What’s the longest novel ever published?

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Of course, I’ve been aware for a long time that it takes different skills to write short stories than it does to write novels. If you work in stories of different length, you also find that writing a piece of flash fiction takes different skills than writing a fully developed short story. The issue with SFF short stories is how to do your world-building quickly, how to round out your characters in just a few words, how to present a plot and a theme and wind it up within the word limit of the magazine or anthology. If you move on to novelettes and novellas, then the requirements are loosened a bit. You have longer to develop your plot and theme and for readers to get to know the characters. You get to add subplots and subthemes.

When you move up to novel length, then you have even more opportunity for this, but you have to be more aware of pacing. There tends to be a slump in the middle of a novel-length work, for example, where you’ve introduced the characters and everything bogs down before action starts rising to the climax. Looking at the novels I’ve reviewed for the Nebulas/Hugos, I’m noticing there are different requirements for writing a short novel versus a long one. The issues of idea, plotting and pacing are definitely showing up here.

So what is the longest novel on record? According to Wikipedia, it’s not Moby-Dick (as many a weary high school lit student must think). It turns out to be Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Goodwill) by Jules Romains, published in Paris by Calmann Lévy in 27 volumes, 1932-46. It comes in at a whopping 2,070,000 words. That’s about 8,280 pages.

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Shades of Moby-Dick

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Edward Lear
This year and last both, I’ve waded through some pretty long novels as part of doing the reviews of the Nebula and Hugo finalists. For someone who likes to read short books, this has a) been hard work, and b) suggested an interesting trend. What’s going on with the weighty tomes?

Last year The Dark between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson came in at a hefty 800 pages and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword at 400 pages. This year Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves ran 883 pages; Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings ran 656 pages; Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass ran 640 pages; N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season ran 450 pages, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted ran 464 pages. So, are longer books considered weightier, more developed or somehow more award-worthy than shorter books? Are shorter books considered too “young adult”? Is there a trend for publishers to prefer longer novels? For example, I notice that Baen’s author’s guidelines request manuscripts of 100K words or longer, which means their minimum word limit starts at 400 pages.

Of course, the length of a book isn’t really a big deal if you’re enjoying the story or love the author’s style. In that case, you want it to go on as long as possible. Maybe that’s the conventional wisdom publishers are going by—if you have a hit author, you need to encourage him/her to string the story out as long as possible.

Whatever, I didn’t think most of these books above justified the length. Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Novik’s Uprooted moved along fairly smartly, but the others really suffered because of the length, i.e. became terminally boring for the modern ADD-afflicted reader (me). If I hadn’t been reading to vote for the awards, I wouldn’t have finished any of them.

Review of Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

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This is one of the Hugo finalists in the Best Novel category. It was published by Roc.

In this universe, the Spires provide habitats for humanity in a world where mist shrouds the surface. The economy is controlled by aristocratic houses that operate fleets of airships for shipping. Captain Grimm of the airship Predator works for Spire Albion and is engaged in piracy against Spire Aurora. The Predator is damaged, and Grimm negotiates commission of a vital mission in return for expensive repairs. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn Lancaster of Spire Albion has faced down her mother and left home to take service in the Guard. She and two other young Guard trainees are assigned to the mission, along with an intelligent cat and two odd Etherealists. As the mission becomes more complex and dangerous, they find humanity’s ancient enemy has risen from the depths of the mist.

This is a good set up for a steampunk SF adventure, but it turns out the ships run on mysterious crystals, which means it really leans to fantasy. The plot is well thought out and the world building is adequate. The battle between the airships is a great visual. However, the characters come across as stiff and often annoying. The introduction of the intelligent cats is interesting, but soon they’re annoying, too. This story had good potential, but every time something interesting happens, it gets bogged down in Victorian, straight-laced prudery, or something. There’s just no romance or adventure in it. After the lush violence of the Dresden Files series, it ends up feeling sterile. Like some of the other novel finalists this year, this one runs long and slow, coming in at 640 pages.

Three stars.

Review of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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Orion,_battle_spaceship
This is one of the Hugo finalists in the Best Novel category. It was published by William Morrow/Harper-Collins.

The moon breaks apart because of some unknown agency. Everyone watches with awe, but soon astrophysicists produce models that indicate the pieces will continue to break up and fall on the earth, eventually producing rings like Saturn’s. The rain of debris is expected to last about 10,000 years and wipe out life as we know it on Earth. Governments, advised by scientists, move to produce a Cloud Ark of habitats that will float in space, carrying and preserving the legacy of Earth, including genetic, cultural and technical data for the use of future pioneers.

