science fiction novella
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The importance of the novella and serialisation in science fiction

Even today the short story is a staple of sci-fi literature, heres why.

When we look back over authors telling of the future, the importance of serialisation and the novella must be noted in science fiction. The short-form medium of some of the earliest works of sci-fi helped give the genre the legs it needed to stand on to become the shelf-filling genre it is today.

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Humble beginnings

Of course, going back to the earliest days of science fiction, we have complete novels such as Frankenstein. However, when looking at later authors, we see the emergence of science fiction as periodicals and novellas. Both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells released a number of their works as either bite-sized weekly installments or short, quick-to-read novellas.

H.G. Wells’ magnificent book The War of the Worlds was originally published as a weekly periodical in Cosmopolitan Magazine in the US. This wasn’t uncommon for many of the novels we know today as complete works.

the war of the worlds science fiction novella
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Many writers, like Charles Dickens, released their works over a number of weeks and even months. They were later picked up by publishers to be redrafted as complete novels. Another science fiction classic to be subjected to the serialisation treatment is Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Again, this was released fortnightly in the french Magasin d’éducation et de récréation.

When looking at H.G. Wells‘ enormous repertoire of work, there are many examples of short stories and novellas to choose from. One of his most famous works, eventually published as a novella, is the genre-changing The Time Machine.

Pulp science fiction

In the 20th century, the still relatively new and developing genre of science fiction started to emerge via the various pulp fiction presses. These magazines gave an all-important leg up to the new genre, often referred to as ‘Gadget Fiction’. Through more serialisation, many of the classics of 20th-century science fiction were picked up and read by thousands of readers.

The real benefits of serializing and publishing science fiction short novellas comes down to accessibility. As an emergent genre, science fiction was understandably tenuous as a guaranteed success in the markets. However, by being released in very cheap and highly accessible pulp magazines, various sci-fi stories could be released with little financial risk.

By being released as periodicals, many of these tales, such as the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and even Starship Troopers, could be slowly released and interest gauged. If the uptake wasn’t good, the story was dropped for something more successful. Through this method, timeless classics were developed, and the genre began to gain popularity.

With the beginnings of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, what is now considered to be the golden age of sci-fi began. The magazine helped the genre move from the pulp publications it was previously in to a much more science-based, serious genre, welcoming such seminal writers as Isaac Asimov.

A golden age of science fiction

With the creation of new dedicated science fiction magazines, the genre really began developing. Now that it was becoming widely recognised and publishers were noting the public interest, the authors were able to write with confidence. This didn’t mean the end of the short novella and periodical style, though.

When looking at the work of Isaac Asimov, some of his greatest and earliest pieces were published as short stories through various magazines. The remarkably famous I, Robot was originally published as a series in two separate magazines. As a collection, it paved the way for the Foundation works and laid out the three laws of robotics we still see used today in many science fiction books.

astounding science fiction novella
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However, the golden age of science fiction came to an end after the savagery of two world wars changed the collective psyche forever. Previously, a world of exciting scientific discovery and the journey to utopia was in the minds of creatives. As highlighted by Asimov himself, the dropping of the nuclear bomb called attention to the stark reality of just what the science in their fiction is eventually used for. The beginnings of dystopian literature emerged.

Modern novellas

Despite science fiction’s success and prevalence not just on shelves but also in video games, films, and many other arts, it still has a place in the short novella and periodical form. Often a science fiction novella or short story is used to discuss an idea or philosophy. Entire novels are not necessary in these cases, and because of this, some of the greatest science fiction writers of the modern age still produce a wealth of novellas.

I would like to highlight one of my personal favourites of the science fiction genre, Kurt Vonnegut. He was a prolific writer and published many short stories. His writing style was very particular, making even his normal stories feel like science fiction.

Other notable writers in the modern science fiction novella genre are Ray Bradbury and William Gibson. These two authors changed the face of science fiction forever with their modern takes on the world around them and often fascinatingly accurate predictions of the future.

burning chrome novella science fiction
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Both of these writers are known for their ability to observe and accurately theorise the future. Despite the success of the science fiction genre when these writers were being published, they still found success in magazines and novellas.

Forever novella

The importance of the novella and short publications to science fiction is one that will probably never fade. Unlike many other fictional genres, science fiction can often be about a single theory or idea wrapped up in a fictional tale. These don’t have to span thousands of pages, although space operas often do. Even well-published, novel-writing science fiction authors such as Bradbury, Gibson, and Dick sometimes like to compact their ideas into a quickly readable short story. These can be enjoyed in an hour or so but will keep you thinking for days.

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Leo Gillick
As an endless reader, traveller, and writer, Leo has been selling his words wherever anyone will buy them. Along with keeping his own travel blog, he now writer primarily for Destructoid and PC Invasion.