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The Reference Library by Don Sakers

For those of us who grew up in the print world, there’s a special delight to a big, thick book with lots of pages. Part of it is simply pecuniary: buy a big book, and you feel like you’re getting a good deal. Another part, face it, is intellectual pride: people who read big books must be terribly smart.

The majority of the thrill, though, comes from anticipation of the sheer joy that waits between those widely separated covers. Experience taught us that big science fiction books meant a richer reading experience: more time to spend in an invented world, more details about that world and its people, more wonders, more complexity . . . more, in fact, of everything we liked about SF in the first place.

There weren’t always big science fiction books. Verne and Wells wrote mostly in the range of 200-300 pages (although Wells’ classic The Time Machine was quite short; at barely over 100 pages, it was what we now call a novella.) In the 1930s and 1940s SF novels were almost exclusively published as magazine serials, usually in two or three parts and filling roughly 150 pages. An editor could run four three-part serials in a year; longer novels would mean less variety for the readers.

When SF moved between book covers in the 1950s, it was a rare novel that exceeded 180 pages, and 200 pages was almost unheard of. Many books were reprints of novels first published as magazine serials, and even original novels kept to the same length restrictions. Conventional wisdom among publishers said that SF readers would not buy books over 200 pages.

A memory of that time still exists today, frozen in the amber of the Hugo Award rules, codified in the early 1960s. For Hugo purposes, a “novel” is defined as a story of 40,000 words or longer—about 160 printed pages. If we were setting those rules today, surely we’d raise the threshold to something more like 60,000 words (240 pages).

As far as I can tell, the first SF book to break the length barrier was Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961. The original version was over 200,000 words; at the publisher’s behest Heinlein cut it down to a svelte 160,083 words, which filled almost 450 pages in print. (Heinlein always joked that he wanted to type those extra 83 words on a postcard and mail them away.)

 The success of Stranger in a Strange Land proved conventional wisdom wrong and emboldened publishers to try occasional longer books. Thus the 1960s saw such books as Frank Herbert’s Dune (400+ pages), Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (300+ pages), and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (nearly 600 pages).

Meanwhile, the venerable Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) was becoming another source of big books. The first was the club’s October 1963 selection, a one-volume edition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (600+ pages). Soon the club was routinely producing one-volume editions of trilogies and 500+-page collections of shorter works. It’s a rare science fiction reader from the 1970s whose shelves didn’t hold copies of the SFBC Foundation Trilogy, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (550+ pages), and the two-volume A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (each volume over 500 pages).

With the rise in book prices during the 1970s and 1980s, there was a perception in publishing that readers wanted more for their money, and book lengths on average crept upward. An average mid-list SF novel in 1960 might have been 170 pages; by 1990, 300–350 pages was more normal.

Until the early 1990s, the majority of paperbacks (including SF) were sold in grocery or drug stores rather than bookstores. At that time a crash among distributors led to a collapse in that market, and bookstores like Waldenbooks and Borders were left as the major market for paperbacks. Readers who shopped in bookstores (especially SF readers) liked longer books, and the 400+-page novel became common.

By the turn of the century, publishers had about reached the limits of how big books could get and still be affordable. The economics of paper printing are such that better-selling books can have more pages than their less-selling siblings—so all else being equal, a bestselling SF author’s books are likely to be a hundred pages or more longer than a relatively obscure author’s. An unknown, entry-level author will probably have books around the low end, 250–350 pages; a guaranteed bestseller might average more like 500–600 pages. But there’s enormous variation.

And now, of course, we have the new wrinkle of e-books. Electrons are far more flexible than paper, and stories can take whatever length is necessary. Already we’re seeing a fair-sized market for novella-length e-books alongside novels that would be over 500 pages if printed. Some authors are making short fiction available in stand-alone e-book format. As the mainstream of publishing moves into the electronic realm, I expect that enormous variation in length will come to be standard.
And eventually, just as we all learned that a lot of pages promised a richer reading experience, we’ll come to learn that a big byte-count will promise the same thing . . . and “4000 Kb” will give us the same thrill that “500 pages” does now. Let’s talk about some satisfyingly big books.

