The scene is a busy sidewalk, early morning in the city. Everyone's in a hurry, except the Sweeper of Dreams, who holds his broom off the ground, observing dourly. First we hear from five characters about their dreams, either sequentially or overlapping.
I still remember
There was a snail
It ate up all the Mondays in the calendar
So school could never start
I still remember
It was Abigail
Her eyebrow fell off and ran away and I caught it
And I tried to give it back
I still remember
I blew a bubble and it held him and the bomb splashed
But he was mad
I still remember
I was in jail
And all the men I sent there sawed a hole in the wall
And told me to flee
I still remember
She gave me a fail
I was back in school and I couldn't find my paper
And my voice kept breaking
Now the Sweeper falls into step behind the Judge.
I crawled out through the hole
They closed it behind me
I escaped into the woods
There were nuns there
They told me--
The Sweeper sweeps the ground, once.
There were nuns!
They told me--
The Sweeper sweeps again.
A final sweep.
I always forget.
The Judge exits. The Sweeper falls in step behind the Veteran.
Dale said he was supposed to die
He said I'd disobeyed orders
He popped the bubble with a roaring sound
His arm went through and it was dead
And I was in the bathtub screaming
So then I--
A dead arm in my bathtub so I had to--
I can't remember.
Maybe I'll have that dream again.
The Veteran exits. The Sweeper falls in step behind the Senior.
Mrs. Carter said I'd flunked
Because I couldn't find my paper
On the sinking of the Lusitania
I told her I had too many wrinkles to stay in 4th grade another year
So she bit them off
Her teeth were so sharp that--
My face was--
Mrs. Carter was there and she--
The Senior exits. The Sweeper turns, bumps into the Lover, and stumbles. The Lover hurries on, oblivious. The Sweeper recovers, scowling, and falls in step behind the Schoolboy.
There were kingdoms and castles
Angels and owls
I ran with the deer
It was all so wonderful
Oh, if only I could remember!
The Schoolboy exits. The Sweeper falls in step behind the Lover, smiling nastily.
I knew if I gave Abigail back her eyebrow
She would want me
So I took off my shirt
But she hadn't put it back on her face
She tore out her hair
The rest of her hair
And it was worms
The Sweeper nods and exits.
The worms crawled into my chest
Because I had no shirt
And Abigail laughed the way dolphins laugh
Because she had no hair so she was someone new
But I had worms in my heart
And I can still feel them
Why are they still there?
He stops walking and scratches madly at his chest.
They're in my heart
Eating their way out
She's shrieking in my ears
Why can I still hear her?
He claps his hands over his ears, and tries to scratch his chest with his elbows.
Why don't I forget?
When will it all
This one only took 23 hours for someone on the xkcd forums to solve.
Change the book ID and affiliate link to your own (or just remove the tag, since Amazon doesn't pay affiliate money for kindle sales right now anyway), then paste it into a page all on its own. Links to that page will then be automatically redirected to the right place.
Farmer Barton shooed Lee away from Marilyn, affection in his eyes. He matched words to the action, just to pretend that he wasn't alone.
"Now, Lee, I've told you before. You can't eat the chicken. I'll need the eggs on this trip, and I need her alive to barter with when we get to Woden. Go hunt yourself down some field-mice."
The fox cocked its head, appraising Barton for a moment, then obediently moved off the side of the trail, shadowing the farmer and his hen as they walked. An hour later, when Barton stopped at the bank of the river, Lee returned, her mouth spotted with blood. Barton had put down his heavy bag of feed and was frowning at the water.
There was no sign of the bridge. He wondered if he'd come to the wrong place, but no, he'd followed the trail. The recent disasters, it seemed, had torn the bridge down, and the river had erased all evidence that it had ever been.
He couldn't go back. There was nothing left of his home. And to leave the trail, to strike out into unknown regions in this chaotic time, was to court death. The frontier was everywhere now.
Then he spotted it! A tiny canoe, lodged in the bank. Some traveler, more skilled than himself, must have carved it, after the bridge was gone but before Barton arrived. Barton hurried over to inspect it, but turned back as he heard an ominous tearing. Marilyn had gotten into her feed. She'd torn open the bag, and was gobbling it down as though she thought she'd never get another chance. Barton yelled--that feed had to last her many more days yet!--but it was Lee who chased the chicken off, nearly catching her. Barton scooped Marilyn up before the fox could get at her, or she at the feed.
The farmer sighed, hoisted the feed-bag, tear-side up so it wouldn't spill, and started again toward the canoe, then froze. The cold logic of the situation had arrived. The canoe was only big enough for him and one other--the fox, the hen, or the feed.
He'd have to take three trips, with two returns, but no matter what order he did it in, he'd have to leave either the fox and the hen, or the hen and the feed, alone together at some point. If he left the fox and the hen behind, most likely that would be the end of Marilyn before Barton could return. If he took the fox first, the hen would be left behind with the feed. She'd eat too much of it, maybe all of it, which would also mean her death soon enough on this long journey. And Marilyn couldn't die. Lee was a beloved pet, but Marilyn was his last valuable possession; without her, Barton himself was most likely lost.
