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Short Fiction
Thursday 12 April 2001

Two Fine Novellas from Less-Travelled Places
by Rich Horton
(Special to Locus Online)

  • Gregory Feeley, "Spirit of the Place" (
  • Paul Di Filippo, "Karuna, Inc." (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Spring 2001)

    It has been argued that the novella is an ideal form for SF, largely on the grounds that the additional wordcount relative to a short story provides additional room for establishing details of the setting, while still being short enough to focus on one thing, unlike a novel. I'm not sure this argument really holds water -- a story's best length is whatever is best for that given story, and using additional wordage to describe details of a science fictional or fantastical setting is more likely to slow a story down, to make it seem padded, if the central point of the story is meant to occupy 5000 words. Still, there are many SF stories that are best told at novella length, however you define that (17,500 to 40,000 words is the current definition used for both Hugo and Nebula purposes), and the novella has always been one of my favorite forms.

    The trouble is, it can be hard for a writer to get a novella published. They take up such large chunk of a magazine or book that many editors shy away from them. Anthologists typically seem to prefer four mediocre short stories to one good novella: perhaps because they perceive that four authors on the table of contents will attract a wider range of book buyers, or perhaps because they feel that the risk is less with a shorter story: if a reader doesn't like it, oh well, that's only a few bad pages, but a bad novella might waste a quarter of a book. Among the "big four" SF magazines, Analog and Asimov's publish a good quantity of novellas, roughly one a month, but Interzone and F&SF (smaller magazines in terms of words per issue) publish them rarely. Realms of Fantasy seems never to publish novellas. Many smaller press magazines have shockingly short word count limits: 5000 words is common, others say 8000 words. On the other hand, the new Scottish magazine Spectrum SF has been hospitable to longer stories, and a couple of the DNA publications, particularly Absolute Magnitude and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (the magazine once known as Pirate Writings), also publish them. All told, I see less than 40 SF/Fantasy novellas in a given year.

    But there are other venues. One is stand-alone books. In the general fiction field, novella-length books are very common. For example, the past year has seen new "novels" from Muriel Spark (Aiding and Abetting) and Don DeLillo (The Body Artist) that are well under 40,000 words in length. Somehow SF readers haven't historically tended to buy such short books: even the halves of Ace Doubles were usually at least 35,000 words long, and more typically 40,000-45,000 words. And later attempts to revise the "Double" concept (Dell's Binary Star series, and the "Tor Doubles") were apparently commercial failures. A better solution might be chapbooks: Pulphouse used to publish occasional chapbook versions of novellas, and there is an interesting project going on right now in England: an outfit called PS Publishing is producing groups of 4 chapbooks consisting of novella length stories by fine SF and horror writers, which are being republished as 4-story anthologies. I haven't seen any of the stories yet, but some have received considerable praise.

    And finally, there is the online or e-book route. Publishing electronically solves to some extent the problem of limited space (space is essentially unlimited, but editorial budgets aren't, so at a fixed word rate a novella will still cost a venue more to publish). The most prominent online source of SF just now is Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction, which has published several novellas, including a fine story by Linda Nagata, "Goddesses", that is on the current Nebula Final Ballot.

    A brand-new source of e-books is, a venture backed by Time-Warner. Such prominent backing is hopefully reason for optimism about its future. A visit to its website (which is yet to be officially launched) shows a fairly impressive list of authors of all genres offering what appear to be mostly reprints, but they are also publishing new stories. Their SF line is, I believe, edited by the fine writer Paul Witcover. At least one SF story is now available from iPublish: "Spirit of the Place", a novella by Gregory Feeley. It is currently available only through Amazon, but with a month or so it should be available from other online bookstores such as Powells, and from the iPublish site itself. (The price is $2.95, ISBN is B00005B5HY.)

    "Spirit of the Place" is an impressive fantasy novella based on an historical incident, indeed, an incident which is still generating controversy and political maneuvering to this day. The story is set in Greece in 1802, as the ship Mentor, owned by the Scottish Lord Elgin, takes on a number of crates containing marble friezes and metopes removed from the Parthenon. These are the so-called "Elgin marbles," which after much debate were sold to the British Museum by Elgin, and which remain there today, despite many appeals that they be returned to Greece.

    This story is told through Elgin's personal secretary, William Richard Hamilton. He is to accompany the marbles to England on the Mentor. Once the ship is underway, there are murmurs among the crew of whispers and strange noises from the hold. Hamilton ventures down, and encounters something very strange indeed, a "spirit" resident somehow in the ash planks which were just used to repair the Mentor. The rest of the story recounts Hamilton's relationship with this spirit.

    The story is well-told, bolstered with careful historical details, and with careful references to the literary and mythological history of nymphs and dryads. Hamilton's relationship with this "person", as he is compelled to call her, is ambiguous and somewhat painful. His character and the spirit's character are well-depicted, and the resolution takes part of the Mentor's actual history and portrays it in a new light. The story itself is only indirectly about the Elgin marbles, but its depiction of the pain of the nymph of the ash tree at her uprooting is a fine metaphorical version of the cruel removal of the great sculptures in the Parthenon from their rightful home. As with much of Feeley's work, the action of his story becomes a sort of metaphor for the thematic matter of the piece. This is excellent work, and I hope it comes to the attention of SF readers.

    I mentioned earlier that though many small press SF magazines shun longer stories, some still do publish novellas. It would be a shame if readers missed the long novella in the Spring 2001 issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, one of the DNA Publications stable of magazines. This story is "Karuna, Inc.", by the always interesting Paul Di Filippo. Di Filippo works well at the novella length, and much of his best fiction is in that category, including the stories in The Steampunk Trilogy as well as such fine works as "The Mill" and "Spondulix".

    "Karuna, Inc." (like "Spondulix", actually) presents a rather utopian view of economic activity. Shenda Moore is a brilliant young woman who took a nice inheritance and founded the title corporation, with the following mission: "the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs ... the primary goal of the subsidiaries shall always be the full employment of all workers ... it is to be hoped that the delivery of high-quality goods and services will be a byproduct ...". Without commenting on the likelihood of such a plan working in the real world, I'll just say that it would be nice if it would. But unfortunately, Shenda, though she doesn't know it, has an enemy: a consortium of maximally evil corporate types, led by the sinister Marmaduke Twigg.

    The story is told alternately from the viewpoints of Shenda, Twigg, and a damaged veteran named Thurman Swan. As Shenda brings Thurman out of his shell of self-pity, Twigg comes to realize the existence of "Karuna, Inc." and moves against it. Di Filippo alternates sunny scenes of Thurman and Shenda with grotesque scenes of Twigg and his fellow evildoers, each of whom have a special operation to make them as evil as possible. The evil seems a bit over the top, and the good has a large dose of wish-fulfillment intermixed, but the story throughout is gripping, and the characters involving. It's a very fun read, mixing tragedy and optimism, mysticism and business, with Di Filippo's usual off-kilter imagination. Not a great story, but a good, enjoyable, one.

    Rich Horton has reviewed short SF and novels for Tangent, SF Site, Black Gate, Antipodes, and Maelstrom SF. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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