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Novels versus novellas in Speculative Fiction

Many argue that the perfect length for speculative fiction is the novella, or short novel. Some believe that this is long enough to tell a successful story while not longer than needed. It is said that this length allows for character development and change, and perhaps multiple plot lines, while short enough to be taut and not meander or bog down.

I don’t know if it’s true that the novella is the perfect length for speculative fiction, but it is certainly true that many great works of speculative fiction are novella length, whether works such as “The Times Machine” by H. G. Wells right up to modern fiction such as “A Spindle Splintered” by Alix E. Harrow.

For many decades, novellas usually showed up in magazines, collections and anthologies, and very occasionally sold as books. It’s also true that there’s been a real explosion of speculative fiction at novella length recently, perhaps due to the focus by Tor.com and other publishers on the novella as a part of the market. I can see that many speculative fiction novellas are now available in paper or ebook form at my library, which definitely tells us something.

I recently read the novella version of John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus” (F&SF, January 2008) for the first time while reading his 2022 collection “The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel”. See my book review here.

I had not actually been aware that there was a novella version. I had originally read his “Pride and Prometheus” novel in 2018. I just loved it; the comments in my Book Database were “Great, affectionate intersection of Jane Austen and Mary Shelly” with a “Great” rating.

Reading the “Pride and Prometheus” novella 4 years later, I rated it as “Superlative”, which is pretty darn good for me. However, regardless of how I rated it, I felt there were things missing from the novella that occur in the novel were important to me. For better or for worse, I like the novel “Pride and Prometheus” more than the novella.

Doing a little research, I found a wonderful 2018 “bit” by John Kessel at Mary Robinette Kowal’s website, under the “My Favorite Bit” with Alyshondra Meacham. He mentions both some of his favorite “bits” from the 2018 novel, and also explains how the novel came to be and how he was “spent ten years resisting the idea” of making a novel out of the story after originally writing the novella.

This started me thinking about how often I see novels that started as novellas (or novelettes) and how I feel about the novella-novel pair. I’m sure there are novellas that start as novels, but they are not as common for me. There are also novels that start as novelettes or short stories, but that is not common.

There are motivations for authors to expand a shorter work to novel length or continue a series. For starters, they may feel that the story was too constrained and that novel length is really needed to tell the best story. I assume that a novel might pay a lot more than short fiction, and authors need to earn a living as we all do. I assume expanding a shorter work to a novel is a two or three way street – sometimes the author drives it, sometimes the agent drives it, and sometimes the publisher drives it. I don’t think the percentage of shorter works expanded to novels is that high, but the number of examples is significant to me.

There are also books which are “fix-up novels” or collections, where a number of related short fiction works are combined to form one whole work. Clifford D. Simak’s “City” book is one of those, formed of 8 shorter SF works. “Dune” by Frank Herbert is also a “fix-up” novel by my definition, formed from two shorter novels published in Analog. I’m not planning to discuss them here in depth; while I find that the subject of “fix-up novels” interesting, I’ll leave that for another post and another day. Some of the works I am thinking about here may end up being in the “fix-up novel” category after consideration.

Below is my fairly substantial list of speculative fiction stories that were either expanded to novels from shorter fiction or edited down from novel to shorter fiction. I have organized them in chronological order from earliest to most recent. This is not an exhaustive list, but based on my own efforts and input from others. I have also provided my own thoughts and those of others on whether the shorter or longer form is superior.

I’ve reached several conclusions about this.

  1. There are some novels here where my and/or the consensus opinion is that the novel is better than the novella, but it does seem that the novellas are better received than the novels in general.
  2. I have no qualitative basis for this, but it does seem that expanding shorter fiction to novel length is not occurring as much as it did in the 1950s to 1980s.
  3. Finally, I see a real imbalance in the number of “expanded” novels by women compared to men that I have selected to discuss. I have only 2 listed here by women. I have spent some time looking for more “expanded” novels by women, and was not that successful. I am not sure if this is a result of a) my own unconscious selection bias, b) systematic misogyny in the publishing business that makes it less likely that women authors have had the opportunities to publish an “expanded” novel, or c) some other factors? I was pleased to see that the last two I listed were by women.

I would certainly like other suggestions for novels that were “expanded” from an original shorter fiction speculative fiction form, especially by women and others not as privileged.

One of my favorite “comfort reads” is “The Witches of Karres” by James H. Schmitz. I wrote about it in my post, “Comfort Reads and Guilty Pleasures“. It was initially released as a novelette in the December 1949 Astounding, earning the #1 spot in the “Analytical Laboratory” for that issue and which purported to represent reader voting. Schmitz released the novel version on Chilton in 1966, which earned a Hugo nomination (no Hugo Awards in 1949). My perhaps overly exuberant rating for the novel is “A classic”. The novella was included in “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology(Volume 2B, Doubleday, 1973), so the then Science Fiction Writers of America thought it was pretty darn good. My rating for the novella is “Superlative”. Many feel that the novella is tauter and has less loose ends and hard to believe coincidences. I don’t know if Schmitz had a favorite version, but I suspect he was quite pleased to be able to sell the novel and have it nominated for the Hugo.

