Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine and Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and he vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Jamierubin.net | @jamietr
Consider the novelette and novella in science fiction: I've heard the former described as the most competitive form of short fiction, while the latter is described as the ideal form for science fiction. Novelettes are competitive (particularly in the major awards like the Hugo and Nebula) in part due to economy. To sell a novelette to a magazine, it must be two or three times as good as a competing short story since it takes up two or three times as much space. For novellas, it has been said that they are long enough to build a world, while being short enough to read in an afternoon.
I have written that science fiction is a cumulative literature. So in thinking about some novelettes and novellas to recommend for Short Fiction Week, I decided to choose one from each of the last seven decades of the genre.
1950s - During the 1950s, Galaxy science fiction published the bulk of the really outstanding novelettes and novellas and considering what I know of them, I'd have to recommend Cyril M. Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag", a story about time-travel, alcoholism, black mail, and an interesting automated medical kit.
1960s - The 1960s is probably my weakest area in terms of the short fiction I've read, but one novella certainly stands out in my mind as a good recommendation from this time: Robert Silverberg's "Hawksbill Station." It is the story of a prison designed for political prisoners. The prison itself has no walls--it is a prison in time, where the prisoners are sent back to pre-Cambrian Earth in order to serve their sentences. A great story and a great read.
1970s - Isaac Asimov wasn't writing much science fiction in the 1970s, concentrating mostly on nonfiction. He did write the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, The Gods Themselves which appeared in 1972. And then, just in time for the bicentennial of the United States, he wrote a novella called "The Bicentennial Man" about a robot who struggles for 200 years to become a man. This story is Asimov at his best in the short fiction form and is my personal favorite of all of his short fiction. It was later expanded into a book, The Positronic Man by Robert Silverberg, and made into a movie starring Robin Williams, but I recommend sticking with the original novella. Every time I read the ending, it brings tears to my eyes.
1980s - For the 80s, we jump to 1985. Universe 15 (edited by Terry Carr) contained a novelette by Harlan Ellison called "Paladin of the Lost Hour" which is remarkable story of time and friendship. It won the Hugo award in 1986 for Best Novelette. It was later produced as an episode of The New Twilight Zone. The story can be found in several of Ellison's collections, including Angry Candy.
1990s - The 1990s provide so many great novellas that it is hard to choose just one. But if I have to choose one, that one would be Nancy Kress's "Beggars In Spain." This is the story of children born with a mutation that allows them to survive without the need for any sleep. You can imagine the advantage this gives them--and how others might hate them for this advantage. I heard of this story here and there, but I didn't read it until long after it was first published in Asimov's in April 1991. When I read it, I was blown away by it. It was an incredibly powerful novella, and I only wish that I'd read it sooner.
2000s - In the first decade of the 2000s, I'd say that the novella that stands out most in my mind is Kristine Kathyrn Rusch's "Recovering Apollo 8," a story about an alternate history in which the Apollo 8 mission--the first one to take men around the moon, fails and the astronauts die in space. I think I enjoyed this one so much because I have a fascination with the Apollo space program and have read just about all the books that exist on the subject.
2010s - We are still at the dawn of this decade and so a full comparison with the complete decades that came before is not completely fair. That said, I recently read Connie Willis's "All About Emily" in the December 2011 Asimov's and thought it was brilliant. It's the story of an aging actress and her involvement with "artificials", human-looking, robot like artificial intelligence.
As an added bonus, reading these stories in chronological order is like an accelerated journey through time. You can start to see the interconnection, the evolution of tropes, the increasing complexity of style. But however you choose to do it, read at least one. They are the treasure of our genre.
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