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The Alienated Critic
by D. Douglas Fratz

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other The Alienated Critic columns.

Wherein the Virtues of Short Novels and Specialty Publishers Are Extolled
and a Reluctant Nod Given to ePublishing

I. Appreciating Novellas

Author, critic, academic and SFWA Grand Master James Gunn may have been the first of many to observe that the novella (or short novel) is the best of all lengths for science fiction -- long enough to fully explore the complex ideas, narratives, settings and characters needed for excellence in SF, but short enough to avoid the need for extraneous material that too often slows the pacing, diverts reader attention, and dilutes the emotional and intellectual impact of the story. I believe that a persuasive case for this can be made with examples throughout the history of modern science fiction, making the form one that is too often underappreciated by the mass science fiction and fantasy readership looking for massive editions of more-of-the-same. Novellas, I contend, have long represented the cutting edge of the field, the crest of the wave of genre innovation.

While the novella category was first singled out for the Hugo Award in 1968, and distinguished from the novelette only since 1973, novella-length fiction (currently defined as 17,500-40,000 words) has long been a prominent length for superior SF. Part of this was due to commercial factors -- when the primary medium for getting SF published was science fiction magazines, shorter stories were the norm, and only superior works could be afforded longer lengths. The classic SF "novels" of the 1950s were often "fix-ups" made from short works. Even when book publication began to compete seriously with magazines for original SF in the 1960s, most of the best novels of the period remained short novels, usually 30,000-60,000 words. Dune by Frank Herbert was an exception, but it was rejected by all of the major publishers primarily due to its length.

Among recent science fiction books, there is no better case for the superiority of the novella than Eater-of-Bone by Robert Reed (PS Publishing, 2012, 328 pages), a collection of four novellas by a writer that I believe is among the best (and most under-appreciated) SF authors of the past 25 years. The title novella was, I believe, the very best published in the field last year. "Eater-of-Bone" is set in Reed's Great Ship universe, the far-future setting of Marrow (1990) and more than a dozen novels and stories since, where humans are immortal due to biotech and nanotech enhancements to their bodies, and travel around the galaxy in a truly massive alien ship. However, you can enjoy the intense, tersely told story of "Eater-of-Bone" with no knowledge of the back-story of how these few struggling immortal characters came to be stranded for centuries on a primitive, metal-starved planet surviving by the most extraordinary means. Reed puts into the story a maximum amount of ideas, character and narrative. It would have been easy for Reed to have padded this into a full novel, and thereby diluting its vividness and visceral impact. Robert Reed is to be commended for assuring that there is not a single extraneous word in this tense and engaging narrative.

Dune Marrow Eater-of-Bone

The other three novellas in the collection, while all feature travel in time or to alternate dimensions, show Reed's immense versatility as a story-teller, and a superior creator of SF ideas. "Veritas" is set in an alternative Roman Empire transformed by 21st century time travelers. "Truth" is set in a 21st century being terrorized by Jihadists from the future. In the final story, "A Billion Eves," an immature young man takes an entire sorority house of young women to an unpopulated alternate world with the intent of creating his own personal Eden. The fascinating and quite logical, but never quite predictable, results make this novella another of the most memorable science fiction works in recent years (it was initially published in 2006).

II. Appreciating Specialty Publishers

For those of us who appreciate short fiction, small publishers are playing an ever increasing role in providing work of superior quality. They are currently playing a dual role in providing affordable editions of short fiction and novels (often available as ebooks as well as print) as well as pricey but beautiful volumes (often as signed and limited editions) for collectors. For lovers of books and quality fiction, small press book publishers provide an increasingly valuable service.

PS Publishing (publisher of the Robert Reed collection reviewed above) is the UK's premiere (and most prolific) small press publisher. While they publish many collections and novels, perhaps their greatest strength is stand-alone novellas in nice hardcover and trade paperback editions (usually in limited editions, including signed and numbered collectors' versions). Among many notable recent examples is A Princess of the Linear Jungle by Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing, 2011, 91 pages), previously reviewed on SF Site, sequel to his brilliant 2002 novella, A Year in the Linear City. Both are set in an enigmatic urban fantasy world that consists of a city that is indeed linear, peopled by characters that are at the same time both familiar and strange. As a fan of Di Filippo, there is major enjoyment stemming from this juxtaposition of the pedestrian and the bizarre, and as an SF fan, I can't wait to learn more about the Linear City and how it came to be.