The Hydrogen Sonata
Iain M. Banks
Orbit, 517 pages, $25.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-31621237-3
Series: The Culture
Genre: Space Opera, Transhuman

 

 

The Hydrogen Sonata

The drawback to a truly big book is that it can seem imposing. One doesn’t read a big book casually over the course of a few lunch breaks; a good big book requires a certain commitment of time and attention. This drawback is amplified with a series of big books—and The Hydrogen Sonata is tenth in a series of very good, very big books.

So it’s quite understandable if you are not familiar with Iain R. Banks’ Culture books. Let me set your mind a little at ease: the Culture is a universe, not a sequential narrative. Each book stands alone and readers can start exploring the Culture anywhere they wish.

The Culture is a galactic-scale society with at least eleven millennia of history. It was the product of a number of sapient humanoid species and equally sapient AIs achieving transhuman status and forming a stable union. Earth was contacted by the Culture about 2100 ce, roughly halfway through Culture history.

The Culture is a rich society, so rich that its inhabitants can literally have anything they wish. Hunger, disease, poverty, even the concept of possession no longer exists. There is no money and very little that we would recognize as an economy. Super-powerful AIs (called Minds) administer the society, delegating all drudgework to non-sapient machines.

In the Culture, people do whatever they want. Uncontrolled aggression and pathological behavior have been bred out of the population; crime and antisocial behavior are virtually nonexistent. To be sure, there are still a few crimes of passion—but generally, someone who’s unhappy can always move somewhere else.

The galaxy is extensively settled, with most members of the Culture living in huge artificial constructs: ships dozens of kilometers in size, ring-shaped Orbitals the size of planets, and even larger habitats.

The Culture is an egalitarian society with few laws (social customs regulate behavior instead). Personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the main aims of life, and the biggest sin is to compel intelligent entities to act against their wills.

One might think that stories of such a utopia would be dull. However, the Culture is not alone in the galaxy: there are hundreds or thousands of other societies at all levels of moral and technological development. Most of the action in the Culture books takes place at the boundaries where these societies meet the Culture.

A Culture group called Contact, working through a network of spies called Special Circumstances, frequently intervenes to guide (and in some cases, defend against) other societies not as advanced. And against the background of Contact and Special Circumstances, there is intrigue and adventure enough to satisfy any reader.

In The Hydrogen Sonata, the Culture has been around for ten thousand years. The Gzilt, an ancient race that has never joined the Culture, is preparing for Sublimation—a process by which they will transcend physical existence and move on to a higher plane. In the course of these preparations, violence breaks out between the Gzilt and another ancient race. Culture agents are dispatched to handle the trouble—and soon find themselves on a quest to track down the oldest person in the galaxy, a man who was there at the beginning of the Culture and who seems to be the key to getting the Gzilt to a safe and happy Sublimation.

This book is big in many ways beyond its 500+ pages. The scope is tremendous, the plot and characters of mythic dimensions, and like all Culture novels the questions of morality, individuality, and the meaning of life are immense. If you need a place to start with the Culture, this is a good one.

 


Great North Road
Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, 951 pages, $30.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-345-52666-3
Genre: Space Opera

 

 

Great North Road

Peter F. Hamilton has made a name for himself with far future, far-flung space operas with advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. In Great North Road, he stays a little bit closer to home . . . but only a little bit.

In the 2030s, Earth discovered gateway technology that allowed instant interstellar travel. Over roughly the next century, Earth’s nations expanded to dozens of planets while giving Earth the resources to solve the problems of energy and the environment. The North family, through a series of clones, dominates the economy of the planet and its many colonies. Over the years, these clones have diverged from the originals, threatening to splinter the North empire.

Sidney Hurst is a simple police detective in Newcastle, until one of the North clones is murdered on his watch. As he investigates, he finds that the murder was similar to another North murder years ago on the colony world St. Libra.

Angela Tramelo was convicted of the St. Libra murder, and is serving time on St. Libra . . . so she couldn’t have carried out the Newcastle killing. Sidney suspects that Angela is innocent, as she has always claimed—and that the real murderer is loose among the worlds.

Angela is released from prison and she sets out to track down the real killer, who seems to be an alien with more on its mind than killing assorted Norths.

