This is small of me, but I can’t help myself. Someone says they’re obsessed with the TV version of Game of Thrones—or The Expanse, Altered Carbon, The Shannara Chronicles, The 100, The Magicians, whatever. I tilt my head forward, peer over my nonexistent glasses, and inquire, with what I like to imagine is a sparkle of menace: Yes, but have you read the books?
The hiccup of guilt is so pure. Of course they have not. Of course they would like to. The corners of their eyes crinkle with regret.
Here’s the twist: In this moment I love them. Their shame is beautiful. For them, literacy—having read the source material—endures as an ideal, something to strive for. More miraculous still, they feel this way about works of science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps they recognize the sacredness of these texts and wish they were better credentialed in contemporary nerddom.
Relax, lovelies. Not everyone can read everything, and there’s something uniquely daunting about speculative fiction. As a genre, it’s known to sprawl. Contemporary page-to-screen megaseries like Game of Thrones and Shannara haven’t helped in this regard, serving only to fortify the Tolkien-powered reputation for density and interminability. You know: maps in the front, appendices in the back, tiny type smushed in the ten-thousand-billion-page middle, all in the service of quests within quests full of unpronounceable place-names and esoteric magicks that, unless elaborately flashcarded, have no chance of sticking in the feeble memory. Who or what is H’m-gh’la again?
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that these convoluted encyclopediae fantastica are the only thing the genre has to offer. They are not. If you’re new to speculative fiction, or just too exhausted to commit to seven volumes of anything besides Harry Potter, have hope. Because as long as there have been hobbitses, there have been hobbit-size stories: tales, as they’re sometimes called, “of medium length.” 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.
Four years ago, Tor.com, the spec-fic magazine put out by Tor Books, launched an imprint “dedicated to publishing the best novellas and short novels from emerging writers as well as established authors.” To which not a few observers responded: Shwhat? Novellas? These in-betweener fictions, typically in the realm of 100 pages (17,500 to 40,000 words, say authorities), have never been known to fly off bookshelves. Or to sit on them at all. Stephen King once famously called the form “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic,” so unstable as to be unmarketable.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. Sci-fi can claim as its own a number of bestselling classics of medium length, from The Stepford Wives and The Metamorphosis to A Clockwork Orange and I Am Legend. Or, if you prefer titles closer to the genre’s pulpy roots, there’s H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which tops out at 32,548 words, and, at just 25,642, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Best Novella has been a category at the Hugos and Nebulas since the ’60s.
Even so, King wasn’t wrong. For most of their existence, SFF novellas have been trapped in monthly magazines and anthologies, where only a fringe readership could visit them (along with short stories, but those babies can also live free in dedicated collections). At least, until Tor.com Publishing came along and liberated the novella, putting slender volumes in the hands of readers everywhere. In four years, they’ve published on the order of 100 and seem to announce new ones weekly, from a catholic stable of worthy practitioners. In 2016, capitalizing on the surge, Saga Press published the collected novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin. Last year, my local indie bookstore started populating a whole shelf with “Sci-Fi Novellas We Love.” All of a sudden, it was hip to be spare.
The form, after all, honors the genre: The novella traces its origins to fairytales and morality plays. Proto-fantasies, basically. In that sense, Tolkien’s world-building was never native to the genre. He simply blew up the balloon.
A balloon which is now about to burst. More than ever, successful world-building seems to require of creators a transmedia commitment to spin-offs and prequels and various other increasingly extraneous tie-ins like comic books and card games. Consumers are rightly overwhelmed. The joy of the sci-fi novella, by contrast, is in its one-off-ness, its collapsed space, its enforced incapaciousness. Authors can’t indulge family trees or maps; they must purify their storytelling. One or two main characters. A single three-act quest. Stark, sensible rules. (And no Starks.)
More than ever, successful world-building seems to require of creators a transmedia commitment to spin-offs and prequels and various other increasingly extraneous tie-ins. Consumers are rightly overwhelmed. The joy of the sci-fi novella, by contrast, is in its one-off-ness, its collapsed space, its enforced incapaciousness.
Containment need not mean compromise. In many cases, spareness heightens prose. My favorite of Tor’s wide-ranging catalog is Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, a stunning romance that unfolds on the shores of a remote god colony. Something like math poeticized, or poetry mathematized, at novel size the book would’ve gone down way too rich. At 158 pages, though? Practically perfect. Deadlier serious but no less compelling is Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future, in which the rich can extend their youth by centuries while the poor age and die naturally. The paltry page count lets Penny, in full author-activist fervor, get away with punking up the familiar biotech premise. Plus, you can read it in one sitting, the way the good lords of lit intended.
Other notables in the category include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Seanan McGuire’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway and, beyond Tor.com’s monopoly, China Miéville’s This Census-Taker, published by Del Rey. Novellas are cheaper to make and distribute than novels, so publishers can—and do—take risks on new voices and strange tales. The result is a richer, weirder genre, with more imagination per square inch.
The final pleasure of these smaller works is that they can serve as gateways to larger ones. Nnedi Okorafor’s standalone epic Who Fears Death is currently in development as an HBO series—but I wouldn’t crack open the book right away; it may put off the unprepared. Instead, start with her novellas, the Binti trilogy, for a taste of Afrofuturism and Okorafor’s themes of homecoming. The final entry pulls off a death-defying feat no full-length novel would sanely attempt.
Binti, it turns out, is one of two blockbuster novellas of the moment. The other is Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, a planned quartet of which two are out. Both series are narrated by their main character: the former a human-alien hybrid, the latter a human-robot hybrid. Hey, the people love half-people.
I’m one of those people, but I struggle with the terminology. You’ll notice these aren’t so much novellas as novellae, sprawling in a suspiciously Thronesian manner. When the second Murderbot book came out earlier this year—hardcover! price tag of $16.99!—I balked. Surely this swell violates the spirit of the novella. Unless it represents the form’s evolution, a push into new territories, a reminder that imagination can’t always be contained.
More likely, readers just like it this way. Binti recently got a gorgeous hardcover rerelease; Wells is working on a Murderbot novel. It seems inevitable that both series will be optioned for TV. Maybe this time, at least, you’ll have read the books first.