A Case of Conscience” by James Blish first appeared as a novella in If, September 1953. It received a 2004 Retro Hugo Award. The novel appeared in April 1958 on Ballantine Books; various sources have the novella as Book One or much of the first part of the novel. It’s known as one of the seminal works of SF and religion. Blish clearly had a lot to say on the subject, with his “After Such Knowledge” series including this novella/novel. I have the book as “great” in my Book Database; I don’t think I’ve ever read the novella as a stand-alone work. Mark R. Kelley has a good review at Blackgate. The book appears to be more in print than the novella.

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is a classic SF story that shows up both in novelette and novel form. The novelette was printed in the April, 1959 issue of F&SF, and won the Hugo Award for Short Fiction. Keyes continued to work on the novel, which was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1966. Both novelette and novel had a somewhat tortured history of editors and publishers wanting a happy ending and Keyes not wanting to do that. I don’t know if I’ve ever read the novel, but I find the novelette perfect. They both have many, many reprints, and it’s not clear to me if Keyes preferred one version or the other.

“Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys is one of my favorite SF titles with both a novella and novel version. Here is a photo of some of my copies of the novel and novella, including the Fawcett first edition pb from November, 1960, the December 1960 F&SF with the edited down novella version, and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B (probably SF book Club) 1973 edition including the novella. Rating them at different times, I had both the novel and novella at “Classic”. Some prefer the novel, and some prefer the novella; I think I prefer the novella as well. The novel was a Hugo Award finalist. My thanks to Rich Horton for noting that Budrys had cut it at the request of F&SF editor Robert P. Mills, as stated in the “Publications of the Institute of Twenty-First Century Studies” (AKA “PITFCS”) by Budrys. Thanks also to Mark R. Kelly for the post on “Rogue Moon” on Facebook, which drew the comment by Rich Horton. I don’t know which version Budrys preferred, but there are a lot more reprints of the novel than of the novella.

Edgar Pangborn’s post-apocalyptic novelette “The Golden Horn” (February 1962 F&SF) and novelette “A War of No Consequence” (March 1962 F&SF) were incorporated into his 1964 novel “Davy” (St. Martin’s Press/Ballantine). “Davy” was a Hugo runner-up. I own and have read “Davy”, but not for many decades. John O’Neill has a good piece on “Davy” at Blackgate. I recently read “The Golden Horn”, and thought it was a great story. SF Encyclopedia calls “Davy” a fix-up novel, and I tend to agree. Both “The Golden Horn” and “Davy” have been reprinted periodically. I don’t have a real preference between the earlier novelettes and the novel.

Roger Zelazny’s novella “He Who Shapes” was published in Amazing, January and February 1965. It and the Brian W. Aldiss “The Saliva Tree” tied to win the novella category in the Nebula Awards first year. The novel “The Dream Master” was released in 1966 on Ace Books, expanded from “He Who Shapes”. One online source stated that Zelazny preferred the novella version. I am a very big Zelazny fan; my all-time favorite speculative fiction book is his 1967 novel “Lord of Light“. I have read and enjoyed almost all Zelazny, including the six volume “The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny“. This one is not one of my favorites, not even getting to “Very good” for me on the novella. I appear to own “The Dream Master”, but my Book Database notes “unfinished”, and I’m not in a hurry to do so. I think my favorite thing about it is the Kelly Freas book cover.

Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man” was released as a novella in New Worlds SF in September 1966. It was a Nebula winner. The novel was released in 1969 on Allison & Busby. I have never read the novel, but I thought the novella was “Very good”. I would not have chosen it for an award. James Davis Nicholl is not a fan.

“Hawksbill Station” by Robert Silverberg started as a novella in Galaxy, August 1967. It was well received, with a Nebula nomination and Hugo finalist. The novel came out in 1968 on Doubleday. I don’t know if I have ever read the novel, but I thought the novella was superlative, one of my favorite time travel stories.

M. John Harrison’s “The Centauri Device” started out as a novelette in the January 1974 F&SF. The novel came out in November 1974 (Doubleday). There were not any awards or nominations that I see. I own the novel. My Book Database notes “pretty good book – tale of losers and how they triumph, in a sad way” and I rated it “Pretty good”. I don’t think I read the novelette separately, and I am not in a hurry to do so. Wikipedia does note that it was important for revitalizing the space opera subgenre, influencing both Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds.

Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card is another story that started as a novelette. First appearing in the August 1977 Analog, it was a Hugo runner-up. The 1985 Tor novel won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and was a Locus Award runner-up. It appears that the voters preferred the novel. Nicholas Whyte has a good writeup on it. My notes indicate a slight preference for the novella, which I consider to be a classic.

