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July 06, 2008


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I don't read a lot of short fiction because it's over so fast and has so little room for story development that it often fails to satisfy me.

On the other hand, some stories demand concision. I think you've come across stories that were published as novels, but never should have been.

That being said, my favorite in the shorter-length categories has got to be The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang.

I've certainly come across novels that would have been improved by being trimmed by 50% or so. Very nice 250-page novels sadly smothered by the other 250 pages of unfortunate verbiage. I like long books, but there has to be something worth reading in the length.

I loved both the Chiang and the Abraham but gave the edge to the Abraham because it was so deliciously different. The Chiang is beautifully done and very strong, but other people have done it before. I wouldn't feel Abraham was robbed if Chiang won, though.

I've certainly come across novels that would have been improved by being trimmed by 50% or so.

And I've seen novellas that could have been cut in half.

As for Abraham's story, of course it's the one I couldn't find on the internet, which is why I didn't vote for it. Well, with that nomination, and even if it doesn't win, it'll most likely wind up on a Best of The Year anthology.

It's on the net now, albeit in a rather annoying format. It's linked off the Denvention Hugo page.

Sometimes procrastination is advantageous.

Now, see, I think the Willis should win. I really enjoy her Christmas pieces, even though I'm an atheist. Or materialist. Something like that. In fact, I finished a book of them last night and if you want to spend some time with them, send me your address at marilee@mjlayman.com. Even the two blatantly religion-oriented stories are very good.

I think an awful lot of novels should be at least novellas. I know the writers make more money on books, so I can't blame them, but I think for SF, at least, the natural length is novella.

It wouldn't break my heart if Willis won.

I really do like longer stuff because I read so quickly. The short stuff just doesn't last very long. I just need it to be good longer stuff. I was happier with the novella category than the the other two short categories.

for SF, at least, the natural length is novella.

Am I mistaken in thinking that, until the 1960s, what used to be called a novel really was a novella?

As for SF's natural length is... It really depends on the subject it's dealing with, I think. To use this year's examples... Chiang's Alchemist's Gate was exactly as long as it should be. Cut something out, or add events, and that'll undermine the story(*). Meanwhile, Lucius Shepard's Stars Seen Thru Stone was way too long for what I think it was trying to say. And I'm sure there are examples of novellas that really are novels that were compressed.

(*) One cinematic example was the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which added lots of events to the original's plot, but which added nothing to the story itself

I'm not sure when the lengths were defined. I know it was for the Hugos, though. It's true that books used to be a lot shorter.

I just finished reading Abraham's Cambist. Were I to vote today instead of weeks ago, I'd probably still put Chiang's Alchemist's Gate as my top choice, but Abraham's tale of economics would be a close second. I can imagine some people exclaiming that Abraham has no place on this list because it really has no element of fantasy or of SF. I'd then point out that it feels like F/SF and shares their approach, which is to ask about and look at the mechanisms of the world.

While I read an "SF" ARC by Dozois, Martin, and Abraham, and I thought it was awful. It's likely he did all the work, so I haven't touched his stuff since.

It may be that Abraham is one of those people whose stories work better at shorter lengths than that novel Hunter's Run you read. I wouldn't know, not having come across his fiction before Cambist. As for who contributed what to the novel, according to Russel Letson's review in the January issue of Locus, it originally was a novella that Dozois started more than 30 years ago then put aside, then Martin reworked it, then Abraham went at it and it was published as novella Shadow Twin in 2005. The review doesn't say who reworked most of that into the novel. That might explain your reaction to it.

I'm reasonably sure "Cambist" qualifies at least as alternate history, unless I've lost track of my British kings to the extent that they've gotten up to "Walther IV" without my noticing. And "Lord Iron" is the sort of symbol-name that signals "fairy tale" to me.

I was just thrilled by the word cambist; it reminds me of the Spanish verb cambiar (to change) and the Italian cambio which I encounter in dance reading.

Novels shorter: oh, yes, even I remember this. I remember when a 300-page noel was a real rarity and there were ones more in the 120-page range. I wonder if those even get published any more.

I am trying to wrap my head around Dozois + Martin + Abraham, with fairly gruesome results. I wonder whose really bad idea that was. "Too many cooks" and all that. I don't think you should hold it against the Abraham solo story, Marilee. Even bad(good) authors can have a good(bad) day. Give it a chance while it's online.

Susan... Oh, I agree that the King Walther IV reference makes the story an Alternate History, thus eligible for the Hugos, but would we have had the exact same story without it? True, there may be clues in the Society's elements that say this could not have been set in what feels like Late Victorian England and those went over my uninformed head.

As for Lord Iron, one could look at it as one more tool used by the writer to make something feel like a fantasy without its actually being one.

Mind you, none of this is a criticism of the story.

there were ones more in the 120-page range. I wonder if those even get published any more.

I think they are, but by small presses like PS Publishing. That means they're not exactly cheap, especially if they come out in hardcover. I'd love to read Gregory Feeley's 197-page Arabian Wine, but $50 is a rather steep price.

Serge, the history of how the book was written may have had some affect, but I really thought it had been done, better, before.

Well, I think it's set in the modern day of a very different world - there's no historical period in which the nobility wore swords on the street (and silks and velvets) and could freely kill postal workers in which the lower classes also had bathrooms with toilets. The former is more 18th-century and the latter more 20th. And, of course, I'm not aware of the real-world existence of the Independent Protectorate of Analdi Wat, on which the initial transaction depends. It's clearly a fairy-tale world throughout. As to whether Abraham could have had the same story without it, no, he couldn't have. He'd have had to remove the fantasy elements. It's actually more fantastical than most alternate history is.

About the Independent Protectorate of Analdi Wat... One thing I was never quite sure about was whether or not Lord Iron had made up its currency. I wondered because, when Olaf was handed its currency, he asked himself how a protectorate could also be independent. Kind of a silly reason upon which to base one's doubts, I know. Anyway. I liked the story, and that's the important thing.

As to whether Abraham could have had the same story without it, no, he couldn't have.

The story certainly would have felt different, and that would have taken away from it.

Susan... I remember when a 300-page noel was a real rarity

And it's a shocking realization to look at each book of Lord of the Rings and to see how short they are by modern standards.

One more thing about my comment that Cambist would have felt different without its fantasy elements...

Even today, I love reading Leigh Brackett's stories of Mars although they are often tales that could have been set in Egypt in the late 19th Century or before WW2 - at least in the pulp/movie vision of Egypt. It doesn't bother me. I actually like it. It allows me to enjoy the setting without having to consider the real-world Egypt's background of imperialism and other ugly aspects of that such as racism. (On the other hand, one of her Martian tales has the hero run into humanoid beasts that are dark-skinned and about which the narrator says that nobody knows if they are an evolutionary dead-end of Mars, or a Martian race that degenerated. Ouch.)

Note that I thought Yiddish Policemen's Union had no SFnal elements other than its alternate-history premise. I thought the story could have been transferred to modern-day Brooklyn without a whole lot of alteration and considered that a negative.

I obviously had the exact opposite reaction to "Cambist".

Sometimes, setting a story in an alternate reality can add to it, making its setting familiar and yet off-kilter. That was my reaction to Cambist.

In the case of Yiddish Policeman, it'd appear that the alternate reality was nothing but a device used to tart up an old plot and a lack of imagination. That of course is based on my perception of it from your review of the story. I am not planning to find out on my own as life is short and books by those toil in the F/SF field are quite numerous.

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