A Year in the Linear City A Princess of the Linear Jungle Gravity Dreams Quartet & Triptych

Another strong example is Gravity Dreams by Stephen Baxter (PS Publishing, 2011, 101 pages), a new novella in his long-running Xeelee Sequence, set in a far future where mankind is seeking to survive the galactic domination of an ancient alien race. In this segment, humans in our universe are seeking to rescue descendants who long ago escaped into a strange alternate universe that itself is dying because its gravity constant is so high that it is collapsing. This brilliant new science fiction novella is accompanied by a reprint of the original story, "Raft," that began the Xeelee Sequence two decades ago. This book -- and the entire series -- is must reading for all fans of far future hard science fiction.

A very different far future can be experienced in Quartet & Triptych by Matthew Hughes (PS Publishing, 2010, 90 pages). This tale is from his baroque Arachonate series, and features Luff Imbrey, a colorful rogue who is a quite successful acquirer of rare and valuable objects of antiquity by nefarious means. Hughes is channeling Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories in this series, and doing so brilliantly.

Shaka II by Mike Resnick (PS Publishing, 2009, 94 pages) is another of his excellent science fiction stories based on African history, this time the South African Zulu tribe, whose ruthless 19th century leader Shaka created a major empire. Resnick's engaging novella is set in the 22nd century, where a new and even more ruthless Zulu leader takes over South Africa and proceeds to create a galactic empire. Resnick is in top form here as he makes all of this quite believable and intensely compelling.

In a far more light-hearted vein, Billy's Book by Terry Bisson (PS Publishing, 2009, 98 pages) is an imaginative and surreal story of childhood, told in a series of thirteen episodic fantasy adventures. It was also reviewed earlier on SF Site. And as a final example, I would cite The Night Cache by Andy Duncan (PS Publishing, 2009, 42 pages), an intriguing and eerie supernatural mystery novelette where young protagonists hide objects in interesting geographies and provide others clues to find them. This fine story can also be found in Duncan's more recent story collection, The Pottawatomie Giant (PS Publishing, 2012, 384 pages), where a varied selection of equally fine stories in Duncan's distinctive Southern voice can be found. Andy Duncan is rivaled only by Paul Di Filippo for the title of most imaginative and distinctive, but underappreciated, writers in the genre today.

The preeminent American small press book publisher in recent years is Subterranean Press -- I will be reviewing a number of their books in future columns.

Shaka II Billy's Book The Night Cache The Pottawatomie Giant

III. ePublishing: A Reluctant Appreciation

My point of view on the internet and epublishing revolution has been evolving in recent years. As a reader and collector of printed books and magazines for five decades, I have loved the look, the feel, and even the smell of printed material. (The musty smell of pulp paper remains deeply nostalgic, reminding me of the thrill of discovery of new worlds and new ideas that I experienced in the 60s.) I have therefore often viewed the inevitable evolution of electronic media with some trepidation.

These luddite emotions first began when the last print magazine for which I regularly wrote book reviews (Science Fiction Age) ceased publication thirteen years ago, and my writing would from then on only appear on website magazines (stating with Science Fiction Weekly). (My last foray into the print market was several reviews in recent years in the prestigious but low-circulation New York Review of Science Fiction, but alas they have also now gone over to epublishing.) I have tried to console myself in thinking about how much faster my work gets to the public, and that trees no longer are dying due to my writing career, but I still miss holding that printed paper in my hands and seeing it again for the very first time.

Science Fiction Age Science Fiction Weekly New York Review of Science Fiction

I resisted ebook reading throughout the early years, but a few years ago I finally bought a Nook and tried reading books electronically. Then a Kindle. Then an iPad. And over the past two years I have become hooked. Now over half of my reading of books and magazines is not print but electronic, mostly on my iPad, which is larger and colorful. Almost all of the books I reviewed above, I read as ebooks. I still collect the printed books, but read the ebook version. It is extremely convenient to be able to carry dozens or even hundreds of books and magazine with me at all times. It helps avoid those frustrating moments when you complete a book and find you have reading time but nothing to read.

Another key benefit of epublishing is cost. For many of the books reviewed above, the ebook is the most cost-effective way to read these superior works. I now have hundreds of ebooks and emagazines (and even some efanzines). My final challenge is keeping them organized so that I know what I have and what I do not.

If you enjoy science fiction, you must be ready to embrace the future, and not fight against the improvements new technology brings. Besides, we need to save as many trees as we can.

Copyright © 2013 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


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