I love this novel, I think its one of Robert A Heinlein’s finest offerings. I have wrote about it in great depth in the past, but were only here to talk about the first line today.
“Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.”
Once upon a time is a classic opening for many a good fairy-tale. It is the author telling the audience explicitly that he does not for a moment think that the events outlined will ever become real. This is a science fiction book but also a fairy-tale in the sense that it is to be impossible and fantastical, not to be taken as a literal offering in the same way that the more dry science fiction of the time was presented.
Most writers of this time wanted to be taken as science-fact, as a vision of something true and honest. In this work we are being told from the first line that this is a fairy-tale and not at all like other things.
As with all fairy-tales this may instead offer us a lesson about life or a warning for a generation. Fairy-tales are teacher for children.
We go into this book not blind but knowing that it’s science fiction. I assume most readers know the genre of the book they are about to read. In this case it’s set in the future and even so we are told that its set “when the world was young” which makes the traditional opening of a children’s tale suddenly mean even more, the child in this case is Earth, as a Human of Earth, the readers is the child who must listen to the fairly tale and gleam is meaning.
“There was a Martian” yes, the lead, the focus and the drama of this story is the Martian. We know know this is a story of a Martian and now we are introduced to him, he is front loaded. No secret and no reveal, the Martian is here on page one, line one.
“…named Smith” Literally a name that is as mundane an common as a name can be. This is a grounded Human name. This Martian is one of us. He is no more alien than you or I. Though he is a Martian. What could his mean?
He is a Martian we have been told this explicitly. But he is also simply ‘Smith’. How can he be a mundane man like we know, but also be a Martian?
This sets up the message of this implied fairy tale. What is it to be a human, what is it to be a martian and are the two so different?
I am not surprised that a book about language, soul and belonging starts off with such a line, a line that is nothing at first but the more it is considered the more it unravels.
The world really is still young.