Science Fiction, the long and short of it

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I read a passingly large quantity of science fiction, and was musing about some of the books I’ve been reading recently. One of the things that they have had in common is that they’ve been long. This seems to be a trend with present-day sci-fi, and I’ve been wondering what that’s about.

My current read, Michael Cobley’s Orphaned Worlds is over 600 pages in paperback, slightly shorter than Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail. Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World is a relative lightweight, at just under 500 pages, while Stephen King’s Under the Dome (arguably more sci-fi than horror) weighs in at nearly 900. Much of recent fantasy literature is even longer.

It may be that this is what publishers are commissioning, either in the belief that the reading public measure value-for-money in pounds per inch, or because this is what they have been told in focus groups. Perhaps the authors are being paid piecework, by the word. Or, it could be that this is an attempt to be taken more seriously, to imitate “proper” (non-genre) fiction (though this this year’s Booker Prize shortlist is is quite varied in length).

I am not convinced by the trend. Surface Detail is multi-threaded, like many of Banks’ novels. But in this case, it was taken so far that it became rambling. While I found two of the threads compelling, others struck me as, frankly, boring. Cobley, on the other hand, falls for the temptation to over-explain things. Orphaned Worlds is the second in a trilogy, and (perhaps in fear of alienating the new reader) features long summaries of what happened previously.

And I realise that I like short books. It’s not that I have an aversion to length as such, but many long books could have been improved by the craft of a good editor. My favourite writing is stripped down, with all the inessentials removed, prose tending towards poetry. “The challenge is always to capture that essence in the fewest possible words.” (Mary Ryan).

The most memorable science fiction I have read include Arthur C. Clarke’s classics Rendevous with Rama and Childhood’s End at less than 300 pages, while Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants comes in below 200. When it comes to Banks, even, the work that I rate most highly is The Player of Games, at 309 pages, 10 shorter than Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. In fact, I cannot think of a single science fiction work of more than 400 pages, which would make it near my top 10, and some writers (e.g. Philip K. Dick) have done their best work as short stories.

Certainly, shortness is neither a sufficient nor necessary criterion for quality. Superb long fiction does, of course, exist, while I found Feersum Endjinn (also among Banks’ shorter tomes) close to unreadable. However, I’d like to make the case that, frequently, small is beautiful. And a lot easier to carry in your pocket.

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One Response to “Science Fiction, the long and short of it”

  1. mauvedeity (@mauvedeity) Says:

    Rob,

    I think you’re right – it’s a disease of lack of editing. I sometimes think that writers simply get too big to edit. Stephen King has written some very good shorter works – “Thinner”, which he wrote as Richard Bachman for one.

    I found myself nodding along to many of your selections in the closing paragraph. I can’t bring page counts to mind right now, but I’d agree.

    As for Philip K. Dick’s short stories – I wholeheartedly agree. It is amazing that “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is only five pages long, yet inspires me daily!

    My only anecdote comes from Harry Potter. I read HP1 in one evening, cover to cover, utterly gripped. By the time HP7 rolled around, I was skipping chunks. Surely a decent editor could have reined in that behemoth.

    (And now I’m worrying that my comment is too long 🙂 )

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