The story of how Sidney and Angela uncover the truth while simultaneously trying to keep themselves alive is a fine thriller plot. The world(s) of Great North Road, and the true story of what’s going on, are the main draw of this novel. You want a nice, long, immersive trip to a fascinatingly different universe? Here it is.



Coup D’Etat
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 416 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $13.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-345-52465-2
Series: The War That Came Early 4
Genre: Alternate History

 

 

Coup D’Etat

In The War That Came Early series, Harry Turtledove explores an alternate World War II, one in which Chamberlain didn’t appease Hitler and the war started a year earlier. Through the previous three books (Hitler’s War, West and East, and The Big Switch), Turtledove has followed the resultant changes to political and military alliances as well as individual lives.

Now it’s the winter of 1941 and Germany against Russia—with England and France fighting alongside Germany to defeat Stalin’s forces. The United States, meanwhile, is not doing too well in its war with Japan—and still struggling to stay out of the European mess.

Winston Churchill’s death, possibly by foul play, leaves England on the brink of takeover by a secret conspiracy.
An American woman correspondent, who has met Hitler and knows the evil he represents, despairs of convincing her countrymen to turn their attention to Germany. President Roosevelt’s power is slipping through his fingers.

As usual, Turtledove tells a very big story through the eyes of people great and small. His characters are finely drawn and quite sympathetic; it’s hard to blame any of them for the various confused states they’re in.

History buffs will be delighted by all the details Turtledove includes. Those with only a passing knowledge of World War II will have no difficulty following the story. Turtledove is an expert at depicting realistic worlds a reader can sink their teeth into, and this is no exception.


Ride the Star Winds
A. Bertram Chandler
Baen, 869 pages, $12.00 (trade paperback)
Baen E-Books: $6.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3812-7
Series: John Grimes 13-16
Genre: Adventure SF

Ride the Star Winds

One way to get a big book is to publish a bunch of little books in one volume. For the last few years, Baen Books has been bringing together A. Bertram Chandler’s fine John Grimes books, originally published in the 1960s through the 1980s.

Grimes is an explorer, an adventurer who is part diplomat, part soldier of fortune, part pirate, and part troubleshooter. He and his crew travel from world to world getting into and out of the most amusing troubles. The books are set against the common background of the Rim Worlds, which are a somewhat seedy frontier backwater of the civilized galaxy. There’s plenty of humor and loads of fun—and if some of the concepts seem a bit dated, that’s part of the charm.

In this volume, Grimes serves a term as governor of a planet where politicians customarily advance by the art of assassination, gets caught in the middle of a feminist revolution on a formerly all-male planet, accused of witchcraft while on a visit to Earth, and lost in time and space on an experimental sailing ship. A few Rim Worlds short stories are thrown in for good measure.

If you haven’t had the chance to make the acquaintance of Commodore John Grimes, you owe it to yourself to do so. Print or e-book, it’s a nice big book.


Imperium
Keith Laumer
Baen, 625 pages, $7.99 (paperback)
Baen E-Books: $5.00 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-3795-3
Series: Imperium 1-3
Genre: Adventure SF, Parallel Worlds

 

 

Imperium

Keith Laumer was best known for the Retief stories, satires revolving around an interstellar diplomat. In the Imperium books, he moved in the direction of adventure and suspense, and did a superb job.

In the books, there are many parallel universes. Brion Bayard, American diplomat, is kidnapped from Stockholm and taken to an Earth in which the American Revolution never happened, and where Britain and Germany merged into the worldwide Imperium. The Imperium is under attack by another hostile parallel Earth, and Brion is the key to ending the war.

The hostile Earth is ruled by its version of Brion—and our Brion sets off on a mission to take the bad guy’s place. Of course, things don’t go as planned. . . .

It’s a great adventure, and it’s only the beginning. Brion throws his lot in with the Imperium, and becomes an agent venturing across the multiverse to protect his adopted home. Altogether, this volume collects the three Imperium novels (Worlds of the Imperium, The Other Side of Time, and Assignment in Nowhere) in one delightfully big book.




Well, books may be big or little, but Analog is always the same size . . . and we’re out of space. See you next time.

Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna and A Rose From Old Terra. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.

"The Reference Library" Copyright © 2012, Don Sakers

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