Now, I love short stories. I love reading them, I love writing them, and finding a short story I really enjoy gives me a feeling I can only describe as ecstatic.
But, sometimes, a short story isn’t enough. Sometimes I need more, but not too much more, to flip that satisfaction-switch in my brain.
And that’s when I turn to science fiction novellas.
These long-short stories tack on a few thousand words and can often be read in one sitting, but they have more substance than short stories.
Here are my favorite science fiction novellas!
What Are Science Fiction Novellas?
Before we jump headlong into the best of the best, I want to clear up some things. There are many warring sects of the Internet that claim novellas have to be a certain length, while other corners of the web will vehemently debate you over one or two thousand words.
In this debate, I tend to follow this principle:
Novellas are between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The higher end of that spectrum is usually where I see markets like Tor.com cap their submission guidelines. And they would know, with the exorbitant amount of quality novellas they put out.
And within the novella definition, there’s the novelette, which is anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 words.
That being said, some novellas fall into a grey area. When trying to publish my cyberpunk naturalist novella, TechnoRonin, I found that 24k words was a weird limbo. Not long enough to justify printing, too long to publish in a magazine.
So, I guess here we are, back to square one.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Publish Date: 2017
Speaking of Tor.com, no science fiction novella list would be complete without All Systems Red.
The story follows a Murderbot who would rather spend its days watching romance sitcoms than killing. But as disaster strikes in the little expedition outpost, Murderbot is forced to kill or be killed.
It’s a pithy, fun novella, and a quick read. It’s the first book in Martha Well’s Murderbot Diaries, of which there are now six books.
Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
Publication Date: 1966
I think I’ve mentioned Empire Star before, but it’s too good not to talk about it again.
Samuel R. Delany, one of the giants of science fiction, brings a unique take to the space opera genre. In Empire Star, a young simplex, Comet Jo, starts on a journey to bring a message to Empire Star. Throughout the story, we see Jo’s cognitive development framed against the every-growing conflicts around him.
Delany plays a lot with chronological storytelling in this novella, starting off in a linear fashion, and eventually moving to a less linear structure.
For that reason, Empire Star can be kind of difficult to read, but it’s well worth it in the end.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Publication Date: 2016
While this one isn’t a science fiction novella in the strictest sense of the term, it’s definitely a story you’ll want to read if you’re a fan of weird horror.
The Ballad of Black Tom is loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” but written with a modern voice.
The story follows Tommy Tester, a thief disguised as a musician. He gets roped into an ancient ritual involving blood, Lovecraftian horrors, and arcane tools.
The books puts a good spin on the classic Lovecraft story, but from the perspective of a young black man in Harlem.
A good read, for sure, but make sure your lights are on.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Publication Date: 2010
This novella was Ted Chang’s first hardcover novella, but it’s still a work of art.
As the name suggests, it follows a fledgling artificial intelligence as it grows into a “digital pet”. Ana, the main character, raises the AI as her own over the course of 20 years.
The story plucks at our moral heartstrings, as it debates the questions surrounding AI: Are they human? Should we treat them as human?
Definitely a must read for anyone interested in advanced intelligence science fiction.
War Cry by Brian McClellan
Publication Date: 2018
If you’re a fan of sci fi war stories, this one is for you. McClellan takes dieselpunk themes with tanks, bolt-action rifles, and airplanes and pairs it with shapeshifting wizards.
The story follows Teado and his small group of comrades as they attempt a risky resupply run, only to discover a magical secret that could change the war.
This science fiction novella is short, but it packs a great punch. Planes and monsters make a perfect pair.
And that’s a wrap! There are plenty of other science fiction novellas out there, and many speculative novellas beyond that. I personally really enjoyed Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey and Inside Job by Connie Willis.
What sci fi novellas do you love? Let us know in the comments below.