02 January 2011

The novellas of Scalzi and Sanderson

Novellas are suddenly (for certain values of suddenly) back into vogue. I've recently read two such, both SF of the spaceship variety--well, wait on that characterization. One was Brandon Sanderson's Firstborn, the other John Scalzi's The God Engines, and while both involve spacecraft, one is nominally fantasy. It's really something of switch between the two, as Sanderson is the fantasy maven, tapped to finish the Wheel of Time series, and Scalzi was the presumptive heir to the Heinleinian military SF crown until people realized that he is far more his own author than just another Starship Troopers clone manufacturer, but each works in its own way.

Reading a novella is not quite the same as any other format, a problem that exists for me simply because I don't get nearly as many of them, or perhaps I just don't see them. The way I tend to read--that is, exceedingly fast, with multiple re-reads and a lot of internal glosses--they are closer to a short story than a novel, consumed in a single sitting, although not necessarily absorbed as such. Now that I've had a chance to absorb both, however, I have some things to say.


Except, if Dennison was a god, his specialty certainly wasn’t war.

His education kept him from making any disastrous mistakes, but before long, the battle had progressed to the point where it was no longer winnable. His complete lack of pride let him order the expected retreat.
The theme, as with any Sanderson book, is personal development. The main character never really gets any better at commanding starships, but he develops as a character and as a man, quickly, but not too quickly, realizing where his true talents lie. Sanderson's style is simple and easy to read, with hidden depths that he uses to tuck away clues for his inevitably logical and satisfying Reveal; I suppose that the main theme of this story is "if you suck at commanding spaceships, don't command spaceships!" but Sanderson makes it feel like a revelation of stunning power. Don't think that I am being glib--he does this while making the reader satisfied at being led along by the nose willingly. The mystery isn't enough to really keep anything concealed, but for the sake of the tale, it is rewarding to ponder nothing except that which is right before you.

So I like it. But does it work as a novella? The answer lies in the definition of a novella, which really seems to me to mean "longer than a short story" or, maybe slightly more accurately, "really long short story". Accepting THAT definition, then, yes, it's an excellent story that fits its assigned length almost perfectly, although the lack of any real denouement makes it feel slightly rushed. This isn't a type of story, in Sanderson's hands, that differs in any real way from a short story, mostly because he wrote something that many would classify as fantasy in space, bypassing the love of detail that SF authors usually have for a focus on events and individuals. It's self-contained and almost exactly as long as it needs to be.

Free version here

The God Engines
Where either the gods or their followers would go from there was another matter entirely. The inner city of Bishop's Call was sealed by The Lord Himself, a mosaic ring of first-made iron circling it. No enslaved god, weakened and stripped of its native power, could hope to pass. Nor would The Lord's followers approach the ring, although for another reason entirely. While even the smallest nugget of first-made iron could bring a man more copper than he might see in a year, stealing iron from the Sealing Ring condemned the thief to have his soul consumed. Death beyond death.
No way around it--despite starships, this is fantasy. Scalzi is not Scalzi here, which is all the more amazing and perhaps a little expected from him. You could perhaps ferret out that he normally writes SF, given his focus within the story on things military and communication and, sure, starships, but his writing in this is far more that of a new author than the confident voice we see in his other works. It's refreshing.

It's also, however, what holds this story back some. As a newcomer to fantasy, and, more importantly, as an infrequent writer of short stories, his voice seems to have adapted better to the long form tale, rather than the compression of a novella. I think that if he had made this as an Old Man's War story, it would have worked gloriously well, simply because of his comfort, but as it is, I ended up feeling that there is a lot of glory in here that was stifled because of the format. It didn't compress perfectly, leaving novel-like sections interspersed among the short story-like sequences.

Don't get me wrong, though, this does what fiction ought: make you boggle a bit and want to perhaps set it down to ponder the implications of what you've just read. The fact that it made me want to read it rather as a novel is a triumph in itself, and maybe suggests that I am just grousing.


Given a sample size of two, then, the Novella might as well not exist. Firstborn is closer to the short story end of the continuum, and The God Engines sits much closer to an actual novel; both tales work, but Scalzi's desires to be a novel far more than Sanderson's wants to be a short story.

Why, then, did they release them in these forms?

Authors have to eat, you know, and I think this relates exactly to said consumption. The novella--not a novel but more than a short story--is a good, substantial freebie, while also retaining worth as a product for sale. Scalzi's is not free and probably will remain so, but the price is less than that of a true novel, and its cachet of being his first effort at Fantasy makes it worth the risk for the devoted fan. Sanderson's is free, although I bought it on Amazon for $0.99 for my shiny new Kindle, which wasn't a ripoff in the slightest, given how much I love his writing. The profit here I think lies in the fact that Sanderson knows who butters his bread, and allowing Tor to expose people to his skill was worth spending some time on.

The novella, then, is an experiment, an attempt to branch out to new things, or an attempt to reinforce the old. It's an artificial definition in many ways, but at the least, they're easier to consume, easier to expand, and easier to sell, all of which tell me that, with the rise of the ebook, we might see more of them from established authors.

1 comment:

Adam Wykes said...

Novellas are interesting beasts - not enough time to really develop more than one character well or fully develop a world, but too much time for a little exploration of a single idea or circumstance, as short stories excel at.

Heart of Darkness comes to mind whenever people talk about novellas around me, because it is a good use of the type. Conrad doesn't have much character development to do, and even less plot to develop, but he does have a world to develop in ways that a short story simply wouldn't have space for. The novella was his answer - enough space to show us the unexpected truth behind the Belgian Congo (and the human psyche), and not enough length for his simple characters (outside of Marlow) to get boring.

Few stories are focused this way, however. An interesting question to pursue would be why that is...