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Monday, July 27, 2009

"And They Hived Appily Ever Lafter"

by Guy Stewart

Last lines have always been relegated to the status of either meaningless or trite. Fairytales—at least the Disney ones—frequently end with the de-spoonerized version of my title. The last lines of popular Nebula, Locus, Hugo and Gandalf winning books are no exception. My title could just as well be the last line of a great science fiction or fantasy masterpiece and it would have just as much effect on the story as the real last line.

Don’t believe me? Try quoting the last line of Frank Herbert’s DUNE. It won the Hugo, the first Nebula, it was the first hard cover SF best seller, and is often cited as the world’s best-selling SF novel. I’ve even heard it referred to as the best SF novel EVER written. If you think a bit, you can probably remember – if not the first line, then the first situation. But do you have even a CLUE what the last line is? Here it is:

“While we Chani, we who carry the name concubine – history will call us wives.”

Was it what you thought it would be? Is it profound? Does it make you want to read the book? Hmmm…I’ve seen better.

Let’s take a systematic look at the last lines of SF and F novels I’ve placed in three loose categories: Modern SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first in a series; Classic SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first of a series; Obscure SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first of a series. The question I’ll be looking to answer is: is there any conclusions we can draw about last sentences? Do women write better last sentences than men do? Did the classics have last sentences nailed – or do the obscure, one-off books have that honor? You can draw your own conclusions, but I’ll be sharing mine.

The two modern SF&F novels I’ve chosen are Connie Willis’ DOOMSDAY BOOK and J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS (those who would like to argue that “children’s books don’t count!” either didn’t notice the irony of saying that after reading DH or they haven’t chatted with my 77 year old father, who recently read the entire 7 book series and enjoyed it immensely). Here are the NOT famous last lines:

DB (SF): “‘I knew you’d come,’ she said, and the net opened.” (10 words)

HPATDH (F): “‘And quite honestly,” he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindoor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’” (41 words)

The two classic SF&F novels are H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS and J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Here are the NOT famous last lines:

WOTW (SF): “And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of smoke and mist, vanishing into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sightseers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the tim e when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day…and strangest of all is to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead.” (130 words)

TFOTR (F): “Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.” (28 words)

Lastly, two more-or-less obscure SF&F novels, the first DAWN, by Octavia Butler (no slight meant here – I absolutely love her prose, as near poetry as science can get…in my humble opinion); and SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. Below you will find their last lines:

D (SF): “She let Nikanj lead her into the dark forest and to one of the concealed dry exits.” (17 words)

SOTT (F/SF?): “‘It is no easy road.’” (5 words)

First I’ll point out the conclusions we CAN’T draw:

1) Fantasy is wordy. (Total last words: F = 86, SF = 157)

2) Science fiction uses more concise language.

3) Science fiction has more to say about the real world than fantasy does. (Review those last sentences if you doubt me.)

4) Fantasy is obviously made up, science fiction appears real.

Conclusions we might draw:

1) Fantasy uses more made up words than science fiction does, especially in naming places.

2) The line between SF&F is blurry – there’s no way to tell which endings belong to SF and which belong to F stories.

3) Men tend to wordiness while women to brevity – at least in last sentences, though Gene Wolfe beats all.

4) F offers more “take-away” value than SF.

Few of these last lines have anything meaningful to offer us. Two of them offer “take-away” lessons in these final sentences: “It is no easy road” and “I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime”. Both seem to be poster material while, “I knew you’d come she said, and the net opened” seems to lack for a sense of drama – if not for resolution. But it doesn’t “say anything” important. It’s not a line I’d scribble down in my journal or tag on the end of my emails.

Perhaps the question I should be asking is: do the final lines of any work really need to say anything? Aren’t they to be as invisible as periods, serving the same purpose – making everything neat and tidy but nothing else? That seems like a cop out. While you can’t make EVERY word in a novel meaningful, it seems that the first and last should bear some weight. Shouldn’t they be like bookends, neatly bracketing the elucidation of the theme with pithy reminders of what was most important?

I think they should and while all of the books above contributed something to the literature of the fantastic, none of them did so “in conclusion”. Some of them did in their opening lines and when you read them out loud, those familiar with the genre say, “Oh, isn’t that from…” But if you do the same thing with the last lines, people won’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

Because of this, I make a pledge to myself to finish my stories with lines worthy of the rest of the story – and certainly making a greater effort to support the theme as clearly and obviously as possible!
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