John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Best Endings in Science Fiction/Fantasy

John Ottinger III of Grasping for the Wind has asked several authors for their favorite SF endings. By no coincidence, John De Nardo over at SfSignal asked about both the best and the worst endings.

Well, clearly there is a trend. Since my name is John, I also must answer the question.

My favorite endings in books come from a list a little different from what the worthies named above listed. This could be due to age, or taste, or some other factor. Maybe I have a penchant for surprise endings.

At the risk of seeming spoileriffic, allow me to list (in no particular order. I am using a count-down because it seems dramatic.)

10. WEAPON MAKERS by A.E. Van Vogt
This is the race that will rule the Sevagram.

9. THE WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E. Van Vogt
The face was his own.

8. DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by H.P. Lovecraft
Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room. Birds sang in hidden gardens and the perfume of trellised vines came wistful from arbours his grandfather had reared. Beauty and light glowed from classic mantel and carven cornice and walls grotesquely figured, while a sleek black cat rose yawning from hearthside sleep that his master's start and shriek had disturbed.

And vast infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber and the enchanted wood and the garden lands and the Cerenarian Sea and the twilight reaches of Inquanok, the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep strode brooding into the onyx castle atop unknown Kadath in the cold waste, and taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvellous sunset city.

7. DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer:
And now it was time for that act of will by the over-intellect which would dissolve it back into the primordial energy quanta from which it had sprung. But first, an instant before, a final human gesture—to the future that would be and the past that would not.

To the infinite emptiness I/we sent out one last pulse: 'Goodby.'
6. LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkein:
And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.

5. THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle
"Unicorns are in the world again. No sorrow will live in me as long as that joy - save one, and I thank you for that part too. Farewell, good magician. I will try to go home."

4. VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay:
"Yes," said Nightspore in a slow voice, without surprise. "But what is your name on Earth?"
"It is pain."
"That, too, I must have known."
He was silent for a few minutes; then he stepped quietly onto the raft. Krag pushed off, and they proceeded into the darkness.

3. HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL by Robert Heinlein
I threw it in his face.

2. RETURN TO THE WHORL by Gene Wolfe
The faint, blinking star that old people call the Whorl is fainter than ever. I went outside to look at it a moment ago, and although I could make it out with a telescope, it is no longer visible to my naked eyes.

They are in it, I hope, he and his eerie young woman Nettle, the old sybil, and their bird, on course upon a greater sea to strange new islands. Good fishing! Good fishing! Good fishing! Good fishing!

And the particular favorite ending of mine, hailing the very earliest days of the scientific romance genre.

1. WAR O F THE WORLDS by HG Wells

Allow me to quote at length:

And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—DEAD!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things— taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance —our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

Let me say a word in the defense of the conclusion of WAR OF THE WORLDS, which other critics have mocked.

This is the very model and exemplar of what a science fiction ending should be. Whether it makes a satisfying ending to a thriller, or a war-story, or a drama, or a romance, I leave to others better qualified to decide. But science fiction has unique requirements shared by no other genre, not even fantasy or horror. Not only must a science fiction story, to be properly science fiction, invent a fictional but plausible world, it must rest for its plausibility on the verisimilitude of science, a speculation, no matter how far fetched, that is part of the scientific world view. This means the dramatic climax, to be satisfying as science fiction, must be a logical yet unexpected application of some scientific principle advanced earlier in the plot.

In this case, the scientific principle was Darwinism, which was new and fresh when Wells wrote. Darwinian science did not say that evolution might produce creatures superior to man through natural selection on older worlds than ours--but this is a valid scientific speculation which holds a tinge of awe in it. For what if it were so? If it were so, then mankind is not necessarily the fittest to survive. As in Wells' romance, we might be little more than food-animals for these beings. We could not prevail no matter our valor.

But the surprise ending is that Darwin's Natural Selection is a neutral and heartless judge, and 'fitness to survive' does not mean superiority either of intellect, or technology or anything else humans call superior. This is a point Wells grasped (which many writers who romanticize Darwin, such as Hegel and Nietzsche, do not grasp). Humans in this book prevail because we are more fit to survive on Earth, since we have evolved a disease resistance here, which the superior Martians, having long ago wiped all all germs and morbid bacteria on their globe, had no reason to think to be a threat.

Wells here draws out not one, but two surprising and imaginative speculations from Darwin's work, and does it expertly enough that it is one of the standard stereotyped tropes, perhaps the main and most well known trope, of the science fiction genre. The first thing a non-SF reader thinks about when he thinks of sci-fi is of big-headed alien invaders with ray guns--that is to say, the speculation that evolution could produce a superior.

HG Wells here produces the standard science fiction ending against which all science fiction endings -- in so far as they are scientifictional as opposed to merely dramatic or entertaining -- should be judged. It is the footprint of the king that decides the measure of the foot in the kingdom.
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  • Dr Strange!

    Marvel’s DR STRANGE was not only the first comic I ever read as a teen, but it has remained my favorite from that day to this. So it is with…

  • Peace on Mars, Good Will Toward Puppies

    Mr. George RR Martin expresses hope that the coming Hugo season will not be characterized by rancor: So in the spirit of the season, I am going to…

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