Science fiction is the literature of the future. So the best SF novels have endings that resolve the story and leave you feeling as though it continues after the last page. Here are our favorite last lines from SF books.
Last year, we gave you our favorite opening sentences from science fiction novels — but when we decided to do the same thing for endings, it turned out to be harder to find as many great ones, until we did a bit more digging. Why are great endings rarer than great beginnings?
In some ways, a great opening line is easier than a great last line. Everybody understands the need to draw the reader in, to craft a beginning that both seduces and informs the uncommitted. A first line gives you hints of what the story will be about, but also establishes a tone. But a last line has to wrap up the last bits of story, leave you with as much closure as the writer wants you to have, and give a feeling of a final grace note. And a lot of science fiction novels seem to end with a bang, or a last order of business, or a final thought — but a line that wraps things up, storywise, and leaves you with a sense that the story continues, past the horizon? That's a tad rarer.
So we spent hours sitting in various bookstores and our own book collections, rifling through the science fiction books to find the last lines that stay with you after you've put the book down. (I sat on the floor of a Border's for a couple hours. Shudder.) And here's what we came across, including a few fantasy ones as well. (Special thanks to Alexis Brown, who devoted tons of time to the search for the perfect final note.)
It goes without saying, there may be spoilers here. (Although perhaps not surprisingly, many of the best last lines are the ones which give the least away, because they do the least plot wrangling.) Also, we're cheating slightly, in some cases, and giving you the last paragraphs of novels, rather than just the last sentence. So here are our favorites:
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly:
"Stooping Down, Bruce picked one of the stubbled blue plants, then placed it in his right shoe, sliping it down out of sight. A present for my friends, he thought, and looked forward inside his mind, where no one could see, to Thanksgiving." It's a lovely surreal ending to a weird, unsettling book, and the blue plant that Bruce puts in his shoe is one of the seedlings of the mysterious drug Substance D. What's he going to do with it? I love the fact that in a novel about surveillance and fractured personas we have to be told, at the last, that nobody can see inside Bruce's mind.
Matthew De Abaitua, Red Men:
"She moved on to the question of what she would dream about, if she could decide on a good dream before going to sleep, and if the dream would obey her wishes and stay good all through the night." Another novel about fractured psyches and surveillance and people confronting their dark side, and it ends with a child's wish to control her own dreams — and we linger on how simple, and yet how difficult, that actually is.
Iain M. Banks, Against A Dark Background:
"A little later the monowheel vehicle spun backward out of the sewer outfall, pirrouetted vertically like a saluting mount, swung down across the greasy slope of stones at the base of the House's walls, dodged uncoordinated gunfire from a nearby tower, and accelerated quickly across the tide-flooding sands." Jesus. Read that aloud. It's a poem. And the imagery is so vivid, you can see the monowheel's dance, in your head. It's epic.
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere:
"And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway." It's interesting how many of these last lines are a literal departure, into darkness or into the void. Anyway, it's a really haunting last sentence.
William Barton, When Heaven Fell:
"Then the pipers piped and the drummers drummed and we all marched away into the sky." The main character is fighting in the alien army that conquered the human race, and they finally may have found an even more powerful enemy to go fight. I just love the ring of "marched away into the sky." Why isn't William Barton worshiped as a god, again?
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow:
"Unaware of his own movement, schooled by old habit, Vincenzo Giuliani rose and went to the windows, and stood looking, for how long he had no idea, across a grassy open courtyard to a complex panorama of medieval masonry and jumbled rock, formal garden and gnarled trees: a scene of great and beautiful antiquity." It's a wonderfully melancholy last sentence for a novel that ends with dreadful sadness and contemplation of almost unimaginable brutality. The universe is even older, and even harsher, than anything we have on Earth, and yet there's beauty as well.
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition:
"She kisses his sleeping back and falls asleep." Supposedly it's a major taboo to begin a novel with a character waking up, but in this case, ending a novel with falling asleep, especially after a kiss, just feels right.
Cory Doctorow, Little Brother:
"She kissed me then, and I kissed her back, and it was some time before we went out for that burrito." It's like the end of a Roger Moore James Bond movie, where he's finally in bed with the main girl, and we pan back slowly, giving them some privacy for their much-deserved nookie. Except Doctorow's version is funnier, and the burrito thing is a nice callback to the crucial burrito scene earlier in the book.
