Killer first line

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

This is evidently the first line of Iain Banks’ 1992 novel The Crow Road, which I haven’t read, but after that first line, maybe I should take a look at the novel. Have any of you read it?

This post at takes a close look at the books written by “Iain Banks” versus “Iain M Banks.” You all probably knew that the latter, author of the Culture series is the same person as the former literary author. I haven’t read much by either name, just a couple Culture novels.

From the linked post: Banks himself never had any time for what he considered ‘bullshit’ mainstream snobbery, and was always clear that he brought the same skill and effort to both of his careers, famously stating that: ‘The difference is entirely one of setting.’

Interesting! Because I would have thought that the post-scarcity utopian setting of the Culture novels would have a huge effect on the plot and characters, so much so that it would be impossible to say something that dismissed the difference between mainstream and SF as “entirely” setting.

Here’s what the author of this post has to say about The Crow Road:

The Crow Road is a mystery thriller that masquerades as a bildungsroman, that in turn masquerades as a family saga, and yet at its heart is perhaps more like a science fiction novel than anything else: it deals with the biggest of ideas and questions through the most intriguing of characters, and it is smart and funny to boot.

I like the above paragraph, which is delightful, but I would hardly define an SF novel as distinguished from other genres because it “deals with the biggest of ideas” etc. The SF genre IS defined by setting, not by the ideas and questions it explores, however big those might be.

It’s a longish post; click through if you have a minute and you can see whether you find the idea that setting is unimportant and really SF is whatever you say it is persuasive.

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12 thoughts on “Killer first line”

  1. For non-fiction, my favorite remains the opening of “Five-Finger Discount”, by Helen Stapinski, an autobiography by a reporter who grew up in Hoboken when northeastern NJ was still at it’s most corrupt.

    “The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten, and made real rather than imaginary friends.”

    (It’s not til much later that the details come out.)

  2. “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six, but she must have shown signs of oddness before that.”
    – From Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda.

    Question: Do you need a horrid childhood to have an interesting memoir? Are there any interesting happy memoirs out there?

  3. Does Hyperbole and a Half count as happy? Brosh covers some stuff about mental health struggles but the overall tone is happy/funny and it’s excellent (in blog or book form)

  4. A little context for 5-finger discount: I was mooching around the bookstore looking for a Christmas gift for my father, and I first noticed the cover–a really tough-looking little girl with a huge smile–then I was pulled in by the first sentence, and read the first chapter. Just excellent storytelling, by a woman with an unwontedly upbeat attitude. I bought two copies–one for him and one for me.

  5. An upbeat attitude is a surprising plus when you start off with various relatives trying to kill you. I’ll have to look at Five-Finger Discount.

    Sarah, I love Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m not sure I’d count it as exactly happy even though I agree about the tone. The tone is indeed upbeat, or sometimes weirdly matter-of-fact, but the situations described are sometimes pretty dire. The linked chapter is representative, even though it winds up well.

  6. Oh, if you like Hyperbole and a Half, there’s a new book out – Solutions and Other Problems. Really excellent.

  7. Rachel–
    Five Finger Discount is a fine book. I am not one for biography, let alone rereading it. With two exceptions: this, and Stillwell’s Experience in China, by Barbara Tuchmam.

    If you’re in the mood for something different, this is a good choice.

  8. Pete, by a startling coincidence, I also have read Stillwell and the American Experience in China. I was in a different country and stayed at a place where there were plenty of biographies on a shelf and not much else. This was before ebooks, so those were the only available books and I read most of them. That’s the only one I remember, other than the first volume of a long Churchill biography.

    The line I remember best was something about an answer to Stillwell, who had written to his superiors about needing more materials or help. The answer contained something like, “General Stillwell, every general in this war feels that his force is the one receiving the least support. You are correct. Nevertheless, do your best.”

    He did quite a job, evidently, considering the many obstacles he faced.

  9. For a while I lived half a block from a used book store, and got on a Tuchman spree. ‘Stilwell’ and ‘March of Folly’ are the only ones I have reread since.
    Stilwell, aka “Vinegar Joe”, was surely a colorful character. And, of course,
    he was immensely competent.

  10. I loved _Crow Road_. It’s not SF, or a genre novel at all – it’s more _Great Expectations_ than anything else I think. I read and reread it at points in my life when it seemed written for me; I’ll have to try it again now that I’m older. Easily Banks’s best work as far as I’m concerned.

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