There was no choice. The cold equations of mass and volume, the harshness of the place and time, dictated everything. Barton seized the fox, relying on her tameness, her trust in him, and dashed her head against a rock on the bank. He buried her shallowly, with a swift economy. Then he hoisted the feed into the canoe, and began the first of two trips across the river. He hid his tears. Not because there was anyone watching; just so he could pretend that he wasn't alone.
The unsolvable problem is a powerful tool in fiction. At minimum, you get pathos from it. You can use it to set up a wrenching choice, wherein our insight into the character is deepened by what she decides to sacrifice, or the character evolves from the trial.
Awkwardly, the reader is typically a human, a strange creature who, when faced with an unsolvable problem, often solves it. This tends to undermine the pathos, distract from the actual plot, and--worst of all--means that the reader has beaten the author. Authors are also typically humans, and they hate losing. They'll often end up solving the problem themselves, which can lead to an incongruously happy ending that sabotages the emotional impact. This too is annoying to the reader.
In realistic fiction, the rules are generally well-defined enough that a reader will accept that a problem that appears to be insoluble truly is. But in speculative fiction, where the rules are always poorly defined compared to realistic, this awkwardness shows up more often than it doesn't. Any time an episode of Doctor Who has an unhappy ending, online fora will instantly fill with fans indignantly explaining that this tragedy could have been avoided; and the hero, a super-smart alien, should have seen the loophole. You can't rule out every single loophole in dialogue, because in speculative fiction anything is possible, and with enough viewers, anything will seem plausible to someone. The only way I know of that a speculative fiction author can create a true no-win scenario is to declare that The Very Laws of the Universe Demand That This Must Be, and You Can't Fight Fate.
As a reader, what I hate is when I can see a solution that clearly didn't occur to the author, and that still involves pathos, drama, character development, et. cetera. Of course, I need to complain about this at length whenever it happens, because it means that I've beaten the author, at least in my own mind. Ask me some time how His Dark Materials should have ended (everyone has a different idea, but mine is the best one). But in this space I'll restrain myself to one general pattern that needs to go away. I've seen at least two stories, The Matrix Reloaded and the short story Endosymbiont, that use it blatantly. Several more that do similar things, sometimes with hand-waving excuses. It's this: a person who is also a computer program is faced with two doors. Go through one, and continue living as before: a true person, though a digital one. Go through the other, and become the contemporary kind of computer program: useful, but no longer truly a person. They're being asked to heroically sacrifice their independent existence for the good of the world. The fatal flaw with this idea is that programs can be copied. Go through both doors. It's still a sacrifice, because half of you experiences dying, or unlife, or enslavement, or something. But it's better than going through just one.
Q: Is there really such a thing as progress? Can science make us happier?
Q: If you were immortal, wouldn't you eventually get bored?
Interloper, abandon this strange prank,
which makes cruel use of the blindness of my grief,
and the good heart of my good friend Horatio.
Or else, if thou hast true title to this belov'd form,
What drawing did I present to Hamlet King,
when six years old and scarce out of my sling?
'twas a unicorn clad all in mail.
Father, I will.
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Thou art in torment?!
Ay, as are all who die unshriven.
Like every Dane this is what I've been taught.
Yet I did figure such caprice ill-suited to almighty God.
For all who suffer unlook'd for deaths, unattended by God's chosen priests,
to be then punish'd for the ill-ordering of the world...
'twas not the world that killed me, nor accident of any kind.
If thou didst ever thy dear father love,
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
My time grows ever shorter. Wilt thou hear the tale?
My love for you does call me to avenge your death,
but greater crimes have I heard told this night.
If all those murdered go to Hell, and others as well,
who would have confess'd had they the time,
If people who are, in balance, good, suffer grisly
at the hands of God, then I defy God's plan.
Good Ghost, as one who dwells beyond the veil,
you know things that we mortals scarce conceive.
Tell me: is there some philter or device,
outside nature's ken but not outside her means,
by which death itself may be escap'd?
You seek to evade Hell?
I seek to deny Hell to everyone!
and Heaven too, for I suspect the Heaven of our mad God
might be a paltry thing, next to the Heaven I will make of Earth,
when I am its immortal king.
I care not for these things.
Death and hell have stripp'd away all of my desires,
save for revenge upon my murderer.
Thou shalt not be avenged, save that thou swear:
an I slay thine killer, so wilt thou vouchsafe to me the means
by which I might slay death.
He who killed you will join you in the Pit,
and then that's it. No further swelling of Hell's ranks will I permit.
Done. When my brother is slain, he who poured the poison in my ear,
then will I pour in yours the precious truth:
the making of the Philosopher's Stone. With this Stone, thou may'st procure
a philter to render any man immune to death, and more transmute
base metal to gold, to fund the provision of this philter to all mankind.
Truly there is nothing beyond the dreaming of philosophy.
The man whom I must kill--my uncle the king?!
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts--
Indeed, he has such gifts I near despair,
of killing him and yet succeeding to his throne.
'twill be an awesome fight for awesome stakes.
Hast thou advice?
A cock crows. Exit Ghost.
My parents have been talking for years about putting together a collection of great first lines: the real life story of meeting your soulmate and the first thing you said. I recently had the idea of turning it into a website, so that we could collect them from all over the world.
I've just published the site at www.heyweiner.com. We've already got some great stories, and we'd love to have yours too!
Thanks and love,
(Explanation of the title)