Monday, May 23, 2011

Novel vs novella: who would win in a fight

Last time, I said this:
Next Hugo nominee off the shelf is The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald. I'm a little nervous about starting it, actually. I adore McDonald's novella-length fiction, but I've got a much more fraught relationship with his novels.
Predictably, I suppose, I never really thought about why. Well, one chapter (about a tenth of the page count) into The Dervish House, the reason seems pretty clear: there are a lot more characters to keep track of in his novels.

McDonald's writing is very information dense. As in rich, not crammed full of sciencey content. There's a lot of texture to his words, and he doesn't shy away from using foreign language or invented terms. I like that; even when I don't understand everything, I feel like I'm getting a feel for a place and its people. It is, however, a lot to take in.

McDonald's novellas -- at least, the four that I hope I'm recalling correctly* -- all have a single protagonist. In contrast, the first 45 pages of The Dervish House introduce us to no fewer than six POV characters. That's on top of the science fictional Istanbul, which is basically a character in its own right. While I'm quite content, happy even, to roll with the initial confusion about setting in McDonald's novels, for some reason I get hung up on keeping track of the characters.

I wonder if this hints at how McDonald approaches writing the two different lengths. I can imagine that a character's narrative arc forms a strand; one strand, and you have a novella. Four, five, six strands, written and then twined together, form a novel. Seems to me that way of thinking might make for a useful tool.

* "The Days of Solomon Gursky", "The Tear", "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" and "The Dust Assassin", all of which you can find in Year's Bests, edited by either Dozois or Strahan.

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