David Brin’s post-apocalyptic “The Postman” started out as a novella in the November 1982 Asimov’s. It was a Hugo and Locus finalist. The next part, novella “Cyclops“, came out in the March 1984 Asimov’s, and was a Hugo runner-up. “The Postman” and “Cyclops” were included as Parts I and II of the 1985 Bantam book “The Postman“. The novel was a Locus winner and Hugo and Nebula finalist. I remember liking it, but that is all. It’s still generally in print, and has seen more reprints than the novellas. I’m in no hurry to reread the novel; I might be tempted to reread the novella. Considering that “The Postman” novel is made up of roughly 1/2 previously published content in two novellas, I lean towards categorizing it as a “fix-up novel”.

Blood Music” by Greg Bear is classic horror/SF story that started out as a novelette in the June, 1983 Analog. It won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and was a Locus Finalist. It was expanded to novel length and published in 1985 by Arbor House. The novel was a Hugo and Nebula finalist. I have the novel as “Superlative” and the novelette as “A classic”, with a preference for the novelette. Nicholas Whyte has a helpful discussion of “Blood Music”. Both versions have plenty of reprints, with perhaps more for the novella.

Remembering Siri” by Dan Simmons was published as a novella in the December 1983 Asimov’s. It was included with very few changes as one of the chapters in Simmon’s “Hyperion” (Doubleday Foundation) when it appeared in 1989. The novel won both Hugo and Locus Awards. I had the novel as “A Classic” in my Book Database. Given how “Hyperion” is structured as a group of nominally unrelated traveler’s tales like “Canterbury Tales”, and how “Remembering Siri” is just one chapter among six, the question of which version is preferred is not really of interest here.

I recently read “The Hemingway Hoax” novella by Joe Haldeman for my Best Science Fiction and Fantasy – Short Fiction Facebook group. It’s both a novella and a novel, with the novella in the April 1990 Asimov’s and the novel out in June 1990 on William Morrow. I’ve read the novel with positive memories but nothing more definite decades ago, but unfortunately it predated my Book database and I have no notes. For my recent and perhaps first read of the novella, I was very impressed, with a “superlative” rating. The novella was a Hugo and Nebula winner, and a Locus and World Fantasy Award nomination. There are many reprints for the novella. Mark R. Kelly has a good write-up on the novella here. Nicholas Whyte has a wonderful series of posts on works that have won both the Hugo and the Nebula. His post on “The Hemingway Hoax” cites a statement from Haldeman that Gardner Dozois edited the book down to 40,000 words (novella) to fit it into Asimov’s. James Wallace Harris also has a very thoughtful piece on “The Hemingway Hoax“. Personally, I prefer the novella, but your mileage may vary. There are valid opinions out that there that the story loses it’s way at the end.

“Beggars In Spain” by Nancy Kress is a novella, a novel and then part of a trilogy. The novella was published as a chapbook by Axolotl Press / Pulphouse Publishing in February 1991, followed by an appearance in Asimov’s in April 1991. The novel was released in 1993 by AvoNova/William Morrow. The novella has many more reprints than the novel, but I am not sure that tells us anything. The novella won both the Hugo and the Nebula. I thought the novella was superlative. I enjoyed reading the novel, but I thought the trilogy lost steam. I don’t know if Kress has a favorite version. Mark R. Kelly has a great post on “Beggars In Spain” and other Kress work.

Elizabeth Bear’s short story “Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle” first appeared in the John Joseph Adams 2014 anthology, “Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West” (Titan Books). I had never seen that anthology, but I am fond of Weird Westerns and I’d like to read it. “Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle” became the first two chapters of Bear’s steampunk Western “Karen Memory” novel (2015, Tor). I have not read it solely as a short story, but I loved the novel. It was a Locus Award finalist and a Tiptree Honorable Mention.

3 responses to “Novels versus novellas in Speculative Fiction”

  1. I’ve definitely run into stories that are both short fiction and novels before, few of which you’ve mentioned. At least one I think might just be an excerpt from the novel in progress, but I haven’t done the research to determine that conclusively. As such, I’ll just list what I know.

    “The Night of the Trolls” (1963) by Keith Laumer into “The Stars Must Wait” (1990), although the expansion also changes some key elements.

    “Except the Queen” (2005) by Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder, novel version published 2010.

    “The Tsar’s Dragons” (2009) by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple into “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (2019).

    “Out of the Dark” (2010) by David Weber, novel version published same year.

    I’ve also seen Mercedes Lackey take short fiction she wrote in shared worlds, change names, and repurpose it into the basis of a new series. I’m not sure if you consider that to count, but these are the two instances I know of.

    [A Merovingen Nights story, I forget which one] became a chapter of “The Shadow of the Lion” (2002), book cowritten with Eric Flint and Dave Freer.

    “Fiddler Fair” from the 1986 “Magic in Ithkar 3” became key chapters for “The Lark and the Wren” (1992).

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    1. Thanks for the new titles. I suspect I’ve read “The Night of the Trolls”, but everything else is new to me.

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  2. […] IS THERE AN IDEAL LENGTH? “Novels versus novellas in Speculative Fiction” are debated at A Deep Look by Dave […]

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