Short fiction comes in three sizes. Based on word counts (and, here, as defined by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Awards rules), they are: the short story, which contains under 7,500 words; the novelette, containing between 7,500 and 17,499 words; and the novella, consisting of 17,500 to 39,999 words. Anything longer and a writer has a novel on their hands.
Those classifications are helpful for marketing and payment purposes, but what difference is there to the reader besides the time it takes to complete a story? Perhaps legendary science fiction author Robert Silverberg said it best: "[The novella] is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms...it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus, it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel."
He's speaking in part from a writer's perspective, but the message is clear: for immersive reading experiences, size matters. Longer stories allow readers to wrap themselves up in the more detailed world building they offer. It seems more logical than earth-shattering, but it belies one very important distinction. Novellas allow the immersive experience of a novel without overstaying their welcome, as some novels do. That means you get tight, focused stories that deliver a sharp punch to a reader looking for pure entertainment. This month, I immersed myself in a trio of novellas that I loved. You might, too.
First up was The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard, which is set in her already-established Xuya Universe, a well-imagined alternate future history in which China discovered the Americas before the West and in which a high-tech conflict rages between the Mayan and Chinese empires. I've read several linked Xuya Universe stories over the years and I've enjoyed them all. Not only are they an imaginative vision of a possible future, but the stories often resonate on a human level. How could those stories possibly get any better? De Bodard found a way: by fusing this culturally rich future with a Sherlock Holmes detective story.
In the Xuya Universe, sentient mindships carry citizens of the Scattered Pearls belt between Habitats. In The Tea Master and the Detective, the point-of-view character is a mindship named The Shadow's Child, an ex-military ship who is still traumatized by her role in a past conflict. These days, she earns a living brewing tea blends that calm the nerves of her passengers to prepare them for the mentally-unsettling travel into deep space. The Shadow's Child's newest client is Long Chau, an abrasive woman who works as a consulting detective with remarkable powers of deduction. Long Chau hires The Shadow's Child to find a corpse for scientific discovery, the discovery of which leads to a murder investigation. This futuristic Holmes and Watson story is as compelling as the finely detailed universe in which it unfolds, but the novella's real triumph is that it makes the reader crave more even before setting the stage for further mysteries.
Next up was a pair of linked novellas from Martha Wells. These are the first two stories of the Murderbot series, All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. In All Systems Red, readers are introduced to a mechanical/human construct that calls itself Murderbot. It's actually a security unit, or SecUnit, assigned to protect a scientific team on a faraway planet while they conduct a survey. The SecUnit, however, is not the obedient machine that they think it is; SecUnit has hacked its own governor module, meaning that it has become autonomous. That constitutes immediate grounds for destruction. In addition to trying to hide its autonomy to protect itself, SecUnit also has a hard time being around humans because of social awkwardness, preferring instead to lose itself in entertainment programs. The survey team encounters a handful of dangers and unexpected threats — all of which give their SecUnit a chance to perform its intended function and maintain its cover. In the background of this engaging mystery of strange goings-on in All Systems Red are SecUnit's attempts to fit in with humans and figure out the meaning of its own life, a humanlike quality to which readers can relate.
In the sequel story, Artificial Condition, SecUnit has left the nest of its family, so to speak, in order to learn about its own past. You see, years before, SecUnit was stationed on a mining facility where a massacre occurred. Because of its wiped memories, the SecUnit does not know whether it caused the massacre, which is why SecUnit adopted its self-appointed name Murderbot. More specifically, SecUnit does not know whether it hacked its governor module and became independent because of the murders it was possibly forced to commit, or whether the module hack was the cause of it in the first place. In Artificial Condition, SecUnit heads back to the mining facility to learn the truth. Along the way, it encounters a friendly (but also socially-awkward) transport bot (nicknamed ART) which serves as SecUnit's sidekick, helping SecUnit achieve its goals. One of those goals is acting as a security consultant for a trio of young mining facility contractors looking to retrieve research files from a company more than willing to go to extreme measure to keep them. SecUnit is happy to fulfill that role since it will thus have reason to return to the mining facility where it can find out what happened in its own past. SecUnit uses all the tools at its disposal (including ART) to hack its way through the dangerous events that follow but is still hampered by its unfamiliarity with acting human. This makes for some interesting scenes in that it's never quite a given that SecUnit will succeed. Additionally, the progression of the story makes it clear that SecUnit evolves as a character, ever-changing the dynamics of his interactions. Both of these elements contribute to an engrossing story.
To sum up: all of these novellas were great, one-sitting reads. To be clear, there are excellent short stories and novelettes out there as well. It's why I say short fiction rocks. Keep watching this space for further excursions into the wonderful lands of short fiction.