Paul Kincaid’s Favorite Science Fiction Novellas

Ask a science fiction fan about novellas and you’ll get a very different response than you would from most other readers. Novella has a very particular meaning within sf; the major sf awards have categories for best novel, novella, novelette and short story. The categories are determined by length, and since most of these awards were set up at a time when the average sf novel was quite short, novellas tend to be long short stories rather than short novels.

Nevertheless, the novella has a very honourable place within the history of the genre, indeed there was a time during the 1960s and 70s when it seemed that the novella was actually the ideal length for science fiction given how many significant novellas were being published at the time. The list that follows is a very personal one; other completely different lists could easily be compiled.

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1895)
This novella was so important, so innovative, that it is almost impossible to conceive of the history of science fiction without it.

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James (1898)
Almost too well known to need comment, the way the story hesitates between the supernatural and the psychological without ever letting the reader decide one way or the other is masterful.

The Rose, by Charles Harness (1953)
This is one of those stories that everyone calls a classic, but that very few people probably read these days. A pity, since this metaphorical pitting of art against science shows that sf is capable of genuine flights of beauty.

Behold the Man, by Michael Moorcock (1966, expanded into a novel 1969)
If nothing else, this taught me how powerfully science fiction can challenge our prejudices and expectations. It tells of a modern time traveler who goes to find the historical Jesus Christ, only to find that Jesus is an imbecile and the time traveler has to take on the mantle of messiah.

The Infinity Box, by Kate Wilhelm (1971)
This is my indulgence, I don’t know if other people rate this story or not, and frankly I don’t care. I read it back in the mid-70s, was blown away by it, and it has been one of my measures for the sf novella ever since.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe (1972)
If I were forced to name the single best work of science fiction, there’s a good chance it
would be this novella. It tells of the childhood of a clone on a colonized planet, but with subtle hints that cause us to question everything from the fate of the planet’s natives to the true character of our narrator.

The Deathbird, by Harlan Ellison (1973)
Science fiction has been surprisingly resistant to literary experimentation, but in the 60s it
finally caught up with modernism, and that opened the flood gates. This short novella, with its shifting time frames and exam papers, showed what could be done.

R&R, by Lucius Shepard (1985, the novella later formed part of his novel Life During Wartime, 1987)
This story transposes Shepard’s Vietnam War experiences to Central America where the war becomes an almost surreal conflict between the high-tech science-fictional USA and the low-tech magic-realist south.

Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang (1998)
Science fiction is all about encounters with the other, but every encounter with the other is really a revelation about ourselves. However, few works of sf have been as aware of this contradiction as this coolly daring story.

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (2005)
Link is, with Chiang, probably the pre-eminent short fiction writer working in the fantastic at the moment, mostly because she has an ability to employ absurdist elements that still somehow seem to make sense. This tale of the relationship between a group of young people and a television programme is every bit as hesitant between the supernatural and the psychological as Henry James.

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA’s Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications. Find him HERE.

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