Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three Classic Novellas

I have always loved novellas more than any other length for all the traditional reasons: they are long enough to create a fleshed-out world with strong characters and an intricate plot, yet without all the padding that makes so many (although obviously not all) novels 20% lean meat embedded in 80% fat. In fact, I generally prefer “mosaic” novels which are groupings of several novellas/novelettes set in the same milieu, each exploring one facet of the created world, while all of them together form into a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

My science fiction collection is not immense compared to many other longtime fans, but it does contain several outstanding collections of novellas. The highlight is the two-volume Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Ben Bova, and containing 22 novellas which were the top vote-getters by the SFWA honoring science fiction published prior to the inauguration of the Nebula Awards in 1965. Other anthologies include two edited by Robert Silverberg, the relatively short Great Short Novels of Science Fiction (6 novellas) and the longer Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (15 novellas). An interesting fact is that all three books contain different novellas written by Jack Vance, none of which were his most famous novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle.”

Other gatherings of novellas include Isaac Asimov & Martin Greenberg’s series Mammoth Book of (fill in the adjective) Science Fiction, running from the 1930s through the 1970s, containing 10 novellas each. Gardner Dozois joined the bandwagon with Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction (13 novellas), as did Terry Carr with Great Science Fiction Short Novels of the Year (6 novellas) and recently Jonathan Strahan has edited a series of Best Short Novels, from 2004 through 2006 (with 2007 due to be published in May), having 9-10 novellas each.

More? In the 1970s it was fashionable for publishers to release original anthologies containing 3 novellas each. I have such anthologies edited by Terry Carr (An Exaltation of Stars) and Robert Silverberg (Three for Tomorrow, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Threads of Time, Chains of the Sea, The New Atlantis, The Crystal Ship and Triax). Recently the Science Fiction Book Club has revived that trend, although with 6 novellas each (Between Worlds, Down These Dark Spaceways, One Million B.C., and Forbidden Planets).

There are many other novellas in my collection; in fact, the 23 volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Best Science Fiction of the Year generally contain 2-4 novellas each. Just counting the volumes listed above, there are nearly 190 classic novellas in my collection (some repeats, of course) eager to be reread. And why not? Sometimes it’s easy to get so hung up trying to keep up with new science fiction that the classic stuff gets shoved into a corner and forgotten.

So recently I got an urge to reread some of those classic novellas. I guess the inspiration started when I reread Samuel R. Delany’s “Empire Star” in The Space Opera Renaissance (reviewed here 11/11/06). What a great novella that was, although it set a standard that few classic novellas could possible maijntain. Still, last week I arbitrarily selected Volume Two B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and picked out two novellas to read. Coincidentally, both of them were later expanded into book form, one as part of a four-volume “fix-up,” and the other as an expansion.

The first novella was James Blish’s “Earthman, Go Home,” part of his fabulous Okie series about gypsy cities which travel through space looking for work. I read the entire series 30 years ago, but not surprisingly I recall few of the specifics about it. In this novella, one such city’s spindizzies (the pseudo-scientific basis for the cities’ ability to travel through space) finally fail and the city is forced to make permanent landfall on a colonized world. Not only do colonies distrust such visitors, but there are intergalactic police which frown on Okies invading colonized worlds.

“Earthman, Come Home” is a combination problem-solving story (How do the Okies deal with the threat from the police since they are unable to leave the world?) and mystery (What is the origin of the world’s colonists and what are they hiding from the Okies?). The solution is fairly easy, more typical of 50s than of recent stuff, but it was all interesting reading.

The other novella was James H. Schmitz’ “The Witches of Karres,” whose title sounds like a fantasy, but in fact it was pure science fiction. When a few months ago I was reading old issues of Analog from the late 1960s I enjoyed several Schmitz stories, particularly “The Tuvela,” (which was released in book form as The Demon Breed), and I have fond memories of the novel version of “Witches.” This is the story of a space captain of a one-man trading vessel who encounters three very young witches Maleen, Goth, and the Leewit, who are slaves on one of the worlds of the star-spanning empire. They are each treated badly by their owners although, because of their supernatural talents, they successfully torment their owners as well. Feeling sorry for them, the captain purchases all three witches with the intent of returning them to their world of Karres.

The trip to Karres turns into quite an adventure since Goth is a kleptomaniac who keeps stealing riches for the captain as repayment for his purchasing them. Overall, this novella is an antic romp, whose rapid pace and exoticism are reminiscent of Jack Vance at his best (although ”The Witches of Karres” was originally published in 1949, while Vance did not make his first big splash in the genre until the publication of The Dying Earth in 1950). This was a much less serious story than “Earthman, Come Home,” but deliberately so and it succeeded excellently in its intent.

Next I switched to Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels for A. Bertram Chandler’s “Giant Killer,” since I have also been reading back issues of Worlds of IF from the 1960s and I enjoyed his serial “Edge of Night” (published in book form under the abysmal title Contraband from Otherspace). “Giant Killers” is Chandler’s most famous non-Grimes story, the tale of intelligent rat-like creatures living in the walls of a house inhabited by giant human-like beings. The rats live in tribes which fight amongst themselves while fearing the Giants living “inside” the building. The main character was born a “Different One” who normally would have been killed by the tribe and eaten. Instead he escapes and becomes one of the “New People,” outcast mutants who shun their fellow rats as much as they do the Giants.

The main character was named Shrick at birth, but NoFur among the New People because of his body’s hairlessness. When he encounters Wesel, who is seemingly normal and thus should be killed by the New People (who kill normals just as the normals kill Different Ones), her mutant mental abilities convince NoFur to keep her, and together they challenge the leader of the New People, kill him in battle, and become the leaders of the tribe. This leads to a war against all the other tribes, as NoFur attempts to become “Lord of the Outside.”

While “Giant Killer” seems destined to be a glorified sword-and-sorcery story, it changes direction abruptly when Wesel is captured by one of the Giants who prepares to dissect her as an experimental subject. Her ability to prophesize the future opens up the story into a much bigger, more thoughtful one involving the fate of the New People when the Giants realize they are overrun with vermin. What began as a fairly routine adventure grows into a taut, well-plotted thriller about survival and the inevitable fate when small encounters big. This was a better story than any of Chandler’s John Grimes stories, some of which were very good as well. But it is nice to be reminded that he was able to write serious fiction as well as adventure stories.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home