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The Reference Library
Don Sakers

Product Details
Warrior Wisewoman 3

edited by Roby James
Norilana, 306 pages, $12.95 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-60762-061-7
Series:Warrior Wisewoman 3
Genre: Anthology

Science fiction is unusual among the genres because it routinely appears in all different lengths. This isn’t quite the case with other types of fiction. It’s rare to see romance stories shorter than novella-length; historical fiction and thrillers almost exclusively appear in novel length or longer. Fantasy and mystery short stories do appear, but the dominant form in both genres is the series of novels. Only in science fiction do readers regularly find works of all lengths from the short-short all the way up to the novel series, and everything in between.

I should pause here for some definitions. Most SF readers are accustomed to a division of short fiction by word counts, as codified in the rules for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. A short story is anything up to 7,500 words; 7,500 to 17,500 is a novelette; 17,500 to 40,000 is a novella; and anything over 40,000 words is a novel. This system, while useful and necessary for the fair administration of awards, leaves something to be desired from a literary criticism standpoint.

In lit-crit circles, a primary distinction is made between the short story and the novel. A novel generally features many characters and multiple subplots, has a broad range in time and space, and explores the world (or worlds) and culture(s). A short story, by contrast, focuses on a small number of characters (generally three at most) and has at most one subplot, is sharply limited in time and space, and illuminates one aspect of a world or culture.

A novelette is essentially a long short story, with the same focus and economy; a novella is a short novel, sharing the novel’s broad range only in fewer words.

This whole scheme is complicated by the economics of publishing. Prior to the mid-1970s, it was uneconomical to publish science fiction books of much over 200 pages (about 60,000 to 70,000 words). Nowadays, the average novel runs between 300 and 400 pages (about 100,000 to 150,000 words) and 500+ pages is not unusual. In today’s terms, most of the classic works of the past—most of books of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Gordon R. Dickson, Robert Heinlein, Ursula LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, and a hundred others—would be considered novellas. At the time they were published, though, they were full-grown novels one and all.

I need to make special mention of some length categories that aren’t covered above. If a short story is focused, then a “short-short” is a laser beam, usually clocking in at under 1,000 words and concentrating on one single event or idea: Analog’s “Probability Zero” stories are short-shorts. And the series is definitely a literary form in its own right—I covered the various kinds of series in the June 2010 issue.

In the beginning, there were only novels. The first recognized short story writers were Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1840s, but short stories didn’t become commercially widespread until the arrival of the pulp magazines in the early 1900s. The ascendancy of Street & Smith Publications in the 1910s brought about the era of genre pulps: magazines dedicated to romance, mysteries, adventure, sports, westerns . . . and, of course, science fiction. (The magazine you’re reading is perhaps the last remaining vestige of that era, having started its life as the pulp Astounding Stories in 1930.) Even in those days, science fiction magazines regularly published novel-length works in serial form.

World War II paper shortages damaged the pulps—competition from comic books, paperbacks, and television destroyed them. Writers in most other genres moved almost exclusively to novels—but science fiction magazines thrived, and writers continued producing short fiction. Books of short stories appeared, whether single-author collections or multi-author anthologies. Although the magazines faced difficulties (and still do), short fiction remained a perfectly viable length for science fiction . . . as it does even today.

At the other end of the scale, science fiction novels expanded. The 1960s brought Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Herbert’s Dune, both considered exceptionally long novels for the time. Trilogies and longer series proliferated. Science fiction settled into its current range across all lengths of fiction.

The obvious question is why: what is it about science fiction that allows it to thrive at all lengths? One is tempted to credit tradition, the historical accident of the SF magazines’ survival and their continued outlet for short fiction—but that merely begs the question. Why did SF magazines survive, of all other genres?

I believe that the true answer lies in the unique nature of science fiction. All fiction is entertainment, but SF aspires also to stimulate the intellect and provoke thought. In the postwar world, comics and television could supply entertainment, but not intelligent thought. Science fiction is, and always has been, primarily a literary form.

Ideas come in all sizes, short and long, simple and complex, focused and broad. Concerned as it is with ideas, science fiction likewise fits a variety of lengths. That, I believe, is why you’ll find SF in every length from short-short to twenty-volume series.

