The rise of the science fiction and fantasy novella
Literature

The rise of the science fiction and fantasy novella

September 11, 2019

The science fiction and fantasy novella is enjoying a surge of popularity. I recently read three science fiction ones and loved every minute of them. I did this partly to see what all the fuss is about, and also because I was looking for something new and different. In this article I unpick the reason for the trend and give some reading recommendations.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a novella is a form of fiction shorter than a novel but longer than a short story. In fact, the official categorisations used for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards are: 

  1. Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
  2. Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
  3. Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
  4. Novel: 40,000 words or more.

The idea of a novella as a ‘thing’ is not new. The Nebula and Hugo Awards have included a category for Best Novella since the 1960s. And the form goes back even longer in the SFF genre. For example, A Christmas Carol (28,500 words), The Time Machine, (32,500 words) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (25,500 words) are all novellas.

The current craze for science fiction and fantasy novellas

So, back to what I was saying about the ‘fuss’. Currently, novellas are doing very well in the science fiction and fantasy genre, and increasing numbers are being released all the time. Moreover, they are a big hit with readers, and having read a few now myself, I can understand why. 

” I’m speaking of sci-fi/fantasy novellas, a classic form that’s only recently emerged as the genre’s most vibrant—and, in the crazed modern era, readable—option. “

The Rise of the Sci-Fi Novella: All the Imagination, None of the Burden by Jason Kehe 01/08/2018

For many years, there was a trend in science fiction and fantasy for very long books. But in the modern world where people’s time is limited, very long books are sometimes overwhelming. 

At the other end of the scale, short stories have long been where authors develop their craft and where innovation happens in the genre. This is filtering into the novella too. The novellas I’ve recently read had great new ideas and were brilliantly paced, with no words wasted.

So to sum up the appeal of the novella, I think John deNardo says it best when he writes: “Novellas allow the immersive experience of a novel without overstaying their welcome, as some novels do. That means you get tight, focused stories that deliver a sharp punch to a reader looking for pure entertainment.”

Publishers come on board

But why now? Why have novellas surged in popularity in the last few years? A lot of the credit can be given to Tor.com, whose publishing arm, Tor.com Publishing started actively requesting novella submissions and really investing in the format from about 2014 onwards. In the first four years they published on the order of 100 novellas.

I was lucky to be able to interview Lee Harris at Eastercon about the company and the business. Lee is Senior Editor at Tor.com Publishing and he has championed the novella programme. Read the interview here.

Following Tor’s lead, other mainstream publishers are releasing novellas themselves now they realise how popular they are.

So let’s now look at some books!

Reading recommendations

Science fiction

I’ll start with the three science fiction novellas I’ve just read. These three are the big bestsellers – I chose them because I was expecting them to be good and they did not disappoint. They are:

  • All Systems Red by Marta Wells. The first of the Murderbot series. The protagonist is a cybernetic robot tasked to provide security to a team of scientists investigating a new planet.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The first of a series. A young girl must survive alone on a spaceship taken over by aliens who have killed the other passengers.
  • To be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers. This standalone book follows a crew of four astronauts sent to investigate a star system, visiting three planets and a moon.

I can honestly say that these books held my attention all the way through. This never happens to me with a novel; there are always bits I find slow. But with novellas, you can read them in one sitting and there is no room for slow bits.

Fantasy

SFF novellas do seem to be more a science fiction thing at the moment, but I don’t want to neglect fantasy novellas. So, after some research, I’m going to present three that seem to be getting high reviews:

  • Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman – The first in a gaslamp fantasy series, it follows a character who can do magic, in a world where anyone with magical abilities must be turned in to serve the country.
  • The Black God’s Drums by P Djeli Clark. A steampunk adventure, set in an alternate history in New Orleans in the American Civil War. A girl yearns to escape the streets to ride airships.
  • Every Hear a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. A masterpiece of portal fantasy. Children returning from portal worlds struggle to adjust and want to go back.

Conclusion

So that’s it for the science fiction and fantasy novella. Let me know your thoughts below in the comments!

The rise of the science fiction and fantasy novella
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