I’m even going to give myself double credit for this, since at the end of the story, the narrator actually says “I’m atoms on the wind.”
What we got wrong: Contra Porter and me, the pebbles aren’t important to the plot of the story. De Bodard was wrong about its being poetical and lyrical; it’s unlyrical meta-fiction. Contra Porter, no fairyland castles. Contra Leckie, no digital entity re-embodiment.
Hey, we did really well, given how little we had to work with! De Bodard and Swirsky came surprisingly close to capturing the spirit of the piece, and I called it on the crappy philosophy. It’s hard to hold Leckie’s miss too much against her, given how boldly specific it was.
Group grade: 75%.