Warrior Wisewoman 3
I mentioned above that science fiction short stories continue to appear, and not just in the magazines. The anthology of original stories has been a mainstay of science fiction since Frederik Pohl edited the first volume of the Star Science Fiction series in 1953.

For the third year in a row, editor Roby James has put together an anthology of science fiction stories that feature powerful and remarkable women. These stories are all quite definitely science fiction, and there’s something here to please every taste. Among the standouts are Aimee C. Amodio’s “Tourist Trap,” which describes an alien world with a uniquely dangerous ecosystem; Al Onia’s “The Envoy,” featuring a peacekeeper whose methods are truly unexpected; and “Katyusha’s First Time Out,” a story of a teens rebellion against her mother set in a post-apocalyptic world. “Dark Mirrors” by John Walters turns military science fiction on its head, examining the choices that a woman of conscience must make in the face of war.

In her introduction, editor James counters a widely-held misconception about the Warrior Wisewoman anthologies: she does not exclusively publish stories by women. In fact, this volume very nearly achieves gender parity: ten of the stories are by women, nine by men.

If you like good short science fiction, you’ll definitely want to get a copy of Warrior Wisewoman 3.

Product Details

After the Sundial
Vera Nazarian
Norilana, 222 pages, $9.95 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-60762-077-4
Genre: Single-Author Collection

Vera Nazarian has become primarily known as a publisher; she’s been making quite a name for herself with Norilana Books, one of the newest and most prolific small presses in SF/fantasy. But Nazarian is also a writer, and a darn good one. Best known for lyrical fantasy such as Lords of the Rainbow and Dreams of the Compass Rose, Nazarian also does science fiction, and After the Sundial is a collection of short stories, poems, and a novella. If there is a common thread among these pieces, it is that each of them deals with time in some fashion.

“The Ballad of Universal Jack” tells the story of a space-station worker who makes a fundamental discovery about the power of words. In “Mount Dragon” a human helps an ancient intelligence achieve the goal it has forgotten, while “The Ice” concerns an exploration mission crashed on Titan.

The bulk of the book, clocking in at over 100 pages, is the lyrical novella “The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass.” This story is set on a marvelous far-future Earth whose major feature is the mysterious River That Flows Through the Air. Young Liaei, the Queen of the Hourglass, has a destiny. She is born of pure ancient human DNA, preserved for millennia, in order that she might mate with the Clock King. Their children, it is hoped, will survive the coming collapse of civilization and preserve knowledge through the coming dark ages.

“The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass” reads like vintage Roger Zelazny, with an added flavor all Nazarian’s own.

All things considered, this collection is definitely worth your time.

Product Details

Todd McCaffrey
Del Rey, 464 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
E-book: $26.00(Fictionwise) $9.99 (Kindle, Nook)
ISBN: 978-0-345-49116-9
Series:Dragonriders of Pern 24
Genre: Animal Companions, Beloved Worlds, Dragons

The Dragonriders of Pern series started as short stories published in Analog. Over the decades the books (like the series itself) have grown longer; at 482 pages, Dragongirl is longer than the first two Pern books put together. It is also the sixth book of a sub-series set before and during the Third Pass, when civilization on Pern is threatened by two different menaces, which together may destroy all human life on the world.

If all of the above is gibberish to you, then you must not have had the fortune to read the Pern books—and Dragongirl is not the book for you. Go back to the beginning of the series, Dragonflight, and start reading there.

For the rest of you, Dragongirl takes up where the previous book, Dragonheart, ended. In that book, a plague was killing dragons all across Pern—just when the all-consuming menace called Thread was beginning to fall. Since the telepathic dragons and their human riders are the only defense against Thread, things looked bad. Fortunately, dragons have the ability to travel through time as well as space. Fiona, who rides the gold dragon Talenth, accompanied the injured dragons and riders to the past, where they could take time to heal and recuperate.

Now, in Dragongirl, Fiona and her charges return—three years older on their own timelines, but coming back after only days after they departed. Although the plague is still killing dragons, the returnees are strong enough to fight Thread. After being in charge for three years, Fiona has trouble fitting in as a junior . . . until tragedy strikes and she is thrust once again into a position of authority. Her charges are happy to follow her, but some of the stay-behinds are reluctant to take orders from someone they see as only an inexperienced girl.

