book review01 Apr 2009 05:55 am

When the golden age of science fiction began in the late 1930s it was very much the shorter forms that were at the heart of the genre’s popularity. Science fiction was almost totally restricted to the pulp magazines – Astounding, Amazing Science Fiction amongst others. Novels just weren’t part of the scene; the longest form you would regularly get was the novella.

Today, things are different. The readership of the magazines is falling and mainstream publishers publish fewer and fewer short story collections or anthologies. It’s pure economics. Novels, and fat novels especially, sell – shorter forms less so. Fortunately for anyone who enjoys science fiction there are many smaller presses, speciality houses, who are still supporting shorter forms.

One such house is British publisher PS Publishing. Founded in 1999 PS Publishing has, over the years, released novellas and short story collections by some of the greatest science fiction, fantasy and horror authors. A quick scan through their back catalogue finds Stephen King, Stephen Baxter, Zoran Živković, Philip José Farmer, Tim Powers, Steven Eriksen, Ramsey Campbell, Eric Brown, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Their latest three sf novella releases have certainly maintained their high standards.

Terry Bisson’s Planet of Mystery is a cross between old-school science fiction – very much of the type you would have seen in the 1940s pulp magazines and escapist fantasy. The first manned expedition to Venus reveals just about everything we knew about the planet was wrong and beneath the thick near-impenetrable cloud clover is an earth-like world populated by amazons and centaurs.

This reads like a modern version of an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. It has the unashamed invention of a whole world, in this case a total re-imagining of Venus. But there is also a certain amount of the modern in the story. For one thing the mission commander doesn’t just accept this world. He questions himself, his sanity rather than just accept what he sees. And despite what seems a hopeless situation (having lost the landing craft) he never gives up on the mission and determines he will get back to Earth.

John Grant’s The City in these Pages is a hardboiled crime novella, dressed in science fictional clothes. Set in the city of New Amsterdam – an analogue of New York – two cops investigate a series of bizarre murders where the victims are the heads of the gangster families. Due to its sf overtones this is very unlikely to be read by traditional crime story fans. That’s a great shame for the majority of this book would be just their kind of thing. David Langford’s introduction compares this to Ed McBain’s tales of the 87th Precinct and it’s a very apt one.

But this comparison can also be extended to the classic PI novels. Grant has nailed the style down perfectly. It’s gritty yet full of humour. The city is a grim place and full of danger, yet people love it. You can imagine this is a world where people will compete to tell gory tales, each trying to outdo the next – trying to prove how their neighbourhood is more violent and more scary then everyone else’s. And running through it all is a mystery just as implausible and surreal yet easy to accept as any in the classic pulps.

Joe Hill’s Gunpowder is much more traditional, albeit quite dark in tone. If you imagine a cross between Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Lord of the Flies and the X-Men you’re in pretty much the right area. A group of kids with “The Talent” make up a colony on an inhospitable world. Their job is to convert this world to one suitable for human habitation using their creative gifts. As you would expect though the military wants their powers to be put to an entirely different use.

The real strength of this story though isn’t its plot. In fact the developments are predictable. What makes this a winner though is its mood. Hill has taken you into the world of these kids; he makes you feel their world not just see it.

To really tell a story the perfect length (in my opinion) is the novella. It’s storytelling pared down to the essentials. You don’t mess around, don’t pollute things with a handful of unnecessary subplots, don’t overdo the characters’ back-stories. You just get in, tell a story, get out.

Each of these three novellas differs greatly in tone and type. But each of them shows just how suited science fiction is to the novella, and each shows the skill of the author in concisely telling a damn fine story.

PS Publishing novellas are not cheap, each release usually featuring two limited editions – one hardcover and one deluxe jacketed hardcover ($22 – $24 and $37 – $40 respectively when you include the $4 for Airmail shipping to the USA). But the quality of the finished items is undeniable. PS Publishing produce books that are beautiful purely as items – even before you consider the sheer quality of the content.

Books Details

Terry Bisson – Planet of Mystery
101 pages
GBP 10.00 – USD

John Grant – The City in these Pages
68 pages
GBP 10.00

Joe Hill – Gunpowder
81 pages
GBP 12.00 – USD $24.00 inc. postage


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