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 aim to find 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 second story is "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka. The first sentence is:
It starts with light.
Only four words. Not much to work with. We are undaunted! (I've put a link to full story at the end of the post.)
Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):
This is an alien invasion story. The invading fleet lights up the sky of Earth on its arrival. The aliens are very difficult to communicate with, but they have been listening to radio and television broadcasts, and they're aware that the inhabitants of Earth aren't intelligent enough to understand that the aliens' presence here, and their establishment of a new, alien-designed regime, is not only fore-ordained, but the best possible thing that could happen to the Earth. Since "deserves to survive" and "won't bow to their new alien overlords" are mutually exclusive states, the aliens are very sorry but they're going to have to exterminate most life on the planet before they move in.
But they're not monsters! They'll give us a chance--a test. They select a group of Earthlings who will have the task of convincing the aliens not to kill us all: a teenage girl, a retired police officer, a Home Economics teacher, a dolphin, a stray dog, and a five pound sack of potatoes. Do not question the aliens' choices, that won't help with the test. The story is told from the POV of either the teenage girl or the sack of potatoes.
It ends with light.
This is a biblical retelling from an alternate perspective. It is about God waking to consciousness in the universe of His own creation, because before He made it, He was unaware of Himself and His needs and desires. The essence of the universe was in Him, and now that it has emerged, He is coming fully into Himself.
The God may be a She, or possibly a They or a Sie or an E.
She experiences the beginning of the universe in a dreamy way. The images and some of the broad outlines of events from the Bible are rendered, but her understanding and experience of them is strange and not what we’d expect.
Perhaps The God is actually an angel, who woke from nothingness into immortal light.
The story ends with the fall, when the angel sees the world e loved and knew split in two, a Lucifer e loved, and a God e loved--and the evil that comes into the world is es understanding that the universe has fundamentally been severed, and the rift will never heal.
This is the knowledge e breathes into the apple when e stands in the garden, while Adam and Eve and God are still naming the animals, and the serpent is biding his time in branches. This is the knowledge Eve is doomed to receive.
Such a spare opening!
Four words. It could be an origin story? There may be something supernatural, or holy, or stark & futuristic.
My guess is that the story is told in very plain language, and the tone may be cool, distant, impersonal, but I also want to leave open the possibility that it may be beautiful like a chilly starry desert night.
Maybe there is magic involved. Or a Messiah.
From the title, this feels like that maybe this is a story about being an outsider, being different. Maybe all *are* and only one *isn’t*, whatever that may be. So maybe this is a story about nonconformity, or about mutation, or about a journey, or about someone left behind. It could also be about being ostracized.
The title to me is more telling than the first line. I also like the alliteration of “starts” and “light”. The author could have chosen “begins” but the sound of the words together would be very different, and hold different potentialities of meaning.
“It begins with light” has two unstressed syllables followed by stressed then unstressed and a final stress. It complicates the line. “It starts with light” is iambic, the natural rhythm of speech. All of the “t” sounds work together. Four monosyllabic words. And saying “starts” reminds me of starting a fire, which produces light. You don’t begin a fire. Ever.
Which is not to say that this story is about fire, but it could be.
A variation on “let there be light”! Thus God began the universe and thus the narrator self-importantly begins the story. This story will be metaphysical. The narrator will think himself profound, though he’ll be a little coy about it at first, backing away from the seeming-profundity of the first sentence by moving to something concrete. Maybe he will actually in the end prove to have been a little profound, but not as profound as he thinks he is. Yes, “he”. Why do I assume that?
The “one who isn’t” is a pit, a blank, a being-space unfilled. We start with light and end in a dark hole. We will think ourselves sadder but wiser.
Aliette de Bodard:
Oddly enough this is making me think of quantum states and quantum mechanics--and someone who might possibly only exist in certain states/under some kind of observation. The "light" reference also feels very Biblical, wondering if this is going to be a creation type of story? Am assuming it's an SF story with a strong tinge of philosophical musings.
Leckie’s prediction is the outlier here. I really do hope it’s an alien invasion story told from the point of view of a sack of potatoes.
The rest of us ran with the apparent Biblical allusion – a creation story, with metaphysical themes, either God inventing erself (Swirsky), the origin of an outsider (Porter), a narrator’s attempt to self-importantly teach us wisdom (Schwitzgebel), or a story of someone who exists only when being observed (de Bodard).
Leckie says it ends with light; I say it ends in a dark hole. Who is right? Well, here's the story!
Further Thoughts from the Contributors:
What I like about this line by Swirsky:
“It starts” invites the question “and how does it continue?” I want to know, so I would definitely read the second sentence. The sentence also has a mythic sense to it, possibly establishing tone, and evokes a biblical reference.
Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:
Oh, it ends dark, dark. And yet also, in a different way, it ends with a light again – so Leckie and I were both right.
And yes, it’s totally a creation story, a creation and re-creation story, with metaphysical themes; so we got that right, except Leckie who now really must go write the aliens-speak-with-potatoes story herself. (Pretty please!) Swirsky was right that there’s a waking into consciousness (but not of the creator erself); de Bodard was right that observation is central (though the characters’ existence doesn’t depend on it); Porter is right that it’s partly about being an outsider or being left behind. Porter was also right that the language is mostly simple and spare.
No alien invasion contra Leckie; not really a Biblical retelling contra Swirsky; no self-importantly profound narrator contra me.
Group grade: 65%.
Next up: Part Three: Some Pebbles in Palm, by Ken Schneyer.