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Publisher: Bluejack

September, 2009 : Review:

Long Live the Novella

Four PS Publishing Novellas

Over the past few decades science fiction books have become longer. One look at my bookshelf confirms this. Many Golden Age SF novels would now barely make it out of the novella category whereas the latest releases are massive tomes. A quick skim of the upcoming SF releases on Amazon resulted in a list of novels only (no anthologies or collections featured in their suggestion list) with an average page count in excess of 450 pages, and no book under 400 pages in length.

Now there are many long SF novels that are simply brilliant. Frank Herbert's Dune will top many people's best-SF-novels-of-all-time lists (it does mine) and it has in excess of 600 pages. Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye approaches this length—as do Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction and Dan Simmons' Hyperion.

But against this there are many great shorter works. Richard Matheson's classic SF vampire story I Am Legend barely makes it past 150. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine doesn't make it even this far and Michael Moorcock's brilliant Behold the Man, one of the most thought-provoking SF books of all, has a mere one hundred and twenty-eight pages (in my edition—it may vary).

Increasingly in recent years, mainstream SF seems dominated by length. A book has to have an appreciable thickness, perhaps as an attempt to make the purchaser feel as though the book has more value. All too often, though, I feel books are padded; the stories stretched beyond their best length. As I consider the novella the perfect form for science fiction, this is a worry for me.

Fortunately SF benefits from some great small press publishers, many of which specialise in short story collections and stand-alone novella releases. One such publisher is UK-based PS Publishing. Over the past decade PS Publishing has been releasing science fiction, fantasy, and horror novellas (as well as novels, short story collections, and a magazine) by some of the genres' best authors.

One look through their catalogue sees Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, Stephen Baxter, Steven Erikson, and Ramsey Campbell vying for shelf space—as well as many great writers that should be household names if only the world was a little fairer. (Trust me—anyone who likes surreally odd, supernatural flavoured, well-written fiction in the vein of Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges should read Zoran Živković.)

Of PS Publishing's recent novella releases, Uncle River's Camp Desolation and the Eschatology of Salt is perhaps the most bleak1. Set in Earth's near future after the downturn has proven long-term, it describes the life, actions and death of one young woman. Shandra Stuart was a terrorist. She attempted to explode a nuclear device in the Panama Canal. Or at least that's how she's been portrayed.

This book has an unusual format. All of the action has taken place. Within a few pages you know that the lead character is dead and how she died. That event, in some ways, is inconsequential.

The book is presented almost as a university history lecture. It has the steady, measured tone you would expect from a lecturer attempting to overcome his students' biases following the political spin and sensational journalism that would have followed such a violent act.

We are taken step by step, with some tangential diversions along the way, through the life of Shandra Stuart—from her childhood in the refugee camp, the young woman who escaped her trailer-park-hell life to university and then to her decision to explode a nuclear device.

As a novella, this is definitely the right length. A short story would not have allowed Uncle River the space to fully flesh out his fictional argument but over a novel's length its cold, detached tone would have ultimately proven a turn-off. He's judged this perfectly and produced a compelling, if a little odd, novella.

In contrast, Stephen Baxter's Starfall is a classic space opera tale, having many similarities to the fiction of writers like Isaac Asimov and E. E. "Doc" Smith. Although not having faster-than-light spacecraft, mankind has left Earth, establishing colonies on a number of planets orbiting nearby stars—ones close enough that the journey can be made in a single lifetime.

However, its grip on these colonies is slipping and the colonists are planning an attack on mankind's home world.

This book's great strength is due to its adherence to scientific accuracy. A series of events taking place over distances as great as these, without superluminal travel, is going to be slow and bitty. To enhance this, Baxter has broken his narrative into a series of short chapters, separated by months or years. This is a plot long in the telling, even if one short on words. Each scene advances the story succinctly, without fuss or unnecessary background detail, before jumping forward to the next scene.

One side-effect of this structure is that it dramatically increases the feeling of inevitability. It might seem illogical—surely lengthening the time between cause and effect could only make it more possible to avoid the latter—but Stephen Baxter obviously didn't think so and, after reading this, you cannot help but agree with him. It's all well and good having three years advance notice of an event, but if communication over interstellar distances is slow and ponderous—and altering the decisions of a vast military even more so, even when all parties are in close proximity, preventative measures are not always taken in time.

In the blurb, this is listed as a story in the author's Xeelee sequence. It is, but this should not serve as a deterrent to anyone who hasn't read any of these previous stories. The events of this book occur before the main Xeelee sequence and, were it not for a reference at the end, you would not even notice.

This is another story that suits the novella, but for a different reason. Here the reason is plot, not style. Stretch this basic concept to a novel length and it would feel thin on substance. This is not saying it would become a dull story, but it could only have reached this length by adding in wallpaper. With Starfall Baxter has shown that less can truly be more.

Alex Irvine's Mystery Hill is an off-the-wall, aliens-on-earth novella in the style of Paul di Filippo or Robert Sheckley. (For those who've not read either of these authors, another comparison could be made to the more surreal, gonzo episodes of the X-Filesthe quirky standalone episodes, not the black oil, alien conspiracy stuff.)

