It is tempting to believe that the more ornate or acrobatic a sentence, the more significant its accomplishment, but I want to make the case for a simple eight-word George R. R. Martin sentence, one that assumes the plainest possible arrangement and can be absorbed almost instantaneously:
It was raining sandkings and pieces of sandkings.
It is a sentence whose virtues, as I see them, do not depend on the narrative in which it’s embedded, so I’ll tell you only that “Sandkings” is a science fiction story with notes of macabre horror, involving Simon Kress, a supremely conscienceless man who becomes a surrogate God to several colonies of insect-like warriors, and what happens when he and his subjects switch places. It is perhaps Martin’s most widely read work of short fiction and, I would argue, his finest (though the linked stories in Tuf Voyaging challenge it for the trophy and, together, make for his most entertaining book).
It can be illuminating, I’ve found, to think of an individual sentence, divorced from its context, as an emblem for the mind of its author—how clearly or imaginatively he observes the world and what announces itself to his thoughts or his senses. “It was raining sandkings and pieces of sandkings” is artful without sounding arty, deliberate without sounding finicky. It reveals an author whose sonics exist above all else to support the clarity of his storytelling. Its first component, “It was raining,” is humble but unassailable; its second, “sandkings,” was coined by Martin for this one story, but it’s constructed of two common English words that seem at once to attract and repel each other—there’s “sand,” there’s “kings,” and there’s some third, less explicable force that has fused them together—as a result of which it possesses an air of both the strange and the ordinary; its final component, “and pieces of sandkings,” exhibits another combination of the strange and the ordinary, but that combination makes what would otherwise be the stark plainness of its first noun, “pieces,” take on its own mild tint of the unfamiliar.
It operates by equilibrium, compression, and the kind of repetition that Hemingway might have deployed if he had written in a different idiom—the kind, that is, that suggests not carelessness but attentiveness. It proceeds along its little eight-word path with no intervening punctuation, as if all at once, yet also seems to tip at the midpoint, rebalancing its weight the way a seesaw does, and though some of its words are expected and some are not—some alien and some not—each one colors the others with its meanings, so that, whether real or irreal, they all seem to exist on the same verbal plane. It does not display the kind of consecution that Gordon Lish pressed on his students—or, at least, does not dazzle us with such a display—but its imagery appeals to the senses, its sound to the ear, and its construction to the mind. It is lucid. It is discriminating. It demonstrates that even a sentence beginning blandly with “it” can possess both oddity and perfection.