The novella length is one of the strongest in science fiction (and to a lesser extent fantasy) right now. It’s perfect for commutes, when we have commutes again. The six novellas on the short list this year highlight this in many beautiful ways. Let’s take a look. (Some spoilers)
Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov
Originally published in Metaphorosis, this novella can’t quite make up its mind whether to be science fiction or fantasy. There’s no magic, only weird technology, but the world feels fantastic.
They’re building a huge tower to disrupt the weather so airships can’t fly across the border. To do so, they’re using anti-grav technology created by the alien Drakiri. Which, of course, isn’t exactly safe…and the Drakiri are convinced that if the tower is finished a gateway to Hell will open.
(It turns out that “Hell” is actually the place the Drakiri came from, which they left for a reason after some kind of apocalypse).
Beautifully written, “Tower of Mud and Straw” is about greed, hubris, and not listening to scientists. Kind of timely…
Finna by Nino Cipri
Finna has a ludicrous premise: What if a wormhole opened in an Ikea? (As a formatting note. Novellas that were published in anthologies or collections have “s, ones that were published as standalone books are italicized).
Except it’s not at all a ludicrous book. Wormholes open in this world’s version of Ikeas all the time, and the MC and her ex get “volunteered” to go through and find a customer who got sucked in.
It’s really about dysfunctional relationships and the reasons people split up and the reasons they get together. And queerness. So much queerness. Oh, and about working soulless retail jobs. The author has clearly worked a soulless retail job with an awful supervisor at least once.
In the end, it’s about escape, and what means escape more than a wormhole in an Ikea?
Ring Shout by P. Djèli Clark
Ring Shout is afrofantasy with a faintly Caribbean flavor. Which is really just another way of saying “it’s by P. Djèli Clark.” This is not, of course, a criticism, but some authors come with expectations, and Clark is definitely one of them. Except he doesn’t normally bring in Lovecraftian horror.
The part of this I love the most is that it takes the hideously racist Lovecraftian idea of the primitive brown people summoning the hideous cosmic monster and completely inverts it. Guess who summons the cosmic monster? Think about the fact that it’s set in Civil Rights era America and guess again.
The guys in the white hoods.
The novella is ultimately about hate and what it does to you, and about the oppressed and their struggle not to act like the oppressor. But mostly it’s about hate. And some fun characters.
(Content warning: I have never seen so many instances of the n word in one book. Clark’s allowed to use it and the characters are using it in a reclaiming sense, but if you find its very presence disturbing, you might want to skip this one).
Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki
This is an example of what Nnedi Okorafor calls Africanfuturisum, which is not quite the same thing as Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is about the African disapora.
Africanfuturism is about Africa itself, and this is a dark post-apocalyptic novella about a world in which Africa gets nuked because Asia couldn’t quite send America’s missiles back to Africa. It’s about a people that lives in the heart of Africa, and has been transformed by the radiation…they have superpowers. If there’s something vaguely familiar about the concept here, no, it’s really nothing much like The Chrysalids.
These people have developed very strict gender roles and hide from the outside world. Until the world finds them, and their treatment of women comes back to haunt them.
This is a feminist narrative, albeit a slightly older one, and very well written. It has things to say about rape culture too. It could also be called fantasy, but doing so would be to dismiss and diminish African religion. So I’d be more inclined to call it religious science fiction.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
Part of Lemberg’s Birdverse, this novella has some unique qualities to it, and one of them is the fact that both protagonists are in their sixties. You almost never see that.
It’s about the relationship between an older trans man, who transitioned in old age because his lover wouldn’t let him before that (There’s magic in the world that will “change your body to match your heart.” And it does go into how this might not be as useful to NB people) and a skilled magic user who is in a peculiar tangle with her abusive teacher. (There’s quite a bit of abuse in this book).
It’s also about magic carpets. In the desert. Yet, Lemberg handles what could be a trite trope deftly. It’s about an evil ruler who wants to collect all the magic carpets.
Oh, and it’s one of the few books to take the “Women out in the world, men in purdah” concept and do something interesting with it. Usually, that particular idea is done quite poorly, even by authors who are otherwise skilled.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
The fact that half of the shortlist is by Black authors is not some kind of diversity nod; it reflects the fact that some of the most amazing work being done right now falls under Afrofantasy, Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, etc.
Riot Baby is about Black Lives Matter. It’s about the prison-industrial complex. It’s about slavery. It’s about the entire herd of elephants our society would rather avoid.
Oh, with superpowers. I have to admit that I have a fondness for marginalized people using superpowers to fight…or in this case sneak around…the system.
Unfortunately, it’s my least favorite of the offerings simply because I don’t like Onyebuchi’s voice and style. Your mileage might vary. I found him overly fond of run on sentences, and it’s clearly deliberate. Some people are going to just eat that stuff up, though.
It’s also his first book aimed at adults (he’s been working in YA).
So, which one did I pick? It ended up having to be The Four Profound Weaves, although to be honest, they all deserved to be on the list (even Riot Baby, despite my personal dislike).
It was a good year for novellas…I can think of a number of good ones which did not make the cut. Next I’ll talk about the stepchild length: Novelettes.