Ken Kassarjian has spent the past three decades running Mystery Hill, a tourist attraction where pendulums do not hang vertical and water seems to flow uphill. It's not exactly what you would call a classy place—it has a mini-golf course. It is also a place that attracts weirdos—alien chasers, conspiracy theorists and folks who believe pretty much any old rubbish.

When physics professor Fara Oussemitski arrives with a van-load of measuring devices intent on finding out what makes Mystery Hill special, he is initially unsure of whether to dismiss her as another of the oddball crowd or to trust her.

What makes stories like this work is if the main characters are written seriously. Its okay if they have slight oddities—these can help them round out—but make them too kooky and its becomes farcical. Irvine has avoided this possible pitfall well, and done so partly by making the two main supporting characters totally whacked out. Little Boozy Boswell is a local drunk who's discovered a new kind of high—one that seems very extraterrestrial in nature; and Old Vera of the Forked Tongue not only believes in reptilian life forms hidden amongst us, she believes she is one. These two make Ken and Fara seem totally normal.

This is another perfect novella. It's too out-there to make it to novel length and lacks the type of pay-off ending you would want for making the reading commitment to the longer length. But it's enchanting, and likely to make you search out other stories by Alex Irvine.

Joel Lane's "The Witnesses are Gone" is perhaps the most mundane but most surreal of the four. It's not true science fiction, nor is it really fantasy or horror, although it has elements in common with all three. (Horror is perhaps the best fit.)

Martin Swann, our first person narrator, has bought himself a new house in an industrial suburb of Birmingham (the English one). While cleaning out his garden shed he discovers a videotape left by the house's previous occupant. He plays the tape, finding a black-and-white French movie by a director called Jean Rien.

Even though Swann doesn't find the film to his taste he becomes obsessed by it and by its director. He travels to London to find out more about Rien and his other films, but the information he finds is scant and suggests a deliberate attempt being made to hide these films. Unable to control himself, he surrenders everything in his pursuit of Rien's other films, travelling to Scotland, France and ultimately Mexico following an ever-elusive trail.

This is a fairly self-destructive kind of story with heavily overlaid trappings of paranoia. It's also filled to the brim with decay. Swann's house borders on insect infestation. The tape is corroded. His relationship with Judith is doomed from the moment he starts his mad quest. And as for the quest, there is no possible end result for it other than falling apart. Itís not what you could call an optimistic tale.

And unfortunately it doesnít feel original—it suffers from coming second. Ramsey Campbell's The Grin of the Dark also featured a man obsessing over old films, a comparison made all the easier by it too being published by PS Publishing.

That said, it still has much to recommend it. At sixty-four pages it is the shortest of the four and the one with the loosest conclusion. It's a book that stops more than ends in a traditional narrative sense. But this brevity actually helps. Too much more of Swann's malaise could become depressing and spoil what is an impressive story. Its unending conclusion actually combats the lack of extra pages. You are left to consider what happens in the subsequent unwritten—and for this book, unnecessary—extra pages.

These are fine stories and thankfully there is still a place for them in the world, though they are not going to suit every reader. For one thing, shelling out £12/$18 (or even £25/$38 if you opt for the deluxe editions) for less than a hundred pages of fiction can feel a little extortionate. But PS Publishing makes it worthwhile.

Not only are these tales unlike most of the mainstream of SF, but they are also in another league when it comes to quality objects. These feel good in your hand and look good on your bookshelf. But one last warning: beware of speciality small presses—you can become hooked.

Works Referenced

Uncle River—Camp Desolation and the Eschatology of Salt
104 pages
GBP 10.00—USD 15.00

Stephen Baxter—Starfall
89 pages
GBP 12.00—USD 18.00

Alex Irvine—Mystery Hill
86 pages
GBP 12.00—USD 18.00

Joel Lane—The Witnesses Are Gone
64 pages
GBP 10.00—US 15.00

Copyright © 2009, I. E. Lester. All Rights Reserved.

About I. E. Lester

Non-fiction author and book reviewer


Sep 5, 06:47 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Sep 6, 20:22 by Todd Suomela
Thanks for this great review. I have been bothered by the steady lengthening of SF and fantasy novels too. And I'm always glad to hear more about what is being published by small presses. So two direct hits to my circle of interests - thanks again.
Sep 8, 16:49 by Nader Elhefnawy
I enjoyed the theme of the review, and am pleased to hear again about the interest PS Press is taking in the genre. (I didn't even know the house existed until a few months ago.)

I'm absolutely in agreement about the length issue, which I've written about in plenty of other places (my "End of SF" piece in The Fix last year, to name one).

Incidentally, while still worthy of discussion, the tendency criticized here is by now a very old one. Charles Stross on his blog traced that line of development back to changes in publishing in the 1970s some time ago (regarding book bulk and price), and whatever the exact cause, Douglas Adams was already joking about the preoccupation of the American book market with overlarge, padded books in his 4th Hitchhiker novel (emphatically not one of those giant books)-published all the way back in 1984.

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