Characters from the earlier books return, including the harper Kindan whom Fiona loves, as crisis follows crisis and Pern hangs in the balance.

This is Todd McCaffrey’s third solo Pern book (he co-authored three others with his mother, Anne McCaffrey). He channels his mother well; if not for the byline, one would be hard-pressed to guess whether this was a solo effort or a collaboration. Everything we love about Pern is here: world-menacing threats, family and romantic relationships among characters we really care about, love between alien dragons and their human riders, and especially the all-important sense of wonder. As always, the immediate story comes to a satisfying conclusion, but plenty of room is left for the next book.

Fans of Pern will be enchanted and delighted at this book.

Product Details

Darin Bradley
Spectra, 222 pages, $15.00 (trade paperback)
E-book: $9.99 (Kindle) $10.12 (Nook)
ISBN: 978-0-553-38622-6
Genre: Cyberpunk, Dystopian Futures

Since this month’s theme is stories of different lengths, I am tempted to call Noise “short and sweet”—except “sweet” just doesn’t apply, in so many ways. Let me simply note that in the past, this would have been classified as a standard-sized novel; nowadays it is perhaps a long novella. Which shows you exactly how artificial such length divisions ultimately are.

Set in the very near future, Noise is a story of economic and social collapse, and of those who live through it.

Hiram and Levi are hackers and Dungeons & Dragons players when the collapse comes. Fortunately, they are prepared with The Book, which tells them everything they need to know. They compiled The Book from the pirate broadcasts of an anarchic group known as Salvage, broadcasts that went out on the unused airwaves after the switch to digital TV was complete. Amid static and noise, Salvage has been warning of the coming collapse, and giving advice on how to survive in the chaos of a fallen world.

So Hiram and Levi set forth, prepared for the newly-violent world around them, in search of a place of safety called Amaranth, where they can begin to build the world anew. Along the way they gather a band of hackers, malcontents, and misfits.

But in the real world, things aren’t as cut-and-dried as The Book makes them seem, and cold-blooded decisions aren’t as easy to make as the boys thought they would be. In the final analysis, Hiram and Levi are left with choices to make . . . and their choices will affect the sort of society that finally emerges from the collapse.

Edgy and disturbing, Noise is a worthy successor to all those post-holocaust books of yesteryear.


Kevin Bolk
Interrobang Studios, 16 pages, $5.00
Ensign Sue Must Die
Clare Moseley and Kevin Bolk
Interrobang Studios, 32 pages, $6.00
Purchase from
Genre: Parody comics

And now, as they say, for something completely different. I know I said science fiction was primarily a literary form, but SF is also movies, and comics, and humor. These two full-color books of comic strips combine all three in a package that’s enchanting, whimsical, and too funny for mere words.

Artist Kevin Bolk draws his characters in the style that the Japanese call “chibi” and we refer to as “cute.” With oversize heads and enormous eyes, even the obvious adult characters appear to be a well-seasoned ten years old. Yet these aren’t Peanuts kids . . . their humor owes more to South Park than to Charles M. Schulz.

Wookiee-Ookies is, as you’d expect, a series of twisted Star Wars parodies. Each four-panel strip stands on its own and makes a definite joke, usually irreverent and always funny. Princess Leia’s reaction to dinner with Jabba the Hutt (“I hate Internet dating”) is only one of the treats.

Ensign Sue Must Die is a continuing story set in the universe of the most recent Star Trek movie. It chronicles the adventures of a perky newcomer to the Enterprise, Ensign Mary Amethyst Star Enoby Aiko Archer Picard Janeway Sue, as she inspires dread and hatred in the other members of the crew. The poor crewmembers try everything they can think of to get rid of Ensign Sue, but she keeps coming back for more.

The story and art are funny enough on their own terms, but Ensign Sue Must Die is also a clever meta-commentary on the so-called “Mary Sue” phenomenon, in which fan writers insert themselves as characters (“Mary Sue”) in their favorite TV shows or movies. Ensign Sue Must Die skewers every dreadful trope of the Mary Sue story, and ends with a horrifying evil loosed on the worlds of fiction.

There you have it: long and short and everything in between, another assortment of fine SF to start the new year off right.

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

"The Reference Library" copyright © 2010, Don Sakers

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