Found last year in a used bookstore, “The Ragged Astronauts” caught my attention because its author, the Irish writer Bob Shaw, was responsible for the seminal sf short story Light of Other Days (which you can read here).
I had never read any of Shaw’s novels, and the cover of “The Ragged Astronauts” grabbed me — a gothic-styled hot air balloon, high in the atmosphere, being attacked by creatures whose images are sculpted on the four corners of the balloon’s capsule. What could this have to do with astronauts?
Little, it turns out. This is a steampunk-ish novel featuring two planets that are so close to one another, travel between the two is possible by balloon. Problem is, those damn creatures:
The blurb: “Land and Overland – twin worlds a few thousand miles apart. On Land, humanity faces a threat to its very survival – an airborne species, the ptertha, has declared war on humankind, and is actively hunting for victims. The only hope lies in migration. Through space to Overland. By balloon. The Ragged Astronauts – first volume in an epic adventure filled with memorable characters, intense action, engaging notions, exotic locales.”
I still have not read the entire novel, and I am not likely to in light of its tepid reviews on Goodreads and a scathing review at publication by a fellow author (“…preserve your next-door and downstairs neighbors from the sound of a book walloping off the wall and crashing to the floor. Read something else” – ouch!)
But even dreck can have merits, and “The Ragged Astronauts” is, at the very least, an example of the importance of the first chapter, and how a writer can infuse that first chapter with a huge array of essential elements: character, tension, worldbuilding, mystery, all in a few short pages.
So let’s breakdown the first chapter of “The Ragged Astronauts” (hereafter referred to as simply, Ragged).
The First Paragraph
We all know that beyond the cover, nothing is more important than the opening paragraph. Here is Ragged’s opening:
It had become obvious to Toller Maraquine and some others watching on the ground that the airship was heading into danger, but — incredibly — its captain appeared not to notice.
This is not a great opening, by any means; “it had become” is far too passive for my taste. But it accomplishes what it needs to. It puts you immediately into a single moment in which something is happening, and that something involves a ship in danger. You know who the point-of-view character is, and you know where he is in relation to the imminent danger (not on the ship, but watching from afar). This character is not only concerned about the fate of the airship, we also sense he is frustrated with the lack of actions by its captain. That phrase –‘its captain appeared not to notice’ — lays the ground work for what will shortly follow — animosity between our main character and the hapless captain. In addition, there’s the curious use of the word ‘some’ to describe those watching on the ground — making clear that others on the ground are not watching — and this, too, is a source of frustration. Toller, it seems, wants to holler.
So in fewer than 30 words, the author places the reader into a clear setting, one of immediacy and danger, conveys a sense of the main character, and foreshadows at least two of the conflicts to come. It may not be art, but it is economical and effective writing.
Having (hopefully) hooked prospective readers with that opening sentence, Shaw’s next task to is paint a vivid picture of the odd setting: two planets that exist within a few thousand miles of each other. He devotes the next three paragraphs to such descriptions. But because this continues to be told from Toller’s point of view, Shaw faces a common authorial dilemma: how to describe a world that is unusual to the reader, but routine to the POV character. Here’s what he does:
The background was a familiar one to anybody who lived in the those longitudes of Land — flawless indigo sea, a sky of pale blue feathered with white, and the misty vastness of the sister world, Overland, hanging motionless near the zenith, its disk crossed again and again by swathes of cloud.
Shaw solves the dillema by essentially stepping away from Toller’s perspective with the phrase “The background was a familiar one to anybody who lived in the those longitudes…” In doing so, he acknowledges that Toller himself might not find the background remarkable, but he will describe it anyway for the readers, because they will find it so. He pulls the POV camera back from Toller’s personal perspective to a larger, more omniscient one.
Two more paragraphs of description follow, further describing the atmosphere between the two planets as if it were a sea. This is important worldbuilding – the reader needs to understand the physical relationship between the two adjacent planets.
Back to the Action
But Shaw is astute enough not to pile on; too much description would become a ponderous info-dump. He needs to get back to the crisis at hand, the airship that is in danger. So then:
Toller took from his pocket the stubby telescope he had carried since childhood and used it to scan the cloud layers.
This sentence begins the fifth paragraph, still on the first page. It returns us to Toller, it describes an action after three paragraphs of description, and it conveys the main character’s sense of urgency: he needs to get a closer look at what the ship is doing.
Also, careful readers will take note of the phrase, “he had carried since childhood.” This is economical foreshadowing; a hint that his childhood will play a role in the story. Moreover, it raises a question: why would Toller have carried the device into adulthood? A slight layer of mystery is added in those five words.
Toller peers into the telescope and the tension is heightened:
Toller’s sense of alarm grew more intense. The fact that he had been able to spot some ptertha so quickly meant that the entire cloud must be heavily seeded with them, invisibly bearing hundreds of the creatures towards the airship.
Here, Shaw is keeping the reader fully in Toller’s point of view, so that the first reference to the ptertha is unexplained. All we know is what we can discern from the rest of the sentence:
- Ptertha is plural, since the next reference is to ‘them.’
- Ptertha are airborne
- Ptertha are creatures
- And, most likely given the tone of the sentence, ptertha pose a danger to the ship.
Shaw could have pulled the POV camera back and taken time to fully explain the ptertha, as he did when described the skyline. A less seasoned writer might have done so, out of worry that readers would be confused. Shaw is not worried. He understands that by barely hinting at the nature of the ptertha, readers will be curious and want to read on. This, then, is an example of how firm control of point of view is not only essential for believability (since Toller already knows the ptertha, he wouldn’t think in great detail about their nature) but a tool to hook readers.
Coming up, the first interaction between the characters.