The Killing of Worlds (Succession, Book 2) by Scott Westerfeld:
"A kiss could change the world." Another kiss, and this one full of hope that the personal can have a transforming effect on the universe.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451:
Charles Stross, Saturn's Children:
"And none of them need fear being eaten by memories of Rhea." I just love the "eaten by memories" thing.
Brian Francis Slattery, Liberation:
"The Vibe doesn't say a word, for it's been done with him for years; but in his daughter's breathing, the calls of birds from the vines draped over branches, the thickening sky talking about the rain, the insects landing with rustles and whispers on their faces and hands, the ruts in the road that connect La Paz with his wife sleeping on the warping porch at the edge of the ravine, he thinks he hears the answer." One last rolling boulder of a sentence from this thundering novel, that leaves you wondering just what that answer might be.
Larry Niven and Edward M Lerner, Juggler of Worlds:
"In the skies over Atlantis, two suns were gone." And if that doesn't leave an image in your mind after you close the book, there's no helping you.
Frank Herbert, Dune:
"Think on it, Chani: the princess will have the name, yet she'll live as less than a concubine-never to know the moment of tenderness from the man to whom she's bound. While we, Chai, we who carry the name of the concubine-history will call us wives." Both Alexis and I picked this one out separately — it's just such a great chunk of intrigue. Although I was torn between this one and Children of Dune, which ends with another great quote: "One of us had to accept the agony, and he was always the strongest."
The Prefect, Alastair Reynolds:
"'Dreams,' Demikhov said. 'Beautiful human dreams.'" It's actually really hard to end a novel on a line of dialogue without feeling hokey or as though the interplay of dialogue and narration is just stopping, but Reynolds does it amazingly well.
Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time:
"But they never learned what it was that Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which had to do, for there was a gust of wind, and they were gone." It's just so fairytale-like, with the nice use of "for" and the gust of wind. And the mystery lingering after you close the back cover.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games:
"I take his hand, holding tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go." One of our favorite books of the past year, and it ends with the greatest test yet to begin. And "let go" has so many different meanings here, it's amazing.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx And Crake:
"Zero Hour, Snowman thinks. Time to go." You can see why this book is getting a sequel, since that's another ending that feels like a beginning.
Arthur C Clarke, Childhood's End:
"No one dared disturb him or interrupt his thoughts; and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling sun." Another one that both Alexis and I picked out separately, for its image of the sun dying away.
Roger Zelazny, The Guns of Avalon:
"We moved on through the cavern to the stairs where the dead men lay and went round and round above him in the dark." Another one which ends with a sense of motion and departure, with the narrator leaving into the dark.
Otherland Volume Three: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams:
"She learned on the balcony railing, waiting for the end of the world." There are some last lines that would also make great first lines, and this is definitely one of them.
H.G. Wells, War Of The Worlds:
"And strangest of all is it to hold my wife's hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead." It makes me want to go back and re-read that book right now.
George Orwell, 1984:
"He loved Big Brother." You can't get much sharper, darker, or bleaker than that final statement.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein:
"He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." Another last line that's a departure, and that features someone disappearing into the darkness, in a poetic, haunting way.
Vernor Vinge, Rainbow's End:
"Then he was down the elevator and back on the sunny plaza. And hovering immanent all around him were the worlds of art and science that humankind was busy building. What if I can have it all?" Of all the endings we looked through, this is the one that felt the most cinematic, for some reason. You can just feel the camera panning back to show the future being built and the big question hovering in the air.
Austin Grossman, Soon I Will Be Invincible:
"When your laboratory explodes, lacing your body with a super-charged elixir, what do you do? You don't just lie there. You crawl out of the rubble, hideously scarred, and swear vengeance on the world. You keep going. You keep trying to take over the world." More books should suddenly veer into second person, as if this is all of us going on this journey of vengeance together — it just amps up the awful power of that last evil oath.
Ken MacLeod, The Sky Road:
"Whatever the truth about the Deliverer, she will remain in my mind as she was shown on that statue, and all the other statues and murals, songs and stories: riding, at the head of her own swift cavalry, with a growing migration behind her and a decadent, vulnerable, defenceless and rich continent ahead; and, floating bravely above her head and above her army, the black flag on which nothing is written." The image of conquest, culminating with the blank, black flag, is just so rich and hangs around long after you put the book down.
Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue:
"One of the things he planned to do, before he left this fancy hell, was figure out how to get into the Interface and go for a swim with those whales in that beautiful blue water. Round and round and round, in a lovely endless loop." Another really sticky image, this one a bit surreal and full of color.
Top image is cover of The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod, art by Mark Salwowski. Additional reporting by Alexis Brown.