Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The First Sentences Project (Part One)


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 first story is “Magnifica Angelica Superable” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz:

A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold.

From these eleven words (sixteen if you include title and author name), do you already have a sense of tone, character, setting? Are you already starting to form a conception of how the plot might go? I’ve pasted our guesses below. But first, you might want to make your own guess.

At the end of this post I’ll link to the story (available for free online), so you can see how the story actually unfolds.


Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):

Rachel Swirsky:

This is a poetic, slipstream story about a small shop that sells things to tourists, some mass produced, and others by local artists. The shop is pretty and eccentric, but not magic. People enjoy being there. Some of the customers, however, are magic, and do strange things in the shop. The story is light, not dark, with personal conflict, but generally happy resolutions. It is a story that has optimism in the world.

Eric Schwitzgebel:

“Superable”? I guess this is the opposite of “insuperable”? Angelica will be magnificent and yet someone will top her. But it will be a moral victory. She is laughing in the cold. She is unperturbed! She will win but only in a local way, to her own satisfaction. Her win will look like a loss to others.

Why does Angelica come in “laughing from the cold” rather than come “in from the cold, laughing”? There’s a whiff of garden-path / misplaced modifier in this sentence, as though she is laughing because of the cold. Well, maybe she is laughing from the cold! We will never be able to quite figure out, in this story, whether Angelica is laughing despite her misfortune or instead because of it.

Aliette de Bodard:

[I recuse myself from this one because Rochita is a good friend, and I’ve read the submitted version as a beta reader.]

Cati Porter:

This one almost definitely involves magic. The title alone sounds like a title bestowed on someone who has unnatural abilities. And the name Angelica signals to me that this character is probably not at all angelic.

I think we can assume that the place the woman is coming into is a public place, maybe a storefront or a pub or even a church. Probably not someone’s home! Although I suppose that too is a possibility.

My guess is that the woman is responsible for something mysterious happening and a series of improbable events leading up to a surprise ending, maybe initiated by a turn where we learn that the woman isn’t evil after all. Or maybe she really is. I suppose that would be the real surprise.

Ann Leckie:

This story is set on a planet with very, very long seasons. It’s proverbial on this world that a change of season brings other, sometimes catastrophic changes, but this is right smack in the middle of a fifteen year long winter, a time everyone here thinks of as rock solid, stable and safe. But it’s not safe, and not stable, and the protagonist’s life is about to come apart, along with quite a few other people’s.

For this first story, the five of us are all over the map. Is it mainly about a shop (Swirsky), a society (Leckie), or Angelica (Schwitzgebel and Porter)? Why is it cold? Is Angelica really angelic? How central a role will magic play? Will it end happily (Swirsky), unhappily (Leckie), with a sudden surprising twist (Porter), or with a mixed moral victory (Schwitzgebel)? Is the project of guessing the plot of a story from the first line alone actually impossible, as any sensible person would think?

Read the story to find out!


Further Thoughts from the Contributors:

What I like about this line by Swirsky:

What I like about this opening sentence: This sentence leaves me in uncertain territory, which does make me curious about the second line, to see if it will orient me. It’s phrased oddly, in a way that suggests a vividly sensory story, and a poetic one. I think the main power of it comes from the combination of “laughter” and “cold” which is unexpected, and a pleasing image.

Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:

What we got right: Rachel was right that the story is light, with personal conflict but happy resolutions. Ann was right that the story is about big social changes. Cati was right that Angelica has unnatural abilities and that the opening scene is in a public gathering place.

What we got wrong: Contra Rachel, no knick-knack shop and no magic customers, and contra Ann no long-winter planet (but I like the bold specificity of those guesses!). Contra me, “superable” is not the opposite of “insuperable” (maybe more like “able to make someone [else] super”?) and Angelica’s victory is total, not merely moral.

Mixed: Contra Ann, things don’t fall apart for Angelica, but they sure do for some other people! I think I was probably right that Angelica’s laughter was somewhere between being because of and despite things not having gone her way. Cati was partly right about Angelica’s confused moral status as good or evil: We think she’s good, but the men in the society might not agree, at first. Rachel was right that the story has poetic elements, but I don’t think it is especially so.

I’ll give us a group grade of 40% for this story. We can do better!


Continued at First Sentences Project (Part Two)


James said...

This reminds me of Samuel Delaney's comment that genre context determines meaning. He mentioned "His world exploded,' and 'She turned on her left side,' as examples of sentences that mean very different things in 'literary' and science-fiction contexts. There's probably a context in which "a woman from the street," means "a woman made of cement who was spawned out of the street itself."

Though I'm pretty sure that's not what it means here...

Unknown said...

A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold.

Clearly she is a street person who was abducted and her brain been modified so that cold triggers her humour index. She is actually dreadfully frostbitten, so as to resemble a darkened zombie, but laughing outrageously.

I've read too much Scott Bakker, lol!

Callan S. said...

Cairo is me, btw, accidentally posted under the wrong account. Sorry!

Arnold said...

“Magnifica Angelica Superable”...Others say it's wonderful what I can do...
...(wondering myself causes me to predict)...
She may find out if she can be sure of herself...
...(opening the magazine to the story)...

Re: superable, Dictionary.com