Four things between a short story and a novel

28 Oct 2011 in international | questo post è lungo 1508 parole

Short Fiction Week

John Sundman
_John Sundman, a former Silicon Valley wage slave, is a technical writer, food pantry worker and volunteer firefighter who resides on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. He's the author of [Acts of Apostles](http://www.amazon.com/Acts-Apostles-Mind-Matter-ebook/dp/B003NX7MGQ/ref=sr1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1319806621&sr=1-2)
, a novel of brain hacking, and the novellas [Cheap Complex Devices](http://www.amazon.com/Cheap-Complex-Devices-Matter-ebook/dp/B004477X5K/ref=sr11?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1319806621&sr=1-1) and [The Pains](http://www.amazon.com/Pains-Mind-Over-Matter-ebook/dp/B002ACNYFY/ref=sr13?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1319806621&sr=1-3), which further explore the convergence of biological and digital technology._

_Wetmachine | Twitter: @jsundmanus

Let us briefly consider the novelette and novella. I will define the novelette as a long short story and the novella as a very short novel. These definitions are not new but perhaps worth keeping in mind as we examine the kind of works celebrated and published by 40Kbooks.

A short story generally focuses on one transformative event in the life of one character, while a novel describes a series of transformative events of several characters set in the larger context of a society and a world. Novelettes and novellas play with the permutations in between; the best of them play with these permutations in unexpected ways.

Take, for example, Old Man, by William Faulkner (a novella that is, alas, a bit hard to find, since it appears in neither the Library of America series of his novels, nor in his Collected Stories. But it does appear in various anthologies). On the surface, it's the story of of a convict from a prison near the Mississippi River (also known as Old Man River, or simply, "Old Man") who is given temporary freedom to help rescue people stranded by a flood. He sets off in a rowboat, rescues a woman and undergoes various harrowing adventures with her. When the flood recedes he returns her to safety and himself to prison.
Step back a bit, however, and you see it's a very funny retelling of the stories of Genesis, and the protagonist's status as a prisoner, a voluntary one at that, takes on a deep meaning that stays with you for a long time. Not to mention the conceit of Faulkner's dark, weird South as Eden. It's pure Faulkner gothic: disturbing, scary, and very funny at the same time.

Ted Chiang is the modern master of the science fiction short story. It's said that science fiction is a literature of ideas (and not of, for example, emotions or even of people), and it's true that few of Chiang's characters are especially convincing as fully-formed human beings. But nobody I've read is as good as Chiang at using stories to explore ideas. And when Chiang does ideas, he invariably does deep ideas.

His award-winning novelette Understand (which you can read online here) explores the implications of a human becoming superhumanly intelligent. This is a familiar trope in science fiction; dozens of books and stories have used it and a variation on it is at the center of the 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and indeed it's at the center of my own novel Acts of the Apostles). But while lots of people have been able to imagine some of the abilities that one might acquire as one's intelligence exceeded human limitations, only Chiang, to my knowledge, has been able to convincingly describe what it might feel like to become a virtual god relative to the rest of us regular folk.
On top of that, Chiang's character in Understand imagines an encounter with a possibly even higher intelligence than his own. In Understand the two super-humans become locked in a struggle reminiscent of "Let's play 'global thermonuclear war'" from the movie War Games. Chiang uses this struggle to explore profound ideas not only about what constitutes 'intelligence', but about what constitutes morality as well. He leads us to understand what it means to understand. It's deep.

Chiang's novella Hell is the Absence of God uses the intersecting stories of three people to explore the theological notion that Hell is a literal condition, and that it is literally the absence of God. Chiang sets his story in a universe where the Book of Revelations overlays the present-day United States. (Though it's short, I call Hell is the Absense of God a novella rather than a novelette because it creates its own world and has more than one character significantly developed.) I suppose hard-core atheists might find it hard to relate to this book, but if so that would indicate an unfortunate close-mindedness on their part.
Chiang's real concerns are not God, Heaven or Hell, but things like What is Good? What is Evil? Does Free Will exist? How are we to live in a world where the most important things to know are also the hardest things to know? If you like philosophical page-turners, Chiang is your guy.

For me, Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground marks the beginning of the truly modern sensibility -- in particular modernity's dark, alienated aspect. (You can read the book, in a somewhat stilted 1906 translation by Constance Garnett, here).
In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky anticipates Kafka in his depiction of how the very social structures that make possible the amenities of "civilized" living sometimes crush a soul to nothingness. The book has a four-part structure disguised as a two-part structure. After a short "author's note," the first major section of the book ("Underground") consists of a nihilistic, self-contradictory rant by a self-loathing forty-year-old Russian beauraucrat  who lives alone, impoverished and friendless in a sparse St. Petersburg basement flat. The narrator addresses the reader as "Gentlemen". He asserts, then denies, then asserts again that his chief pleasures in life come from his own misery and from dashing the dreams of anybody who comes into his office hoping for any kind of help or mercy from the State.
The second half of the book tells two tales set twenty years earlier. The first tells of the narator's pathetic and humiliating attempt to find friendship among a group of his male peers. His ineptness and their cruelty turn an awkward social gathering into a drunken fiasco. From there he flees to the arms of a young prostitute teterring on the cusp of hopeful innocence and jaded whoredom. After skillfully finding and reviving that last tiny bit of human warmth burning in her heart, after doing the one decent thing he's ever done in his life, the underground man betrays her, presumably snuffing out her last hope to find good in the world. With this one nihilistic act he condemns himself to lonely over-intellectualized hell, presumably for the rest of his miserable life. This two-tale second half of the book is called "A Propos of the Wet Snow". Its last lines are (in Garnett's translation):

"Why, we don't even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men -- men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. But enough; I don't want to write more from 'Underground.'"

The book itself concludes with this "Author's Note":
[The notes of this paradoxalist do not end here, however. He could not refrain from going on with them, but it seems to us that we may stop here.]
The short "Author's Notes" at the beginning and end of the book serve to further distance the underground man from us, the "gentlemen" readers he so despises.

Although Notes from the Underground is about as dark a book as you can read without wanting to go kill yourself immediately thereafter, parts of it are hysterically funny.

Obviously I'm a fan of these kinds of stories. At their best they provide both the one startling insight that is the hallmark of a well-done short story and the "mess with your mind" reality-alteration that we look for in great novels. (I've tried my hand at it: I modeled parts of my own -not quite so dark, I hope!- novella Cheap Complex Devices on Notes from the Underground, and my novella The Pains shares many of the concerns of Hell is the Absence of God). I look forward to reading novelettes from 40Kbooks, and fully expect to find some gems like the ones I've mentioned here.**


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