The Length of SF Novels: Quantity vs Quality?

Anthony G Williams

A version of this article was first published on my SFF blog on 5 August 2007

Books are getting fatter and have been doing so for decades. When I first started reading science fiction in the late 1950s, the typical full-length novel was no more than 200 pages long (about 80,000 words). This remained generally true throughout the 1960s but then books began to expand, resulting in today's doorstops. Clearly, the genre has something to do with it; Tolkien set a standard in the length of fantasy novels (as in so many other respects) and it seems today that no fantasy can be regarded as serious unless the story fills up at least a trilogy. However, SF has followed the trend, albeit more slowly. The question is does quantity equal quality? Are today's novels better for being so much longer?

First some definitions, as "story length" can be a slippery concept. The stand-alone single-volume works are obvious, but the multi-volume ones less so. Some of them are simply one continuous story divided into several volumes for production or marketing convenience (e.g. 'The Lord of the Rings'). Others follow the same characters and occur in a chronological sequence, but each story is self-contained with its own ending (crime series featuring the same detective are the best example; in SFF the 'Harry Potter' books also qualify). Finally, there are the self-contained stories set within a universe created by the author, but they may feature different characters and don't occur in any particular sequence (e.g. Iain M Banks' 'Culture' series). As always with such classifications, there are grey areas; for example, Catherine Asaro's 'Skolian Empire' series, in which the stories feature different principal characters and are not in chronological order, but the characters are all members of the same family and all appear in most of the books.

Anyway, for the purpose of this exercise I count each self-contained, continuous story as one work, regardless of whether it is published in one volume or several.

I will not spend much time on fantasy, as it is clear that its appeal is rather different to that of SF (acknowledging yet again that there are grey areas!). There is a strong market for escapist fantasies (usually with medieval and magical elements) in which readers can lose themselves, and the longer they go on, the better they like it. The painstaking creation of an elaborate world, usually with its own maps, genealogies, laws and customs, is an important part of the appeal. In some cases this can be obsessive; I have read of many Harry Potter fans who have no interest in reading any other fantasies, all they care about is the world which Rowling has created. It is significant that while the first in that series was short by modern standards (just over 220 pages), this rose in successive volumes to 256, then 320, then jumped to over 600 and finally to more than 700 pages (multiply the page counts by 400 to get an approximate word count). Clearly, her fans just can't get enough.

I want instead to focus on SF. Let's look at some of the longer works. Frank Herbert's 'Dune' was one of the first really successful long novels, running to around 500 pages (including appendices). Most books remained of more modest size for a long time (for example, Larry Niven's 'Ringworld' is less than 300 pages), but in recent years the length has been growing. Iain M Banks' books vary but the longest are around 500 pages, Stephen Baxter's Manifold trilogy runs to around 450 pages each, Vernor Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep' is 600 pages while the prequel, 'A Deepness in the Sky' clocks up 750. Alastair Reynolds' works are in the 500-600+ range, while John Meaney's Nulapeiron trilogy (one continuous story) runs at 500-600 pages each.

Compare these with some of the classics: Alfred Bester's 'The Stars My Destination' is just 195 pages in my edition, Asimov's epic 'Foundation Trilogy' runs to 170-190 pages per volume, Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End' is 190, Hal Clement's 'Mission of Gravity' is just over 200, Zelazny's 'This Immortal' is 186, Pohl & Kornbluth's 'The Space Merchants' is 170, Erik Frank Russell's 'The Great Explosion' is under 150, A E Van Vogt's 'The Weapon Shops of Isher' is less than 130 and Jack Vance's 'The Dragon Masters' is just 122 pages long. These were typical lengths for SF novels of the period.

Are the new doorstops that much better than the old masters of only a third of the length? Certainly the experience is different; the reader looks for a more detailed environment, more character development, and more complex plotting, and the best authors deliver this. 'Dune' is rightly praised and Herbert creates a compelling world, packed full of fascinating concepts and characters. However, I find that in many cases the extra detail just slows down the plot and dilutes the experience. I started Kim Stanley Robinson's award-winning 'Mars' trilogy by reading 'Red Mars' (400 pages) but found that the author's fascination with building up his description of the colonisation of the planet came at the cost of an engaging plot and characters I could care about, and didn't read the other volumes. I did manage the first two of Baxter's 'Manifold' trilogy, but found them a real effort to slog through and gave up before the third. Reynold's books are also hard work I have had a couple on my shelf for many months, but have to work up to reading those, with long gaps in between. Meaney's 'Nulapeiron' trilogy did keep me engaged (a remarkable achievement considering the total of 600,000+ words), but I still finished each volume with a sense of relief, and will not be re-reading them for a very long time if ever. One long (nearly 700 page, or c.280,000 word) SF book I have been impressed by recently is Jane Jensen's 'Dante's Equation', but the key to that achievement is that there are five principal characters (two of whom are always together) and the novel follows their related, but usually separate and very different, story-lines, only occasionally bringing them together, so you do in effect get four parallel novels in one.

My time is precious and I don't like to waste it. If I'm going to take the time to read a 600 page novel, then I expect a great deal more of it than I would of a 200 page story. Sadly, I find that few of the long books really justify the extra time they take to read. Many of them leave me feeling dissatisfied, and I stop reading books before reaching the end far more often than I used to. The modern emphasis in SF seems to be on improving its literary respectability by emphasising character development over plot. Believable characters to whom the reader can relate are certainly essential to the enjoyment of any story, but that doesn't take hundreds of pages to achieve.

A good short novel delivers a faster pace, a punchier message and has all the more impact for the fact that it can be read in one or two sessions instead of being spread out over a week or more. The 'wow' factor so important in SF is also more concentrated; it has been rightly observed that 'The Stars My Destination' contains so many ideas that a modern author would spread them over at least three times as many pages. Would such an extended version be better? I doubt that very much an important part of the story's appeal is its exhilarating pace.

I think that the 200 page novel is roughly equivalent to the 100 minute feature film, in that you can concentrate fully on the story without getting restless. 300 pages / 150 minutes is about the limit to absorb in one go. Much more than that and endurance begins to become a factor, and that eats away at enjoyment.

Interestingly, there are signs of a reaction against long SF novels among publishers. In an interview in the July/August 2007 edition of 'Vector', published by the British Science Fiction Association, Jo Fletcher of Gollancz commented that US publishers seemed now to be asking for shorter novels, or were splitting longer ones into more than one volume. The typical minimum size for a Gollancz novel is now around 80,000 words, although they have gone down to 65,000.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but to me SF is just as much if not more so about ideas as about characterisation, and is particularly well-suited to the fast-paced, punchy thriller. I like to have my imagination stretched it's why I read SF in the first place. Sadly, I am nowadays too often bored instead.

Anthony G Williams is the author of:

The Foresight War (120,000 words plus appendices)


Scales (just 90,000 words!)

Click on the titles for details, reviews and to read the first chapters online