The Wayward Time-Traveler: De Stella Novella

It has been said that the novella is the perfect form for science fiction: enough space for an author to build worlds, and short enough to read in an afternoon. My habit, when getting the latest issue of a science fiction magazine, used to be to read the non-fiction first, then the short pieces, and maybe, if I get to them, the novellas.

Over the holiday vacation, I spent a lot of time catching up on stories that I missed earlier this year. And also reading some older stories in various volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best anthologies. Since I was on vacation and had more time, I felt expansive and decided to read a novella or two. That turned into three, then four. And before I knew it, I’d torn through seven novellas. And discovered that they can be one of the most powerful forms of “short” fiction out there.

A good short story, for me, captures a moment in time which implies everything that came before and everything that will come after. That said, it is very difficult to really get to know a character in a 4,000 or even a 6,000 word story, although there are writers out there who can achieve this. There is a little more room for this in novelettes. But it is in a novella that Real magic seems to happen. Novellas provide enough room for an author to build worlds and characters–and enough room for readers to fall in love with them. For me, therefore, the impact of a novella is very different from the impact of a short story.

Given this realization, I thought I’d list seven stellar novellas that I feel are particularly good examples of the form when it is functioning at its highest levels. And my list includes novellas from as far back as 1938 and as recent as an issue date of February 2012, which hopefully gives the list good historic breadth.

  1. “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart. (Astounding, August 1938). Otherwise known as John W. Campbell, Jr. This story of an alien who can take on other forms  was for a long time considered the greatest science fiction story every written by many people, among them, Isaac Asimov. It’s less well-known today, although the movies that have been based upon it–The Thing–are still pretty popular. Campbell writing as Stuart was a very different Campbell. The stories were mood pieces and the emotional content of the story was higher. A novella was the perfect length for pulling this off.
  2. “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, November-December 1945). Asimov’s FOUNDATION series was originally a bunch of short stories, novelettes and novellas. I think my favorite of these, was the 2-part novella, “The Mule.” It was, in my opinion, the first time in the series where we follow a set of characters for an extended period of time, where Asimov does a good job of presenting a “villain” as sympathetically as he does the heroes of the story. In the climatic scene of the story, in the bowels of the great library, there is real agony when the identity of the Mule is suddenly and dramatically revealed. I don’t think this could have been achieved at shorter lengths.
  3. “Beggars In Spain” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, April 1991). I came to Nancy Kress’s wonderful novella late in the game, reading it for the first time only a few years ago, but I was blown away by it. In concept, it’s a simple idea: a mutation which allows some children to live without the need for sleep. But the execution is outstanding and it made for one of the most enjoyable reads in recent memory.
  4. Marrow” by Robert Reed (Science Fiction Age, July 1997). What on the outside appears to be a Big Dumb Object story about a massive generation starship turns out to be so much more on the inside, literally and figuratively. I recall reading this novella in a single sitting, being unable to put it down, tuning out the world around me, and for a few hours, living on that starship.
  5. Recovering Apollo 8″ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s, February 2007). I’m not a big fan of alternate histories, but anything about the Apollo program catches my interest and this excellent novella is about what could have happened if that famous Apollo 8 mission to the moon around Christmas 1968 had gone horribly wrong. It is a story of obsession and curiosity and passion that could only be crammed into something with a little more room than a short story or novelette.
  6. The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s, October/November 2011). This is a story that grew on me, just as the bridge being built in the story grew across the mist. It is the story of building relationships as complicated as any feat of civil engineering. It is a quiet, understated story that takes you by surprise and makes you want to cheer for the dreamers of big dreams.
  7. Murder Born” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, February 2012). What if executing murderer’s instantly brought their victims back to life? That is the premise that underlies this stunning novella by Robert Reed (his second novella on my list!) and which made for a remarkable story of a father desperately looking for closure in the murder of his daughter. One of the best stories of any kind that I’ve read in a long time.

I will likely be adding Anne McCaffrey‘s “Weyr Search” to the list. Originally published in Analog, October 1967, the story was recently reprinted in the January 2012 e-book edition of Lightspeed. I’d never read it before and I am now about halfway through it and really enjoying it.

I imagine my habits will continue to change with changing moods, but for now, when the next issue of Analog or Asimov’s or F&SF or other science fiction outlet for novellas arrives, you can bet I’ll be looking closely at any novellas contained within.

3 thoughts on “The Wayward Time-Traveler: De Stella Novella”

  1. Hi Jamie.

    I do think that novellas are an excellent length for a lot of science fiction work. One problem with novellas, and this is something anthologists for best of the year anthologies like Jonathan Strahan have pointed out, is that its hard to put them into book form. A few novellas kill the size of a Best of the Year anthology

    Golden Reflections consisted of Mask of the Sun by Fred Saberhagen, and stories set in that world by other authors, all of novella length.

    I would love to see more collections of novellas. Perhaps ebooks will make this more possible.

  2. Paul, THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME put out quite a few novellas in collected form years ago. As, for that matter, does Gardner Dozois in his YEAR’S BEST anthologies. Indeed, he seems to lean toward novellas more than anything else, it seems to me, looking over the contents of the last 10 years or so worth of those volumes. The size of those volumes doesn’t bother me. It makes me smile.

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