As part of my million word (in a calendar year) challenge (you can find that here), I have plans to write a number of novellas; both SF/Technothriller and Horror. Some as standalone stories will go out to the small press and traditional publishing venues, some will go out via Anachron Press, and some will be made into a serial story.
For those who aren’t sure what a novella is, here’s a wikipedia definition:
A novella is a written, fictional, prose narrative normally longer than a novelette but shorter than a novel. The English word “novella” derives from the Italian word “novella“, feminine of “novello“, which means “new”.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000.
Basically it’s a concise novel. The story arc tends to be about the same length as a full novel but with a smaller cast of characters and less sub-plots. I personally love the form. You often get the immersion of a novel, and the quick-read satisfaction of a short story, but with far more detail and nuance.
So, with that in mind, what are some good novellas that I’d recommend for a new (or old) reader of this fantastic form? Glad you asked. Get your book buying fingers at the ready:
(In no particular order)
1. At The Mountains Of Madness – H.P. Lovecraft
Clocking in at the top-end of a novella at 40,000 words, this is perhaps one of the most well-known and important H.P Lovecraft stories. For me personally, it’s a cornerstone book in my own development both as a writer and a reader.
I read this book when I was a teenager and before I knew too much about writing, and it’s without a doubt one of the main reasons why I write horror. Lovecraft created a claustrophobic and seemingly epic landscape with a plot full of fear and paranoia.
Firmly placed as a foundation piece in Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos,’ and set in Antarctica, the story is about a group of explorers who stumble across some ancient beings. There’s a relaxed pace as Lovecraft explores backstory of the expedition (he was influence by the earlier Antarctic expeditions of the 1800s, and the detail he includes really shows his love of this era).
Later in the story, the protagonist and his colleague find an ancient city within the mountains. Carvings millions of years old tell us the history of those that came to the earth eons before. Part exploration tale, part paranoia suspense story, it doesn’t fail to draw you into a world where ancient horrors lie waiting. Highly recommended. A true masterpiece.
2. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
No list of fiction, whether it be novella, novel, literary, or genre would ever be complete without this masterpiece. This tends to blur into ‘novel’ status coming in at 46,000 words. Back when Ray wrote this great book, many novels were around the 45-50k mark. These days where massive bricks are the common form, these smaller novels are often considered novellas.
Along with Lovecraft, Bradbury is one of the most influential writers (for me personally) and within his genre and this story is one that’ll last forever.
Set in a near future (at the time of writing), firemen no longer put out fires; they start them. Motivated to destroy books and the anarchy and free-thinking that they brought the populace, the firemen would think nothing of dousing a house and burning entire collections of books.
One fireman however, the protagonist (Montag), started to question this, and keeping a book aside, he rediscovered the joy of reading and set about rebelling against the establishment. He found like-minded individuals who took it upon themselves to keep the stories alive.
It’s essentially a dystopian story set in a world where the government control the population by the withholding of information. Obvious parallels with the Nazi book-burnings and even modern-day political spin and cover-ups are plentiful here. Because of the subjects talked about by Bradbury, this is a book that will remain relevant until we are free from governmental oppression. Basically it’ll remain relevant forever.
3. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
This wonderful book is about half the size of the previous two coming in at around 22,000 words. But it’s no less affecting or important. Another foundation for science-fiction but also a great addition to the world of ‘weird’ fiction.
Written in 1915 by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis was an influential work (along with his books: The Trial and The Castle) in the field of existentialism. Kafka often explored the themes of existence, alienation, and transformation.
The story itself is about a travelling salesman suffering from anxiety dreams who one day wakes up transformed to a hideous giant bug. No explanation is given or offered for this transformation. It just is.
Nabakov describes this book as an ‘Entomological Fantasy’ and that’s fairly accurate. It was a cornerstone for many creature-features and fantastical stories to come later in the 20th century. The prose and fantastical elements through the book lend it a dream-like quality, and this is where a novella really shines. It’s almost impossible to keep that dream feel up for an entire novel, but at 22k words it’s just perfect. I highly recommend you check this book out as you can get it free online (just google search it) and you’ll finish it in a single sitting.