This effort is some of the most thought-provoking of hard SF. Stephenson has set up a scenario and then follows out what happens, projecting ways that humans might cope with a catastrophe that will wipe out mankind. Who will be chosen to populate the Ark? What should they take with them? How will they sustain themselves for 10,000 years? How do they overcome engineering and tech problems along the way? Stephenson establishes a cast of main characters, some on Earth and some on the International Space Station (ISS), and shifts between, following the efforts from different points of view. This is written in a folksy, matter-of-fact style, and the author makes no effort to hurry it up. He gets technical. There’s human interest.

On the negative side, Stephenson uses an episodic structure, and the novel sort of eases along without much in the way of rising action, coming in at an extended 883 pages. The characterization and ending aren’t all they could have been. I also ended up with some major questions. If the Cloud Ark is inside the orbit of the moon, won’t it get nailed by the 10,000-year Hard Rain the same as Earth? Wouldn’t it be safer to just move to Mars? Or maybe underground? Space seems like a tough place to make it for 10,000 years.

Like The Martian, this would make a good film. Four stars.

Review of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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Orion,_battle_spaceship
This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by Tor.com.

Binti is of the Himba people, and a mathematician. Her father manufactures electronic astrolabes and Binti has learned to be a harmonizer through working with him in his workshop. Without telling her family, she has applied to Oomza Uni, a school in another part of the galaxy and has been accepted. She slips away during the night and takes passage on a living starship. Everyone on the ship but Binti and the pilot die when the ship is overrun by Meduse, aliens that look like jellyfish. Binti seems to be protected by her edan, an ancient artifact that she found in the desert. She hides in her quarters and the edan translates for her. She finds the Meduse are making war on Oomza Uni because scholars have stolen their chief’s stinger. They also want Binti’s otjize, a cosmetic made from oil and clay, which they realize from touching her has healing power on their flesh. They negotiate, and she offers to harmonize the situation with Oozma Uni. The Meduse agree to let her try. Can she make this work?

On the surface the tale looks like science fiction, but none of this is at all supportable in SF terms. In other words, it’s about magic. The main theme seems to be cultural appropriation. The Meduse are making war because they want the stolen stinger back, and Binti is offended by the Meduse’s demand for her otjize. There are also strong themes about leaving family behind to follow your dreams, and about respecting alien races. On the negative side, this moves slowly and repeats a lot. Okorafor could have easily made the same points in a short story. It was an interesting look at Himba culture, but more sentimental than thought provoking. Still, I’m going to bump it up half a point for its optimism.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Builders by Daniel Polansky

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Warrior
This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by Tor.com.

The Captain is a mouse with a mission. He searches out members of his old gang, getting them together for one last effort ten years after the War of the Brothers. These characters include Boudica the opossum, Bonsoir the stoat, Cinnabar the salamander, Elf the owl, Gertrude the mole and Barley the badger, all retired desperados. The team cuts a swath of violent mayhem through the Gardens and into the Capitol where the Captain means to take his revenge on the Younger. There they meet his minions in the final battle.

Well, this is different. I’m not generally one for anthropomorphic characters, but this tale is so over-the-top that it just adds brilliance. If they weren’t animals, this would pass for a Sam Peckinpah Western. Minions are slaughtered right and left, though most of them seem to be rats. There are elements of humor and satire. It’s fun to read.

Four stars.

Review of Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a Hugo finalist for Best Novella. It’s published by Dragonsteel Entertainment, which is Sanderson’s own small press.

Kairominas is God-Emperor of Alornia. He is also a brain in a box under a system administered by the Wode, where there are liveborn folk and machineborn folk, a.k.a. simulated entities. Since Kai has achieved the pinnacle of power in his particular state, the Wode have been after him to reproduce. Grudgingly he accepts the need to move into another reality to meet a liveborn woman. He chooses one from the bottom of the recommended list and sets off. He meets Sophie at a restaurant and finds she’s a subversive with the idea the liveborn are coddled by the Wode and actually achieve very little. He counters that heroism is real, regardless of the simulated realities. They start to have sex, but the simulation is hacked by Melhi, Kai’s liveborn nemesis. Kai defeats him, but then finds things with Sophie aren’t what he thought they were.

This is an entertaining thought-piece where Sanderson has set up a situation and looks at the philosophical issues. Great imagery, characterization and plot. On the negative side, the fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek fantasy style detracts a little from his message. This also crashes down to reality a bit suddenly.

Four and a half stars.

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