“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”
The above quotation is from Ted Chiang’s meditative and melancholic science fiction short story “Exhalation” in which an argon-breathing person made of aluminum and gold narrates the tale of its planet’s demise and how it examined (literally) the workings of its own mind. A beautiful story, and one that I recently taught in my science fiction writing class at Ursinus College, where I’m the Visiting Creative Writer.
This course has been a thorough pleasure to teach because of my delightful students and because of the readings, which are almost always surprisingly trans- and progressive. Imagining alternate realities and near or far futures can be good for the soul as well as the mind.
And although I’ve worked mostly in poetry for the last decade and more, in the last couple years I’ve returned to writing fiction. (I started as a prose writer, then embraced poetry and fiction in graduate school with the intention of returning to prose and found I couldn’t stop writing the poems.) I’ve written both hybrid-genre and more straightforward stuff, but almost always with a fantastical emphasis. I also regularly teach a course on retelling myth and fairy tale, another genre I love and work in.
I say all this in order to bring you the following writing exercise, which I think works just as well for poetry as it does for short fiction.
I asked my students, who have drafted two sf short stories by now and read many others from H.G. Wells to Octavia Butler to Robert Heinlein to Ursula LeGuin to Eileen Gunn, to draft some possible first sentences to sf short stories. The lines might indicate something about the novums of the invented world—or not.
They didn’t have much time, only a few minutes that day (Tuesday), and I had them write the sentences on small pieces of paper (cut up from last year’s The Onion desk calendar). By now they know the drill: if I have them write on these little papers, I will collect them and then redistribute them randomly to the class. The experiment harnesses chance as a collaborator in the creative process, a la the Surrealists and the Oulipians and others. Anticipating the social component of the exercise, the students also will entertain and prank each other.
Their task was to draft a first paragraph to a sf short story using the sentence they received.
Here are the sentences they came up with:
Three bleeding suns split open the cold night. (Dorinda Ma)
“We specialize in the wholly impossible,” said the fading billboard. (Henry Willshire)
Once upon a time, there was an elephant with a bionic left tusk. (Collin Takita)
She woke up in a hospital bed having no memory of how she got there. But how could she? Her brain was in a jar floating next to her bed. (Irina Lessne)
Max the Mallard stood at the front of the courtroom and adjusted his tie before beginning to speak. “Quack.” (Kevin Moore)
We are gathered here today to join the dearly departed in holy matrimony. (Giselle Horrell)
I always thought that the city looked odd at night. (Albert Hahn)
The experiment had gone horribly wrong. (Megan Keenan)
The year was 2054, and two-thirds of the human population was dead. (Kristen Costello)
“Broken is modulator feedback machine time the,” said Morgan gasping.—(Blaise Laramee)
Close your eyes, hold your breath, count to 10. That was what they felt. (Linden Hicks)
Black was the primary color. (Rachel Juras)
The blood-soaked sky . . . (Brian Cox)
The sun, bright and full, rose over the city. (Althea Unertl)
[World ending . . . (Darrah Hewlett)
I encourage you to write either a poem or a story beginning with one of these provocative sentences. Or, if you prefer to aim for a writing destination, try writing toward one of the following last sentences to an sf short story that the students devised today. I don’t yet have the authors’ names for these, as they didn’t sign the little papers, so I will add them later. Many of them also love poetry and are already astonishingly good poets.
Xylia scrambled to reach her phone. “Hey. Did I leave my self-matter stabilizer at your place?”
They sealed the metal door from the inside.
A subsonic reverberation, then silence.
“I guess you can say ‘that’s a wrap!’” the deli-man said as he took off his bionic shades and rolled off into the sunset on his hoverbike.
And just like that, all hope was lost and the world had yet to be found.
And we held tightly onto each other as we slowly disappeared into the machine.
And then there was darkness.
The lights went out, but the car continued. Right into a wall, just like before.
She turned off the light, and for the first time in his life he could see.
And time, finally, began to go backwards again.
And with that, they fall off the edge of Venus into a smoldering, dim rebirth.
And, with his thorax now removed, the ant subsisted with just his head and ass.
And life continues without reason, without meaning. But they make a point of making it for themselves.
They shot off in different directions, waiting for the next time their paths would cross.