4. Who Goes There – John W. Campbell
Another 22,000 word story, and another one from the early 20th century (Published in 1934). There’s a pattern here, right? Yes, you’ve probably noticed that so far all the novellas recommended are old ones. Well there’s two reasons for that:
1. People didn’t write as many massive tomes as they do today. The average novel size (100k or so—often more in fantasy) is a fairly modern invention. Due to the rise of big publishing houses (there wasn’t such a system like there is now back in the early 20thC) and their needs to control costs, it works out more cost-effective to print larger books and make more of the ‘economies-of-scale’, so we haven’t seen as many novellas as there once was.
2. The reason why these stand-out as great novellas is because of the test of time. The ones that don’t get remembered, or simply weren’t well-regarded fall to the wayside leaving only the most important works.
Anyway, on to Who Goes There:
It’s a perfect blend of horror and science-fiction (my favourite of all genres). You’ll likely know this story as the John Carpenter classic horror film ‘The Thing.’ (and it’s later, crappier prequel/remake). There was also an earlier film made in the early 50s.
Set in Antarctica, a group of scientists find something buried deep in the ice. It turns out to be an alien spacecraft. They grab some thermite and attempt to blow it out of the ice, but they damage the craft forcing them to salvage the alien inside. In the film, this is where they go over to the Norwegian exploration site (after saving a dog from the Norwegian people in the helicopter trying to shoot it) and find the thing that was dug up in the ice.
In both stories the alien is brought back to the base and is thawed out. All hell breaks lose and one-by-one the crew are picked-off by the shape-shifting evil, leaving it up to the protagonist ‘MacReady’ to deal with the situation. It’s utterly brilliant. Like Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness it’s full of claustrophobia, fear, paranoia and things from eons past. This is arguably an easier read than Lovecraft’s Antarctic story; the prose flows better and isn’t so stylised. But I’d urge you to read them both as they are very different takes on the ‘remote scientific exploration finds a terrible doom’ trope.
5. True Names – Vernor Vinge
Now for a more modern book, and one no less influential. Written in 1981, this was one of the seminal books in the cyberpunk movement. One of the first to posit the idea of cyberspace and its manipulation by humans it predates William Gibson’s breakthrough cyberpunk novel ‘Neuromancer’ by 3 years. In 1982, True Names won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella, and was no.8 in the Locus poll award for the same year.
Although perhaps as not well-known in general literary circles as the previous four picks, I have no doubt in the time to come it’ll remain a solid foundation work in modern science fiction.
A great thing about this story, which comes in at around 30,000 words, is that it combines sword-and-sorcery imagery as the back-drop to the cyberspace elements. It uses fantasy tropes to communicate the blurring of technology and humanity, and the connections therein.
I’m going to borrow the plot summary from Wikipedia, because they do a great job in hitting home at the core plot of the book. I quote:
“The story follows the progress of a group of disaffected computer wizards (called “warlocks” in the story) who are early adopters of a new full-immersion virtual reality technology, called the “Other Plane”. Forming a cabal, they must keep their true identities – their True Names – secret even to each other and to avoid prosecution by their “Great Adversary” – the government of the United States.
The protagonist is one of these warlocks. Known as “Mr. Slippery” in the Other Plane; his True Name is Roger Pollack. When a new warlock arrives in the Other Plane and begins to recruit other warlocks for a scheme in which the domination of cyberspace can be used to exert power in the real world, Mr. Slippery is forced to ally himself with the Great Adversary. [Full entry here]”
This book is chock-full of themes and ideas and is one of the few stories to truly convey what it means to be ‘more than human.’ If you like using the Internet and technology (which is everyone of you reading this). Make a point of seeking this book out and spend a few hours immersed in a masterpiece of science-fiction.
But what about?…
I could go on and recommend many more stories from this wonderful format, and maybe I’ll follow up this with another in the near future. But even if you read just one or two of these, I’m sure that if you’re not familiar with the power of a novella, you soon will be.
Shameless plug alert!
I have my own horror novella out at the moment that you might be interested in. It’s a gothic horror set in the 1800s and an homage to the Frankenstein myth. ‘Heart for the Ravens‘ is published by Fox Spirit Books. More details here.